Masque Fragranze Montecristo

Source: opserver.de

Source: opserver.de

Welcome to the jungle, as Axl Rose would say. Somewhere, perhaps in Paraguay, Africa, or Mongolia, a leather and fur-skin clad hunter called Montecristo stalks his prey through a jungle filled with tobacco plants and Cabreuva trees smelling of lemony florals. The trees are sprinkled with red chili pepper, cumin and costus root, then heavily blanketed in honey. The ground is a soft field of creamy brown from ambrette shrubs that waft a warm, vegetal, muskiness sweetness. They too are covered with honey. Scampering through the vegetation is the fluffiest, most adorable animal imaginable. He occasionally stops to pee on all the bushes, emitting a sharp, feral “YEOOWWL” in happy relief, as his scent swirls with the honey, spices and tobacco.

Source: godlikeproductions.com

Source: godlikeproductions.com

On his heels is the hunter whose heated skin and sweat stains the rough leather of his vest. The chase is hopeless, our little rodent is too fast, and the hunter goes home. Covered with honey, he’s dirty and skanky from his exertions, and his musky skin is stained with traces of tobacco and sweaty leather. As he sips a glass of rum, his wife sponges him off lightly, leaving a mix of cleanness and animalism on his warm skin, before she takes him off to bed to make love.

The adventures of Montecristo the Hunter are the adventures at the heart of the latest masculine, niche fragrance from Milan. Montecristo is an eau de parfum from Masque Milano, or Masque Fragranze as it is written on their website. (The house is better known as Masque Milano, so that is what I shall call them from this point forward.) The company is a relatively new, and was founded in 2012 by two close friends, Riccardo Tedeschi and Alessandro Brun.

Masque Milano founders. Source: their website.

Masque Milano founders. Source: their website.

They see their fragrances as operas in several acts, even calling their brand at one place on their website: “Masque Fragranze – the Opera of life in four acts.” They add:

With Masque Fragranze, Alessandro and Riccardo do not intend to create a myth, a best-seller, a one-size-fits-all perfume for everyone. Rather, they aim at creating a collection of perfumes with a soul. Each one unique. Perfumes to wear like a second skin … the perfume behind the mask. […] The fragrances of Masque are to be created with a soul, and the nose’s appointment is to give life to our scene. Hence, every scene will have “its” nose.

Source: Luckyscent.

Source: Luckyscent.

In the case of Montecristo, an eau de parfum which was released late last year in 2013, that nose is Delphine Thierry. On their website, Masque Fragranze describes Montecristo and its operatic screenplay as follows:

I – II
MONTECRISTO
In the livingroom of an old villa, in the Tuscan countryside.
It is the close of day.

Act I scene two
Every single element of the interior contributes to the warmth and reassuring comfort. The floor of old robust wood planks, aged and worn with the use. In the massive fireplace, coals are still burning. The comfortable couch is made of the best leather, once stout and rigid, and spotlessly tanned, is now soft and worn, and the colour is fading away. A deck of used playing cards abandoned on the coffee table. The tobacco leaves of the hand rolled cigar. A glass of rum.

Head Notes
Cabreuva, Ambrette Seeds, Rum

Heart Notes
Tobacco Leaves, Celery Seeds, Cistus [Labdanum], Benzoin

Base Notes
Golden Stone [Hyrax], Styrax Gum, Gaiac Wood, Cedar Wood, Patchouli. [Emphasis in bolding added by me.]

The Cabreuva tree. Source: purenature.co.nz

The Cabreuva tree. Source: purenature.co.nz

Two of those notes leapt out at me as something totally alien, so I did some research. As it turns out, those two ingredients play a big role in terms of Montecristo’s development on my skin, so I’ll take some time to explain what they entail. Apparently, “Cabreuva” is a type of tree found primarily in Paraguay. The aromatherapy site, White Lotus Aromatics, explains its smell and perfume uses:

The essential oil of Cabreuva (Myrocarpus fastigiatus) is a pale yellow liquid displaying a delicate, suave, sweet woody bouquet with a balsamic, floral undertone of good tenacity. […][¶] It is highly valued as a low cost fixative.

“Although very delicated and apparently faint, the odor of Cabreuva oil is often under-estimated in its effect of freshness and suave floral notes. In rose, lily of the valley, cassie, ambre and in woody-oriental perfumes, Cabreuva lends teancity and distinct notes of ‘precious wood’ with a background of slightly green, dry floralness, a combination rarely found in synthetic perfume materials.” Steffen Arctander

I have absolutely no idea what “golden stone” may be as an ingredient, and Google yielded nothing that applied, but the note appears to be what Fragrantica lists as Hyrax on its Montecristo page. According to its Hyrax definition entry, the hyrax is a small, adorably cute rodent whose feces have a super useful purpose in both ancient and modern perfumery. The Hyrax is the single, most important element in Masque Milano’s Montecristo, so bear with me as I quote from Fragrantica:

Hyrax via Fragrantica.

Hyrax via Fragrantica.

Odor profile: essence from the small rodent hyrax’s dried up crystalline fecal matter, combining olfactory facets of musk, civet and castoreum. Invaluable in a time when animalic essences derived by cruelty are banned. [¶]

Hyraceum, or Hyrax, is an aromatic raw material of the antique perfumery. However, men used this material much before they started to use it in perfumery. The African tribesman and people of the Middle East used Hyraceum as a traditional remedy for epilepsy, kidney problems, convulsions and feminine hormonal disorders. [¶] This substance is actually the petrified and rock-like excrement formed from the urine of hyrax. Hyraceum is fairly sterile, stone-hard material that also contains pheromones[….]

Photo: Fragrantica

Photo: Fragrantica

In perfumery, we use very old, fossilized, dry and stone-heavy Hyraceum, which is typically over hundreds if not thousands of years old. It gives an animalistic, sensual and deep note that feels like a combination of musk, civet, castoreum, tobacco and agarwood. Because of its characteristic structure, this material is also known as Africa Stone. Earthy, rich and resinous[….] Last but not the least, no animals are harmed in making this material. [Emphasis added by me.]

When I smelled Masque’s Montecristo in the vial, I was struck by the softly lemony, floral musk aroma and how it glittered with drops of golden honey. Taking a deeper sniff, I could immediately see the feral yeowl in the back, but the primary impression was a lemon-infused “slightly green, dry floralness,” as quoted in Cabreuva’s description up above. When you apply a small dose of Montecristo on the skin, that bouquet continues to be very dominant, though it is not the main player by any means. It’s quite another story, however, if you apply a lot of Montecristo; in my case, about 3 good smears amounting to more than 1/4th of a 1 ml vial, or about the equivalent of one spray from a bottle. This review will focus primarily on what happens in that situation.

