Under the Radar: Maria Candida Gentile Finisterre- An Aquatic of a Different Stripe

There are times when a new release comes out and it is just the wrong time of year to be fully appreciated. In October of 2013 one of these instances occurred when I tried the new fragrance Maria Candida Gentile Finisterre. I met Sig.ra Gentile at Twisted Lily as she debuted Finisterre. She shared with me some of the raw materials and accords she used. Every so often I have the opportunity to smell one of these accords which just illustrate what skill a master perfumer brings to their art. As Sig.ra Gentile passed me the marine accord she used in Finisterre I was struck by how photorealistic it was. Finesterre refers to Cape Finisterre a rocky peninsula in the Galicia region of Spain. Finisterre is a way station for pilgrims on the Way of St. James. They traverse the path along the water with the waves crashing against the cliffs. The marine accord Sig.ra Gentile is the smell of brine and wet rock as the ocean water sluices out of the honeycomb of rocks in between waves striking the cliff face. This single accord is turbulent and earthy. Even now over six months after encountering it I pull my little envelope of the strip with it on it to regularly re-experience it.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Cape Finisterre

Sig.ra Gentile wanted Finisterre to represent the worshiper’s journey along the coastline. To the marine accord she adds immortelle and pine to evoke the trees and brush growing on the path. All together this is an Atlantic seaside olfactory pastiche, it could be a still life in smell of this milieu. There is a spirituality and humanity I rarely find in a fragrance.

maria candida gentile

Maria Candida Gentile

Finisterre opens up with those waves crashing against the cliff face. There is a mix of ozonic notes, a hint of the seaweed left hanging on the wall, the fizz of the foam, and finally the mineral feel of the rock. This is unquestionably an aquatic accord but it is like no aquatic accord I have tried previously. Instead of sea breeze this is the power of waves and stone in constant opposition. From here the immortelle adds its unique character to the construction. If it wasn’t listed I would probably have thought this note was genet but once clued in the characteristics of immortelle are there to be experienced. Then the pine trees on the landward side of the path make their presence known as the sea breeze soughs through the branches. It is gently green adding a tinge of pine instead of a more focused version. The base is a mix of ambergris and sandalwood as we return to the ocean for the final moments.

Finisterre has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

finisterre

There has been no fragrance I have been looking more forward to wearing once the weather got hot than Finisterre. Over this past weekend I finally had the chance to do just that. As I suspected on a hot day Finisterre explodes to life, it was good in the winter but in the summer it is glorious. If you tried Finisterre back when it came out last fall make it a point to give it another try now in the season it was really made to be worn in. You will find what I think is the best aquatic fragrance released in the last five years.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle of Finesterre I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Perfume Mythbusters: Olfactory Fatigue and Coffee Beans

7

You see them on every perfume sales point counter, a small glass container full of coffee beans. Why are they there? Ostensibly they are supposed to provide an olfactory palate cleanser and help stave off olfactory fatigue. Except all of that is Perfume Myth of the highest degree as the nature of olfactory fatigue and whether coffee beans have any effect on the supposed saturation of your smell receptors is just nonsense.

Sniffathon

Let’s deal with Olfactory Fatigue first. Olfactory Fatigue actually has a high falutin’ name, Olfactory Habituation. Olfactory Habituation is the ability of your olfactory system to take any initially strong, and here is the important part consistent, smell and deal with it by taking it in as part of your normal background. It is why when you wear your scent of the day once it has settled down to the long-lasting consistent basenotes it has now started to attain that level that it gets pushed to the background. The larger molecular weight molecules especially seem prone to this and this is also why someone might say you smell nice at a point in the day you think your fragrance is gone. This has components of psychology as well as biology attached to it as well. Therefore Olfactory Fatigue probably does happen during the course of a day wearing one particular fragrance.

