A blurry image of Musc Tonkin to illustrate the fact that this is "the ghost" of the now forbidden material © Parfum d'Empire
A Romantic, Historicized Project
Musc Tonkin by Parfum d'Empire was initially released in 2012 as a limited-edition in pure parfum concentration, which now has become part of the permanent collection as an eau de parfum from 2014. The project behind this fragrance was in part to recreate the passeist charm of raw, deer-sourced musk, but also Nitromusks, those synthetic musks derived from the explosive TNT, acidentally discovered by Baur in his lab in 1888...
They are now forbidden materials due to their instability - they become phototoxic after a while, and also because there were hazardous stages in the chain of reactions necessary to produce them.
Despite and perhaps because of this aura of danger and illicitness, the musks of that era remain legendary closely following in the steps of the adventurous Tonkin Musk itself, the real kind, sourced erratically and with great hardships to both men and animals.
Musk Baur was also called Musk Toluene and Tonkinol, the latter to denote its closeness of olfactory range to Tonkin Musk from China and Central Asia. Early 19th century natural perfumers had to distinguish between Tonkin Musk, the best kind, and Kabardin Musk, which came from Tibet, Siberia and Bengal and was considered not as fine - even foul-smelling.
In ca. 2012-2014, Parfum d'Empire mixes the old with the new, by using in part a natural animalistic product which has become of interest in recent years, African stone absolute or Hyraceum, from the petrified form of the Hyrax urine, guided by the scent of Tonkin Musk.
For perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, who revels in the history of empires, the material of course bespeaks of imperial borders and Silk-Road-like perilous paths. There is the smell of Tonkin Musk, almost forgotten which needs to be recreated to be experienced again, but also the history behind a highly desirable perfumery and phantasmatic medicinal material. For the brand, it is also an attempt at recreating an aphrodisiacal smell,
Musc Tonkin, to rediscover the immemorial tradition of love elixirs.
In a sense, Musc Tonkin recreates an olfactive imprint which the house calls a "ghost" of the original black musk grains, but at the same time there breathes throughout the perfume the winds of history. This is about a historiography which is romantic - like in so many instances in perfumery. If today, we can still procure Chinese musk and know that musk deers are raised in China, what is of import here is the showcasing of a perfumery and human myth, of a "fantasme", a fantasy - of a quest for superlative and efficacious sensuality.
How Does it Smell Like?
The fragrance opens up a bit unexpectedly on a rather strong floral note, "the muguet-in-the-musk" tonality of musk. Soon however the composition signed by perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato segues into animalic territory in a blatant fashion. It is quite powerful a sensation. It courts the smell of elegant urine underlined by a drizzle of sueded leather. It also smells powdery and a bit sweetish, like tonka bean. Mostly it smells of an elegant musketeer of the King complete with the scent of the saddle he sits in and the horse he mounts, exuding its feral, sweaty accents.
Cortichiato is a passionate equestrian, so this palette combining musk and horse smell would be a biographical reference.
The composition also gives out floral notes of hay and summer field flowers heated by the sun. Next, honeyed nuances surface to make it a musk with a summery quality - not at all beachy as is the norm today, but rather as if you were looking at a summer landscape in the countryside - or a museum gallery.
The Tonkin musk accord feels familiar but not mainstream. It's essentially, past the olden scent, a pairing of leather and musk. There are gasoline-like facets, as well as the seeming smell of hard soap which add a bit of rugosity to the blend. Later on, there is a discreet impression of the scent of decay as well.
The perfume it calls to mind, apart potentially from some vintage Chanels, is more recently the opus from 2007 from Parfumerie Générale entitled L'Ombre Fauve (The Shadow of a Beast).
As the scent develops, it gets better and better and more and more interesting a concoction of the legendary Tonkin musk, which used to be tinctured. Meshing now more intimately with the skin, it gathers power yet is never vulgar. It reaches an apex where it smells pretty sharp like urine can smell - a facet I retain from my experience of smelling real Tonkin musk. It retains all the while an old-world quality creating an imaginary historical olfactory landscape in which authentic, non-man-made smells abound. This scent is from an era when buildings were made out of stones and concrete did not exist.
The floral facet also becomes more reigning. This is the musk of a conquerant, of someone who looks at the world from atop a horse, ready to forge ahead with a solar energy.
Another composition it makes me think of is of Santa Maria Novella Muschio Oro, one of my personal favorite musk incarnations for its off-beat and old-world quality.
While the composition has power and charm, it risks after a while feeling a bit antiquarian. I appreciate the scent, its rawish animality, but it can feel a bit dated too. The sweetish part paradoxically feels the most old in an age when our notion of sweetness in fragrances has considerably evolved thanks to the gourmand genre.
Technically, you can also reproach the fragrance for not having enough lastingness despite its initial energy and solar quality. The base becomes extremely quiet after some time, which I find is too soon. Musk is traditionally a fixative, so it's counter-type in my opinion to make it too timid too quickly. What could be an improvement on the fragrance would be a more lasting sillage as well as more depth in the base. Perhaps its pure-parfum origin influences this absence of sillage.
I always give the example of Chanel Sycomore (2008) for a base-notes phase which seems to never want to stop conversing with you. In a way, you could think that Musc Tonkin is also a conceptual work, so it can vanish after having made its statement. I still think that given the sensual nature of musk - musk in fact is sensuality itself - and its history as a perfumery fixative, that it should be particularly long-lasting, instead of the reverse.
All in all, this is a musk to be smelled and experienced.