Beauty and the Skank

Perfume is a disguise. Since the middle ages, we have worn masks of fruit and flowers in order to conceal from ourselves the meaty essence of our humanity. We appreciate the sexual attractant of the rose, the ripeness of the orange, more than we honor our own ripe carnality." Tom Robbins, Wild Ducks Flying Backward


I have always been intrigued by those perfumes and ingredients that have a slight ‘ick’ factor, as there is much written on the appeal and repellence of such aromas, I know I am not alone. So here is my two-pennyworth.

It is a delicious irony that we spend many moments of our time in daily oblutions of cleansing, soaping and polishing ourselves to scrub away every molecule of ‘natural scent’ only to spend a substantial amount on various fragrant products to adorn ourselves; and for the minx who lean towards the more naughty, to choose a fragrance de jour that implies the opposite of the maxim “cleanliness is next to godliness’.

This carnal, pheromonal scent that mimics arousal, secretions and warm skin is the ultimate perfume holy grail: and to attain it we have to unleash the animal (ingredients, that is).  Yes, to attain this ‘scent seduction' we look to the secretions of an animal’s nether regions, extracted materials such as civet, musk, castoreum or from projectile such as ambergris – so yes they smell kind of musky, sweaty, fleshy, fetid, fecal, a hint of sultry decay.  Lets take a look at the rogue's gallery of some ingredients:

Civet – Civettictus Civett (image)


An ingredient taken from the pouch under the tail of male and female civet cats, it is incredibly tenacious and powerful with a smoky, sweaty note.  Used in minute quantities it ‘grows’ within a fragrance, unfolding its superior fixative properties over time and provides a natural-animal note, and if used carefully should not be overpowering in the ‘fecal (skatole) or urine’ scale.  Due to ethical issues of its procurement, synthetic or artificial civet (such as civettone, civettol) is mainly used in perfumery today - with great success.

In natural perfumery a replacement could be combination of Ambrette, cistus, beach harvested Ambergris, beeswax... something I'll admit I have not tried - mainly because Ambergris costs an arm, a leg and a few wardrobe items too!

** (sharing moment) A few years ago on a weekend Perfumery workshop I had a sample bottle of synthetic Civet and was carefully extracting a drop to use in my composition, when ….ooops … splat …I knocked the bottle over and a generous splash of ‘eau de tom cat’ saturated my table … it was nuclear…it was a bottle of Jicky amplified by 100!!! **

Musk – Moschus moshiferus


One of the most expensive and most sought-after perfumery ingredients with a highly persistent animal-type aroma, sweet and slightly amine-like.  It is extracted from the internal pouch on the abdomen of the male musk deer, the animal has in the past been killed to extract the pouch, which has led to virtual extinction of the species, when in fact the pouches can be removed without killing the animal.  This pouch or musk pod is then shipped whole and dried, the pod contains the active and valuable ingredient - musk grains – which form the starting material for the preparation of a musk tincture or various other extracts.

"We laugh at the efforts of the musk deer to find the source of the scent which comes from itself and despair at our efforts to find the peace which is our essence."

 - Ramakrishna (1836-1886), Bengali mystic



Is secreted from the preputial follicles of the male or female castor beaver, it is an oily substance which the beavers coat themselves in to protect their fur from being soaked in water.  When extracted from the gland and sun-dried the substance turns hard and dark.  A gland weighs up to 100g so is much less expensive than civet.  It has warm, animal, leathery-like and sweet odour – common in male fragrance, fougeres, chypres, leather and tobacco bases. Sometimes has a smoky note, like birch tar but this may be down to the curing or processing of the raw material.  Today, a synthetic Castoreum is used in perfumery.

AmbergrisAmbra grisea, Ambre gris, (ambergrease or grey amber)


This un-prepossessing lump is a solid, waxy substance of a dull grey or blackish colour produced in the digestive system of and regurgitated or secreted by sperm whales.  Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder - as this aromatic gem is a genie of aphrodisiac proportions!

A little history of origin: because the beaks of giant squids have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists think that the substance is produced by the whale's gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have eaten.  Ambergris is usually passed in the fecal matter, however Ambergris that forms a mass too large to be passed through the intestines is expelled via the mouth, leading to the reputation of ambergris as primarily coming from whale vomit – giving  new meaning to “where there’s muck there’s brass”!

Freshly produced ambergris has a marine, fecal odor.  As it ages, it acquires a sweet, earthy scent and has a pheromonal quality, making it a true aphrodisiac – the myth and sensuality surrounding this product has contributed to its status as a valuable commodity – the raw material is prohibitively priced, compounded  in no small part to its rarity and uncertain supply – synthetics has now largely replaced its use in Perfumery.

Perfumes with the 'eeuww' factor

Repellently attractive - they should not be - but they really work on the right person!