But when you are out sniffing new perfumes or on a sniffathon with friends you are producing stimuli left and right but they are different stimuli. Your nose has the ability to perceive infinitely and when you are sniffing things there is no limit to what you can sniff from a biological standpoint. From a psychological standpoint it is more akin to the kid in the candy store syndrome as you have a bounty of options and you just don’t feel like smelling one more strip. You can be psychologically fatigued but your nose is ready to go if you want to try one more fragrance.

alexis grosofsky

Dr. Alexis Grosofsky (Beloit College)

This is where the coffee beans supposedly come in. The sales person will hand them to you and tell you they will prepare you to enjoy the next fragrance after “resetting” your nose. Without any science to back it up does that even make any sense? A whiff of strong coffee beans “resets” your nose. What if I just smelled Thierry Mugler A*Men Pure Coffee wouldn’t having snorted some coffee beans distort that scent? Thankfully Dr. Alexis Grosofsky of Beloit College’s Department of Psychology has provided some science to prove that coffee beans have no effect on cleansing your olfactory palate. (The abstract of her research can be found here) She exposed subjects to three different drugstore fragrances. Then they either smelled fresh air, coffee beans or lemon slices. Then they were given the same three scents plus one new one and their task was to identify the new one. The result was the group of subjects that smelled fresh air or lemon slices had a near identical success rate of those who smelled coffee beans. Proof that coffee beans are a prop which carry no value whatsoever.

So what should one do when out sniffing and one wants to “reset” their nose? The answer is right in front of you and in the second paragraph. You are always performing Olfactory Habituation to your own natural smell. That ability to push your natural smell to the background sets the baseline against what any other olfactory stimuli has to compete against. If you want to reset your nose take a deep breath of a patch of, unperfumed, skin. This is the technique I use and if you’ve ever been with me I have an almost OCD ritual of sniff the strip, stick my nose in the crook of my elbow, and sniff the strip over again; repeat as desired. I have done this at some of the biggest perfume events and have sniffed as many as 50 scents in a day and the only thing I weary of is smelling bad perfume.

Next time you are out and about remember coffee is for drinking not for perfume plate cleansing.

Mark Behnke

Olfactory Chemistry: Polycyclic Musks-What Clean Smells Like

One of the best things about science is it is always evolving and chemistry is no different. As a synthetic chemist I am always looking for the next new reaction that will allow me to easily make the next new molecules I am interested in. What is true for me as a medicinal chemist was also true for the chemists who worked in the fragrance industry. In the post-World War 2 economy there were a lot of chemical by-products being formed and clever chemists were using them to develop new plastics and pharmaceuticals and, yes, aromachemicals. Along with new chemical techniques allowing a chemist to make another ring of atoms fused to the same ring used in the nitro musks the polycyclic musks were born.

galax phant

In 1951, the first polycyclic musk was synthesized by Kurt Fuchs and it was called Phantolide. It didn’t have a very strong odor but it had incredible stability and ability to stay concentrated even in water it became a natural to be added to detergents as this would stick to the clothes after washing. This was the main use of polycyclic musks for many years until 1965 and the synthesis of Galaxolide by M.G.J. Beets at International Flavors and Fragrances. As you can see above Dr. Beets used the new synthetic methods to take the two groups on the right and cyclize them. His hypothesis was if he kept the oxygen in a similar spacing as it was in in Phantolide he might make an improvement, and he did. Galaxolide retained the stability and properties that made it a good detergent additive but it now also had a more concentrated odor profile and could also be used in perfumery. Perfumer Sophia Grojsman would end up using it in a 21% concentration in her masterpiece Lancome Tresor in 1990.

fix cash

This would open the door for other chemists to find other polycyclic musks and when you make the simple change of making the five-membered ring on the left of Phantolide a six-membered ring you get Fixolide. When you completely change the ring on the right-hand side of Phantolide you get Cashmeran. If you want to smell what these three molecules smell like together The Body Shop’s White Musk contains all of these. If you do that you will understand why these are referred to as the “clean” musks as they evolved from their beginnings as laundry detergent odorants to key components of the “clean and fresh” movement in perfume.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Davidoff Cool Water- Aquatic Alpha

