It’s really impressive how the fragrance companies manage to keep coming up with new and specialized aromachemicals, each with a different nuance from its predecessors in the same category. I’ve accumulated several proprietary musk bases with names ending in “-olide,” and decided it was time for a musks sniffing. I knew it would be more challenging than the woods sniffing we did last week, because the variations can be quite subtle to my unprofessional nose.
Agar musk (abelmoschus moschatus)
The extract of this medicinal perennial plant, also known as musk mallow, in attar form with sandalwood oil, is one of the most soothing, smooth smells I’ve encountered—the olfactory equivalent of cuddling in a blanket with a warm cup of cocoa. It smells a little milky and nutty, and otherwise like the sandalwood, which is quite dominant.
Ambrette seed (hibiscus abelmoschus)
Apparently this is the same thing as abelmoschus moschatus, although it smells quite different by itself. It feels fuzzy and smells very nutty, reminding me of the Middle Eastern confection known as halva.
Ambergris "silver white"
This is the prized, sperm-whale intestinal excretion that you can put on your skin to smell beautifully “you-er than you,” or to enhance many types of perfume. For a discourse on everything you ever wanted to know about ambergris and everything you never knew you might want to know about it, read Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp.
The “silver white” ambergris has been exposed to the elements for a long time, is light gray in color, and smells relatively mild. Its tincture is musky but also cool and a bit salty, with a denseness and roundness that marks its animal origin.
Ambergris "black gold"
This ambergris is “rawer” than the silver white, in the sense that it is less weathered, black in color and more oily, and smells much stronger. Its tincture has more floral (and, dichotomously, fecal) undertones, and makes me think of the creases in the thick skin of a large mammal, as well as the scents of a zoo.
Supposedly the synthetic version of ambrette, it’s much more plasticky by comparison, and has a cool, dry sweetness that I find ingratiating.
The synthetic version of one of the facets of ambergris, Ambroxan is a cool, clean musk that smells almost metallic. Can be worn on its own (as Escentric Molecules Molecule 02 and Juliette Has a Gun Not a Perfume have demonstrated). Very diffusive, good fixative and enhancer.
Frankly, I’m surprised this is classified as a musk—I would put it under woody or even spicy. It has a vegetal facet over something mildly like body odor. Unpolished wood, a bit like hinoki, but darker. My other half was adamant that it smelled like red chard!
Also can be worn alone (à la Escentric Molecules Molecule 05).
Perhaps the canonical white musk.
A more expensive ethylene brassylate, richer and fruitier.
Light, clean, woody musk with overtones of apples, berries, and maybe some dried fruits.
Metallic and animal facets clamor for attention in this otherwise silky white musk. Sweet and a little rubbery.
Sweet and floral, with some sugared fruit. Would probably make laundry smell fluffy.
Cooler and woodier. Elegant with the natural sweetness of an infructescence (like a gooseberry or a fig) at peak ripeness.
Very mild—neither my other half nor I could smell anything discernible. I’m not too worried, as it is introduced as a “very delicate musky note” and less fruity than some of the others.
An interesting point to note is that even though these musks are supposed to be base notes (and thus long lasting), most of them disappeared from the scent strips within a couple of hours. Their effect is most apparent not on their own, but in what they do to a blend.