Amouage Opus VIIMontecristo opens on my skin with a lightly floral, woody muskiness, but the fluffy, cute hyrax rodent’s yeowl is evident from the start. The animalic notes are urinous, dirty, skanky, raunchy, and every other adjective that you can possibly imagine. I was immediately struck by the thought of vintage Kouros, and, to a much lesser extent, Amouage‘s Opus VII. Parts of what I wrote in that review apply here as well, as Montecristo’s scent is

urinous, like animal droppings, but also musky with a faint tinge of dirty hair underneath and [lemony nuances]. […] [The] sharply animalic note — often described by some as resembling “urinal cakes” — makes vintage Kouros a deeply polarizing fragrance. I suspect the same will be true of Opus VII. … [As a whole,] it is a deeply woody-leathery fragrance that feels quite smooth, with a savagely sensuous heart at its base and something that seems almost like a velvety floral.

Both vintage Kouros and Opus VII contain costus, an animalic base created by Symrise. There is no such note listed in Montecristo, but hyrax was described up above as having an aroma that combined the olfactory profiles of civet, castoreum, and real musk, presumably of the original Tonkin deer musk variety. So, if you’re familiar with any of those aromas, or with Opus VII, then you will have a definite idea of the main note in Montecristo’s opening hour. However, I should add that the costus-like aroma in Montecristo is substantially weaker than what I experienced with Opus VII. There, it was so intense and sharp that I described feeling as though a lion had peed on me and then dragged me through the Wild Cat enclosure at the zoo. Montecristo is nowhere as extreme, thank God, as I found Opus VII well-nigh unbearable. In contrast, I truly enjoy every bit of Montecristo’s raunchy dirtiness.

Source: etshoneysupliers.

Source: etshoneysupliers.

Part of the reason why is because the animalism is much better modulated in Montecristo, but the main reason is due to its combination with the other notes. Sharing center stage with the hyrax musk is deep, potent honey. It infuses every part of the scent with a further animalic touch, but also with a rich sweetness that is almost indolic. My skin amplifies base notes, so I’m not surprised that the honey is so dominant, but I wish I knew where it came from. Cabreuva wood is described as being balsamic, not honeyed, so I’m quite lost. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the rum, though the note doesn’t feel liqueured to me but more like straight honey.

Lurking underneath it is a quiet spiciness that slowly grows more fiery. It takes less than 4 minutes for something to appear that distinctly resembles dusty cumin, followed by what smells distinctly like a fiery, red chili pepper. There is also a natural, vegetal, very warm muskiness from the ambrette (or musk mallow) stirring deep in the base. More noticeable from the start, though, are the golden leaves of tobacco which weave their way throughout the musk and feel drenched with the honey. Lightly sprinkled on top of the whole bundle is a light, boozy note of rum. The overall mixture is a plethora of warmth, feral sharpness, sharp honey, natural sweetness, tobacco, spices, and vegetal musk.

Source: thesportshole.com

Source: thesportshole.com

I find myself utterly transfixed by the animalic muskiness of the hyrax and, more to the point, all the different perfumes that Montecristo calls to mind. The urinous edge to the musk makes Montecristo different than Parfums d’Empire‘s challenging Musc Tonkin which, on my skin, opened with an extremely difficult aroma of hair, fur, fat and unwashed skin. Yet, there is a warmth underlying both fragrances, thanks to their shared note of ambrette. Montecristo feels like a more honeyed, tobacco-flecked, boozy, and ambered version of Musc Tonkin’s later, easier stages, once the fur and fat have died down. On the other hand, Montecristo is different in having the spices, as well as the lingering, extremely muted touches of the Cabreuva’s lemony, floral greenness at its edges.

Absolue Pour Le Soir, Photo pastiche: CaFleurBon

Absolue Pour Le Soir, Photo pastiche: CaFleurBon

At the 10 minute mark, the honeyed, urinous raunchiness grows stronger, as does the cumin-chili spiciness, thereby triggering similarities to other fragrances. On both occasions that I tested Montecristo and regardless of the quantity that I applied, the first parallel that arose was Absolue Pour Le Soir by Maison Francis Kurkdjian. Both scents have the same heavily honeyed focus, infused with cumin, leathered undertones, dirty musk, and ambered spiciness at the beginning. There are differences, though, as Montecristo has a chili bite (from God knows where), not to mention tobacco and booze, but no incense or strong florals. With a much lesser quantity, Montecristo’s more tobacco-centered bouquet reminded me of a distant cousin to Serge LutensChergui. A very distant cousin, as this would be an animalic, feral Chergui with spices, more amber, a thousand times more honey, darker woodiness, and no powder.

Special, limited-edition, rare bell jar bottle of Muscs Koublai Khan. Source: Serge Lutens Facebook page.

Special, limited-edition, rare bell jar bottle of Muscs Koublai Khan. Source: Serge Lutens Facebook page.

The main resemblance, however, is to another Serge Lutens fragrance: the magnificent, complicated, notorious Muscs Koublai Khan. If you apply only a small quantity of Montecristo, the musk smells similar, perhaps because the shared ambrette note, though the Masque Milano version is significantly sweeter with that powerful, animalic honey. If you use more, then Montecristo’s urinous, costus-like side is much fiercer, sharper, and rougher than it is in Musc Koublai Khan, not as smooth or refined. The more obvious, early differences are the tobacco, boozy rum, and that odd, inexplicable spice mix of cumin and chili pepper tonalities. Yet, once Montecristo’s opening mellows out and smoothens, especially three or four hours in, then the similarity to the Lutens is much closer. Perhaps the best way to sum up Montecristo’s first two hours on my skin is as a combination of Musc Koublai Khan, Absolue Pour Le Soir, and Serge Lutens’ Miel de Bois, before it eventually transitions into something more like Musc Koublai Khan mixed with lemony oud, dark resins, and leather. (We’ll get to those notes shortly.)

All this talk of Absolue Pour Le Soir brings me to another point: honey and skin chemistry. Honey — whether real or the side-effect of another note — is one of the trickier elements in perfumery. On some skin, it can turn screechingly sharp, akin to cat pee, plastic, or both. On others, however, it blooms. I happen to be one of the lucky ones, with the rather glaring exception of Miel de Bois. The one time I tested it was a rather horrific experience, though I plan on giving it a thorough, full assessment at some point in the future. My point, though, is that you may want to keep the skin chemistry issue in mind if you’re curious about Montecristo but don’t know how your skin traditionally deals with honey. And, as should obviously be clear by now, if you can’t stand any sort of animalic, dirty musk, or cumin notes in your perfumes, you will want to give Montecristo wide berth.

If the discussion of animalic honey and musk, costus, feral notes, rodent pee, cumin and the rest has you alarmed, well, Montecristo is a lot more balanced than you’d think. The perfume moves a bit like the shape of an “M” on a graph, where it opens softly, builds up mere minutes later, and feels pretty ferocious after 15 minutes. Yet, even at that point, changes are occurring to soften the impact, counter the animalic “Yeowl” that I keep referencing, and start the transition downwards to something much more approachable in nature. A quarter of an hour in, a soft, almost powdered creaminess stirs in the base. It’s lovely, reminding me of white honey beeswax butter or cream. Slowly, very slowly, it helps to take the edge of the urinous raunchiness, diffusing its slightly acidic sharpness. Also making its first appearance is a dried woodiness that, at lower doses of Montecristo, had a distinctly oud-like aroma.