The aquatic class of fragrance has been so overexposed it has become a caricature of itself. When a man asks for something “fresh and clean” at a department store counter today he is likely to be sprayed with an aquatic fragrance. By the late 1980’s it was time for a change from the hairy chested powerhouses which dominated men’s fragrance and the perfume which would change things for over twenty-five years, and counting now, was released. That scent was Davidoff Cool Water by perfumer Pierre Bourdon.

Davidoff-Cool-Water

Back in the late 1980’s at the nightclub the fragrance of choice for most men was either Calvin Klein Obsession for Men, Drakkar Noir, or Ralph Lauren Polo. All of these are great fragrances and hold their own place within perfume’s timeline. None of those would be defined as fresh or clean. It is why when Davidoff allowed Pierre Bourdon to try and capture the smell of cool water it was a huge risk. It turned out the timing was just right as Cool Water became a gigantic success. That success caught most perfume companies flat footed and it was almost a year before Cool Water began to see any competition. In the overcrowded field of fragrance that fresh and clean aquatic perfume occupies it is surprising to me how much this original template has been used. Even more amusing is that there are few aquatics which can stand up to the original and every time I wear it I am reminded of what a game-changer this was. Now it can be found for less than $25 in many places.

PierreBourdon

Pierre Bourdon

Cool Water has one of my favorite openings of any fragrance I own. The first fifteen minutes is pure bliss for me as M. Bourdon takes a bracing lavender and twists it with coriander, rosemary, orange blossom, and peppermint. That inclusion of the last note has an effect of making the rest of it feel like an icy cold splash of water hitting you right between the eyes. It has a vibrational energy I just feel every time I spray it on. The heart notes are a variation on this, as green floral is again called for, but it is achieved differently as jasmine and oakmoss are the flower and the green. A bit of geranium bridges the floral and the green and sandalwood is made sweeter for the jasmine being present. If the top was fresh the heart is where clean comes into play and it has a less flamboyant way of making its point. The base notes are amber and musk and M. Bourdon keeps them very light in keeping with what has led to them. The first few time I wore Cool Water I kept expecting these notes to get more intense but M. Bourdon was once again creating the new trend.

Cool Water has 8-10 hour longevity on me and above average sillage.

Of every perfume I wear Cool Water is the leader for eliciting unsolicited compliments. I have had both genders and all ages hand out the coveted “You smell good!” to me when I am wearing this. It is a true classic which has stood the test of time and was inducted into The Fragrance Foundation Hall of Fame in 2009. I could rue the scads of imitators it has spawned but I wouldn’t want to have a perfume collection which didn’t include Cool Water in it. As we approach the summer months here in the Northern Hemisphere it is Cool Water’s season to shine in. You can be sure it will be brightening up more than a few of my summer days. For $25 you not only get a Discount Diamond you also get one of the true masterpieces of perfume.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Tom Ford 101: Five to Get You Started

The idea for this series came when I took a friend to the Tom Ford fragrance boutique at Bergdorf-Goodman. His eyes began to spin and he looked at me with the silent plea of, “Where do I start?” I realized that, as I did that day, I could help others navigate the mega-collections that are out there.

tom-ford

Tom Ford

Tom Ford, on the fragrance end, has been a mix of trendsetter and the ad campaigns have been provocative; needlessly provocative some would say. Do a search and you can make up your own mind on the PR side of things. On the fragrance side of things this is an overall very strong collection which is split into two different tiers. The Signature Collection comprises the mainstream releases and can be found at most of the masstige store chains. The Private Blend Collection is more exclusive and carries a price to match that exclusivity. There are currently 10 scents in the signature Collection and 29 Private Blends. Here is where I think you should start.

