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As a small boy, I got scared when my mother went out for dinner or to a party and left me alone with my bullying teenage brothers. This angst is forever coupled by the delicious aroma of her 1940s Vol de Nuit. No sooner would she put it on, getting ready to go out, and a tight knot would form in my tummy. When she returned, in the early morning hours, she no longer smelled like Vol de Nuit, but rather like something else, something even more beautiful and soothing, almost like the smell of her skin itself. She stank of natural musk. 

Despite what some writers have asserted, natural musk is nothing like synthetic musk. Synthetic musk is usually sweet, sometimes cloying so, and never has the deep animal complexity of the natural stuff. In fact, I suspect that most perfumers have never smelled natural musk since it hasn’t been used in perfumes since the 1950s. This suspicion is underlined by the fact that modern musk perfumes don’t smell at all like natural musk.

I was lucky to enough to procure some musk from a perfumer friend who was getting rid of some old stuff. Even though musk is sold (illegally), the small deer from which it is obtained is endangered so that buying more is out of the question.

When I uncorked the musk, I was instantly brought back to over 60 years ago, witnessing my mother’s return from one of her parties.

The musk deer inhabits the Himalayas, from Tibet to Nepal to India. Each region has its own character and, in fact, each deer has its own scent.  One in my collection is an authentic white musk derived from gazelles. It smells nothing like brown musk, but has a deeply fresh and satisfying rosy character. The Indian red musk was the one most reminiscent of my mother, completely dry with little sweetness. When I close my eyes, looking for the right descriptor, I see forests and oceans and whole panoramas. The smell is extraordinarily complex and almost impossible to describe. The most expensive musk is called Dhen Musk Ultimate and is the sweetest of them all. I prefer the dryer ones such as a Kashmiri “brown” musk and the Indian “red” musk. The most beautiful to my mind (the best musk supposedly comes from Tibet), is the Napalese Kashturi Ultimate.

Natural musk stays around forever and will scent a room for centuries. It clings to the skin which is partly why it was such a good fixative. Even when the rest of the perfume has completely worn off, musk stays on the skin for many hours.