Kiehl's Original Musk Oil (1920s/1963): How Emancipated Is It? From the Roaring Twenties to the Psychedelic 60s {Perfume Review & Musings}


Our perception of what is perceived as "dirty" or "clean" in fragrances, especially where musk perfumes are concerned, appears to be as pre-coded personally as in the case of the global dress meme of 2014 where roughly 50% of people saw it as blue and 50% others as golden.

I find Kiehl's musk oil to be mostly "dirty", i.e., animalic rather than "clean", but Patti La Belle back in 2001 said in an interview she gave to Vibe magazine that Kiehl's musk had been her favorite fragrance - and why,

"Kiehl's Original Musk Oil. I've been wearing it my all life. It's a very-clean-like-you-just-took-a-bath-smell,"...

She also added that because she is so hooked on the scent, she put a little bit of musk in her own signature perfumes,

"So with my fragrances (Girfriend and Patti La Belle) I tried to get a little bit of musk in them. But there's only one original, and that's Kiehl's."


"Kiehl's Musk Oil (Original)", as it is labeled verbatim on my older label, remains since the psychedelic 60s one of the reference musks of the market. In 1979, it became officially a cultural icon by being added to the Smithsonian Museum's permanent collection of American pharmacological products.


The Muguet in Musk

The reason I was thinking of this popular musk oil yesterday is due to the fact that it smells a little bit of lily-of-the-valley as is known of synthetic musks dosed in smaller quantities. This is all the most intriguing since historically there has always been a close association of musk and muguet smells. The flower itself has a musky component, that is certain. In French, muguet comes from "mugue" which initially means "musc" in Ancient French. The verb "mugueter" means to court ladies. A "muguet" is also a man who chases skirts and is likened to dandies for the fastidious interest he takes in his appearance.

I recall a patron asking once in a Kiehl's store from whence came the scent of lily of the valley she could spot in the air of the boutique? People looked around. The answer was the musk, but no one could tell that day, including me.

So, I dabbed some on from an old phial ca. 2006 to test that proposition further against the real blooms of May Day. The muguet aspect is perceptible in the top notes of the perfume. Mostly, it is a rather bawdy white musk whose transparency cannot fool you into forgetting that it comes originally from the hind part of a mountain deer musk which might or might not have come out of a moutain stream of pure, unadulterated water. It is crystalline in appearance, yet very much humoral.

Manners be Damned

Just like for hot chili tolerance, we all have our internal scale of sensory perceptions based on experience. In Mexican folk tales, they recount of educating the taste buds of young Mexicans from infancy by progressively stepping up the hotness of the chilis offered to their consumption. Knowing how to eat chilis and scorchingly burning hot ones when you reach adult age is a skill that makes you Mexican. I see the same self-education potntially take place with musks. It depends on how you were habituated to musks, how currently you are trained to smelling clean vs. animalic substances.

As of now, "clean" musks for me would be Adopt Musc Blanc or Comptoir Sud Pacifique Cristal de Musc - and by the way, they are releasing an Intense version of the latter.

But Kiehl's Musk Oil comes across as clearly more derived from the zoo pits than the soap suds. It retains a little bit of cleanliness to my nose, but soon throws it to the winds.

This morning, I had forgotten about yesterday's scent however my coat had kept a trace of it, and so this sensation of a warm, pleasant and living animality - a far cry from soapiness - was once more imparted to me.

A Kiehl advert from 1972, at a time when musk oils were like patchouli seen as powerful enough counter-cultural statements, puts the stress on freshness yet underlines its potency at the same time, which I can confirm, especially on textile,

"The timeless elegance, haunting persistence, the freshness and power of our magnificent fragrance have captured the imagination and esteem of users of fine perfumes everywhere. Tho' others have tried, none can duplicate its richness and freshness, its subtle, hauntingly mysterious aura that is unmistakenly classic, absolutely unique, unquestionably Kiehl's. The few who can wear our costly fragrance will cherish the power and unique quality of creation for years yet to come. One potent drop clings for days, long after others are forgotten. For the Kiehl person."

For the brand today,

"Our Original Musk Oil is believed to have been created in the 1920's at the "Kiehl Apothecary." Discovered there in a vat labeled "Love Oil" in the late 50's, Kiehl's signature scent was reintroduced to our patrons in 1963."

There is even the legend of a Russian prince associated occasionally with the scent: he would have emigrated and brought with him a recipe...from the Himalayas? Let's add to the legend. And as we know, Russian princes are excessive beings, especially if they live during the Roaring Twenties era. More factually, it is now a l'Oréal product - Kiehl's was brought back by the beauty giant in 2000. The oil is unisex. It is slightly floral, muguet-y, a bit soapy, a bit ambery, a bit woodsy, a bit licoricey, but mostly and unmistakenly animalic. In fact, the reason why apparently the oil was not commercialized from 1958 when it was discovered in a vat in a basement marked as "love oil" is because the pharmacy owners, the Morse family, thought it was too indecent and overly sensual for the times, so it was put back in storage. Five years later, it was a go. Today, Chris Salgardo, the president of Kiehl's, wears the Musk edt but pegs it as an evening perfume in his routine.

Smelling it up-close though it curiously recalls the aldehydic 1960s work, Madame Rochas (1960), only less lady-like and complex. It makes me smile thinking that fine composition might be a cover-up for a raunchy 60s musk oil - and in chronological order - like a Madame Rochas gone wild three years later in the midst of a new liberated age, wearing her hair long instead of a lacquered do, with a crochet dress instead of tweeds.

It smells of a disinhibited Madame Rochas, of the essence of her misconduct. She is no longer a slave to the rules of the game to reference Renoir's social study of a movie on French high society, La règle du jeu, the upstairs-downstairs film of its time.

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2 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. Is it for men, where can I buy?

    • Yes, it's a unisex fragrance available in perfume oil and eau de parfum spray bottle at Kiehl's boutiques and on their website.

      Chant Wagner

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