Black Orchid was the first fragrance release, in 2006, by the new Tom Ford Beauty. Tom Ford would join forces with Karen Khoury as Creative Directors on the fragrance side, a partnership which continues to the present day. Perfumers David Apel and Pierre Negrin perfected an exotic orchid accord at the heart. The top notes pierce it with a ray of citrus sunshine and it takes root in a base of incense, sandalwood, and patchouli. Marketed to women I have turned so many men onto this it is one of my favorite gender bender fragrances.

A year later the Private Blends would arrive and Tobacco Vanille would start a trend of ultra-rich tobacco fragrances. Perfumer Olivier Gillotin uses the leaves and the flower of tobacco to create a narcotic hypnotic heart. Spices pick up the dried leafy quality of the tobacco but a precision tuned vanilla paired with benzoin coaxes the sweet undercurrent to the foreground and makes this the ultimate comfort scent.

Harry Fremont

Harry Fremont

Grey Vetiver was released in 2009 as part of the Signature Collection and was composed by perfumer Harry Fremont. This might be the easiest to wear vetiver fragrance on the market. Citrus and sage opens into a floral heart of orris and nutmeg before vetiver, amber, and oakmoss combine for a fantastic finish. Grey Vetiver is one of my favorite suggestions for a workplace perfume as it is very interesting without being so extroverted to make people take unusual notice.

Perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux is one of the most amazing perfumers when to comes to taking a floral note you think you know well and illuminating things you’ve never noticed before. In 2011 he did this with jasmine in the Private Blend, Jasmin Rouge. M. Flores-Roux takes an unapologetically whole jasmine with all of its skanky indoles in place and surrounds it with clary sage, cardamom, and a gorgeous cinnamon. This transforms the jasmine into something completely different than I am used to wearing.  All of this is on a leather and vanilla foundation. This is as sophisticated as jasmine gets in a perfume.

There is no triter note in perfume than lavender it has been used and abused in too many cheap compositions. Perfumer Yann Vasnier completely rehabilitates that reputation with the Private Blend Lavender Palm. By using the two sources of lavender together and expertly blending them with clary sage, fizzing aldehydes, moss, and resins; Lavender Palm feels like that kid from the wrong side of the tracks who has become a big success. This has become my summer lavender staple since its release.

As I mentioned above the Signature Collection can easily be found at upscale department stores. The Private Blends are more exclusive but still quite widely available.

Disclosure: I purchased bottles of all the fragrances mentioned.

Mark Behnke

When It All Goes Pear Shaped- The Case of Penhaligon’s Tralala

One of my favorite British terms is describing a situation as having gone “pear shaped” which means it has gone terribly wrong, usually from good intentions. This phrase is particularly apropos when it comes to the latest release from Penhaligon’s called Tralala.

penhaligons-tralala

Penhaligon’s is a venerable old school English perfume line and in the last five years or so has really reclaimed a vital spot in the niche world. Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour has been creating new perfumes and reformulating some of the historical ones. It is in my estimation a great success story but the latest release is a good example of when a brand forgets what makes it special and attempts to reach out for a different audience.

For Tralala Penhaligon’s wanted to up their hipster credibility and the first step to doing that was asking fashion designers Meadham Kirchoff to act as creative directors. Penhaligon’s has scented their runway shows at London Fashion Week and so they had some familiarity with the line. The latest collection for Fall 2014 recalled prewar Parisian fashion. M. Duchaufour has a way with Retro Nouveau fragrances. Seems like a team made for success, except for the name. The name is where it all begins to go south.

