Sunday, January 18, 2009


It occurred to me recently that I’d never tried a pure musk scent.

Musk was associated with Jersey, disco, too-tight jeans etc., back in the day, so I never cared to smell Jovan Musk or the others. But a scent I’d seen around the boards called “Egyptian Musk” intrigued me. It sounded so down. I noticed that a large decant of Ava Luxe’s version of it was for sale on a decant site, and thought, well, it’s Ava Luxe, I’ve wanted to try their line anyway, so I ordered it.

It wasn’t that it was bad. It’s that it …wasn’t. Meaning, when the package arrived, I eagerly ripped it open and sprayed some on my hand and…nothing. Like water.


I sprayed some more. And then some more. Finally I was able to detect the faintest suggestion of…wax? Just plain wax, like an ordinary candle? Perplexed, I put it aside. When my husband came home, I sprayed on some more and asked him, “do you smell this?”

“Yes,” he said, “Yes, I do. Now go wash it off please.” It was very strong, he said. And he said some other things I won’t go into here.

Aesthetic judgments aside. It suddenly occurred to me, a dim memory of something I’d read; musk molecules are huge. So huge, in fact, that some people can’t smell them. They’re too big to fit into the smell receptors.

Once again, I hit the books.

There are, as anyone who has read the books by or about Dr. Turin knows, competing theories of how smell works. One area of general agreement is musk. Some can’t smell it. Others can’t stand it. There is also variation between people as to which musks can be smelled and which cannot. This appears to be a function of the “phenotype,” which is the physical manifestation of genetic coding.

In a 1996 experiment performed by Drs. Avery Gilbert and Sarah Kemp, 32 subjects were evaluated for musk hypernosmia. Twelve of them were hypersensitive to all the musks used. Sixteen were insensitive to all of them. Four of the subjects, however, were sensitive to some but not others. Through various statistical analyses, Gilbert and Kemp concluded that there appears to be a genetic coding for “presumptive odor receptors,” as they relate to the musks used in the study. Ultimately, they speculate, this may be similar to color-blindness; a phenotype.

Now I’m wondering: am I anosmic to all musks, or just some?

I’ve always had a sensitive nose, especially for malodorous substances (for example, I can tell long before my husband that it’s time to take the garbage out.) But…could it be that I haven’t even been smelling what other people have been? Especially if the perfumes contain musks?

Say it ain’t so, Joe!

What molecules does Ava Luxe use? If they’re the same ones used in the older mass-market musks, maybe I didn’t smell those either: oh, horrible thought, maybe I missed a big part of the Seventies because I didn’t smell them!

I have samples of "Muscs Kublai Khan" and "Musc Ravageuer" and others of that ilk. But what was I really smelling?

Looking at reviews of "Egyptian Musk" – and there aren’t many – uncovered generalities like “a nice skin musk,” whatever that is. One mentioned roses. One person (of two MUA reviewers) – a long-lost relative of mine? – couldn’t smell it at all.

I’d like to get some feedback on this. Dear readers: Have you had this same anosmia to a particular musk? Some of them? All of them?

Inquiring blogger wants to know.

For anyone who would like to look at Gilbert and Kemp’s study entitled “Odor Perception Phenotypes: Multiple, Specific Hypernosmias to Musks,” the link is


Flora said...

A very provocative post - now I have no idea if what I am smelling is "right" or not!

I had a sample of Ava Luxe Gardenia Musk - I really liked it, it seemed like a nice balance between the musk and the floral, and the musk part was, to my nose, a "white" or "crystal" musk that toned down the swwetness of the gardenia, and not a heavy head-shop scent. (I never wore those mass-market musks back in the day, either - I was a floral girl all the way.)

But who knows, maybe I was knocking the socks off everyone around me when I wore the Ava Luxe and I did not even realize it! As far as I can tell I am able to smell all types of musk, but now I wonder...

