Civet, castoreum, hyrax, ambergris, and honey are all animalic notes that titillate our most profound animal nature. Repulsive at first, these scents can become aphrodisiac and even addictive to some of us. To others, it is a pure abomination: “All your courtly civet cats can vent. Perfume to you, to me, is excrement.” was writing the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope. Poor civet, how could the musk of your perineal glands arise the human libido to the point of causing your slavery and the worst humiliation?
Civets are shy carnivorous, and sometimes omnivorous, mammals related to cats and even more closely to mongooses and weasels. They live in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South-East Asia where they are severely becoming endangered by habitat loss and deforestation. More than ten different species of civets exist in these regions, the largest amount being in Asia. Rather than for their furs, it is for the secretion of their two perineal glands that humans have farmed African civets. An animal produces up to four grams of civet musk per week which in turn can be sold today for five-hundred dollars per kilogram. This extraordinarily potent and tenacious musk, looking like a caramel-color balm, with a strong fecal smell, is processed and highly diluted before to become a valuable subtle perfume component. In small concentration, the repulsive stench of the substance transforms into this fantastic scent that can hardly be described by words.
Asian civets eat insects, amphibians, and berries in the tropical forests and bushes. Humans found that these civets love coffee berries and then reject the coffee seeds well-preserved in their feces. Someone in dear needs of caffeine discovered one day that the roasting of these excreted beans provided an even better-tasting coffee than the traditional air-dried beans, and so was born the now famous civet coffee, aka Kopi Luwak. This coffee is the most expensive in the world and can sell up to 600 US dollars per pound to some heartless coffee aficionados who do not care less about the terrible living and feeding conditions of these poor animals held in precarious cages.
In Europe, especially in the francophone countries, civet is a common name for cigars and tobacco shops. The oldest of all of them is in Paris. It is called “À la Civette” and is now three-hundred and one year old. Lots of famous artists, politicians, and other celebrities came to buy their nicotine treats in this shop. The name came from the use of civet-impregnated cloths that were used to preserve and flavor cigars, a long time ago. Cigars anyway have a natural odor profile that contains a civet note, in my opinion.
Civet musk was prized by Arab perfume makers as early as in the 10th century AD. Later, in early modern perfumery, the civet note was genuinely made of civet musk paste, but processed in a tincture and then by solvent extraction. The most notable fragrances using such substance in their original formulation are numerous, but Chanel No.5 is maybe the most famous of them, Shalimar is another one. Kouros, created in 1981 by Pierre Bourdon for Yves Saint Laurent, is a landmark civet fragrance that never leaves anyone indifferent.
For obvious reasons of animal cruelty protection, the civet note is today no longer natural but synthetic. Our great aroma-chemist isolated some macrocyclic musks such as civetone, ambretone, and velvione that are all present in natural civet but here extracted from vegetal or mineral oils. These molecules are extraordinary potent and must be used in minute concentration to provide this magic effect that transforms a quiet perfume into a philter.
Here are the picks of my favorite civet fragrances:
Leather Oud of the collection Le Couturier Parfumeur from Dior is, surprisingly maybe for some of you, the best perfume I know to discover a civet note. Dior does not explicitly specifies civet in the records, probably to avoid the animal protection debate. This juice, however, is a very animalic leather, with a subtle oud and cardamom decoration, and an enormous heart and base of civet that lasts forever. You will probably still be able to detect the animalic note the following day, or even several days later if you sprayed Leather Oud on your clothes or scarf. Like most beautiful fragrances of this high-end collection, Francois Demachy, Dior’s house-perfumer, is behind Leather Oud. It is aimed to be masculine, very elegant and not too complex, with a superb longevity and quite a powerful projection and sillage also. I see it unisex and a lovely Winter signature perfume for the sophisticated ladies of this world.
Ella from the New York niche house of Arquiste won the Prize of Emotion 2017 from Olfactorama a French Association of Fragrance professionals and amateurs. Ella is a feminine animalic fragrance, with top floral notes of rose and jasmine unveiling the leathery heart of smokey honey and civet, giving this disturbing yet sexy and emotional touch to the fragrance. Angelica, carrot seeds and cardamom notes spice up the juice freshly and gently. The base of notes of patchouli, ambergris, and vetiver are somewhat masculine but so soft that they will not indeed appear much in the dry down. Ella is a fragrance for the artists in real or in mind, for the ones who want to be different and put emotion at the center of their lives. This is an homage to the great Ella Fitzgerald.
Civet from the Canadian house of the Zoologist is my signature fragrance of this winter. This composition is just a marvel to my senses. The house describes it nicely “as opening with a spicy-floral accord, threaded through with dark coffee tones. Slowly prowling forward, unraveling base notes of leather, moss, and vanilla that combines with distinctive civet musk to create a bewildering, sophisticated scent with the promise of a sultry nighttime rendezvous“. It is frankly hard to get bored of this juice which is wonderfully complex and keep changing its nature in the dry down. The civet note is present and well used, never pungent but just here to enhance the rest of the notes, as MSG does to Asian food. The note of coffee is undoubtedly an allusion to Kopi Luwak. This is pure joy, like most of the fragrances of this incredible house which I can only recommend.
To complete this post, I could not resist in listing Peau de Bête (beast pelt), by Les Liquides Imaginaires which is for me the most animalic juice of the market. Very few of us will indulge in purchasing this fragrance unless we become hypnotized by its charm. Peau de Bete is one of these scents, like Secretions Magnifique from Etat Libre D’Orange, that can either induce vomiting or fascinate. I tend to be fascinated by these scents, even if I am not sure to be able to wear them on a daily basis. I would, however, be pleased to know such enthusiasts, so please do not hesitate to leave me some comments if you are one of them. Peau de Bete is the ultimate fragrance to put forward the civet note in a higher than usual concentration and reveal its fecal nature. Castoreum and other animalic molecules round off the complex blend and impart its incredible longevity. A must-try in any serious perfumery shop!
Civet concludes my work on Scent and Flavor in 2017. I hope that you enjoyed my posts and will give me the honor of your loyalty in 2018. I really would love to get more comments from you to let me improve and give you more interest and pleasure in reading my articles.
In the meantime, I wish you all, my dear readers, a very fragrant, healthy and prosperous new year 2018, to you and your families. Thanks for reading Scent & Flavor. I love you guys!