last-exit-brooklyn-leigh

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn

In an article in Cosmopolitan announcing the fragrance Meadham Kirchoff alluded to the name being taken from the character in the movie “Last Exit to Brooklyn”. For those unfamiliar with that movie or the character Tralala, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, ends up in a horrific plight and it is something nobody would want to associate with perfume. If you need to know more check out the Wikipedia entry for the novel and under synopsis read the description for Tralala. This is where the attempt to reach for that desired hipster credibility fell apart around them. I am pretty sure they just saw a picture of Tralala like the one above and thought “Yeah there’s our poster girl.” Until people started mentioning this after the Cosmopolitan article came out. On both Now Smell This and Basenotes, Matthew Huband of Penhaligon’s PR department went into spin mode and released this statement; "Hello all, I’m the head of marketing at Penhaligon’s, We’d just like to clarify that the name Tralala is simply an innocent and musical expression which reflects the fragrance. The perfume is rich, whimsical and nostalgic in Penhaligon’s best tradition, as you’d expect.”

Except I’ve smelled the fragrance and “rich, whimsical, and nostalgic” doesn’t accurately describe it. The adjectives I would use are “dangerous, edgy, and retro”. Which is where the disconnect happens; this fragrance clearly is going for this danger as whisky, leather, and patchouli are not the ingredients of nostalgic whimsy. They are exactly as was stated the milieu of Tralala, the fictional character.

This is what happens when a brand forgets about its brand identity and heads off into uncharted territory. All too often a trap door is lurking and everyone involved falls through looking foolish. The most successful perfume brands know that too many missteps like this turn their customers off and I’m pretty sure Tralala will disappear with as little notice as can be managed. I hope that the next time someone at Penhaligon’s wants to go for hipster cred they just remember that isn’t where their success lies.

Mark Behnke

Bottles That Fascinate: Vintage Gucci perfume flask

I am not a bottle guy and many of you who know me know that if it smells good it could come in a Mason jar. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a pretty flacon. My friend, and fellow blogger, Vivian Kelly of The Fashion Examiner is much more interested in the bottle that holds the juice and from time to time she is going to talk about particular bottles and their significance. The series starts with a find at an antiques store. -MB

IMG_2499

The moment I spotted the vintage buff colored box at McGeorgie’s Antiques, I was hooked. I didn’t care what was actually INSIDE, I had to own that box. Similar to people who buy mass fragrance at counter, it was the packaging that pulled me in. It was mine, for a mere $25.

Fortunately, this Gucci box had something equally worthy inside – a 1980s oval GG flask on a chain that instantly reminded me of the vials Studio 54 partygoers wore in the E! Channel documentaries I never tire of watching.

I took the mini flask to the experts at Circa Jewels to verify its provenance. Buyer, Thuyvi Tran, confirmed that the item was an authentic Gucci piece, and determined that the item was very likely manufactured in the 1980s. 

We brainstormed about where we had seen an item like this before until we hit on it. “Kathryn Merteuil”, Sarah Michelle Gellar, wore a flask from which she sniffed cocaine to help her keep her frozen smile in place in “Cruel Intentions” [1999], a clever remake of “Dangerous Liaisons” [1988] that was set in the present day Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Thuyvi recommended I have the piece dipped in 18 karat gold to restore it back to its original glory; the process would run between $50 – 80.

Once that is done, I’ll have Jimmy at Golden Paradise [589 Eighth Avenue, NYC] remove the keychain links. The last step would be to string it on a 1950s plated gold chain purchased at Audrey Road, from owner Danielle Virrilli’s excellent vintage collection.

Once the piece is ready, my next challenge will be to find a fragrance I love enough to carry on me day and night. Suggestions are welcome!

