Category Archives: Natural Musk

Perfumer’s Nose: Oud, The Nuances

Deep Earth Scent Vision

The second time around I switch the order of the oud samples. For my first sniffing trial, I randomly lined up my little sample vials which were all diluted to 10%. The dilute samples on the scent strips yield the nuances in different ways as the fragrance dries out. A few things happen as I go through the samples, mainly I confirmed that evaluating oud is a learned skill and that I could probably go through these few samples many more times and get something different each time. But I also found that some aspects come through whether it is the first sample of the day or the last sample.

I like to think I have a well-trained nose but I have known all along that the determined character of agarwood essential oils would put my nose to the test. Which happened. What also happened was that I walked around with the smell of oud in my nose – kind of a nice effect that fragranced the world around me. But it also limited any other evaluations I could conduct for at least a day.

It won’t be surprising that the more subtle aspects of fruit and fine wood are lost as your nose becomes a bit overloaded with oud. I did pretty well the first time through, picking up nuances of woody notes, spice, water, and even honey in all samples even though some of the stronger and more animalic samples came up early in the evaluation. For the second evaluation, I used my notes from the previous one to put the samples in order from lightest fragrance to strongest. By doing this I was able to find the more subtle nuances: hints of cedar, definite floral aspects in more of the samples, and green notes appeared as well. But the best find in my second time through was a wonderful deep fruity and wine-like note in two of the samples that I missed the first time around. In one it was intertwined with spicy berries and the other it appeared as a sort of wine-y wood. Honeyed tones also shone through a bit more. I seemed to detect smoke less often and used watery and mossy descriptors less often as well.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Oud, The Beginning

AquilariaAstragalusRoyle US Public DomainSo many names – agarwood, oud, oudh, aloeswood, kyara, jinkoh, gaharu, eaglewood, kynam, sinking wood.

So many nuances—incense, wood, smoke, barnyard, balsam, sandalwood, ambergris, animalic, civet, fruity, fresh, minty, herbaceous, vetiver, spicy, peppery, galbanum, honey, castoreum.

Nuanced? Actually, yes, there are quite a few nuanced oud essential oils out there. There are also some with their fair share of stank. To be fair, when I walk out of my studio leaving the many scent strips on my workbench, it is the skank I smell when I come back in. But up close and with my eyes closed there are nuances, themes, accents, touches, and even choruses. But more about that later.

Perhaps I should define the stank part of agarwood; it’s a tough one but here is my take on it. The stronger ones seem to have a strong woody smell with tones of something like armpit or perhaps civet, if civet were a plant. But it’s a really nice armpit, one that maybe not long ago was daubed with honey or some sort of exotic spicy wood essence. You want to smell it again and maybe add a bit of rich fruit or a touch of smoke.

But don’t forget, there are some oud oils with no stank, beautiful worn alone on the skin, and endlessly interesting.

First the tree—there are a number of Aquilaria species comprising agarwood. In its natural state it has a relatively pale heartwood with little or no fragrance. It’s not the wood but the resin, produced as a result of wounding or infection by a fungus, that is aromatic. Age and level of injury act together to produce a highly resinated wood that is aromatic and darkly patterned. The pattern or dark striations on the light wood evoke the pattern of eagle feathers, thus the scientific name Aquilaria meaning eagle. Infection occurs naturally in a portion of the living trees, about 7%. From looking at the tree, it is difficult to determine whether it has produced a resin; cutting into the tree (or cutting it down completely) is often the only way to determine the level of aromatic resin. Over-exploitation has led to a drastic decline in this wood growing naturally in its native habitat throughout Asia with the result that many countries are exploring, with some success, the production of agarwood through cultivation.

Oud or agarwood oil is the product of steam distillation of resinous wood. So many things are involved in the fragrance of the agarwood—infection, wounding, terroir, age of the tree, and even species. In addition, once the wood is harvested it may be treated in a variety of ways before and during distillation. The wood is generally soaked for various lengths of time, water used for soaking may be local water or purified, distillation units may be traditional iron or modern glass, and the length of distillation can extend to days.

world soulThe story of oud is ancient and complex, the ways we use it seem to be the same. In pure form it serves excellently as a personal fragrance, as an incense it has an ancient history continuing to modern times, and more recently it has served as a unique note in perfumes.

Do you have a definition for skank? Do you use or collect agarwood/oud? How do you use it?

Next time I will talk about my search for all the above words and nuances in my samples of agarwood. Many thanks to JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfume and Katlyn Breene of Mermade Arts for beautiful products, lovely artwork, and free samples.

