When Parfum d’Empire released a special, limited-edition perfume in late 2012, the blogosphere went into a frenzy. The niche perfume house is much respected for its high-quality fragrances that pay homage to different legendary empires in history, from that of Alexander the Great to Tsarist Russia.
Musc Tonkin, however, had the added benefit of not only being very rare (only 1000 bottles were made), but also a complete mystery because no-one knows what was in it! Its creator, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato (who is also the founder of the perfume house), refused to release the list of notes beyond the one obvious mainstay of musk. Instead, he asked that people smell this incredibly concentrated extrait de parfum blindly and without preconceptions. Though the public has seemed a little ambivalent (to me) in its reaction to the scent, critics adored it. In fact, the experts at CaFleureBon, the premier perfume blog, ranked it as #1 on the list of the Top 25 Best Perfumes of 2012.
One cannot begin to talk about Musc Tonkin without first explaining a little about musk. It is one of the oldest ingredients in perfumery, used for thousands of years for its supposed impact as an aphrodisiac. (According to Fragrantica, even some modern scientists “believe that the smell of musk closely resembles the smell of testosterone, which may act as a pheromone in humans.”) Beyond its sensuous underpinnings, however, it was also appreciated for its uses as a fixative in perfumery, enabling a scent to last longer and with greater depth. Thousands of years ago, musk came mainly from the perineal glands of a particular type of deer but, in recent times, animal cruelty concerns have prevented it from being used. In 1979, the use of deer musk was banned entirely.
As Fragrantica explains, nowadays,
[t]he term musk is often used to describe a wide range of musky substances, typically animalistic notes such as Civet, Castoreum, and Hyrax, or various synthetic musks, known as white musks, which are created in chemical laboratories. […] In perfumery, the term “musk” doesn’t always apply to a concrete perfume component, but rather designates the overall impression of the fragrant composition. Natural aroma of musk is very complex and usually described with so many contradictory attributes. It’s description may range from sweet, creamy or powdery, to rich, leathery, spicy and even woodsy. Most typically, the musk note is described as an animalistic nuance, with a lively and oscillating, often contrasting nature.
In the case of Musc Tonkin, the word “musk” undoubtedly applies not only to the “overall impression” of the scent but also to its main note, replicated through the use of various substitutes. As CaFleureBon, the premiere perfume blog, noted in its rave review of the perfume,
Marc-Antoine Corticchiato of Parfum D’Empire is one of the most uncompromising perfumers we currently have in the niche community and it is no surprise to me that he would take on the great challenge of making a musk fragrance without using proscribed ingredients. […] Of all the musks Tonkin musk was one of the most prized and highly sought after. Supposedly only able to be sourced from a Himalayan variety of musk deer the trip alone was daunting. M. Corticchiato wanted to create a facsimile of natural musk using the ingredients available to him and even more he wanted to create an image of the elusive Tonkin musk. This effort has succeeded…
It certainly has. The opening of Musc Tonkin is a pure blast of animalistic skank that is concentrated to such an extent that I actually recoiled at first. It is quite a painful ten minutes, but then the perfume settles into something much more manageable and, even, quite sexy.
If I were to join in the global guessing-game for Musc Tonkin’s notes, I would venture the following:
Top: Orange Blossom/Neroli, Gardenia, Ylang-Ylang, Peach, Cumin and, possibly, Coumarin and Bergamot. Middle: Jasmine Sambac, Damask Rose, Honey, Labdanum, and Patchouli. Base: Musk, Civet/Castoreum, Oakmoss, Tonka Beans, and, possibly, Benzoin.
The perfume is technically categorized on Fragrantica as a floral chypre, and there is no doubt that is correct. The perfume opens with a chypre’s usual notes of citrus and strongly pungent oakmoss with its characteristic dusty, dry, almost mineralized characteristics. But Musc Tonkin’s opening minutes go far, far beyond that usual chypre beginning.