(or ..icky .. a LOT of civet, an abyssinian cat on heat)

For me, Guerlain's creation embodies a very confident woman, 'of a certain age', at ease with her sexual allure - the 'black widow spider' of the fragrance world - lures you in despite an underlying 'filth' factor.   Although now marketed at women, this was originally inspired and made for a man, I like to think of 19c rakes, powdered and dandyfied  lotharios and dangerous men of ill repute, perhaps Dorian Grey, Lord Byron, Lord Rochester or even Anne Rice's  Vampire Lestat might have worn this?

Absolue pour le Soir

Francis Kurkidjan's juice evokes for me, courtesans lounging in dickensian alley ways, old, narrow Morrocan medina streets soaked with scents of history - fantastically intriguing notes with a tang of musk and cat pee on flowers (orange flower, mimosa, honeysuckle?) heated under a hot sun.  Perhaps 19c bordellos would have this sprayed in the boudoir to set the scene!

Secretions Magnifique


I have not smelt this yet - but have heard a lot of 'hoo-ha' surrounding it, it sounds a bawdy, fleshy little number so cue the   hyperbolic description on

“Like blood, sweat, sperm, saliva, Sécrétions Magnifiques is as real as an olfactory coitus that sends one into raptures, to the pinnacle of sensual pleasure, that extraordinary and unique moment when desire triumphs over reason. Masculine tenseness frees a rush of adrenalin in a cascade of high-pitched aldehydic notes. The sensation of freshness is gripping. Then the fragrance reveals a metallic side, precise and as sharp as unappeased desire. We are on a razor-edge… skin and sweat mingle, and tastes of musk and sandalwood. The slightly salt marine effect stirs, arouses, and sets your mouth watering. Tongues and sexes find one another, pleasure explodes and all goes wild. Confusion reigns supreme. A subversive, disturbing perfume. It’s love or hate at first sight. Sensuous jousting is rarely satisfied with half-measures…In between Don Juan and the Woman who offers herself, arms are laid down…who will be the first to surrender?”

Composition: Lodized accord (fucus, azurone), adrenalin accord, blood accord, milk accord, iris, coconut, sandalwood, opoponax...

And a snippet from Luca Turin's review:

"It is not animalic (supposedly) raunchy thing that works on the assumption that we collect soiled underwear or frequent the same nightclubs as cats and dogs.  It is, however, an elegant fresh floral in the manner of Parfums de Nicolai's Odalisque...."

"Perfumes the Guide"

Phew, after that I need some smelling salts, excuse me while I lounge on my chaise longue and you can have a read of some reviews on Basenotes - fragrance is so divisive and subjective!

Now tell me - are you not tempted, just a teensy bit, to go and sample some?

The 'honey-trap' factor - Indoles and white flowers

So, why do these fragrances attract and repel simultaneously? They possess a 'lure' or 'hook' to beguile the nose. The art is in  blending these filth and feral notes with sweeter blooms and bewitching spices to bestow a pheromonal allure that dries down to a warm, musky skin note, hinting at sex, fresh sweat and the result of carnal satiety and voluptuous bacchanalian decadence.

Think of the indolic molecules in many white flowers such as Jasmine, Ylang ylang, Gardenia, Tuberose - there is an almost fleshly, ripeness and then the 'gussett-y', honeyed, beeswax-y aspect of Orange blossom, Honeysuckle and Lilacs. Add a soupcon of spice such as the curry-like Cumin, radiant Black Pepper or nuzzle-worthy Nutmeg, smoothed out with creamy resins of Vanilla, Benzoin, amber and resonant, rich woody characters of Sandalwood, Oudh - a heady, diffusive cocktail indeed!

To create  'skank' and bewitching subversive notes in natural perfumery, one could sniff out the following raw materials to blend with:

  • Ambergris tincture
  • Oudh/Agarwood
  • Spikenard
  • Vetiver
  • Patchouli
  • Mushroom absolute
  • Valerian
  • Cumin
  • Cardamom
  • Nutmeg
  • Narcissus absolute
  • Clary sage
  • cistus/labdanum,
  • Cedarwood
  • Sandalwood
  • Mimosa absolute
  • Orange blossom, Orange flower absolute,
  • Ylang ylang
  • Jasmine grand, Jasmine sambac,
  • Tuberose
  • Vanilla, Benzoin, Tonka bean

I feel an inspiration coming on .....

Get Funky

As a complete deviation and a very tenuous link, 'Skank' is also slang for a dance style to various music genres including, Reggae and Ska.  Check out this dance version to 'Fatboy Slim's  'Rockafeller Skank' from the teen movie "She's all that".


This maybe a sanitised version, but no doubt if you were to douse yourself in a suitably subversive fragrance and dance this energetically, the whole dancefloor will be alive with pheromenal skank!  My school discos were NOTHING like this ...<sigh>