August 23, 2012

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By Clayton Ilolahia
I have never truly understood the dotted line that perfume appreciators draw between sex and the animalic family of perfume odors. I grew up on a farm and being surrounded by animals never once inspired thoughts of life’s carnal pleasures. Unlike the scent of flowers, these odors are not the easiest to fall in love with, yet there is a section of the perfumed population that revel in it. Lovers of this quality in perfume affectionately describe it as ‘skanky’. There are a number of materials that make up this family of animalic perfume notes. Civet tincture, made from the excretion of a civet cat, it is assumed to attract a sexual partner, is one example. It is an odor that works wonders in small doses when introduced into a perfume. In her book Essence and Alchemy, natural perfumer, Mandy Aftel describes it as a material that, “prowls through a blend, transforming each of its elements and giving the whole extraordinary depth.” Indole is another acquired taste. On its own it has a dull fecal odour, to my nose it smells of tooth decay and mothballs. In nature, The molecule is found in flowers, the reproductive organs of plants, showing that not all animalic notes come from animal origins. Synthetic musks are often used to communicate the idea of skank in different degrees. Some synthetic musks are categorized as white musks, which offer the lowest skank value and smell like freshly showered bodies. As a base note they are employed to hold the top and middle notes to skin and unlike other woody or resinous base notes, musk has a unique quality. It is a powerful fixative without overshadowing other materials in the composition. I like the analogy that synthetic musk is a white canvas in the art of perfume. They are the bridge between skin and the scent of flowers and hundreds of other odors used in modern perfumery, just as a painter primes his or her canvas with white gesso in order for the artist’s colors to take to the canvas surface. In a sense these musks act as a second skin.

It was here I began to make sense of my thoughts. Strip away the emotions of sex, whether it is the cotton candy ideal of lovemaking or raw instinctual lust; what you are left with is the physicality of the act. Sex is skin rubbing against skin and the resulting odor is that of the human body. Could this be the connection I was missing that others had made? On a functional level, animalic notes assist in binding perfume to skin. On an emotional level, they create familiarity. They give a context so that a flower, which may go unnoticed in a garden, suddenly becomes a story, the smell of a beautiful woman or man. The smell of skin locked away in the subconscious, taken from intimate moments in life.

Last month I was on a long haul flight from Sydney to Bangkok. I usually feel a little awkward on these flights where you are sharing an intimate space with a stranger. An overnight flight can sometimes feel like a one-night-stand, and usually not a good one! I was catching up on some reading - Denyse Beaulieu’s The Perfume Lover. I had a gentleman beside me, his seat fully reclined, and he was asleep. I was reading a section in Denyse’s book where she was discussing the scent of blood with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour. Bertrand described the scent as “metallic, warm, mineral, salty with rusty facets.” It is an effect the perfumer said could be achieved with the inclusion of aldehydes, incense and salicylates. In this case for Séville à l'aube, the scent inspired by Denyse’s own story, Bertrand was using costus oil to produce the effect of veins under the skin.

‘You can’t smell veins under the skin can you?’

‘Of course you can. Skin smells the strongest where veins run just under the surface. Here… and here,’ he says touching his pulse and his temple.

‘Well when you smell a woman there… she’ll smell a bit like warm leather and sheep. Costus conjures that effect. Raw wool. Greasy, dirty hair. It’s got a lot of negative connotations in perfumery, but it shouldn’t. It’s such an amazing product!’ 

After reading this I was intrigued and I looked over to my sleeping neighbour. I considered whether I should take advantage of his vulnerability. Was it creepy for me to smell this stranger? Ok yes it was, but I had to do it. I leaned to his side, cleared my thoughts and opened my nostrils. I took in his scent remembering Bertrand’s words as I tried to pin his adjectives to the smell I encountered. I noted the oily presence of skin, which was neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It was the distinctive scent of a man.

I searched my mental library of male fragrances to come up with a match. I thought of Cartier’s Declaration. Some years ago, Declaration was my first encounter with masculine skank. I couldn’t understand why a perfumer would want to create a fragrance that smelled like male sweat. In more recent years I passed off this type of perfume as being quirky but that evening on the airplane I began to reconsider this opinion. Maybe the point of Declaration is to smell like a sweaty man. Some men smell great when they perspire and others don’t. Was perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena creating a fragrance for men that provided all the freshness of an eau fraiche and he was also loaning them the male skin that he envisioned wearing his citrus beauty?

Declaration is a wonderful example of Ellena’s style, which balances the transparency of woody notes with fresh spice and radiant citrus. It is a style the perfumer has continued to explore with his work for Hermes. Declaration plays on the contrast between cardamom and cedarwood. By themselves these two elements are not what most people would consider sexy. One makes great furniture and the other tastes amazing in curries. What gives this scent sex appeal is the use of cumin and other animalic notes that create the unapologetic illusion of warm male skin.

Understandably this type of perfume is not for everyone. It is an acquired taste. Personally I am cautious when I use this type of fragrance in case my perfume preference is mistaken for bad personal hygiene. But for the right occasion, Declaration is very appealing.

If Declaration is one day without washing, consider Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan a week without a shower. This Lutens creation takes its name from the 13th century Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. Fragrances like this show there are people out there that love the smell of being unkept. Muscs Koublai Khan takes the soft skin approach of musk and soils it with animalic references of civet, castoreum (originally derived from beavers), cumin and costus. This is a challenging fragrance to wear and most perfume lovers either champion its cause or despise it vehemently.

Musk is by far the most agreeable animalic and over the years many brands have dabbled in its scent. Jovan in the 1970s and more recently Narciso Rodriguez and Tom Ford have released lines that showcase different facets of musk. In the mid 2000s, Kiehl’s revived Original Musk, a fragrance the brand had not sold since the 1960s. Designed for men and women this 21st century version is cuddly and sweet. It is a different type of skin to that of the rugged Muscs Koublai Khan or the sporty post-gym workout that is Declaration.

So perhaps the aphrodisiacal reputation of these animalic odours does not come from the materials themselves. It comes from the connection made as they remind us of the scented human body, a smell we remember from life’s intimate moments. Just as we have our own taste for finding a suitable partner to engage in such activities, Cartier Declaration, Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan and Kiehl’s Original Musk prove that there is diversity in the perfume world when it comes to snaring or being snared by the seductive scent of the human body.

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