The animal imaginarium

Beaver Morse code, petrified poo, and ‘something like a pearl’. The animal ingredients in perfumery may be a strange bunch, says Geza Schoen, but wait till you meet their lab-born kin.


The animal imaginarium

We are animals and deep down we desire the smell of the other sex. Unlike the other animals, though, we spend our time eliminating our own body smell and replacing it with secretions from other creatures. And not just any secretions, but secretions from their nether regions. Civet comes from glands right next to the civet cat’s anus, musk is located in the penile sheath of the musk deer, and castoreum comes from little sacs tucked under a beaver’s tail. The beavers smear the castoreum around their territory as a kind of Morse code to communicate quite complex messages to other beavers. Weird as these ingredients may sound, and stinky as they may be at concentration, at the right dilution they have a natural magic.


An Auranone would look like a deer but with jasmine vines in place of antlers

Only a couple of the animal ingredients used in perfumery nowadays ever come from a real animal. The rest owe their existence to a zoo of lab-created molecules and bases: the animal imaginarium. The imaginarium is inhabited by fantasy animals. Some of them, such as the molecule ambroxan, are nature-identical which means they have exactly the same chemical structure as molecules found in nature. The Ambroxan that is our Molecule 02 is made in the lab, but the same molecule is found in ambergris, a substance formed in the belly of a whale.



An Applelide would have a pair of Cox’s Orange Pippinicles dangling from its underside

Some of the creatures in the animal imaginarium are a bit more hallucinogenic. Take applelide, which is a musk-type molecule with a green apple topnote, or Auranone, a musk base with a floral note. Auranone is like a cross between a musk deer and jasmine. If you can imagine a future where synthetic biologists created an Auranone, it would look like a deer but with jasmine vines in place of antlers. While an Applelide would have a pair of Cox’s Orange Pippinicles dangling from its underside in place of testicles. Pippinicles? A hybrid of testicles and apples.

When you see ‘musk’ listed as an ingredient in a fragrance, know that it could be any one of the dozens of fantasy musks out there. These each have a different scent-profile and names like Shangralide, Nirvanolide, Celestolide, Sylkolide. Sometimes you will see ‘white musk’ mentioned as an ingredient. This is the name given to fantasy musks with a clean smell. The best-known white musk is Galaxolide, which to my mind has a paper note. It’s so good that these days it is used in everything.


For Escentric 02 I combined muscone with vetiveryl acetate and ambroxan, they fused together to make a radiant bomb.



But if you use those big musks like galaxolide your fragrance will smell like every other perfume. I would rather leave it out. I prefer muscone, which is the nature-identical musk. Muscone is beautiful, but it’s not cheap. Galaxolide is around 4€ per Kilo, whereas a kilo of muscone costs several hundred euros. For the base of Escentric 02 I combined muscone with vetiveryl acetate and ambroxan and the three fused together to make a radiant bomb that’s warm, clean and cocooning.

Fantasy animals are strange, but nature has some pretty strange crossovers too. Some plants have musk notes, while ambroxan is the key aroma-molecule in ambergris, yes, but it also occurs in the herb clary sage and the Mediterranean plant, cistus labdanum. Nobody knows why these aromas should occur in plants as well as animals.


Ambergris is formed in the whale in much the same way that a pearl forms round a grain of sand in an oyster.


And then anyone smelling ambroxan without knowing what it was would never say it was animalic. It had a mineral freshness and a dry woodiness to it. But then ambergris has a different natural function than the other animal ingredients. It is formed in its digestive system of the whale in much the same way that a pearl forms round a grain of sand in an oyster. The whale builds up the paste-like substance to protect its innards from the razor-sharp beaks of the deep-sea squid it eats. Eventually it ejects an ambergris bolus studded with squid beaks. It will then take years of floating on the ocean for the ambergris to refine its distinctive smell.



There’s a note in Animalis that smells like ‘clean bum’, that’s the only way I can describe it.

Some of the most flagrant animals in the imaginarium are down to bases. Take Animalis, a famous base created 80 or 90 years ago. There’s a note in there that smells like ‘clean bum’, that's the only way I can describe it. Clean bum is a smell we human animals are drawn to, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. Think of a big male fragrance like Saint Laurent’s Kouros - that's basically raging Animalis. There’s around 10% of it in there and 10% of Animalis will hack right through anything else to give the impression you’ve landed in the lion’s den at the zoo.

The wackiest animal ingredient in perfumery has got to be hyraceum. This is the fossilised shit and pee of a small furry creature called a hyrax. These African animals always use the same rocky area or cave as their lavatory, and in some of these hyrax loos, the poo has built up over thousands of years till it turns to stone. Collectors gather the petrified poo at the bottom of the pile. No harm to the animals here, they are probably delighted to see it go. Some perfumers say it can be used as a substitute for synthetic musk. But when it comes to hyraceum I like to apply my key rule of fragrance: it’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out.

Don’t expect petrified poo in Escentric Molecules anytime soon.