Photo: Samuel S.  Photo-men.com

Photo: Samuel S. Photo-men.com

It takes exactly 28 minutes for Montecristo to lose some of its ferocity on my skin, and to begin the slow transition to a smoother, less aggressively sharp fragrance. All the same elements are there as in the opening, but the raw, hard edges are being coated with a honeyed creaminess and satiny mellowness. I really think the ambrette plays a large part in all this, as its musky aroma is of the ultra-smooth, vegetal, plush variety. For me, its warmth is akin to the real scent of human skin, but clean, warm, skin the way it after a long, deep nap under a thick blanket. Montecristo’s musk isn’t at that stage yet, but it does show the first touches of a baby-soft, human fuzziness about it.

If I’m not talking loads about the tobacco, it’s because it really wasn’t the dominant note on my skin. In neither of my two tests of Montecristo did it trump the musk. In fact, the tobacco felt significantly weaker when I applied a greater quantity of Montecristo, as the honey and animalic musk were amplified.

At the end of the first hour, Montecristo turns softer in weight, density, and silage. The perfume is now a cloud radiating 2-3 inches above the skin, as soft as a baby’s chenille blanket in feel. It is primarily a warm, vegetal, sweet musk that really evokes for me the feel of human skin. It is still urinous and animalic, but the dirty side is much softer, more muted and smoother. With every passing quarter-hour, the urinous edge seems to take another tiny step back to the sidelines to join the tiny dabs of tobacco, boozy rum, and that rather nebulous whisper of woodiness.

Photo: Samuel S. via trendhunter.com

Photo: Samuel S. via trendhunter.com

As a whole, the musk feels much more velvety, deep, and creamier than it is in Serge Lutens’ Muscs Koublai Khan (“MKK“). What I can’t seem to decide is whether the note is more or less feral than it is in the Lutens at a similar stage. In other words, the degree of pee. (The MKK was never fecal on my skin as it is on some people.) At various points in my notes, I wrote that Montecristo’s urinous yeowl softens much, much sooner than the same note does in MKK. On my skin, MKK has a quieter urinous, dirty, musky note at the start, relatively speaking, but it seems to last much longer than it does with Montecristo. In fact, when I wore MKK this summer, the feral bits were very sharp on me at times as well.

Yet, every time in the first few hours that I think that Masque’s Montecristo has settled into something not as animalic, something that is closer to the fuzziness of MKK’s later stages on my skin, something happens to make me change my mind. The urinous edge fools me, repeatedly, into thinking that it has receded. To be clear, it lasts almost to the very end, but I’m talking about how dominant it is, how long it takes for it to feel less of a dominating presence, and the time it takes for Masque’s Montecristo to approach the softer, “human skin” stage of the Lutens. All I can firmly say is that, as a whole, the musk in the Lutens feels thinner, lighter, and without the creaminess that I sense in Montecristo.

At the 90 minute mark, Montecristo turns drier and darker. The honey is much less dominant, and is folded into the musky base as a whole. The urinous edge is more muffled in feel, as are the tobacco and cumin. The rum and chili pepper have completely vanished. In contrast, the abstract woodiness starts to rise to the surface, along with that growing flicker of something oud-like. After 2.5 hours, Montecristo is a soft, animalic, vaguely dirty, sweetened scent with great warmth, ambrette musk, and leathery accents, all atop an amorphously woody base. Only the lightest touch of honey and tobacco lurk in the background. The perfume also hovers just above the skin at this point, and very weightless in feel.

Leather Tanning in Morocco. Photo by Burrard-Lucas via http://www.burrard-lucas.com/photo/morocco/leather_tanning.html

Raw leather being tanned in Morocco. Photo by Burrard-Lucas via http://www.burrard-lucas.com/photo/morocco/leather_tanning.html

What is interesting throughout Montecristo’s life is the leather undertone. It is never full-on or strongly black leather, but, rather, an impression resulting from the hyrax’s castoreum-like side. And its prominence fluctuates quite sharply. In the opening minutes, Montecristo has a definite whiff of something that made me think of the raw, uncured, animalic hides in Montale‘s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie. The note was quickly subsumed with the general, costus-like, urinous swirl of dirty animalism, but the leather was a definite subtext in the first hour. By the end of the 3rd hour, however, the leather feels unbelievably supple, lurking under the warm muskiness in a way that simply magnifies the latter. The softened, leathered castoreum also makes the warm musk feel incredibly velvety, evoking the feel of heated skin, perhaps after sex. A few hours later, however, the leather regains some rawness, but it’s a rather fluctuating dance back and forth. In all cases, the leather is only an undertone on my skin, and a rather quiet one at that.

Source: imgfave.com. Artist or creator unknown.

Source: imgfave.com. Artist or creator unknown.

Montecristo is beautifully blended, and the notes feel quite seamless at times. I think that explains, in part, the variegated nature of the leather, but it’s not the only note that fluctuates. Once the intensity of the honey dies down, the cumin reappears as well, but this time it’s quite different. Instead of smelling merely like dusty powder in some Moroccan souk, the cumin smells lightly dirty. I don’t want to say “body odor,” because I don’t want to give the impression that the note smells like sweaty, hairy armpits. It doesn’t. It also doesn’t carry a stale, fetid, aroma of someone who hasn’t washed in days. I swear, it really doesn’t. But, yes, there is no getting around the light, earthy whiff of a body scent. God, I can see half of you stampeding for the door by now, as this is probably the very last straw in this whole Montecristo saga. If it makes any difference, it’s all very subtle. I mean it quite sincerely when I say that, if you can handle the cumin note in Absolue Pour Le Soir, you should have no problems with it here.

Montecristo continues to turn darker and woodier. By the end of the 5th hour, the Cabreuva’s lemony touches return, though they now feel underscored by a very fragrant, balsamic, dark resin. The slightest touch of something nebulously floral lurks at the edges, but much more noticeable is the almost agarwood-like nuance to the wood. As a whole, Montecristo increasingly smells of a lemony, slightly oud-like, vaguely dusty, resinous woodiness infused with a warm musk that is simultaneously vegetal and slightly urinous. The honey has been folded within; the tobacco briefly returns before flitting away again; and the leather fluctuates back and forth in strength, smoothness, and prominence. Montecristo remains weightless in feel, and continues to hover just above the skin, requiring little effort to detect its nuances if you bring your arm near your nose.

Source: Zavvi.com

Source: Zavvi.com

It takes about 9 hours from the opening for Montecristo to turn into truly fuzzy musk scent. It is soft, warm, and sweet with just a slight powderiness underlying it. The texture is lovely, as it feels as soft as a petal. Now, finally, it becomes harder to detect, though Montecristo had turned into a skin scent somewhere near the end of the 7th hour. Montecristo turns more and more into the scent of sweetened, slightly heated human skin with a tiny touch of powderiness. It finally fades away on the same note, just over 14 hours from the start. I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of its dirtiness and multi-layered complexity, finding its fluctuating, morphing levels to reflect great technical skill, and I remained fascinated with its nuances from start to finish.

