The Musk Deer and its Impact on the Fragrance Industry

Written by Leanna Serras

Many words have been used to describe the scent of musk. For some, it is a very 'animalistic' or 'feral' aroma. Others consider it woody or earthy. For hundreds of years, fragrance makers used this expensive substance to perfume the halls of palaces, castles, mosques, and churches. It is mentioned in ancient Chinese texts on herbal medicine and in Persian poetry. Wearing musk was a symbol of status, as only the truly wealthy could afford fragrances containing the rare tincture. Once used almost exclusively as a medicine in China and India, perfumeries in Italy and France made the scent popular in Europe during the Renaissance, where it was associated with masculinity. Despite coming from such a small animal (males of the species are on average only 24 inches tall), the musk deer has had a large and lasting effect on the perfume industry.

Musk is one of the most valuable natural substances in the world, even today. A gram of natural musk collected from musk deer is worth more than its weight in gold. Its association with wealth dates back to the sixth century, where merchants from China and India began trading musk pods with the Byzantines. Until late antiquity, musk was unknown to western civilization, where it certainly would have been appreciated by the fragrance-loving Romans.

Musk and other fragrances fell out of favor during the early Middle Ages, seen as unnecessary extravagances. It continued to be used in perfumes and incense in the Middle East, where it took on almost mystical properties. Aromatics and pleasing scents had long been associated with divinity, and at one time raw powdered musk was mixed into the mortar of mosques to lend the buildings its enjoyable aroma. Cleanliness and having an agreeable odor was also a symbol of high social status. Musk was considered to be the 'king' of scents because of the high price associated with its production and trade.

It wasn't until the Renaissance that perfumes were once again fashionable in Europe. Trade in spices from the east, as well as musk, made Venice one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Venice became the epicenter for the luxury trade, and one of its most luxurious trade goods was perfume. Using techniques borrowed from Arab traders, perfumeries mixed musk with distilled essences, essential oils, and resins, creating multi-layered scents that were in high demand throughout Europe. A small bottle of musk was considered a gift fit for a king.

Though musk and other 'animalistic' scents fell out of fashion during the eighteenth century in favor of lighter more floral fragrances, perfume makers continued to use it as a fixative in much smaller quantities. Musk's ability to balance floral notes made it indispensable when creating the now fashionable floral perfumes. In the late nineteenth century chemist, Albert Baur synthesized artificial musk. Considered a 'cleaner' version of natural musk, artificial or "white" musk is the basis for most modern floral perfumes today.

Natural musk comes from the gland of any of seven species of musk deer, a small ruminant with a historical range that stretches throughout China to the Himalayas and far north into Russia. A small, shy herbivore, the deer are rarely seen by those not actively hunting them, as most of their range extends into mountainous regions. Musk has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine as a cure for several ailments such as coronary heart disease, but it truly shines as a fixative for cologne and incense. As a fixative, musk extends the shelf-life of the perfume by preventing other scents from degrading while adding a distinctive base note that has become ubiquitous with high-end fragrances. It also served to balance and mellow disparate scents. It can also be used on its own when diluted and sold as a singular scent.

The journey from the gland to haute couture is a long one. The gland is first harvested from trapped deer. Once collected, the glands are dried, chopped, and stored in a tincture of alcohol. There the chopped glands remain for months, even years, as the musk mellows and matures. The alcohol, infused with the musk essence, is then used as a basis for perfumes and colognes.

Today, almost all perfumes that contain musk use a synthetic variant created in a lab. Some perfumeries still use natural musk for their more expensive perfume and cologne lines. Musk deer farming has slowly gained traction in China, where farmers extract the musk from mature male deer without harming them in an effort to halt their extinction due to poaching.

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