Also, I have only recently started reading your blog, but I find it highly original and irreverent, just the sort of thing I enjoy! :-)

Pikake said...

I was just having this discussion with my friend last night! She can't smell her Egyptian Musk, but wears it b/c her son and husband love it. Very interesting.

March said...

Chris Brosius has a bottle in his store in Brooklyn labeled "wet sheep." It's a gender-related musk anosmia. With very few exceptions, women (including Patty and I) cannot smell a thing. Might as well be water. To men it smells like ... wet sheep. Dank and damp and animalic/musky.

It's clear to me (and probably to most people doing regular sniffage) that some musks simply don't register. I've been told by CB and other perfumers that this is one reason musk-driven scents are supposed to carry a variety of musks; hopefully one will register. My prime example: I cannot smell Narciso Rodriguez. I get a faint sensation of nothing much. OTOH many men find it wildly sexy. And when I tell some female SAs I can't smell it they are incredulous, clearly they find it quite strong.

Olfacta said...

Hi Flora --

Makes me wonder too. I thought MKK was nice and ambery and pleasant once the cumin died down but...what have I been doing? Maybe nothing, one can always hope.

Thanks! Glad you like the blog.

Olfacta said...

Hi Pikake -- That is interesting. And your friend is very nice and unselfish to wear a scent she can't smell but others like.

I wonder if "Egyptian" musk has a higher anosmia rate than some of the others.

Olfacta said...

Hi March!

Thanks -- very illuminating. I guess I'd have to sit down with vials of all the commonly used musks (yes, I'm a geek) to see if I can smell any of them, because now I'm wondering if I ever have. If I ever get to NY I'll stop by CB. You know what they say about places like Alaska and the West: "where Men are Men and sheep are scared," or something like that, hmmm...

bookishredhead said...

I personally LOVE Musc Ravageur, I wonder now if I'm repelling people. I've worn it around you and you haven't seemed to be repelled, but then again maybe your hubby was thinking "jeez, her friend stinks like nasty".

I remember hearing the same thing about musks, but I'm looking forward to reading the study.

ScentScelf said...

I know the Bulgari Omnia line smells basically like water to me...would have to research to find out just what is being used that doesn't register...but I have fun recounting my tale of making the sales rep spritz on himself and smell, because I thought for sure somebody had put water in the tester.

fountaingirl said...

Oh wow! If MKK just smells nice, and there's no 'punch you in the face' moment even for a short time, you definitely are anosmic! For the first five minutes, until it dries a bit, there's a sharp "dirty cabbie armpit" reek, under cologne and spice. But then it all folds together and is AMAZING. I think it is the contrast that makes it.

Also, does SJP Lovely just smell floral to you, or Agent Provocateur only smell rosy? Def anosmic to some musks.

Olfacta said...

Hi Scentself --

I can smell Omnia, but there's not much there IMO.

Last night I got a swap package and there was a vial of something by DSH I couldn't smell at all. Hubby could, though. The plot thickens.

Olfacta said...

Hi fountaingirl --

I defnitely get the "cabbie armpit" aspect of MKK. If that's the musk, well, I'm glad I can smell it! And it does dry down very nicely, although it's not on my FB-to-acquire list.

The SJP "Lovely" I've only sampled once, in a store, and I actually don't remember what it smelled like. I know it has a musk component. Will have to go hunt down some AP, maybe that could solve the mystery.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Charlotte Vale said...


Don't know if you ever look at comments on old posts, but I just read this and it's fascinating! I'm definitely anosmic to some musks, because some perfumes don't seem to have a base to me. For example, Nahema registers only as a light rose/peach accord, more of a refreshing body spray than the sensual and seductive perfume everyone else describes. I tend to recoil from heavy skank on the occasions when I do get it, so I have to say I have never tried a single "just musk" perfume. It is deeply disturbing to think about all the things one might not be smelling correctly, though--maybe we should just try to maintain our innocence!