History & USe
Musk scents and materials, also called animalics, are derived from actual animals, and they smell the part. Traditionally the term referred to musk (produced by the musk deer), ambergris (produced by sperm whales), and civet (produced by a weasel-like creature call the civet cat), yet it may also refer to any material that comes from an animal such as castoreum which is like musk in many respects but is produced by beavers.
Zaza’s animalics, Musc 1984 and Ambra 1976, are all about getting as close as possible to the primal sensuality and exalting character that only the real stuff can offer. It is about musk and ambergris behaving as they should with an already supple and sublime sandalwood nectar—which is to say taking it out of this world!
Animalics have been around for about as long as fragrances. In perfumery, the animalic tripartite of musk, ambergris, and civet are also valued as medicines.
Musk has been used, in ancient Chinese and Greek medicine, to treat conditions like stroke, nerve disorders, and heart disease. Modern scientific studies have demonstrated promising anti-cancer properties as well.
Ambergris has been used by practitioners of traditional medicine to treat muscle spasms, typhoid, and as a stimulant. Some studies on animals suggest that ambergris may be effective in lowering blood glucose levels.
Civet has been used as a pain reliever and sedative. Practitioners of Chinese medicine consider it to be an effective substitute for musk.
All animalics are associated with purposes integral to life, which, for me at least, gives them an inimitable depth and vitality. The pod of the musk deer and the castoreum sack of the North American and European beavers are glands that produce secretions to mark territory and possibly assert virility, while civet paste is the actual secretion (serving the same purpose) of the civet cat. Ambergris stands out from the pack, being a form of digestive waste expelled by sperm whales—either as vomit or excrement with experts and curiously invested pedestrians differing passionately on which it is.
Conflicting expert opinions aside, ambergris and deer musk are among the rarest and most expensive aromatics in the world. Ambergris is produced by a tiny number of sperm whales under obscure, fortuitous circumstances, and there is no species of musk deer that isn’t endangered or extinct as a result, in part, of demand for musk.
The North American beaver, one of two beaver species that produce castoreum, was in the 18th century, similarly endangered. It was made a protected species throughout the 19th century and was, thankfully, able to fully recover.
Obviously, as is the case with most precious substances, there are ethical issues associated with these materials that must be taken into consideration. Yet, I think the beaver example shows that those issues are not insurmountable, but more on that later.
Animalics in their raw, fresh form are not for everyone. Raw animalics are aromatic Mack trucks that hit you with the full visceral force of their fleshy origins—as I said, they smell the part. They need to be tamed. That makes them as much a challenge to work with as they are to acquire. All things considered, animalics are heavy stuff. Yet, I think it would be naïve to expect the sublime aromatic majesty that only they can conjure to come without their price.
There’s no such thing as a cheap tour de force.
For me, natural animalics are the gold standard, in perfume and wherever there is a choice otherwise. In fact, I’m wearing an animal-skin jacket as I write this and I am certainly not the type who would call PVC “leather” without some kind of qualifier, nor would I even consider giving up good old-fashioned meat for some abomination grown in a Petri dish just because activists claim it’s more ethical. And this isn’t about trying to be edgy or anything like that, I’m just saying that I respect nature too much to turn down the best she has to offer in favor of the inadequate, sometimes dangerous, counterfeits of my fellow men.
So, when it comes to animalics, whether it’s food, clothing, or scent, I want the real deal. Genuineness is valuable. And the only genuinely raw, sensuous, and exalting animalics are those that come from animals.
Now, you may say I’m making too much of a point of taste, but I can assure you that though my critique begins with taste, it is ultimately about aesthetics, quality, and integrity.
Today, it is virtually impossible to ascertain whether a perfume with the term musk, for example, on the label contains any natural musk at all. That is, in my opinion, a real problem that straddles the lines of aesthetics, quality, and honesty in advertising, i.e., integrity.
Because of the complexity of modern perfume compositions, knowledge of something like whether a note is natural or synthetic is an important aspect of appreciating the composition’s aesthetic, the skill of the perfumer, and the level of quality.
Yet, mainstream perfume houses will almost never indicate whether the materials used are natural or not. The justification for that level of opacity is the protection of trade secrets. Whatever its merit, it is a justification that betrays the industry’s prioritizing of economic considerations over those related to quality and aesthetics.
Similarly, the unanimous chorus of industry voices urging us to simply accept synthetic animalics as adequate substitutes for naturals due to animal cruelty and environmental concerns, smacks of corporate cynicism—I’ve even seen ambergris lumped with other animalics in that argument despite the fact that harvesting ambergris poses no threat to sperm whales or the environment.
For me, the evidence is clear that the potential environmental harm, caused to humans and animals, of the commercial manufacture and distribution of synthetic aromatics is far greater than the potential harm that the extinction of a species hunted to obtain natural animalics may cause. This is especially true when you consider that, as the mentioned case of the North American beaver illustrates, there are sustainable and ethical ways to obtain animalics from animals while minimizing cruelty and the risk of extinction.
So, I don’t think the perfume industry, which is just a consumer-facing side of the chemical manufacturing industry, is genuinely concerned with the ethics of animalics any more than it is with promoting an informed, tasteful perfume aesthetic.
Rather, it seems to me that the industry’s consistent opposition to natural animalics and its curiously opaque approach to perfume ingredients in general are part of a highly successful marketing strategy to promote a public perfume aesthetic that makes the unavoidable limitations of synthetic aromatics appealing to the public, thereby ensuring a perpetual demand for those materials and profits for chemical manufacturing companies.
When synthetic aromatics emerged in the 19th century they held out the promise of not merely reproducing but improving on nature. However, when it comes to aromatics, synthetics have met with severe limitations in realizing that promise.
