skunk oil in perfume

Let us spray

P atrick Süskind’s novel Perfume repulsed many with its description of 18th-century Paris: a world redolent of flesh, rot, manure and reeking stews, where even the king “stank, stank like a rank lion”. And yet the fragrance industry has never turned up its nose at the riper aspects of human, and inhuman, existence. Many classics contain more than a glimpse of “something nasty in the woodshed”. Roja Dove, author of The Essence Of Perfume, says, “The sense of smell developed in living organisms to help us find food, escape danger and locate a mate. There is no avoiding it: our attitude to scent is primitive, base, animal. When the Aids epidemic hit, we wanted all the sex washed away, but perfume is returning to its seamier side.”

So while scent may create an illusion of being a matter of hearts and flowers, what is alluring about it is frequently some feral underbelly festering away beneath. This is worth remembering at this time of year, “harvest time in the perfume world”, according to distributor Kenneth Green, when 50% of the year’s sales take place, most of them in the frantic few days before Christmas. Here are just some of the smells that may be lingering in your Christmas gift:

Cat’s faeces, whale vomit and other animal extracts

Many of perfumery’s most venerable creations owe their sensuality to the use of animal ingredients with a certain “spray” element: civet, a faecal paste extracted from the anal glands of the civet cat; castoreum, a leathery emission from the genital scent sacs of the castor beaver; ambergris, a briny and vomitous by-product of the digestive system of sperm whales; and musk secreted from the sheath gland of the musk deer have all been popular perfume ingredients. Then things become still more complex: civet may be cut with hair or – brace yourself – infant excrement.

Today’s animal magic mostly comes in synthetic guise, but the pungency in fragrances such as Chanel No 5 or Guerlain’s Shalimar is owed to this tradition. To experience a perfume in its most ballsy form, seek out YSL’s Kouros – a scent routinely compared to getting one’s member out in public, it brings hygiene-obsessed Americans out in hives, while sending British women quite deranged. And of course, you might one day actually stumble across a fix of the real animal stuff in a vintage flaçon and reawaken some bestial craving.

Men’s crotches, ladies’ bottoms and sex

The Aeneid teaches us that adulterers were once punished by having their noses amputated. In doing so they would be losing a vital sexual organ. Jacques Guerlain – begetter of the scents Jicky, Shalimar and Mitsouko – observed that his perfumes should recall “the underside” of his mistress, while Tom Ford declared that he wanted his Black Orchid to smell “like a man’s crotch”. Such flights of fancy are known as “knicker scents” and conjure the vagina, semen, even the anus.

The mid-century perfumer Germaine Cellier was inspired to create Piguet’s Bandit by tearing the drawers off models as they returned from the catwalk and burying her nose deep inside them. Vivienne Westwood said of her own Boudoir, “I want this perfume to smell of our sexual smells”; Roja Dove described it as “a knicker scent without the knickers”. Still more notoriously, Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan comprises a ripely resinous vegetal amber suggestive of female arousal.

Sperm-wise, we have Alan Cumming’s aptly named Cumming; Thierry Mugler’s Cologne with its carnal “S note”; and Sécrétions Magnifique by Etat Libre d’Orange, its packaging emblazoned with a spurting penis. The truly fixated should embrace Orgie, a graphic aroma created by Christoph Hornetz and Christophe Laudamiel as part of a 15-scent tribute to Süskind’s novel. An evocation of a copulating crowd, it positively spews semen. Those of a rear-ended persuasion, meanwhile, should consult Eau de Hermès, which revels in a certain sweat-spiced, masculine intimacy, while Roja Dove is proud that his “Roja Dove No 3” has a salty sensuality about its nether regions.

Armpits, saddles and sweat

Long before talk of pheromones, a little strategically daubed sweat was the great pre-modern aphrodisiac. Pomanders placed in the underarm were as much to capture scent as to disguise it, and many a jack-the-lad placed a handkerchief beneath his clothing by day with which to entrance his dancing partner by night. Most famously, we have Napoleon’s exhortation to Josephine, “Don’t wash” – although, of course, this was not just for the sweat.

Cumin is most frequently deployed to achieve this nasal trompe l’oeil. Dior’s Eau Sauvage achieves a provoking compromise between the clean and the unclean, using cumin to hint at perspiration. The spicy note in Alexander McQueen’s lushly feminine Kingdom feels grubby to some, enslaving to others.

