Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Learning to Adjust My View of Musk

(Or, A Rant that Leads to a Rave of Eau des Iles)

Eau des Iles, by Maître Parfumeur et Gantier. Imagine that on one side of that Japanese shoji screen there is a world of arid greenery, while on the other there is exotic lushness. Imagine that you have a set of top notes that bears more than a passing resemblance to the very austere Caron Yatagan, and a heart and base that reminds you of the creamy drydown of Parfums de Nicolai’s Sacrebleu. It would seem a difficult marriage to pull off—a difficult transition between the two—yet thanks to the gauzy weave of musk that holds them together, it works.

The notes for Eau des Iles include spices, coffee, precious woods, ylang-ylang and patchouli, and the company website describes it as a remembrance of “perfume islands in which coffee fragrances intermingle with stately rare woods and smooth exotic flowers that have a strange beauty of their own.”  That’s actually a pretty accurate description. The coffee note is not a gourmand coffee note: it is bitter and green and lightly smoky. It doesn’t stick around too long, but enough to evoke the perfume’s coffee-island theme. Other arid and woodsy green notes do linger, playing yin to the warm, enveloping ylang-ylang that is the yang in this fragrance’s yin-yang equation. And musk, while not listed in the official notes, is there doing its job and doing it beautifully: balancing both sides of the equation, letting each side sustain itself to some degree while tempering the interaction between the two.

Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Eau des Iles can be purchased from, as well as at a number of online perfume discounters, priced anywhere from $80-$112 for a 100-ml bottle.

Images credits:

  • Artwork (top of page) is Diary: December 12, 1941, 1980, acrylic on canvas by Roger Shimomura, lifted from the website of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
  • Photo of Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Eau des Iles is from

A few months ago I was swapping samples with another perfume blogger, and when asked what fragrances I was interested in, I wondered if she might introduce me to some good musks. Up to this point, I had been avoiding musk scents like the plague. Not that one can totally avoid musk, because if what I’ve read is correct, synthetic musk is a component of almost every modern perfume due to its superb fixative properties. And not only perfumes, but also cosmetics, food flavorings, and most obviously these days, detergents. (Have you noticed that it’s almost impossible to avoid being assaulted by the “clean”-musk funk of liquid laundry detergents, even if you don’t use them yourself?  It seems almost every scented detergent in the supermarket these days is turbo-charged with white musk, so if you’re around people who, of all things, wash their clothes, you’re probably going to smell it.) 

Anyway, getting back on topic, most of the perfumes I adore probably do have some amount of musk in them, and a chosen few have a rather pronounced musky component that I would say is part of the reason why I adore them. However, overall, I have never cared for fragrances in which musk plays a starring role (I prefer it as a bit player). The reason being, I dislike musk’s diffusiveness, or what I call its vague nature—and I hate, too, that most musk fragrances never live up to their hype. Musks are always hyped as being sexy; they are supposed to smell like skin, but to my nose they’re usually way too clean—too soapy or shampoo-ish—to smell sexy. And then there are those musks with slightly gourmand undertones: a faint dusting of cocoa that drives me insane because it’s so nebulous, I can’t decide if it’s really there; its ambiguity causing me to focus on it so intently, I actually get hungry (something which, oddly enough, never happens when I’m wearing an overtly gourmand scent, in which the notes announce themselves with a bow and curtsy). 

At their very best, musk-heavy fragrances smell cuddly to me. The musk blunts the sharp edges of the other scent molecules that share its space and also acts like a film—or filter—that softens the hue of more saturated notes, like tuberose, for instance. While cuddly might equate to sexy for some fragrance lovers, to me it’s not the same thing. Blame it on the fact that I am only five foot two and have spent a lifetime being referred to as “cute,” but I usually bristle at the notion of cuddly perfumes. (There are exceptions, of course: I do love me some Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb, which has got a fluffy cuddliness to it. Or L'Artisan Parfumeur Tea for Two, with its snug drydown.)  Much of the time, though, I prefer perfumes that have great presence and poise—or some kind of intensity—probably because those are the things that are lacking in both my persona and physical self. 

It’s a detriment, though, to avoid things you don’t like. If I had a dollar for every person who has ever emailed me asking for a musky scent, I’d be halfway to a bell jar of Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan (the one musk scent I am holding out hope for as being the animalic musk scent of my dreams. We’ll see; I hope to try it soon). So, as mentioned at the start of this ramble, I asked the kind and lovely blogger I was swapping samples with to send me musk-heavy scents, and she sent me a handful of them: a couple by Ava Luxe (Gardenia Musk and Oriental Musk) and the widely-loved Drama Nuui by Parfumerie Generale to name a few. I’ve been playing with them all summer, and while I can’t say I’ve become a musk convert yet, there is one that wowed me, that made me understand the artful way in which musk can act as an olfactory Japanese screen, bridging the worlds on either side of it and softening the view from one to the other:

September 1, 2009:

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