Pheromones: Sex, Scent and Attraction

Most of us accept that animals communicate by odor. Dogs sniff out stale urine and others’ private parts, especially the anus. The dog learns much about potential mates by their odor. Odor expresses the age of the animal, its readiness for sex, its sexuality (it is said that homosexuals have a different smell than heterosexuals), and no doubt many other things such as jealousy or hostility. Odors get dogs aroused.

Why do we assume, then that we, as mammals, don’t share similar urges and associations? Nowadays we do everything we can to disguise our smells, but by allowing a little to persist—the hint of the armpit after a shower and other various scents that will remain unnamed—we attract our mate or potential mate. While in times past we relished each other’s aroma, we now must perceive these smells unconsciously or they will trigger our sense of disgust and revoltion.

Classic vintage perfumes contained natural animal ingredients that provided an erogenic effect. Natural deer musk (now outlawed since it comes from an endangered animal), ambergris (ok because it rinses up on a beach), castoreum (arguably ok because it’s a byproduct; the animal is not killed for the castoreum), civet (usually considered bad because the civet cats (no relation to a house cat) are sometimes irritated by being poked with sticks to get them to release more of their pungent anal paste; supposedly “humane” civet is being investigated). Civet, when properly tinctured, has a pronounced cat-spray aroma. So does sauvignon blanc. When aged for a year or so, civet tincture develops a gentle almost fruity aspect. Civet makes a glorious note when juxtaposed with florals. All of these ingredients went into vintage perfumes (I remember my mother’s) and gave them a richness very hard to achieve without them.               

Much has been made of a perfume’s ability to induce sexual feelings and even to draw us to the person wearing it. While these claims have been made, few people I’ve spoken with seem to share this view and perfumes, while they can be delightful, are rarely thought of as true aphrodisiacs. In fact, it is often said, real aphrodisiacs don’t exist.

If asked a few years ago, I would have concurred. But I started to notice funny things. When I was working on my amber perfume, I came up with a precursor—something I thought might work as a base. When I met my best friend and his girlfriend for lunch, I brought along a vial of it for them to check out. When I passed it around the table, I sensed something–they were whispering to each other and nuzzling in a distinctive way that let me know they were getting aroused.  Being close enough friends, they were very frank about what they were feeling. They wanted to return to their hotel room—afternoon plans were scrapped—and spend some time together.

Amazed, I returned to the lab to figure out what I had just come up with. The central components of the base were (are: I still use it) patchouli, tobacco, and castoreum, typical leathery notes. When I combined these three ingredients, while intriguing, the aphrodisiac quality seemed to have disappeared. I delved deeper into the formula and noted that part of it was composed of another complex made with sandalwood, burnt amber, castoreum, vanilla, and oud. I experimented some more and realized that the oud, tobacco, castoreum and burnt amber formed an accord. On one hand suave, the perfume also had an assertive animal quality which seemed to come less from the castoreum than the oud, tobacco and amber.

Many are confused by the word “amber.” Some think it is ambergris which it is not (in old books, ambergris is sometimes called “ambra”) and many assume it’s an accord based on labdanum, vanilla, bergamot and other ingredients. These “ambers” can be delightful and are often used as bases for finished perfume. I use a third amber, burnt amber, which is a distillation of the same amber we wear for jewelry. While the smell is acrid, there’s something irresistible about it. It’s smoky and phenolic and has a bit of a funk. When combined with tobacco, castoreum and oud, it becomes savage. A funkiness is present that some people might describe as smelling like a barn. There’s even something mildly repulsive about it. But the real give-away is finding you can’t take your nose away. Ambergris is like this. It smells underwhelming but those who smell just keep smelling it.

I’ve determined that it is funk that makes a perfume an aphrodisiac. After all, it’s the (sometimes) funky body smells which draw us. Studies have shown that arm pits, the crotch area, the anus, and the hair on one’s head all create a pheremonic response. Of course we don’t want to be aware of these smells except perhaps in love making. They must be used beneath the level of consciousness. All my eaux de parfums, except the sandalwood, have this quality. My oud perfume has enough oud such that the aroma of the oud contributes considerable animal dissonance. One perfumer on basenotes.org (an online forum for perfumers) declared that there were two aphrodisiacs in his life: the smell of his wife and Brooklyn Perfume Company’s oud.

Brooklyn Perfume Company’s musk is another example. In theory, an artificial musk emulates natural deer musk, not used for decades. Natural musk, taken from the deer’s anal gland, is one of the most compelling of all aromas. Some are revolted by its funk (the musk from each animal is different) while others, like myself, can’t get enough. Which brings us to the musk perfumes currently on the market. As far as I can tell, they’re all rather smooth and funkless. Wondering why, it occurred to me that most people today (including perfumers) have never smelled the real thing. They don’t know what they’re trying to emulate. Giving away my age, I remember how my mother smelled when she got home late from a party and her perfume had mostly worn off. She stunk of pure natural musk. 

When I set out to make a musk for Brooklyn Perfume Company, I wanted something a little funky and very sexy. I made a blend of artificial musks, but then accented it with various animal-like synthetics. It has a definite funk, but one that seems to blend in with the skin as the perfume wears off. Is it an aphrodisiac? I suspect yes. A couple of weeks ago I was in a car with a dear friend who was wearing my musk. His ex-wife, who was sitting next to him, started touching him and rubbing him. She looked at him and asked “Are you wearing some kind of attractant?” My 94-year old mother-in-law wears it and says that it’s not really a perfume per se, but something that makes her skin smell more like itself.

More about pheromones in an up-coming post.

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