Here, there is something that strongly evokes pure animal fat, skin, and hair. (Dare I say it, fur?) It’s a shockingly intense contrast to the accompanying notes that are both floral and fruity. The skin note verges on something like raw leather, and there is a faintly urinous undertone, too, along with that fatty note that conjures up rolls of white blubber in my mind. The citric notes feel like neroli — which my nose usually finds to be a slightly sharper, less sweet version of orange blossom — along with some other zesty citrus. It may be bergamot, though, here, it smells nothing like the Earl Grey note that is often associated with it. There also seems to be cumin, in addition to something that is earthy, extremely intimate, and smells greatly of unwashed panties. Honestly, I recoiled from the whole thing and felt a lot like the Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons just seconds before the dynamite exploded and the cliff dissolved from under him.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that animalic funk (which perfumistas often call “skank”) came from civet. It is a secretion from the anal glands of the civet cat. The funniest description I have ever read of any perfume ingredient came from Chandler Burr, the former New York Times perfume critic, who wrote about civet on his tour of the perfumery school of the Swiss company Givaudan, the world’s largest perfume maker. In an uproarious article entitled “Meow Mix,” he details regular people’s reactions to the ingredient and the descriptions given by Givaudan’s impish perfumer, Jean Guichard. I really don’t want to ruin the story, so, for our purposes, it suffices to say that civet can smell most definitely like unwashed underwear.
To my enormous relief, Musc Tonkin makes a sharp swerve soon after that slightly brutal few minutes. The floral notes take over, softening the animalistic tones which soon recede to the background. They never fade away completely — this is, after all, a pure musk fragrance — but they become the base for the perfume and not the solo aria. Instead, I smell very creamy, indolic flowers that I suspect are gardenia and ylang-ylang. The latter’s buttery notes are redolent of slightly banana-like custard, and they add a necessary softness to the pungency of the oakmoss and the intimacy of that funk. The leather note remains but it is no longer raw, pungent or rough as it was in those opening minutes. Softened by the florals, it is smoother and extremely subtle.
Soon thereafter, the perfume becomes sweeter. There are undertones that call to mind tonka bean and some faint woodiness that make me wonder if there is a sweet hay element from coumarin. But the greatest note is definitely from sweet peach, something which has been used in a number of fruity chypres from Guerlain‘s legendary Mitsouko to Rochas‘ Femme to provide a skin-like impression of intimacy. I’m strongly reminded of the latter, as well as Amouage‘s Jubilation 25 for Women which not only smelled very similar on me but which also led to an equally mixed reaction. The peach, cumin, chypre, skanky civet notes of deeply feminine intimacy in Jubilation 25 are strongly mirrored here. It’s quite erotic and seductive, and calls to mind the famous nudes from Delacroix or Rubens.
Marc-Antoine Corticchiato wasn’t far off in his description of Musc Tonkin on the company’s website:
A powerful, addictive, erotic aura… The scent of heated flesh, solar, feline, subtly leathery. This elixir reinvents in a novel, contemporary style, the most suave note in perfumery, worshipped for millennia: Tonkin musk.
More than a fragrance: an imprint… […]
Vibrant, facetted, surprising, at once nocturnal and solar, this aphrodisiac potion changes on each skin, the better to enhance it. A lick of salt for the taste of skin. A heady floral whiff to remind us that perfume links our bodies to the erotic spells of nature. A liquorous, mulled-fruit burn contrasting with a light, shimmering veil of powder…
A few hours in, as the middle notes start to take over, the perfume becomes even softer. The oakmoss has completely vanished, as have the fruity accords. Now, it smells like deep, dark, red rose with something that may well be Jasmine Sambac. The latter has a muskier, deeper, earthier element to it than regular jasmine. There are also hints of sweetness, as if from honey. The earthiness remains, though it is faint and tinged by more amber-like elements. It’s not resinous but hazy, as if soft amber has mixed with patchouli and musk to create a shimmering patina over the skin. It’s not a cozy, comfy scent, but a rather sensuous one. In its final hours, all that remain are traces of vanilla tonka and just plain soft musk.