Vivian Kelly, Editor-in-Chief of The Fashion Examiner

My May Day Fragrance: Jean Patou Vacances

The calendar tells me that spring begins at the end of March with the vernal equinox. Emotionally spring begins for me on May 1 or May Day. May Day in most of the world, except the US, is celebrated with wonderful spring traditions. May Queens and May Poles all celebrate the burgeoning life as the world begins to transition from the grey of winter into the verdancy of spring. In France, lily of the valley is given as a token on May Day; not to mention the fragrances this tradition has launched. For many perfumistas that means the great lily of the valley fragrances are brought from the back of the wardrobe to the front. For the tenth year I will be spending May Day in my favorite green perfume of all time, Jean Patou Vacances.

lilac

Vacances was released in 1936 by perfumer Henri Almeras who would go on to be the perfumer behind all of the early Jean Patou fragrances. M. Almeras is also the nose behind Elizabeth Arden Bluegrass although back then it was for Fragonard. For Vacances M. Almeras composed a fragrance to celebrate the advent of mandatory paid vacation. Vacances means vacation and I read that this was supposed to be a summer fragrance. I have to disagree as Vacances is the softness of new growth on top of the fragile temporary beauty of lilac in the spring. This is all on top of what would become M. Almeras’ signature musky base for much of the collection.

Before we get to that base we start on top with hyacinth and hawthorn. Hyacinth has an opaque purple quality and hawthorn is sweet with a woody character on the periphery. Lilac arises out of this as the purple becomes less translucent. Mimosa shrouds it in bright highlights. Galabanum adds the green but this galbanum is so silky soft while still containing the oomph it is a miracle of perfumery. The final phase is this skin accord M. Almeras is so good at by blending different musks together.

Vacances has 10-12 hour longevity and above average sillage.

Vacances has been out of production since its appearance as part of Ma Collection in 1984. When I spoke with Thomas Fontaine at Esxence earlier this year he told me he is currently working on reformulating Vacances to be released again. M. Fontaine has a deft hand with this kind of olfactory restoration project which makes me more hopeful for the new version of Vacances to be worthy of the name. When I wake up this morning my art deco bottle will be waiting for me to practice my personal rite of spring.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle of Vacances that I purchased.

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Sandalwood

6

For this installment of My Favorite Things I’m going to name my five favorite sandalwood perfumes. Sandalwood as a fragrance note is one of the more frequently used ingredients especially as a base note. Most of the sandalwood you encounter in these fragrances is synthetic. There original source of real sandalwood oil in the mid-20th century was from Mysore in India. It was sadly over harvested and is now protected. This caused perfumers to work with both synthetics and alternative sources of sandalwood from Australia and New Caledonia. Nothing has adequately replaced real Mysore sandalwood but the five fragrances below are special sandalwood perfumes on their own basis.

bois des iles

Chanel Bois des Iles– When Ernest Beaux originally created Bois des Iles in 1926 I am reasonably certain it was full of Mysore sandalwood. When Jacques Polge brought it back for the Exclusif line it is said there isn’t a drop of sandalwood at all in the reformulation. I’ve smelled vintage and the Exclusif side by side and accounting for age M. Polge has pulled off one of the great olfactory illusions, ever.

Diptyque Tam Dao– Perfumers Daniele Moliere and Fabrice Pellegrin create a sandalwood fragrance in three acts. Act one is sandalwood and rosewood which is liltingly fragile. The second act adds clean cedar to make the sandalwood equally delineated. Act three takes ambergris as a foundation to accentuate the sweet qualities of sandalwood. For many people this is the gateway to loving sandalwood as a fragrance.

Dries-van-noten-frederic-malle-3

Dries van Noten par Frederic Malle– Frederic Malle claimed in the press materials that this is the same species of sandalwood as Mysore but grown in a sustainable way. I have my doubts but perfumer Bruno Jovanovic keeps it simple using saffron, jasmine, and vanilla to frame the sandalwood gorgeously. Who cares where it came from?

Sonoma Scent Studio Cocoa Sandalwood– Perfumer Laurie Erickson wanted to make an all-natural perfume for her line and Cocoa Sandalwood was the first in this series. She takes New Caledonian Sandalwood and wraps it in spices and dusts it with arid cocoa powder. When people tell me natural perfume can’t have depth and richness I hand them my bottle of this to end that conversation.