Jean-Claude Ellena’s Kelly Calèche for Hermès has an intimation of unwiped saddle, while even the impeccably elegant Miss Dior has been compared to clammy armpits. However, if you’re after a real sweat-soaked humdinger, look no farther than Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Kilian, described by its architect as “bodies slick with sweat, hot with the odours of sexual favours”.

Rotten roses, decomposition and decay

An American department of defence collaboration to devise non-toxic olfactory weaponry found the stench of decay to be more intolerable even than that of vomit or burned hair. A forerunner of such tactics, a putridly flatulent stink called Who Me?, was devised during the second world war to be used by the French Resistance (who else?) to humiliate fastidious Nazis.

Perfumery exhibits more than a little penchant for fleurs du mal. Stella McCartney’s eponymous scent celebrates a rose on the turn, and Guerlain’s Mouchoir de Monsieur is a handkerchief soiled with rotting carnation stalks.

Edgy Etat Libre d’Orange’s Charogne, or Roadkill, is a plush perfume gone off the rails. But the ultimate paean to decomposition is Laudamiel and Hornetz’s Human Existence, a robustly repellent reek smacking of oral abscesses and vegetal decay. Apply to your wrist and you will desire only to hack it off.

Landscapes, buildings and weird science

Perfumery is awash with buzzwords such as “headspace”, “microabsolute”, “acquaspace” and “freezeframe”. These are computerised technologies that fragrance development companies such as Quest and International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF) use to capture the olfactory essence of previously elusive phenomena such as living (rather than plucked) flowers, landscapes and buildings.

The sky is not the limit for such approaches. In 1998, Nasa and IFF sent a rose into orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery to discover whether it smelled different in a gravityless environment. It did, revealing molecules that had not been present on earth (they were later incorporated into Shiseido’s Zen). French candlemaker Cire Trudon produces Odeur de Lune, devised by artist Philippe Parreno using Nasa lunar soil analysis. Its materials are a challenging fist of petrol, sulphur and ferrous residues. (Nasa itself employs a team of nasal-nauts to sniff everything from circuit boards to Tampax before lift-off, because in space objects can take on such acrid smells that missions have had to be aborted.)

Naturally, Hornetz and Laudamiel have propelled these strategies to new levels of audacity: the pair deployed technology to secure the scent of a virgin’s skin via a five-hour reading of the molecules surrounding a 15-year-old’s navel.

Cheese, fish and fruit cocktails

The 19th-century Japanese referred to western traders as “batakusai”, or “stinks of butter”, while the Brits found them fishy. Chinese courtesans avoided such pitfalls by gorging on foods laced with musk.

Food and skin also share attributes. Chocolate includes a “cheesy feet” molecule (its isovaleric compounds) without which it fails to taste of chocolate. Meanwhile, decomposing shrimp boasts indole, one of the constituents of jasmine in bloom as well as the coating on human pubic hair.

Clinique’s Simply reproduced the aroma of breast milk emitted through a baby’s pores, while Serge Lutens’ Arabie proves the Saturday night axiom that curry can make for an enticing bouquet. Dinner by Bobo, on the other hand, has struck admirers as a night of fruit cocktails and sweaty dancing (although its detractors say it smells of meat served by a malodorous waiter).

Alcohol has proved no less a spur: be it amaretto (Cartier’s Le Baiser du Dragon), rum (Guerlain Homme), grenadine (Jean Paul Gaultier’s Ma Dame), or absinthe (Annick Goutal’s mesmerising Duel). However, in these ascetic times, the most decadent scent may well be tobacco. Born-again puritans must immediately be presented with Caron’s Tabac Blond.

<p><strong>Hannah Betts:</strong> When you're at the perfume counter, buying something smelly for your nearest and dearest this Christmas, just don't ask what's in it</p>

The 6 Most Expensive Perfume Ingredients in the World

What Rose Petals, Sperm Whale Waste and the Musk Deer Have in Common

Wondering why some perfumes cost so much? The secret lies in the main ingredients. In this article, we unveil the six most expensive fragrance ingredients in the world.

The Ingredients

All in all: the rarer the ingredient, the more expensive it will be.

As you’ll see in this article, it can take literally tons of flowers (or their bulbs) to create the oils sold to the fragrance industry. Some of these flowers only bloom one month a year. Others have to be picked before sunrise. Almost all are delicate and have to be produced into oil immediately.

Those are the flowers. Some exquisite ingredients come from wood, wood that has to be infected with a particular mold.

And then there are the ingredients that come from the glands of animals or the guts of whales. Those are pretty hard to come by. We’ll cover this too (and find out if vegans can ethically wear musk).