There are already a handful of reviews for Montecristo, mostly from people who are drawn to this sort of fragrance to begin with and, as such, they are all very positive. Though I’ll get to the blog reviews shortly, I actually think the forum analysis from places like Basenotes and Fragrantica provides more useful, detailed or comparative information. One early Basenotes thread lovingly called Montecristo a “skanky, little monster,” and the poster, “Alfarom,” talked about Serge Lutens’ MKK:

The opening is literally arresting. A skank overload provided by a thick amount of hirax and other animalic musks. It immediately brings to mind of the fecal opening of MKK but whereas the Lutens morphes into a floral rosey thing, Montecristo gets all dark and moody with tobacco, resins and some of the darkest patchouli ever. Boozy / balmy notes lurk in the back providing some smoothness to an otherwise extremely challenging fragrance. The result is fascinating to say the least. The fragrance is pervaded by a warm animalic vibe throughout. Sort of a mash up between Lubin’s most oriental offerings and heavy animalic musks fragrances a-la Musk Tonkin and MKK.

On Fragrantica, there is similar talk about MKK. One commentator, “deadidol,” had a very different experience than I did with Montecristo, and you may find his wonderfully detailed review to be quite helpful. It reads, in part, as follows:

This has a super dirty opening of hyraceum and ambrette seed that could give MKK a run for its money. But whereas MKK is very civet-based, this leans more toward the sweatier side of things and will certainly challenge those who don’t fair well with hard-core musks. However, within ten minutes, it takes a massive detour into an unconventionality that’s wildly evocative and decidedly convincing in the associations it brings up.

Rum via cafekeyif.com.au

Rum via cafekeyif.com.au

There’s a booze note (rum), but it’s more like the smell of booze that’s oozing from the pores of someone who downed the bottled a few hours ago—it’s got an unnerving filtered feeling to it. […] There are some relatively undefined wood notes, but combined they smell more like old bookshelves and furniture; and there’s something here that gives the impression of an extinguished fire as well. Imagine a poorly ventilated space that’s been coated with a layer of sticky, smoky, charcoal-type residue—a slightly sweet ashy scent, but mixed with dust that’s sat for days to produce a not unpleasant staleness that’s completely comforting. Frankly, it’s quite hard to perform a technical dissection of Montecristo as it’s evoking space more than individual notes, and it’s doing so phenomenally well.

So, this is a dusty, rustic, vaguely reminiscent scent that feels as though you’re looking into its world through an opaque piece of glass. Everything in it seems peculiarly distanced, yet it all comes together in a sublime way. I don’t know how wearable this would be for most people as it almost smells stagnant, but it’s hugely compelling and surprisingly cozy. If you’ve ever been drawn to parchment type scents (or perhaps the smell of old bookstores), or you like the challenge of a good ambrette seed musk, this is absolutely sui generis, and for me, it’s the best scent of 2013 hands-down.

There are female commentators on Fragrantica who seem to like Montecristo too, though there are only a handful of them thus far. One of them initially wrinkled her nose and thought, “this is way too much” but further testing changed her mind: the “more I test “Montecristo”, the more I adore it.” She calls it “a superb example of a true niche perfumer” that is “complex and dramatic.”

Source: Dailymail.com from Tradewinds Realty.

Old trapper’s hunting cabin. Source: Dailymail.com from Tradewinds Realty.

In terms of blog reviews, one of the more detailed ones comes from Fragrantica itself, where Serguey Borisov talks at length about the hyraceum and has a very evocative description of Montecristo. The piece is long, so I’ll quote the more relevant parts beginning with the images which Montecristo evokes for him. As you will note, he had a similar experience to “deadidol” on Fragrantica in terms of the perfume’s dusty woodiness:

An old clay mug with rum or whiskey stands on the table, an old sagging leather chair with cracked, scuffed and greasy arms, an old dog lying on the bearskin in front of it. Animal head trophies are on the wall—heads with the fangs, horns and ears. An old hunting rifle is positioned next to them. The entire room smells of animal musk, clove buds and dusty mineral particles which are reminiscent of gold or diamonds.

This is what the home of a troubled man smells like. The man had to be a priest and a soldier, a hunter and his prey, a miner and a night watchman. He lived so many different lives, with every single one’s own story written on his face. […]

Montecristo has a special animalic aura. It’s goaty smell is similar to costus or Symrise’s animalic base. [Hyraceum’s] scent is elegant and reminiscent of musk, castoreum, oud and civet. […][¶] It’s a wild and animalic nuance, it’s uncivilized and dangerous and as vague as dark shadows in a nocturnal forest. Wild, intense and smelly aromas make Montecristo just as dirty and brutal as Oud Cuir d’Arabie by Montale, but more bitter and more mineralic. The opaque brown formula, the scent of goat, resins and the bitterness of patchouli—that’s what distinguishes Montecristo from conventional incense perfume. Plus, it was strengthened with Iso E Super and musk.

I truly don’t detect ISO E Super in Montecristo, and I’m usually a weathervane for the bloody note. If it’s there, I don’t think it’s responsible for that vaguely oud-like smell to the wood. Serguey Borisov says the hyrax can be reminiscent of oud, so that’s the probable cause. I don’t detect any of ISO E Supercrappy’s usual troublemaker aromas; not its “pink rubber bandages,” its lemony-woody buzz, its antiseptic notes, or its basic, simple, dry pepperiness. There is also nothing which gives me a searing headache, so if there is ISO E crap in Montecristo, it has to be the most infinitesimal drop around.

The Non-Blonde loved Montecristo passionately, calling its complexity “mind boggling” and writing, in part:

I can’t imagine the reaction of an average perfume buyer to Montecristo by new(ish) perfume house Masque Milano. I just can’t. This is not the perfume to wear in close quarters with the uninitiated, because you will get The Look, I guarantee.

There are too many perfume brands and too many perfumes on the market. Very few of them offer anything new, even fewer come up with anything exciting that gets added to my “Must.Get.Bottle.Now” list. I just ordered my third sample set of Masque Milano perfumes, but I already know that Montecristo is going to be in my life from now on. Because it’s that good. That sexy. That fascinating.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, Montecristo is an unabashedly animalic perfume. The main culprits are two: ambrette seed with its expensive but unwashed musky vibe, and hyrax or hyraceum, which is basically fossilized pee of a cute rodent (completely cruelty free). The complexity of this animalic combination is mind boggling. It reminds me of really good civet, gorgeous intimate musk, the dirtiest part of exquisite oud, and a general air of debauchery. […] Montecristo is, indeed, dirty and slightly sweaty (cumin isn’t listed anywhere, but I swear I can smell traces about four hours into its wear-time) , it’s also warm, very boozy, leathery and intimate. It holds you close and tells you its interesting life story all through the night [….][¶] Montecristo is still there the next morning.

I share her opinion on the fascinating nature of Montecristo. Even more so, on how it would make average perfume buyers run screaming for the cliffs, then jump off. (I could see the survivors later burning any clothing that Montecristo happened to touch.) Montecristo is probably not a perfume even for someone well-versed in niche perfumery, unless they have a definite taste for animalic, dirty, leathered, goaty scents that skew very masculine. In short, this is a perfume for those with very specific tastes. I personally would wear it if I owned it, without a doubt. But I am hesitant as to whether I would ever buy it for myself.

