Kiehl’s Original Musk (1963) is a somewhat basic musk fragrance with an intriguing history, as its success had consequences on the evolution of popular scent in the West throughout the counterculture years of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The story according to the brand is this formula was adapted from a recipe for “love oil” dating back to the 1920’s in the brand’s own archives, which tells you all you need to know about its aphrodisiac properties. Most musk treatments up until the mid-60’s were fecal or urinous applications of civet and hyraceum or fleshy castoreum, in sour arrangements with dry citruses and sandalwood for men, or patchouli and jasmine indole for a soiled-with-sex bedsheets smell for women, very austere or raunchy, leaving little to the imagination either way. There were fluffy nitromusks too, and they often replaced deer musk, which itself is often more fur-like or confectionery in tone, until laundry-clean polycyclic musks of a new generation came into vogue. Before that though, baby boomers were in love with Egyptian musk oils imported from far away lands, sometimes containing real deer, muscone, ambrette, or ambergris mixed with amber resins and indoles, being come-hither without being fully pornographic like some of the “fancy French whorehouse” perfumes their parents warned them to avoid. I know that sounds silly now, but smelling overtly sexual was to be avoided according to the wisdom of those long-gone generations, meaning wearing deliberately-pleasant musky perfumes was an act of rebellion.
Kiehl’s, either by accident or maybe by design assuming the brand had that much foresight, brings this sexy and inviting semi-bohemian musk style into focus without any real animal components, using new replacers like Shangralide and tonquitone (both IFF materials, and Kiehl’s is from New York City just like IFF), plus a host of soapy floral notes to counter-balance. Houbigant via Parfums Parquet (their drugstore division at the time) would attempt something like this when they overhauled Monsieur Houbigant (1967) into Monsieur Musk (1972) with a similar application of soapy florals and animalic musks counterbalanced with some white fluff, although that exercise was marketed strictly to men, had civet and carnation because of it, and wasn’t ambery or spicy. Kiehl’s seeks to be as gender neutral as the conventions of the 1960’s likely allowed at the time, adding some amber, tonka, and patchouli to the melange of neroli, rose, ylang, orris, and muguet up top, before giving way to its fur blanket of tonquitone and similar materials, alongside an easy-to-miss clean white musk filler. The skank is there in just the right amount to definitely smell like the hair of the dog that bit you, but all the mid-century soap tones and muted ambery warmth make Kiehl’s delectably approachable too, for the adventurous. Performance is very long, and Kiehl’s is especially good in the cold, but likely a nightmare in any sort of humidity or heat. Kiehl’s is still considered unisex today, and tends to be looked at as a cheap thrill for seekers of animal delights among the online perfume community spaces.
Ultimately, most flower children of the late 60’s weren’t quite ready for Kiehl’s offering if they weren’t into the straight-from-Egypt stuff found in head shops, so the much-cleaner Alyssa Ashley Musk (1967), which excises all the animalics in favor of creamy white musk and soap, became the real mainstream winner, since it was essentially a mainstreaming of what Kiehl’s had been trying to do. This musk did get quite the reputation for being a taboo animal bomb among US buyers, and for those who hadn’t wandered into French perfumery to sniff the soiled bedsheets of Lanvin, Rochas, or Desprez, I suppose that could be true. Oddly enough, Jovan ended up sitting somewhere in the middle with its own tonquitone-powered musk reverse-engineered from some head shop specimen, having the amber and the fur-rug muskiness of Kiehl’s, without the between-the-legs indoles or huge doses of soap. This more-to-the-point musk got dosed with mint and lavender for men, and then became a huge hit among dive bar sleezeballs across the country for the next 20 years or so. Kiehl’s, daring to be more animal and true-to-source than all the rest, plus arguably more-complex and better made, would remain a notorious inspirational figure lurking in the shadows, and can still be found today, only if you ask a salesperson for a bottle. Obviously, this one is still marketed as a “if you know, you know” kind of thing outside of when displays get trotted out around the holidays. Thumbs up