Musk is an ancient perfumery ingredient classically derived from muscone, the glandular secretion of the musk deer, though there are some less commercially viable alternatives from other animals (muskrats, snakes, turtles, beetles, ducks, crocodiles…). Nearly all current musks are created with synthetic muscone, the natural ingredient being now astronomically priced, though many are made with its close chemical relative civetone (which may be real or synthetic). Their common thread is the slightly sweet—think honey, not cane sugar—, slightly sour or even fecal odor of a living body, none too clean.
While there is a broad range, from the barbaric [imagine the unwashed warrior with diligently clubbed beast, who will now rest for a while on his bed of furs before the fire and dry the sweat from his copious chest hair. Imagine Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khän] to the clean, sweet animalic [imagine a freshly bathed kitten], I find musks I like in every register*. Most I have come across are somewhere in the middle: sweet and warm, spicy, possibly powdery, slightly soapy and/or floral. They tend to be spicy and enveloping, great for cold weather. My favorite thus far has to be Frederic Malle’s Musc Ravageur, a particularly refined musk (reading almost as an amber at times) with beautiful elements of winter spices like cinnamon and clove.
*A warning that musks, and especially musk oils, will be too cloying in their sweetness for many. And they are not for those who want to mask their body with an un-body-like smell (which I do not typically want to do). I urge you to smell them, though. They are one of those scents that people tend to experience with bizarre discrepancies, some people being virtually or totally anosmic to certain elements in the musk; picking up all sweetness or no sweetness, all fecal or no fecal.
I am not uniformly interested in oil as a vehicle for perfume but find it especially pleasant and effective for something so sweet and complementary to the skin as musk [N.B. a rollerball applicator is nice for perfume oils]. The oil renders the fragrance more persistent on the skin and seems appropriately intimate, oil gradually being absorbed into the skin seeming to me more intimate than a gradually evaporating alcohol spray. The oil is particularly amenable to layering, too. I can sometimes find musk too sweet, at which times I like to layer the oil with a bright floral (or just anything) to subtly alter its character.
I have two on rotation at the moment. The first is a natural Egyptian civet blend I found for few dollars on Amazon (there are dozens of similar ones, it seems). This is a soapy (as if you are smelling a bar of musk scented soap) floral with a mild musk element; light, powdery, feminine. A really excellent use of $5.99 to my mind. The second is C.O. Bigelow’s Perfume Oil in Musk, still largely clean but with the musk taking a more prominent role, the florals, spice, and powder muted. By ‘clean’ here I mean that the musk has been dolled up in such a way as to seem tame, domesticated, inoffensive. This is quite similar to Kiehl’s Musk Essence Oil, though that is a little sweeter and muskier, I think [discovered “in a vat labeled “Love Oil” in the late 50s” (!)]. Either makes a wonderful winter masculine.