Source: Tumblr. Original source or photographer unknown.

Source: Tumblr. Original source or photographer unknown.

The reason is probably not what you would expect: it’s Hard Leather. The LM Parfums‘ animalic creation is my absolute favorite fragrance in recent years, and nothing is going to budge it from being at the very top of my list. If I have the need for honey-covered animalic, raunchy leather with muskiness, spice, oud and woodiness, I’ll turn to my precious bottle of Hard Leather. The perfume is more obviously leathered, has much more oud, and massive amounts of incense as well. Much more importantly, it has heaping mounds of almost impossible-to-find, genuine Mysore sandalwood from start all the way through to its gorgeous finish. The animalic notes in Hard Leather are much smoother, more refined and better calibrated than the Montecristo; the Masque Milano fragrance has a significantly more feral core, is much more urinous, and is also much sweeter. Plus, can I repeat my swoon over Hard Leather’s heaping, walloping, galloping amounts of genuine, rare Mysore sandalwood? Not a nary of a whiff of that in Montecristo.

For me personally, Hard Leather is also more versatile and easier to wear. Its dirty raunchiness is much more limited and refined in scope, so I would have no problems wearing it every day if it were not so expensive. In contrast, Montecristo is much more focused on the feral hyrax from start to finish. When you throw in the powerful role of the honey in Montecristo, the result is a scent that is best suited for special occasions, not everyday ones. Then again, I also think that way about Absolue Pour Le Soir, which is another fantastic scent, so that isn’t a slam.

If Hard Leather didn’t exist, I would absolutely consider Montecristo because I really think that it’s a super fragrance. It has phenomenal longevity, really good sillage, complexity, depth, and sexiness. It’s also not too bad in price: 100 ml of eau de parfum costs $215 or €150, which is substantially less than Hard Leather. So, if you ever wanted a mix of Absolue Pour Le Soir (APLS)  and Muscs Koublai Khan (MKK), with a small shout-out to Opus VII from the costus-like raunchiness and a nod to the rawness of Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie, then you should give the Masque Milano fragrance a sniff.

Otherwise, I would advise extreme caution. I have to emphasize as vociferously as I can that Montecristo is not for everyone. In fact, I think a lot people would struggle with it, unless they are APLS, MKK, and Hard Leather fans. I also think that Montecristo skews highly masculine. Women who don’t appreciate skanky, dirty, leathered or masculine fragrances will probably be repulsed by the urinous aspects evident here. For this perfume more than for most, skin chemistry is also going to be paramount. It’s really going to determine just how extreme some of the nuances are on your skin, from the hyrax’s dirtiness to the animalic honey and cumin.

If all goes well, hopefully, you’ll be taken to the jungle with Montecristo the hunter. If it doesn’t, don’t say that I didn’t warn you. 

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Montecristo is an eau de parfum that comes in a 100 ml bottle that costs $215 or €150. In the U.S.: you can buy Montecristo from Luckyscent, along with a sample. I could not find any other vendors. Outside the U.S.: Montecristo is available at First in Fragrance and Essenza Nobile, both of which sell samples. In the Netherlands, it is sold at ParfuMaria for €149. I couldn’t find any other retailers, especially in the UK. Masque has a website showing Montecristo, but it has no e-store and I could see no vendor list either. Samples: Surrender to Chance carries Montecristo starting at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial.

Perfume Review – Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khan: Animal Magnetism

Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great in "The Scarlet Empress."

Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great in “The Scarlet Empress.”

Catherine the Great on horseback, riding to meet a young Cossack officer at a secret rendezvous where the lovers will tangle under Siberian furs before a roaring fireplace. Henry VIII seducing Anne Boleyn on more piles of fur on a winter’s night at a hunting lodge. The Sun King, Louis XIV, and one of his mistresses at Versailles, a palace redolent with the smell of the human body covered by powdered roses. The memory of riding my horse on a warm day, and the subtle aroma of his lightly musked, heated, muscular neck, mixed with the smell of the leather harness and saddle.

Special, limited-edition, rare bell jar bottle of Muscs Koublai Khan. Source: Serge Lutens Facebook page.

Special, limited-edition, rare bell jar bottle of Muscs Koublai Khan. Source: Serge Lutens Facebook page.

Those tangled thoughts and images are what cross my mind when I wear Muscs Koublaï Khan from Serge Lutens. Muscs Koublaï Khan (or “MKK” as it is often referred to for short) is a fragrance that always conjures up royalty in days long gone, along with fur and the memory of horses. It is an eau de parfum that I’d always wanted to try for very personal reasons. The tale in my family is that one side is a direct, linear descendant from the legendary Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongol hordes and the terror of both the Asiatic and the European plains. I’ve never bothered with genealogy and know nothing of its rules, so who knows how true it is, but I’ve always loved the story. So, a fragrance inspired by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan (or, as Serge Lutens writes it, Koublai Khan)? Clearly, it was something to try.

Regular bell jar of MKK, available for purchase today.

Regular bell jar of MKK, available for purchase today.

Then, I started reading about the famous Lutens creation — and I stopped in my tracks. Perhaps few fragrances come with such baggage. Horrified reactions abound on the internet, reaching such a crescendo of revulsion that any sane person would hesitate. From tales of crotch sweat, testicular sweat, camel feces, unwashed taxi drivers, and anal odor, to shuddering comments about how it would be socially unacceptable to go out in public reeking of Muscs Koublai Khan, the perfume has one of the most horrifying reputations around. I got a sample months ago but, every time I went to pick it up, I would think about “camel balls,” and I promptly put it back down again.

Imagine my disbelief, then, when I actually tried Muscs Koublai Khan and thought: “this is IT??? What’s all the fuss about?!” More to the point, I loved it. While I would never — ever — recommend MKK to someone just starting their perfume foray into niche brands or to anyone who isn’t a fan of animalic scents, I definitely think people who love musky Orientals and have some perfume experience should ignore the perfume’s reputation and give Muscs Koublai Khan a try.

The 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle of MKK available.

The 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle of MKK available.

Muscs Koublai Khan is an eau de parfum that was created with Lutens’ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 1998. Though it was originally a Paris Bell Jar exclusive, American perfume buyers can easily find it in a regular 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle that is easily available and sometimes discounted online. In Europe, however, Muscs Koublai Khan is still limited to the Bell Jar format that is exclusive to Serge Lutens’ Paris headquarters, though I did find the smaller bottle available at one French online retailer.

Le Grand Serge” describes Muscs Koublai Khan on his website as follows: 

Valuable furs were spread for the Emperor of China to tread on, muddy boots and all.

Ultra-animalic musks and all kinds of tanned hides make a sensational debut in this fragrance. Pay no attention to their aggressiveness: once on the skin, they retract their claws in favor of padded paws.

