Musk Scent Origin | Nomad Noé

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Where Does Musk Scent Come From?

If you purchase any sort of scented products, you are probably familiar with musk scent. Musk crops up everywhere from colognes to air fresheners to scented candles. However, where does this ubiquitous odor come from?

Origin of Musk Scent

Musk was originally processed from an animal secretion that smells similar to urine, produced by drying the musk gland of the male musk deer, cutting it into small pieces and then soaking it in alcohol for months or years. After processing, the substance developed a sweet, intense and long-lasting smell that was often used to enhance the scent of perfumes.

What Is Musk?

The musk deer is an animal native to northern Asia and Europe. Musk is a chemical that the male musk deer secretes. In addition to processing it into scents, sellers of natural remedies dry the substance and use it to make medicines for treating coma, stroke, seizures, nerve problems, heart problems, tumors, circulation issues and injuries. Food manufacturers use it as a flavoring agent.

Musk is harvested from a gland located in a pouch beneath the abdominal skin of the male musk deer. Musk scent is made up of chemicals that function similarly to male sex hormones. The male musk deer primarily uses these secretions to attract mates by spraying the substance from their musk gland, which is located near the front of their penis.  When fresh, the substance is semiliquid. It turns into a grainy powder when dried. 

Musk was first harvested by natives of Tibet who noticed the male deer marking their territory to attract mates. They harvested the substance in the hope that it would have similar aphrodisiacal effects in humans.

Synthetic Musk Scent

Natural musk is difficult and expensive to obtain, and musk deer have been protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna since 1973. Most countries now severely restrict trade in natural musk. Though there is still a black market for the substance, commercially made scented products now contain synthetic musk. 

Scientific Origins

In the 1880s, Albert Baur synthesized a molecule with a similar smell to musk while trying to create a more powerful type of dynamite. Perfume manufacturers used this molecule to replace natural musk until the 1950s when scientists discovered that the molecule doesn't degrade and was accumulating in the environment.

Heinrich Walbaum of Schimmel & Co. was the first person to isolate the primary musk scent of natural musk. He established the ketone's empirical formula and named it muscone. Professor Leopold Ruzicka won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1939 related to his work in discovering the chemical structure of muscone. This research was critical in the development of modern synthetic musks.

Modern Use

Today, synthetic musks, such as versalide and galaxolide, are used to replicate the scent of natural musk in most products. Additionally, substances, such as patchouli oil, that have a similar odor to musk have become popular.

Some perfumers use civetone, which is a molecule derived from the yellow paste civets secret from their perineal glands, as a musk substitute. Less commonly, ambergris, which is a substance produced by sperm whales, is also used, but with a kilogram of the substance selling for as much as $15,000, it isn't a practical substitute for most products.

Types of Synthetic Musk Scent

Several types of synthetic musk are used in products that range from soap and body lotion to expensive perfumes.

Aromatic Nitro-Musks

These musks were developed from substituted benzene and used in detergents, soaps and body lotions. However, use was discontinued when researchers discovered the product disrupted the function of human hormones and cells.

Polycyclic Musk Compounds

These musks lend a fresh scent to laundry products. However, they have fallen out of favor because they do not break down readily, making them a less eco-friendly option.

Macrocyclic Musk Compounds

These are the musks that most modern perfumers and candle makers use. The muscone molecule is the most popular of these musks, followed by ambrettolide and exaltolide. 

There are hundreds of different synthetic musks, but manufacturers continue to research and develop new compounds that are non-toxic and biodegradable in an attempt to more perfectly replicate the properties of natural musk scent and lower production costs. The high cost of producing synthetic musk with desirable properties for use in perfumes is the main driver of the high cost of high-end products.

Reasons Musk Is Used

Musk is a heavy odor, which is what allows it to persist in the forest and serve its function of attracting female musk deer. In perfumes, it softens the smell of other ingredients while also increasing their projection off the skin. The molecular structure of musk allows it to cling to the skin for multiple hours, giving fragrances a long-lasting scent. Musks give fragrance compositions more volume, warmth and liveliness. 

Fragrance Notes

Fragrance notes make up the perfume scale similar to how musical notes create a musical scale. High-quality perfumes are a blend of three fragrance notes called the top note, middle note and base note. The base note works with the middle note after the top note has evaporated to create fuller fragrance experiences. Musk scents are commonly used as the base note in perfumes. 

What Musk Scent Smells Like

The smell of natural musk can vary by season. People describe it as earthy, woodsy, rich, deep and sensual, but it can sometimes smell fruity or floral. Musky perfumes and scented goods come in several varieties, such as white musk, Japanese musk, African musk and Arabian musk. 

Visionary candle - Saffron, Rose, Musk

Musk Scent at Nomad Noé

While musk scent may have a worrisome origin for environmentalists and animal lovers, you can rest assured that all of the candles at Nomad Noé are vegan and cruelty-free. Our candles are made from a blend of vegetable waxes, scented with fragrance oils crafted in Grasse, France and hand-poured in small batches in the United States. Each candle comes in a reusable porcelain jar and lid, and we use recyclable packaging. Visit us online to shop our selection of scented candles.

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