Read more about oud in my article for CaFleureBon here:

The image of agarwood is from WikiMedia and is US Public Domain, Deep Earth Vision is courtesy of Katlyn Breene.

Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood Attars

rainclouds 700 px

Rain in the Desert Copyright Elise Pearlstine


There is an ancient method of capturing delicate floral essences and the product is an attar. The making of an attar uses the essential oil of sandalwood to receive the distilled fragrances and support them over its rich and woody note. Used as perfumes, these attars may be as simple as a single flower essence distilled into sandalwood oil or it may be a secret and proprietary blend of flowers, spices, roots, and woods. While many attars possess a complexity and richness that makes them quite assertive, some of the floral attars are wonderfully delicate and balanced.

Attars are made according to strict tradition with the knowledge of distillation often passing down through family lines as are the secrets of the formulation. The area of Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, India is known as the Grasse of India and is home to many traditional distillers and perfumers. This is also where they make mitti attar, a blend of baked sacred earth and sandalwood that, to many, smells of rain.

Attars are made with the Deg and Bhapka system of distillation. There is a copper cauldron called the ‘deg’ that holds the material to be distilled and a ‘bhapka’ which is the receiver. The receiver has a long narrow neck and is connected to the ‘deg’ by a bamboo pipe. The setup is sealed tight and the heat and length of the distillation is controlled carefully by skilled workers. Once distillation is finished, the resulting attar is sealed in a leather bag. The leather bag is important because it allows any water in the attar to evaporate, leaving behind only the pure fragrant oil. For more information visit the blog from White Lotus Aromatics here: and here:


Traditional Distillation of Attars. Credit White Lotus Aromatics

Attars (also called Ittars) are traditionally sold in very small amounts, often in cut crystal bottles. They were common gifts given to guests in the Eastern world. When used as perfumes, they tend to be oil based and quite strong. The fine scents of attars were also thought to discourage evil spirits and assist in the journey towards enlightenment.

Before I talk about floral attars, a quick word about Mitti Attar in which the sacred earth of the Kannauj area is dried and distilled onto sandalwood. This sacred attar mimics the fragrance of the first rains of the monsoon season hitting the dry, baked earth and is the essence of rain and renewal.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood, The Heavenly Oil

L0038494 Catu-tsjambu, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus

Santalum album (Source Wikimedia, see below)

Ancient and sacred sandalwood trees were said to grow in the heavens where they would fill the celestial world with divine fragrance. On earth, true East Indian sandalwood is one of the oldest known perfume materials and has been in use for over 4000 years. This will be a three part series on sandalwood, beginning with a bit of ecology, history, and a description of the species.

Santalum album is the classic Indian species with a beautiful woody, buttery fragrance. It is native throughout China, India including Tamil Nadu, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It grows in dry forests and is hemi-parasitic, growing on the roots of other trees. The species is vulnerable to extinction due to overharvest for the essential oil and for wood for carving, in addition illegal poaching has contributed to the vulnerable status of this species. Trees must be at least 30 years before a good harvest of the essential oil can be obtained. The richest oil is in the heartwood of the trunk and the roots requiring the tree to be chopped down. Trees will regenerate from suckers and from seeds that have passed through the digestive system of birds and need their host trees nearby.

There are several other species from various areas around the tropics and sub-tropics. Santalum spicataum grows in Australia and is being managed on plantations where it may be grown in relation to various Acacia species, using them as hosts. It seems to do well is the dry habitats of Western Australia. According to the Forest Products Commission of Western Australia, sandalwood is currently being grown from wild stands but they manage over 6,000 hectares of sandalwood plantation for future production. The native Western Australian sandalwood was exported to China beginning in 1844 in powder form for making incense. A small Australian marsupial, the woylie, was once responsible for much of the natural re-seeding of the native sandalwood trees. Woylies would gather seeds and bury their cache in a shallow hole much like squirrels do. When local foresters mimicked the actions of the woylies, they were able to increase regeneration of the trees (From:

Santal_austrocaledonicum_Denis Prevot

Santalum austrocaledonicum showing host tree at the back. Source: Wikimedia, Denis Prevot

Another wonderful source of lovely sandalwood is Vanuatu and New Caledonia – S. austrocaledonicum. Because I don’t use Indian sandalwood, this has been an excellent choice to substitute. However, a bit of research indicates that, as of 2007, wild sandalwood in Vanuatu was being harvested for wood and oil, possibly leading to depletion of the wild population. Plantations are in the ground and should be producing within the next 10-15 years. In the meantime, the government of Vanuatu is attempting to control harvest of sandalwood trees to within a sustainable level. (From: An inventory of wild sandalwood stocks in Vanuatu, 2008, published by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research). I have not found any information on the status of New Caledonia oils, still looking. Some research shows a close similarity of New Caledonian oil with S. album.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Into the Woods With Oakmoss

Evernia_prunastri1 Tomas Cekanavicius

Oakmoss, photo by Tomas Cekanavicius from Wikimedia Commons

Indispensable to chypre and fougère perfumes, oakmoss is combined with citrus (bergamot), floral (jasmine or rose), woody (patchouli), oakmoss, and amber note with or without musk in the basic chypre formulation. In fougère perfumes oakmoss can deepen and accent the green, ferny, woodsy impression.