Fragrantica classifies Muscs Koublai Khan as a “chypre,” which I think is odd, and says that the notes consist of:

civet, castoreum, cistus labdanum, ambergris, Morrocan rose, cumin, ambrette seed (musk mallow), costus root and patchouli.

Source: imgfave.com. Artist or creator unknown.

Source: imgfave.com. Artist or creator unknown.

Muscs Koublaï Khan opens as sweet amber, mixed with a slightly urinous, very musky edge. It feels just like warm, heated skin that is faintly dappled by a light sweat. The whole thing is sweet, sour, musky, just a little bit fetid, and a tiny bit dirty, all at the same time. But it truly doesn’t smell like stale body odor. A citric rose note, laden with rich, almost syrupy honey, peeps up from the musky amber base. There is just the faintest hint of a floral, rosy, vanillic powder sprinkled on top. Lovely flickers of sweetness come from the patchouli, and it mixes with the mildest, most minute touch of cumin. The whole bouquet sits atop the gorgeously plush, velvety warmth of the castoreum and the sweet nuttiness of the labdanum amber. It’s all sexy as hell, and significantly tamer than I had expected.

Source: narutoforums.com

Source: narutoforums.com

The ambered base is beautiful. It’s gloriously rich from the ambergris which, like the labdanum, is enriched by the warm plushness of the velvety castoreum, as well as by the naturally sweet muskiness of the ambrette seeds. That said, the ambergris doesn’t smell very concentrated or profound. It lacks the salty, wet, sweet, slightly sweaty muskiness of anything more than just a few drops of ambergris. At times, I wonder if it’s the real thing at all.

Perhaps the best — and, certainly, the most fascinating — part is the slightly urinous note from the civet. I realise that sounds odd and strange, and maybe you just have to be a really obsessed perfumista, but there is some appeal to that sour aroma. Just as really rich, really buttery food needs a dash of acidity to create a balance, so too does really rich perfumery. Here, the civet adds a really well-modulated edge that initially isn’t really like urine, but more like a sweet, little sour, almost vinegary, feline muskiness. To my surprise, it’s not rendered skanky or raunchy by the costus root which can sometimes take on a sharply feral aspect. (I likened its effects in Amouage’s Opus VII to “panther pee.”)  Here, there is just the slightest musky dirtiness, perhaps akin to the smell of “dirty hair” that costus sometimes evokes, but it’s far from strong and certainly not over-powering. Still, I imagine that those who hate animalic notes in even the smallest dose will probably keel over from Muscs Koublai Khan’s combination of civet and costus.

"Red Orange Rose Yellow Abstract" by LTPhotographs, Etsy Store. (Link to website embedded within, click on photo.)

“Red Orange Rose Yellow Abstract” by LTPhotographs, Etsy Store. (Link to website embedded within, click on photo.)

Ten minutes into its development, Muscs Koublai Khan radiates an unusual bouquet of richly sweet, lightly vanillic, almost citrusy, powdered rose mixed with the scent of a warm, musky body. The combination of the civet with the powdered rose and the amber keeps triggering thoughts of Bal à Versailles, the legendary scent whose vintage form sought to replicate the scent of aristocrats at Versailles who used strong floral powders to mask their lack of hygiene. It’s often said that courtiers at Louis XIV’s Versailles palace would relieve themselves in corners without the slightest hesitation, and that is another aroma that Bal à Versailles sought to recreate in its nuances. I wish I had a vintage sample to compare to Muscs Koublai Khan, but my memory tells me that Bal à Versailles was a much more extreme, raunchy, dirty, skanky proposition. Muscs Koublai Khan is much better balanced, and far, far less dirty. Furthermore, the urinous note from the civet and costus root is too mild and too sweetened to evoke the same aroma. And, just to be clear, nothing in Muscs Koublai Khan reminded me of a urinal.

Source: Zavvi.com

Source: Zavvi.com

Twenty minutes in, Muscs Koublai Khan becomes muskier in a more rounded way, taking on a velvety, smooth, deep quality that is as luxurious as it is sensuous. It really feels like the scent of warmed bodies under a cozy, thick, fur blanket. For all the talk about sweat or urinous edges, the thing that Muscs Koublai Khan truly evokes is the scent of skin itself. Not stale, sweaty skin, but skin that is heated and just barely sweaty from perhaps a romp under the sheets. Yes, the perfume has some animalistic tendencies, but nothing about it evokes testicular “ball sweat,” anal secretions, or fecal notes. Just heated bodies intertwined in intimacy.

By the same token, nothing about the cumin note makes me think of unwashed, stale body odor. In fact, the cumin is almost imperceptible on my skin which normally amplifies the note. It’s not even a millimeter like the rancid, wholly intimate, extremely dirty note of unwashed genitalia that it triggered in Vero Profumo‘s Rubj eau de parfum. Nor is it like the stale armpit sweat of Frederic Malle‘s Bigarade Concentrée. Granted, the cumin here is not the pure, dusty spice of something like Parfum d’Empire‘s Ambre Russe, but its muted, emasculated nature and the way it flickers just once in a blue moon in the background is hardly what I was expecting.

Photo: Lydia Roberts, 2011. Source: Tumblr http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/lydia-roberts

Photo: Lydia Roberts, 2011. Source: Tumblr http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/lydia-roberts

Muscs Koublai Khan remains relatively unchanged in its core essence for a large portion of its development. It is a beautifully sweetened rose scent flecked by vanilla powder and a citric, slightly urinous civet note, all atop a gorgeously plush, velvety, rich amber base that radiates the warmth of heated, musky skin. The notes fluctuate in prominence, intensity and strength, but Muscs Koublai Khan on my skin is primarily a musky amber fragrance with rose and vanilla. The civet note waxes and wanes, reaching its highest peak around the middle of the second hour where it definitely feels a little sharper than it did originally. Then, it becomes tamer, softer, and richer, perhaps thanks to the castoreum which casts out its warm tendrils to enrich everything it touches. There is also a subtle leathery undertone to Muscs Koublai Khan which becomes more noticeable at the end of the first hour and which feels a little raw at times. It, too, becomes gentler, sweeter, and warmer after a while, thanks to the amber’s plush embrace.

"Theequus" - photo by David Sinclair, via Crossed Wires Tumblr. (Website link embedded within photo.)

“Theequus” – photo by David Sinclair, via Crossed Wires Tumblr. (Website link embedded within photo.)

For all that the sophisticated elegance of Muscs Koublai Khan evokes historical figures covered by rich furs, it also calls to mind a more personal memory for me. Something about the overall combination of notes reminds me of riding. If you’ve ever been a horseman, you’ll know the aroma, especially after a gallop in the warm sun. The musky smell of a horse’s warm body, just lightly veiled by sweat, that is sweet but, yet, just a little sour as well. The soft heat of his muscular neck, combined with the faintest whiff of leather from the saddle and harness, all bundled up with a golden muskiness. That aroma is a subtle undertone of Muscs Koublai Khan for a brief time around the 90-minute mark and in an extremely mild form, even though the fragrance bouquet is primarily radiating the sweetest rose, its light touch of vanillic powder, and a plush, ambered base.