Xerjoff Richwood– When I want my sandalwood straight with no chaser this is the one I reach for. Perfumer Jacques Flori uses real Mysore sandalwood at the heart and cassis, rose, and patchouli are present. Those three notes really just serve to draw out the complexity of the real thing. I think it is the single best sandalwood fragrance I own.

These are a few of my favorite sandalwoods but there are a couple I would have included if they weren’t discontinued; Crabtree & Evelyn Sandalwood and Amouage Sandal Attar. If you love sandalwood both of these are worth the effort of seeking them out through online sources.

Mark Behnke

Olfactory Chemistry: Nitro Musks- From Boom to Musk

4

There is no ingredient more ubiquitous, and important, in perfumery than musk. The uses of all of the chemical derivatives of musk have resulted in the expansion of the perfumer’s palette dramatically. From a chemist’s point of view the story of the evolution of the synthetic musks is a still developing chemical tale which has now spanned three centuries of chemistry and the inherent advances in new ways to put together molecules. It almost seems that with every new advance in chemistry it wasn’t too long before someone found a way to make a musk aromachemical with that new methodology.

musk_deer

Musk Deer

The reason for needing synthetic musks is because the natural source is a living animal, the musk deer. For many years these animals would be hunted and the glands used to secrete the natural musk would be removed from the animal, killing it. The collected tissue would be dried, then opened to harvest round fatty nodules which would be tinctured. To get one kilogram of these nodules it could take as many as 50 musk deer to be killed. Musk grains were worth twice their weight in gold and because of this value the hunting of the musk deer drove them to the brink of extinction until they were placed on the international protected species list in 1979. There is still a legal quantity permitted to be harvested but it is of such a small amount that perfume use is not high on the list for it.

musk 1

Even though harvest of natural musk wasn’t outright banned until 1979 the cost of it would cause early aromachemical experimenters to look for more cost-effective replacements. In 1888 the first synthetic musk was discovered but Albert Bauer wasn’t looking to make an aromachemical he was looking to make an explosive. There is perhaps no single molecule which has led to more rapid advances in chemical synthesis than tri-nitro toluene or as it is more familiarly known, TNT. From the moment of its discovery in 1863 organic chemists were looking to make changes to make a better molecule to go boom. Hr. Bauer was no different and as you can see in the diagram above he made one change to TNT and found something that did not explode, except in your nose. I am always amused when I read the 19th century chemical literature because contained within the experimental descriptions is how a molecule smells, and often, how it tastes. There was no OSHA back in 1888 to protect Hr. Bauer from himself. Because Hr. Bauer followed his nose he realized he might have found a different lucrative market instead of ammunition. By improving the synthesis he could produce what would come to be called Musk Bauer for about $500 per kilogram.

musk 2

Hr. Bauer would spend the next ten years perfecting three other musks; musk xylene, musk ketone, and musk ambrette. This class of molecules would come to be known as nitro musks. Each of these had different scent profiles and would be used as the predominant source of musk in perfume for almost 100 years. In 1921, Ernest Beaux used a cocktail of nitro musks, but primarily musk ketone, in Chanel No. 5. Musk ambrette is the key note in Francis Fabron’s original formulation of Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps, in 1948. Throughout most of the 20th century the number of nitro musks proliferated and were used extensively in not only perfume but soaps, detergents, and air fresheners.

The time of the nitro musks would come to an end in 1981 because of suspected neurotoxicity. For perfume there was also another reason as these molecules were very sensitive to light and under prolonged exposure to sunlight the nitro musks would decompose. It was probably the decomposition of nitro musks that has led to the concept of perfume “going bad”. As a medicinal chemist when I first looked at these molecules I wasn’t surprised as, by 1981, it was well-known in the pharmaceutical community that these molecules produced significant side effects in clinical trials of molecules that contained them.

Obviously that isn’t the end of the story of musk, just the nitro musks, and in next month’s Olfactory Chemistry I’ll pick up the tale as chemistry reacted and came up with a new class of musk.

Mark Behnke