Due to its potential to act as a sensitizer, oakmoss is regulated in many countries leading to reformulation of some classic perfumes with synthetic versions of this important perfumery material. Or some are using oakmoss but with the atranol components removed. Whether or not we agree, those of us who work with the pure absolute know to be cautious in keeping it off our skin.

As with most ingredients that can be used as base notes, oakmoss should be deep and long-lasting, complex, and intriguing. Why? Because these are the notes that remain on our skin and have us sniffing again and again, using this impression to determine whether to spray a particular perfume again or put it on the shelf. This is also a particular strength of natural aromatics—they add longevity, yes, but more important they add interest and, in the end, tell the story of the perfume.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Tincture of Peppercorn

peppercorns 500

Peppercorns Copyright Elise Pearsltine

My love affair with the various peppers, black, green, white, and pink is not a blind love. I have needs in this relationship and the two primary ones are to get that out-of-the-bottle kick of pepper and, especially with black, a lovely progression from ‘pepper’ through slight resinous notes to a woody finish. In the case of pink pepper there should be that exquisite balance of effervescent tang and floral. Green, I have discovered, has a beautiful frankincense resin note.

The last Perfumer’s Nose post ( reviewed the peppers—six of them—as essential oils and one CO2 (white pepper).  These samples had a nice topnote, or what I like to call the ‘out of the bottle’ gestalt. There are some essential oils that should just jump to your nose and announce their presence, and peppers belong in that category. However, some of my samples are missing that sharp initial note and I got to wondering if I could capture those fleeting aromachemicals with freshly ground pepper put right into a tincture. Exactly like what you get when you add your favorite pepper from the grinder into whatever you happen to be cooking at the time.

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Perfumer’s Nose: The Green and The Woody of Botanical Musks

Dragonfly Perfume Girl by Katlyn Breene Copyrighted

Dragonfly Perfume Girl by Katlyn Breene Copyrighted

In order to discover the actions of several botanical musks, I went to some of my pre-blended heart and base stashes and added a bit of this or that botanical.The base blends were all at 10% strength and the musks were added at 3% of the total. This was probably a bit high for some, definitely for the black currant bud, but made the effect of the musk more apparent for this evaluation. See my previous blog here for a description of each botanical musk. In working with these to evaluate the effects on both floral blends and bases, I eliminated black currant bud because it is very much an accessory note and adds a very individual effect based on a particular blend so difficult to generalize about. I also eliminated costus root because it is very difficult to find and is thought to cause sensitization (basically I don’t want to encourage its use).

The two tables below describe the interactions of four musks with both floral blends and with bases. These are pretty simplistic exercises and I really recommend doing your own experimentation. Botanical musks seem to add more complexity to the mix than some of the animalic musks and the effect is not quite as straightforward. With a strong green or rooty note (spikenard and angelica) or a definite nutty/oily aroma (ambrette seed) these will interact with the floral heart and change a composition. However, having worked out the topnotes and heart notes, ambrette seed and angelica root can add a really lovely sweet musk note to the drydown and spikenard and agarwood contribute their own precious wood notes (not so much musk, at least for the ones I tested) to a perfume.

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Botanical Musks: How do You Like Yours?

Angelica_archangelica_Sturm12026There are many ways to get a musky note using plant materials with a few plants, ambrette and angelica for example, contributing true macrocyclic musks to the mix. For this blog I have chosen a few well-known musky notes, knowing full well that there are many more out there and a multitude of combinations. I have used most of these and love the effect—whether it is urinous like black currant bud; clean and musky like ambrette seed; or lovely, green, and sharp like spikenard.  My take on some of the most notorious of the botanical musks …..

