As I was driving yesterday I opened the car window and was immediately hit by a familiar, extremely strong and yet not totally unpleasant odor: fecund, slightly sour, like a cross between burning rubber and wet cut grass - after a few minutes I passed a dead skunk on the side of the highway, the source of the smell suddenly making sense. As someone who used to work in the perfume industry and has a strong passion for all things olfactive, I starred thinking about the smells of nature, how they have been harnessed for modern perfumery and how in many ways they act as a sensorial bridge between us and our mammalian cousins. First, worth looking at a few to understand their origins.
Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color produced in the digestive system of and regurgitated or secreted by sperm whales. Freshly produced ambergris has a marine, fecal odor. However, as it ages, it acquires a sweet, earthy scent commonly likened to the fragrance of rubbing alcohol without the vaporous chemical astringency.
Castoreum is excreted from the castor sacs of the mature North American Beaver. Within the zoological realm, castoreum is the yellowish secretion of the castor sac in combination with the beaver’s urine, used during scent marking of territory. Both male and female beavers possess a pair of castor sacs and a pair of anal glands located in two cavities under the skin between the pelvis and the base of the tail. Today, it is used in trapping, as a tincture in some perfumes, as a food additive, or touted as an aphrodisiac.
The African Civet is an omnivorous generalist, taking small vertebrates, invertebrates, eggs, carrion, and vegetable matter. Like all civets it has perineal glands that produce a fluid known as civetone, which it spreads on markers in its territory to claim its range. Used in the perfume industry, “civet” was originally the name for the scent obtained from this species: Middle French civette, from Old Italian zibetto, from Arabic zabAd, civet perfume.
Hyraceum is the petrified and rock-like excrement composed of both urine and feces excreted by the Cape Hyrax, commonly referred to as the Dassie. After aging and petrifying over hundreds (if not thousands) of years, it is a sought-after material that has been used in both traditional South African medicine and perfumery.
A honeycomb is a mass of hexagonal wax cells built by honey bees in their nests to contain their larvae and stores of honey and pollen. It is used as an additive and fragrance for many products.
Deer musk is a substance with a persistent odor obtained from a gland of the male musk deer situated between its rectal area. The substance has been extensively used as a perfume fixative, incense material, and medicine, since ancient times. It was, and is still one of the most expensive animal products in the world. The name, originated from Sanskrit muṣká meaning “testicle”.
What Of It? Of course while many of these scents are now made chemically, for both conservational and cost reasons (after all, who really wants to collect whale shit…) their origins are fascinating. Tribal warriors and indigenous people still cover themselves with forest and animal scents to blend, mask themselves to unseen prey in hunting and to “become” part of the landscape. Even the modern redneck deer hunter covers himself with pungent deer urine so that he can get closer to his catch. The fact that these ingredients end up in fine fragrances and give them the necessary “edge” is yet another testament to scents ability to connect us to our limbic selves, allowing us to access our primal inner past lives. I love the fact that many of them are about marking territory - after all, if perfume is used to attract the opposite sex, make ourselves unseen (albeit in an invisible medium) and to signal ourselves to the world, what better way to do that than to burrow down into our evolutionary past and connect with our more deeply felt instincts?
I Am Curious about establishing connections to our limbic, “animal” selves, about senses and how they can do that, about scent, its mystery and power, about primal attraction, territory and our visceral sense of being.