All in all, Musc Tonkin had average projection on my skin and very good longevity. The sillage was very potent for the thirty minutes and strong-to-good for the first hour. Thereafter, the scent bubble became much less pronounced. The perfume became close to the skin about four hours in, but it didn’t fade away completely until ten hours had passed. I’ve read of much greater longevity — as would be expected from something that comes in the most concentrated form (extrait de parfum) — on those with less voracious, perfume-consuming skin.
As a whole, Musc Tonkin has gotten great critical acclaim. (The exception being, perhaps, Now Smell This (“NST”) where the reviewer seemed definitely unenthused and was reminded of floral “chicken manure.”) Still, I have the impression that average perfume wearers are a lot more ambivalent about the scent than the critics at places like CaFleureBon. It’s hard to explain but, from the comments on Fragrantica and elsewhere, it’s as though people feel they are expected to adore and admire the scent — when, in reality, it’s far from a huge favorite. In fact, on Fragrantica, many seem to find it admirable but “challenging.”
I obtained my sample from an extremely generous friend and fellow perfume blogger, the very astute, talented Scented Hound. He couldn’t help himself and ordered a full bottle, unsniffed, only to find it was a “grungey flower” that brought to mind Miss Haversham from Great Expectations. I don’t get Miss Haversham flashbacks — probably because I associate her with extreme white, dust, powder, and shriveled old age — but Musc Tonkin is definitely a “grungey flower.” And it is a flower that is “filled with erotism, lust and sensuality,” to quote the review from Lucasai from Chemist in The Bottle. Others, however, seem to have had a very different experience from all three of us (and the NST reviewer): some posters on Basenotes talk about very powdery notes, a “clean” scent, strong impressions of shampoo and soap, and calone – a very aquatic-melon note. It’s almost as if we smelled a completely different perfume!
I think fans of fruity, skanky chypres like Femme or Jubilation 25 will absolutely adore Musc Tonkin. So, too, will those who like very musky, animalistic scents. Though the bottle is limited-edition and only a 1000 were made, it is still available on the company’s website. There has also been speculation that, if the scent is a run-away hit, it may actually end up in Parfum d’Empire’s permanent line. I can’t speak to that but, if you are a fan of naughty, skanky or chypre perfumes and/or are a perfume collector, you may want to snap up one of those bottles before they’re all gone. I have no doubt that they will appreciate in value by an enormous amount.
For everyone else, however, I would suggest getting a sample first. Musc Tonkin is a beautifully blended and very artistically clever ode to the musks of old — but it is also challenging and, at times, difficult, especially in those opening minutes. It is not something you can just throw on to go to the PTA or to a business meeting. But, then again, it’s not meant to be. It is, however, meant to be powerfully erotic. To the extent that it replicated warmly heated flesh and funky intimacy, I’d say it succeeded in that endeavor.
I have no idea why Ihaven’t jumped on the bandwagon of those who bought samples/small decants of this perfume: I have at least several favorites from the line, I haven’t read anything bad about the perfume… So I just don’t know but for some reason these lemmings didn’t get to me in time. Now, reading your review, I think that maybe I was right? All the perfumes you gave as reference points didn’t work for me, including Amouage – which is very unusual for me. But I enjoyed reading the review anyway.
Do you think that perhaps you don’t like animalic, skanky notes? They’re not easy to take at times. To be honest, I struggle with them myself on occasion and most of all when the scent has an unsettling intimacy to its bodily notes.
Glad you liked Musc Tonkin, that’s a great review. and thanks for quoting me, I’m honored
I think I like skanky notes, so I’d be interested in trying this. I may have to get a sample and give it a whirl!
Surrender to Chance has a 10% off discount for Valentine’s Day, so check your mail box and then order a sample! If you end up liking the scent, you will have to move quickly to get one of those bottles before they’re all sold out.
Unwashed panties indeed! I finally tried this! As you mentioned, the opening is fleeting, but it’s definitely a lot to take in. I’m still early on in the perfume, but your assessment has been spot on so far! It’s now indolic flowers. As for similar scents, I far prefer Mitsouko. It’s more “spooning lovers in a post-coital bed” and less of Musc Tonkin’s approach to romance — shoving your undies in someone’s face after running a marathon.