Agarwood/Oud provides a unique, precious, wood note to perfumes. The wood of an Aquillaria tree is infected by fungi producing an oleoresin in response. The infected wood is harvested and distilled for up to 30 days—even a fast distillation can be 9-10 days.The scent profile of the different agarwoods varies from vomitous to ambery or jammy and some have a band-aid note. These notes give way to a dry, precious wood note that is slightly musky. Variation in oud essential oils can be due to location, soaking time, type of distillation unit, and distillation practices, including what kind of water is used. Locations that use bottled water with a higher mineral content that provides a clean note to the oud essential oil that contrasts with the muddy effects of local water. The ‘fine wood’ dryout is truly lovely.

Ambrette Seed, CO2, is in the hibiscus family. Also known as musk okra, the fruit is edible and the seeds may be used to flavor coffee. In addition of extraction for scent, the seeds may be used to flavor coffee I had two different samples which were quite similar.  The more recent sample had a nutty, slightly sweet topnote that was just a bit fresh with floral accents. A clean musky note appeared fairly soon accompanied by the nutty aroma. The dryout maintained its nutty, musky and clean note. An older sample was a bit musty, dirty, and earthy. The floral musky scent of the seeds is partly due to ambrettolide, often called a true or macrocyclic musk and one of few botanical musks available to the natural perfumer.

ambrette flower small

Ambrette copyright Elise Pearlstine

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Perfumer’s Nose: Partners in Perfume

wild pink mottled rose France

Wild Roses From France Copyright Elise Pearlstine

One of the oldest perfume pairings in history is flowers and musk. In addition to doing an evaluation of each musk ingredient alone (see my previous blog) I did a quick experiment with small amounts of musk to two floral blends – a rose/jasmine blend and a neroli/orange blossom blend. The blends were just the heart notes – rose, jasmine and ylang ylang or neroli and orange blossom absolute. As partners, florals and musks have a historic interaction of synergy and I wanted to separate this from any other influences.

Which musk ingredient (any, not necessarily animalic) do you like with roses? With neroli?

My thoughts:

 Which Musk?   With Rose and Jasmine  With Neroli and Orange Blossom
Deer Musk All the bits of rose and jasmine seemed more closely intertwined under the influence deer musk. There was definitely an exalting effect making this floral heart more elegant and more true to itself. Musk seemed to tone down some of the higher, sharper tones making the neroli and orange blossom more rounded and pretty. This effect lasted through the drydown.
Civet Interestingly, my notes have civet as having the opposite effect of musk. It seems to add multiple facets to the rose and jasmine, actually emphasizing the separate floral bits. My impression at first that civet did nothing for this blend. But after a moment I turned it around and realized that, really, what was going on was that these florals were actually enhancing the civet – taming and civilizing it just a bit.
Castoreum The florals are enhanced with this note with an added richness and depth. At very low concentrations, the leathery note is quite nice and continues to develop through the drydown. Castoreum also brought out the floral notes in this blend with a slightly more apparent leather note that lasted throughout.
Ambergris To my nose, ambergris makes any perfume more elegant and this is especially true of florals. It is such a natural with rose and jasmine, working its magic throughout the heart note and into a gorgeous sweet drydown. Depending on the ambergris there may also be a slight watery and/or green note. Like deer musk, ambergris brought out the smoother notes of neroli while enhancing the higher notes. There was a definite watery note and an elegant, multifaceted drydown.
orange blossom water droplets adjusted 500 px

Orange Blossom Copyright Elise Pearlstine

Animal Musks: The Slow Exhale

bare back long hair Nastia1983Deer Musk, Civet, Castoreum, and Ambergris are all animal musks. The first three are specifically produced as scent markers and for communication. Ambergris, the result of other bodily functions, is a lovely accidental fragrance ingredient. All have an amazing skin note due to their animalic origin.

The only one of these that I use in my perfumes is ambergris.

According to the Abbasid court physician Ibn Masawayh, speaking over 1500 years ago, musk is one of the five principle aromatic substances. The other four are ambergris, aloeswood (oud), camphor, and saffron. It was also called the noblest and sweetest of aromatics.

Deer musk is collected from pods on the belly of the deer. Due to overharvesting and habitat loss these deer are endangered (most being killed to obtain their musk glands) and true deer musk can only be imported into the United States within stringent permitting parameters. It is an ancient and powerful perfume ingredient and aphrodisiac.

Deer Musk Fragrance: this is where it is so hard to find words that are not just some variation on ‘musky.’ This is partly because the word musk means something entirely different after the advent of synthetic musks than it did 100 years and more ago. The closest I can get is sort of a plastic/leather/skin note. At first whiff of the dilute musk it is quite sweet with a definite skin note. The plastic leathery note comes up pretty quickly with definite pheromonal aspects. The lovely part of this musk is as it evaporates on the scent strip to a powdery, sweet, rich, smell of delicate musk.

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