Beware of the Fakes

If a perfume claims to be a rose perfume but is sold at Walmart, you can pretty much bet that there is little to no rose oil in it. Many cheap perfumes are made of synthetic fragrances created in labs to mimic the real thing.

The finest — and most expensive — perfumes are made of absolute oils, which come from certain types of flowers.


Jasmine and its synthetic version are used in more than 80 percent of all women’s perfumes. But the real stuff is expensive.

It takes approximately 2,000 pounds of jasmine flowers to produce one pound of oil and 8,000 jasmine flowers to yield 1/25 ounce of the absolute oil (the most precious of the oils because it’s so concentrated). Because of the enormous waste — er, amount — of flowers it takes to produce the oil necessary to use in fragrances, the price of jasmine oil is hi-i-i-iiiiiiiiiigh.

You’ll pay $83 for 1/8 of an ounce on the reputable Mountain Herbs website. Compare this to lavender oil, which costs $13 for 1/2 ounce.

What’s more, jasmine flowers are incredibly fragile and must be placed in special baskets to protect the petals from bruising. And processing has to be immediate.

Bulgarian Rose

Like jasmine, rose oil is found in most fragrances. But rose production is even more time intensive and therefore more expensive than jasmine.

While it takes 2,000 pounds of jasmine oil to produce a pound of oil, it takes 10,000 pounds of rose petals to distill one pound of the highly coveted rose oil. Hello!

The Rose Valley in Bulgaria produces 70 percent of the world’s rose oil. The picking season in this valley dates back more than 300 years and is very short. Workers (usually women) only have a few weeks from May to June to pick the flowers and they have to get their jobs done in the dark before sunrise. Each flower has to be cut individually (hello thorns!), laid in willow baskets and then taken immediately to a distillery.

No wonder it costs a whopping $223 for 1/8th an ounce of Bulgarian Rose absolute essential oil on Mountain Herbs.

Because of the high price of rose oil, cheating is rampant. Some rose producers cheat the system by diluting the oil with geranium or palmarosa essential oils, which contain the same chemical as rose oil. Some of these so-called “rose oils” are up to 90% geranium or palmarosa to 10% rose.


Now that you’ve been told about the vast quantities of rose and jasmine petals it takes to make oil, wait until you learn about the iris bulb, which creates an extremely expensive oil called orris.

James Craven, a perfume archivist at Les Senteurs in London, named Orris one of the top three most expensive perfume ingredients in the world. Why? Because it’s a huge headache to make the stuff. One needs one ton of iris plant bulbs that have been aged 2 to 5 years to produce 2 kilos (4.4 pounds) of essential oil.

Oud (or “oudh”) comes from the wood of a wild tropical tree called the agar. No biggie, right? Well, the wood has to become infected with a type of mold called “Phialophora parasitica,” which causes the wood to produce oud, a dark, extremely fragrant resin. Apparently, only 2 percent of agar trees produce oud, making it incredibly precious.

And therefore, expensive.

Due to its rarity, high demand, and the difficulty of harvesting it, oud oil is one of the most expensive oils in the world. At one point, its value was estimated to be 1.5 times of the value of gold, and it is sometimes referred to as “liquid gold.”

Fortune Magazine reports that the essential oil, used in perfumes, can sell for more than $5,000 a pound.

Oud has been popular in the Middle East for centuries and is enjoying a boom here in the West with more and more brands creating oud fragrances. But they all come at a price. Gucci’s Gucci Oud fragrance will set you back ​$137. Tom Ford’s Tobacco Oud, a favorite, costs $320.

While natural musk is one of the most expensive animal products in the world, the vast majority of musk produced and sold in the world these days is synthetic. Why? Because to get real, authentic, natural musk, you must first kill a male musk deer, which is an endangered animal.

Natural musk was used extensively until the late 19th century when ethics started to become a factor and people stopped the slaughter of these deer, which live in Nepal and the region surrounding it. Poachers still kill these deer, harvest their musk pods, which are glands located in the abdomen near the deer’s penis, and then create a grain from the dried-out musk pod.

So can vegans wear musk? Yes. Just not poached musk.


Craven told Bloomberg News in this video that Ambergris is one of the three most expensive perfume ingredients today. And no wonder, because it comes from the intestines of sperm whales. No kidding. And there’s whale fecal matter involved in this musky scent.

Find out what ingredients found in perfume are really pricey and why. From delicate flower petals to sperm whale waste, here are six of the most luxurious.