Oh dear! But at least you just got the unwashed panties, and none of the really terrifying fat, skin, fur…. Thank God that part is fleeting, because the perfume definitely does improve by leaps and bounds later. It really does. I suspect this is a perfume that may take at least a few tries to get a little… er… immunized to and before one can really enjoy it. But, for some, that will never happen because this isn’t an easy breezy perfume to put on. That said, one has to applaud the fact that it *is* an intellectual, thought-provoking perfume which is definitely trying to make a statement or point.
Now I know why I removed Musc Tonkin from my STC shopping cart 🙂 and that helped me reduce the total damage.
Thank you for this review! I’ve had the pleasure to smell Musc Tonkin, both on paper and on skin (not my own though) as one of my fellow Stockholm perfumistas brought a bottle to a recent after work meeting we had. It’s a very interesting perfume to smell in a group as everybody reacts so differently to muscs. The guy who owned the bottle was not very impressed as he turned out to be anosmic to most of it. Some found the intro chocking, I imagine they might have the same genetic setup regarding muscs as you might have. I was somewhere in between, as I’m anosmic to some kinds of muscs but not all.
Because the anosmia I didn’t dare to spray any on, but when I smelled it, about 2 hours later, on one of the other guys I couldn’t help smiling. What I got was salty, skanky gherkins. Now, that’s a note I imagine can put all kinds of associations into peoples head 🙂 When I later told parfumistan at http://parfumistansblogg.se (who is a lot more experienced fumehead than me) about this she had a theory that Tonkin Musc might contain ambrette seeds, a vegetal ingredients that smells musky but also a bit like cucumbers.
Now I’m thinking I really should get a sample of this, I adore both Misouko, Jub 25 and Rochas Femme and anything that smells similar to those three has to be good. But I also wonder if it’s worth it if I’m missing out on half the scent because of anosmia. Hmmmmmmm……
How interesting about the anosmia! Also, about the possibility of the perfume containing ambrette seeds! I didn’t smell anything like cucumbers, but I know ambrette is often used to try to replicate the aroma of real musc, so it may very well be in there. I suspect Musc Tonkin’s ingredient list is probably about a foot long. LOL. It’s superbly crafted and made, but I constantly struggle with really extreme skanky smells so I have to admit, I doubt I would ever wear this – despite the seductiveness later on.
Since you’re only partially anosmic, it would be interesting to see what — if anything — you smelled on your own skin. I’m so curious now. I hope you will try to get a sample or give it a shot, at least once, especially if you like those other very seductive peachy-chypres with a skanky element. Being partially anosmic might be the best thing of all because, then, you’d miss out on that difficult opening! Try it, try it! For someone like you, it might be utterly perfect! 😀
I am so curious about this and also a little afraid. I don’t mind musk, but I wonder if I can muscle through the opening. But if I can commit through the opening of Tubereuse Criminelle (which I adore), then how much harder could this be?
I had NO problems with the opening of Tubereuse Criminelle….. I don’t know if that tells you something, but it may be a yardstick by which to measure things. BUT, if it’s any consolation, the opening of this one does fade somewhat soon. Not immediately, but soon enough. Then again, my skin consumes perfume voraciously and goes through the top notes very, very quickly, so it may be a little longer on you than on me. I definitely recommend trying this if you are curious and if you like slightly skanky notes. It’s superbly well-made.
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Oooh, I think you did an excellent job picking the notes apart! Musc Tonkin amuses me so much, and would amuse me even more if a higher percentage of people could smell the entire perfume. I wonder if people who are anosmic to musks are still potentially impacted by them on the pheromone/endocrine level?
Musc Tonkin isn’t something I’m likely to ever buy a bottle of, but I do like using my sample to layer Jasmine perfumes over… just in case whatever Jasmine perfume I chose that day didn’t have enough indolic skank. And then I don my sunglasses and an evil grin… thankfully, no PTA meetings in my life 😀
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