The overall combination is far too civilized and sophisticated to evoke the pillaging, raping, filthy brutality of the Mongol hordes. For me, one needs to go down a little later in history to a later Slavic legend, Catherine the Great, whose sensual appetites were almost matched by her passion for the hunt and for refined luxury. Muscs Koublai Khan would have very much suited the Great Catherine from its floral, vanillic rose that is powdered like her face, to the languid, feline heat of warmed bodies intertwined under blankets of the richest Russian furs.

Model, Bregje Heinen, photographed by Jean-François Campos for Flair November 2010.

Model, Bregje Heinen, photographed by Jean-François Campos for Flair November 2010.

Perhaps the most surprising change with Muscs Koublai Khan is how the volume quickly decreases to a purring hum. Less than forty minutes into its development, Muscs Koublai Khan seems to get a little blurry around the edges and the sillage drops quite a lot, though its smell is still extremely potent up close, thanks to the civet. At the end of the second hour, the perfume is so airy and lightweight that it feels far weaker than a hardcore oriental eau de parfum. In fact, Muscs Koublai Khan is far sheerer than I had expected. It lacks the opaque, baroque heaviness of Maison Francis Kurkdjian‘s ravishing Absolue Pour Le Soir, another animalic, musky, amber oriental fragrance but one which is, ultimately, night and day apart from Muscs Koublai Khan. Absolue Pour Le Soir is actually much dirtier than Muscs Koublai Khan, not to mention heavily spiced, more floral, and infused with almost as much beautiful sandalwood as it is with musk and amber. Muscs Koublai Khan is tamer, more linear, more muted, and much less complex, though it is beautiful in a very different way and perhaps more refined than the Absolue with its more hardcore, slightly beastly edge.

Muscs Koublai Khan soon starts to take on quite an abstract aura. At the start of the third hour, the fragrance is a soft, nebulous blur of amber, vanilla and quietly animalic musk. The flecks of a citric, civet-infused, and lightly powdered rose start to recede, slowly become less and less noticeable. By the start of the third hour, the rose is largely gone, leaving behind only an ambered, powdered, vanilla musk with a hint of civet. And there Muscs Koublai Khan remains for hours and hours, turning more and more abstract and amorphous. It soon loses the civet, becoming just an musky, powdery, sweet amber fragrance. Though Muscs Koublai Khan’s sillage hovered just above the skin for the second and third hours, its projection drops even more. (That said, I dabbed it on, and, apparently, it’s a very different issue if you spray Muscs Koublai Khan.) Around the sixth hour, the ambery perfume becomes a complete skin scent. By its very end, almost exactly 12.5 hours from its opening, Muscs Koublai Khan is just a hint of a sweetened, musky powder, and nothing more.

I think Muscs Koublai Khan — and the extreme reactions to it — need to be placed in context. For one thing, the average perfume user nowadays is used to a very different sort of musk in perfumery. Clean, white musks abound, and the extent of something ostensibly “dirty” is probably Narcisco Rodriguez‘s musk For Her. Muscs Koublai Khan is a whole different kettle of fish. Perfumes with civet (and even castoreum) are no longer common in perfumery, so people aren’t so exposed to what musk used to be all about when perfumes like Bal à Versailles and its cohorts celebrated the skank provided by civet, castoreum and real Tonkin deer musk. For animal cruelty and ethical reasons, many of those ingredients are no longer used and their scent has to be replicated through vegetal musks like ambrette seeds. I’m glad for that, but it does mean that exposure to a dirty sort of musk — even through vegetal recreation — can trigger a repulsed response in those who expect musk to have the modern, common characteristics of white, laundry-clean freshness.

Muscs Koublai Khan is not a perfume that I would recommend to everyone. Those who are brand new to perfumery may find the civet and musk accords repulsive. Those who are experienced perfumistas, but who feel that even the smallest drop of something animalic in their perfumes renders it unbearably “dirty,” will undoubtedly feel the same way. But those who adore true Orientals and who can appreciate some animalic nuances should absolutely try it. Don’t let Muscs Koublai Khan’s dangerous reputation keep you away. I think you will be like a lot of bloggers who have tried Muscs Koublai Khan and wondered: what is all the Sturm und Drang about?

Take, for example, the review at Pere de Pierre where the blogger clearly was prepared to be blown away by Muscs Koublai Khan’s terrible reputation:

Of all the “bad boy” fragrances, the outlaws, the ones whose whispered descriptions contain the words “unwashed” and “crotch”, often in succession, and sometimes with “of a Mongolian horseman after three days of burning, raping and pillaging” appended, it may be that none has a more salacious reputation than Muscs Koublaï Khän.

Thus, it was with great anticipation that I first pulled the stopper on a sample. Civet and castoreum? Bring it!

The first sniff of the vial seemed promising; yes, there was civet in there.

On application, though, it seemed much like Kiehl’s Musk Oil, a similarity that has been noted by many a reviewer before. A simple floral musk, nothing terrible or even animalic about it.

Fortunately, it did not take long before MKK began to develop, something that Kiehl’s does not ever seem to do, on me anyway.

MKK shuffled its accords and painted scenes with them. However, they were not dramatic, sharply pitched scenes of lust and conquest; they were more like dreamy landscapes with dark clouds scudding through a sky above shifting fields of roses and poppies. Sensual, yes, but more of a lazy Sunday afternoon lovers’ feast than a frenzied, climactic battle. […][¶]

In subsequent wearings, only once did the civet ever really raise its head, and it was glorious; I wouldn’t mind if it did it more often. But mostly, this is a sultry, sometimes even sweet, and floral musk.

Kiehl’s Musk is not the only fragrance to which Musc Koublai Khan has been compared. The other one is Frederic Malle‘s Musc Ravageur. I haven’t tried it yet, but the general consensus seems to be that there are differences. The blogger, The Candy Perfume Boy, did a comparison of the two fragrances, and his section on the Serge Lutens begins with: “I just can’t see what all of the fuss is about.” He found Musc Koublai Khan to be disappointing in its tameness, and not particularly filthy. As a gourmand lover, he far preferred Malle’s Musc Ravageur with its “edible” characteristics. On Fragrantica, one reviewer writes about the Lutens: “it’s similar to Musc Ravageur, but Koublai Khan is rounder and deeper (and more discreet) while MR is more playful and contemporary.”

Speaking of Fragrantica, one commentator clearly shares my experience with horses, writing in a review that I’ve reformatted only for the sake of trying to keep things shorter:

I fell in love with it. [¶] Maybe it will be easier for those of you who are familiar with horses to comprehend what I will try to describe.

First wave, it smelled like a horse with saddle and all that has been running a mile on a sunny summer day. Since I love horses and their smell, well, it didn’t bother me at all. Au contraire. [¶] It was musc and a bit sweet and also a bit “sweaty”. [¶] Then the dry down became very soft and almost powdery, almost buttery. In the middle of the composition I also smelled like hay and kind of what it would smell like when you walk in a wild field in summer.