Among those limitations is not making the cut. Synthetic aromatics and isolates—being chemically simpler and relatively more concentrated—lack the depth and complexity of their natural analogues with the result that they tend to be dull, sterile, caustic, and overpowering versions of the originals. Differences in cost aside, that makes for rather conspicuous and therefore poor substitutes. Current musk, civet, and ambergris synthetics and isolates, as well as those of a host of botanicals and woods suffer from this limitation.
Another limitation is the fact that many synthetics aromatics are without natural analogues, making them potentially difficult to sell and thus potentially useless byproducts, given that the entire point behind synthetics was, initially, improving on nature.
Due to such limitations, few perfumers before the 1920s would work with synthetics. Consumers also had no interest in them as the poor commercial performance of Guerlain's Jicky at its initial release in 1889, for example, attests.
Fine perfumes up to the beginning of the 20th century were simple, subtle compositions where one floral note took center stage. All synthetics were seen as caustic and overpowering and those without natural analogues were also seen as ambiguous and meaningless.
The prevailing aesthetic of the time was one that saw beauty as being firmly grounded in nature and meaning.
It was not until around 1910, after formidable perfume houses like Houbigant had incorporated chemical laboratories into their perfume development and aggressively pursued international expansion through in-house mass production and distribution facilities on multiple continents, that perfumers began to seriously look at the economic advantages of synthetics for mass markets even though those markets may not have yet been ready for them.
In the 1920s, following significant developments in communication, manufacturing, and chemistry, along with, I believe, the emergence of avant-garde art movements that challenged previous aesthetic assumptions, fragrances with significant amounts of synthetics began to enjoy greater acceptability. Beauty was, for many, decoupled from nature or even meaning. That meant artists could make beautiful whatever they liked.
By the mid-20s it had become clear to marketers, in the wake of the success if Chanel No 5, that the hitherto scorned synthetics, particularly those with no natural analogues, could be effectively used create unique associations between abstractions or fantasies and brands in a manner that was unimpeded by the already familiar and easily reproduced naturals. Toward that end, the synthetics only needed to be unique since their “beauty” was a matter for the marketers to create by appeal to fantasy.
So, bad, fake musk, for example, the dull sterility of which made it obvious that it couldn’t have come from a living creature became “white musk”. In fact, everything became “white”, “clean”, and “powder” saving the chemists the effort and their employers the money of trying to imitate the sublimely complex “dirtiness” with which life itself animates animalics and other naturals.
Thanks to modernity, marketers, too, could simply make beautiful whatever they liked.
It is therefore unsurprising that, today, the dominant aesthetic of the perfume industry is, exceptions aside, a fantastically prurient one that celebrates sterility as vitality and artificiality as creativity with Decadentist fervor. Looking at the visual content of perfume ads, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to avoid anything natural. Immaculate urban settings, pristine luxury goods, and sensuously glistening yet astoundingly unblemished skin abound regardless of the targeted gender or character of the fragrance.
When outdoor landscapes do appear, they are almost always unnaturally lit places where the wolves are as flawlessly groomed as the celebrity model they share the foreground with. Water, which appears often, splashes and spills with neither source nor destination to account for its other-worldly hew. The overall effect isn’t particularly tasteful, yet it is very effective at suggesting to consumers that beauty and good taste require ignoring or distorting nature and exalting the contrived and fantastical.
By no means am I saying that all perfume ads perpetuate this aesthetic, but it is my opinion that what I have described is a fair representation of the general marketing trend and resulting aesthetic adhered to by the most well-known designer houses from around the mid-20th century to present. It is a brilliant and, like the Dadaism of the same period, distinctly modern approach that more than adequately addresses the aesthetic limitations of synthetics.
Indeed, it was in the 20th century when masses of people were first convinced that man had triumphed over nature, and that scientists always knew best.
By the 50s, marketers and scientists were successfully convincing people that radiation was healthy; that Coca Cola was wholesome, low in calories, and kept you thin; and that synthetics were the best thing since sliced bread. Disney’s “house of the future” developed by, the now notorious, Monsanto, where almost everything, from hard surfaces to textiles, “even the scent of roses and salty sea air” was triumphantly synthetic, is a good illustration of the mindset of the time.
Today, synthetics are a ubiquitous fact of life, but attitudes are different. The sixties happened. And while post-hippie populations are still influenced by marketers and scientists, much of the 20th century’s hubris and romance around synthetics have given way to a more sober awareness of their risks and costs.
The market for natural and organic products is now part of the mainstream and, I think, a result of a broader cultural rejection of the artifice of the 20th century. In the 21st century, synthetics are everywhere but seldom will their marketers claim they are equal or superior to naturals. This is particularly true of the food and personal care consumables industries.
Except in the world of fragrance.
Whether it’s outlets like Elle, with articles like this, or the BBC, with documentaries like this (I understand it’s available on YouTube), the message is clear: perfumes are about chemistry, corporations are about art, and synthetics are about refinement.
It’s almost Orwellian.
Now I don’t think that perfumes are more about chemistry than cooking, yet a fine meal, unlike say Marmite, doesn’t have to come from a chemist. Similarly, when it comes to art, don’t suggest to me that corporations are good for anything other than selling it. And when it comes to synthetics, they are about scale and sale, refinement is a matter of taste and aesthetics, neither of which seem to be the forte of today’s perfume industry.
And I don’t think I’m alone with this critique. The same point is made, with characteristically irreverent bombast, by Moschino’s Fresh Couture which doesn’t, at all, smell too generic for the price unless its point has been missed.