Musk is sex. Musk is clean. Musk is dirty. Musk is a promise of pleasure and connection. Musk is gag-inducing. Musk is sweet. Musk is a natural smell and yet all of these seven musk oils are synthetic. Musk is all of these things and that’s why I love it. Our relationship to the smell of musk is complex, and is connected undoubtedly with our relationship to our own bodies and our attitudes to sex. Since the late ‘60s, single-note musk fragrances have been popular with the great unwashed – or at least those who wish to smell as such. Reaching its peak in the 1970s, the musk oil trend offered a simple yet compelling way of scenting oneself with a manufactured product while affecting the illusion that the highly compelling scent was emanating from one’s own pores. The scent of musk has long been found to be powerfully erotic by many, resembling as it does the smell of – please forgive me – ‘groin sweat’ (sorry…). In this post, I will be revisiting some beloved vintage musk oils from the heyday of the genre, the 1970s, comparing and contrasting their respective virtues.
Jovan Musk Oil – She is the diamond of the genre, undeniably at the top of the musk hierarchy. What Led Zeppelin is to ‘70s rock n roll, Jovan Musk oil is to ‘70s musk fragrances. Jovan was so successful in marketing its Musk Oil to men and women because its ad copy made explicit the promises of sexual attraction for all who anointed themselves with it. They also were able to back up their claims with a wonderful-smelling product so on some level the ad copy was not all hyperbole. Vintage Jovan Musk Oil is indeed incredibly lovely and undeniably smooth, its subtly-sweet, softly-floral musk balancing perfectly the fine line that separates ‘freshly showered’ from ‘just ravaged’. The seamless creaminess to this vintage oil is truly lovely, and while the modern version is very similar, it is not as smooth with a slight chemical rasp that is not present in the vintage. Jovan Musk oil came out in 1972 and was such a success that within a year or two there were several similar fragrances on the market.
R.H. Mystic Musk Oil – In the mid and late 1970s this musk oil was very popular in places along the Mid-Atlantic like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and many people continue to long for this long discontinued musk oil. However, despite the allegiance many people have for it, I cannot truly say that it is all that original-smelling. It bears a strong resemblance to vintage Jovan Musk Oil, which it was undoubtedly influenced by. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely stunning. When I catch the creamy-sweet musky sillage floating up to my nose, my first instinct is to look in every direction for a gorgeous hunk so I can saunter past him and possibly make him fall in lust with me through my powerfully erotic scent trail! It’s a beautiful musk, but unquestionably derivative.
Amica Naked Musk Oil – Another in the Jovan-influenced musk oils. This musk oil is dirt cheap to this day. I have the old version with the cork in it, so I cannot vouch for the current version, but it is also exceptionally pretty and sexy in the Jovan mode.
Coty Wild Musk Oil – Finally, we come to a musk that is remarkably different from the more normative Jovan-esque lilly-musk accord. Coty’s Wild Musk is all about the sweet woods rather than the florals. There is a powdery, slightly peppery, sandalwood note here partnered with crystalline musk. Whereas the previous musks all have an unabashedly raunchy, body-odor-mimicking scent profile, Wild Musk Oil elevates the sweet woods to an almost meditational level. The musk here is palpable and undeniably sexy, but the synthetic sandalwood accord is, for me, dominant. Released in 1973, Wild Musk came out in the wake of Jovan Musk’s success like most of the others…yet in terms of its fragrance it was more original than those others in its de-emphasizing of florals and focusing on powdery woods.
Bonne Bell Skin Musk – Released in the mid-1970s, this musk was marketed primarily to vibrant young women , a contrast to Jovan’s take-no-prisoners sexual-onslaught ad campaign. This fragrance is now manufactured by Parfums de Coeur, but I have an older mini bottle of the vintage Bonne Bell oil which smells remarkably similar to Coty Wild Musk Oil with its sweet wood accord combining with the synthetic musk.
Kiehl’s Original Musk Oil – My bottle comes from 2006, and it is a sweet, lily-based floral musk. This musk is somewhat similar to Jovan Musk, but it has a stronger floral profile, and somehow makes a bigger statement. According to Kiehl’s lore, this scent was originally created in the 1920s and christened Love Oil, then rediscovered in a vat in the 1960s. Unlike Jovan Musk Oil whose vintage bottles are all but ubiquitous, early bottles of Kiehl’s Musk Oil are very difficult to come across. My bottle features a pronounced sweet lily note under-girded by a powerful musk accord that is both skanky-smelling and clean, rather like smelling someone’s scalp. Whereas Jovan’s Musk Oil whispers up from the wrist, Kiehl’s Musk veritably blares its call like a tomcat yowling in the night. Incidentally, this also comes in EDT form, which is rather strange; somehow raunchier and not as sweet as the oil.
Dana Musk Oil – A lovely reader sent me a generous sample of this legendary vintage beauty. Upon initial application, my first thought was that this was barnyard animalic carried to the extreme – the raunchy musk to end all musks. It made Kiehl’s smell like child’s play, so naughty and flagrant were its nuances of B.O., urine and the boo-tay in the somehow still pleasant mix. As time wore on, a cleaner almost shampoo-like facet revealed itself. It began to remind me a bit of the famous Musk Oil by The Body Shop. Did the Dana Musk Oil change over the course of an hour or did my own scent receptors change as they adjusted to the smell. I’ll need to give this several more wearings to get a proper sense of it, but among these old musk oils, Dana Musk is unique and absolutely worth seeking out for its feral, sexual scream laid over 70s shower-freshness.
West Cabot Labs Original Musk Oil – This is another 70s musk oil that is very rare to find in vintage form. It is still around and the modern version is what I am reviewing. This musk is known for being very faint and hard to detect. Fans of this oil insist that it gets stronger with time as it heats up on the skin. I find this to be true as well. I smell a subtle, yet very beautiful, crystalline musk that has an almost mineral quality to it when inhaled close up, almost like smelling rough stone. It has a very mild sweetness to it, anticipating the scent of Egyptian musks, and again, it is lovely – when one can actually detect it. Long-time fans insist that it smells a bit different than the original version, especially where strength is concerned. This musk is unique, smelling identifiably like musk, yet different from the Jovan-esque oils and the Coty Wild Musk-ish sweet woods. Very intriguing, I would absolutely love to smell the vintage version of this one. It has also been known as Cabot Labs Musk Oil and Cooperlabs Musk Oil.
After the 1970s heyday of single-note musk scents, musk took a decidedly sweeter turn from 1980 to 1990, the decade that brought forth successful billowy, cotton-candy musk offerings like Soft Musk by Avon and White Musk by Jovan. In reviewing these vintage ’70s musk oils, I couldn’t help but observe that there are significant similarities in several of these musks to a successful predecessor, to the point that I would say ‘If you have vintage Jovan Musk Oil you don’t really need Amica Naked Musk or R.H. Mystic Musk”. Or I might also say ‘If you have Coty Wild Musk Oil you don’t really need Bonne Bell Skin Musk’ and vice versa. But Musk lovers become attached to one particular musk, and the heart wants what the heart wants. So the vintage musk oil lover will trawl Ebay night after night in search of a true piece of nostalgia: the musk of their now-mythologized youth. A true connoisseur of musks could certainly find fault with these simplistic reviews …But for my purposes here, I have attempted to convey the overall sense of each of these historically significant musk oils, a list which is far from complete (sorry I couldn’t include Alyssa Ashley Musk by Houbigant. That is one I’d love to include here but have never tried). Thank you for reading!