So for me, that perfum is very comforting. [¶] The funny part is that my husband thinks the same as me when it come to the smell of this perfume. He says that it also smell “very clean”!? [¶] My best friend (women) love the first “snif” then she looked at me with a strange look on her face and she says that she also smell like “pee”?????!!!. And at last my best friend (man) told me it smells like baby powder!!

I think Musc Koublai Khan is all those things: sweetly horse-y (but in a really subtle, muted way), summery, almost clean in the sense that it evokes a person’s skin scent more than body odour, but with slightly urinous nuances, and sufficient powder that a handful of people may think it resembles baby powder towards the end.

The Non-Blonde, however, didn’t smell anything horsey about the fragrance at all. Her review talks about how clean it actually smells, but also cautions about over-application:

If you google Muscs Kublai Khan and dig enough, you would find colorful reviews, mentions of horses, genitalia and horses’ genitalia. Which is where I make the “whatcha talking ’bout?” face.

I cannot argue with the fact MKK smells “raw”, which probably translates to “animalic” for some. I’ve heard rumors of cumin, but I don’t get any at all. Quite the opposite, actually, if we agree that a cumin note in perfume represents the dirty and the sweaty. What I’m getting is actually clean, sweet and warm. The dirty part is not the scent itself, but the warm skin feel it evokes and all the things one might associate with a skin in this state. In his review for Perfume Smellin’ Things, my scent twin Tom called it “clean bodies in compromising positions”, and that’s exactly right.

[…] On my skin it’s a thing of beauty and has nothing to do with the great unwashed. It’s also incredibly strong and persistent, even after the big show of the ultra sweet top notes fades away.

It’s so strong, actually, that anything more than a couple of dabs can get extremely distracting. Over apply and you will keep smelling MKK, thinking about MKK, feeling MKK. It will occupy your thoughts in a NSFW way, so be careful. Another word of warning: Muscs Kublai Khan is meant to be dabbed and not sprayed. I’m saying this as someone who prefers to spray just about anything and regularly decants parfum extracts into mini atomizers. I did the same with MKK and it’s just wrong. You don’t want to cover a lot of skin with this, and spraying releases way too much. 

You may think all this gushing and raving is bias from bloggers who are Lutens groupies, but that would not be true. Take the blogger, Pour Monsieur, who says he flat-out hates Lutens fragrances, and finds “them overly complex, pretentious and unwearable.” Yet, he writes that “Muscs Koublai Khan is the one huge exception, and is truly a special scent.  It is the best musk fragrance in the world, hands down.” [Emphasis added.] In his review, he explains why:

This is more “body smell” rather than “body odor”.  It reminds me of the smell of sweat on clean, warm, tanned skin.

It’s a complex scent, but not the ego trip of the other Lutens fragrances I’ve tried.  The sense of perfect balance and complexity in Muscs Koublai Khan is amazing, and makes it so comforting to wear.  It smells like there are several different types of musk used in MKK – light, heavy, white, dark, etc..  They’re all unified by soft floral and herbal notes, which add depth to the scent and prevent it from smelling like someone’s asshole. […][¶]

Muscs Koublai Khan is not only the most wearable Serge Lutens perfume I’ve ever smelled.  It’s perhaps the most wearable scent I’ve ever worn, period.  This is a fragrance, more than any other I’ve tried, that absolutely must be worn on skin, and that’s because it smells like skin.  When you wear this, it becomes a part of you, smelling like it’s part of your body.  It’s both extremely masculine and extremely feminine, depending on who’s wearing it, and it melds itself to its wearer.  I can’t imagine Muscs Koublai Khan smelling unsuitable on anybody.  So it’s both daring and suitable for anyone.  Think about what an incredible acheivement that is for a perfumer.

I don’t agree that Muscs Koublai Khan is the most wearable Lutens, but I think many of his other points are true.

I’ve spent all this time covering other people’s assessments of Muscs Koublai Khan’s tameness for a reason. The horror stories don’t always apply, and it’s not just me with my heavy bias towards Orientals and my love for Serge Lutens. Even those who can’t stand Lutens fragrances think this one is special. And I’m definitely not alone in finding all the Sturm und Drang about MKK’s supposed terrors to be very different from the reality on one’s skin. But I cannot repeat enough, this is not a perfume to try if you’re looking for something totally clean and without the slightest bit of animalic edge. Laundry-fresh it is not! And if you’ve never encountered civet or are new to niche perfumery, then you may be in for a shock. In fact, I suspect you’ll think it smells of poo.

However, for those who adore Orientals and have some perfume experience, I beg you not to believe all the stories about Muscs Koublai Khan, and to give it a test sniff. Uncle Serge is completely right when he says: “Pay no attention to [the musks’] aggressiveness: once on the skin, they retract their claws in favor of padded paws.” It’s very true, and that’s why I’d wear Muscs Koublai Khan in a heartbeat if I had a bottle. The perfume has enormous sexiness (the Non-Blonde is right in saying it triggers NSFW thoughts or images), and a sort of fascinating, raw animal magnetism that is simultaneously very refined as well. Muscs Koublai Khan is also totally unisex, and has great longevity. Lastly, for U.S. buyers, it is easily available — and often at a discount, in fact — so there are no accessibility barriers.

So, try it and, when you do, I doubt that you’ll think of the ravaging, filthy Mongol hordes. But your thoughts may not be totally clean, either….

 

DETAILS:
General Cost & Discounted Sales Prices: Muscs Koublaï Khan is an eau de parfum that comes in two sizes: a 1.7 oz/50 ml size and a larger 2.5 oz/75 ml bell jar version. The retail price for the 1.7 oz size is $140, or €99, with the 75 ml bell jar going for $300 or €140. However, Muscs Koublaï Khan is currently on sale at FragranceX where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle is priced at $113.99. The price is also reduced at Parfum1 which sells the 1.7 oz bottle for $126 with a 10%-off coupon for new customers. I don’t know how long these specials will last.
Serge Lutens: you can find Muscs Koublaï Khan in both sizes on the U.S. and International Lutens website (with non-english language options also available). 
U.S. sellers: Muscs Koublaï Khan is available in the 50 ml size for $140 at Luckyscent, Barney’s (which also sells the expensive bell jar version), and Aedes.
Outside the U.S.: In Canada, you can find Muscs Koublaï Khan at The Perfume Shoppe for what is US $140, since it is primarily an American business with a Vancouver branch. They also offer some interesting sample or travel options for Lutens perfumes. For Europe and Australia, it gets harder. The perfume seems to be deemed “Limited Edition” for many European vendors, in the sense that MKK was originally a Paris exclusive and limited for sale elsewhere in Europe. So, it has not been easy for me to find online vendors. In the UK, I can’t find Muscs Koublaï Khan listed at Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Liberty or Les Senteurs — shops which normally carry most Lutens fragrances. However, in France, Premiere Avenue sells it for €96 and I believe they ship world-wide, or at least through the Euro zone. 
Samples: You can test out Muscs Koublaï Khan by ordering a sample from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. There is also a Lutens Sample Set for $18.99 where the vials are also 1/2 ml each, but you get your choice of 5 Lutens Non-Export fragrances (ie, those that are Paris exclusives).