White musk is the name given to the class of synthetic molecules that replaced natural (animal) musk in perfume-making. White musk has been in use since the late 1800s.
Musk was the original name given to the odiferous substance extracted from the gland of the male musk deer. Believed to have aphrodisiac properties, musk was used extensively as a fragrance fixative until the late 1800s, when economic and ethical concerns drove the development of a synthetic substitute. Natural musk was used in perfume-making as late as 1979, when the musk deer was protected as an endangered species by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). CITES continues to regulate the amount of natural musk that can be traded, but illegal poaching of the musk deer continues to be problematic.
What is "White Musk?"
"White musk" is the name given to the family of synthetic musks used in modern perfume-making, the first of which was developed around 1890. White musk is described as clean and "skin-like" and is immediately recognizable when used in contemporary fragrances. There are three "classes" of white musks: aromatic nitro musks, polycyclic musk compounds and macrocyclic musk compounds.
Albert Baur accidentally discovered this artificial musk in 1888 while trying to develop a more effective form of trinitrotoluene. After the first nitro-musk (musk Bauer) was discovered, similar nitro-musks were created, including musk ketone, musk xylene, musk ambrette and moskene.
Polycyclic musks, called so because they have more than one ring in their molecular structure, became popular after World War II, supplanting the use of nitro-musks. Polycyclic musks were often used to scent laundry detergents and went by the chemical names of galaxolide, tonalide, phantolide, celestolide and traesolide. In the 1990s, it was discovered that polycyclic musks were potentially harmful, as they had the potential to disrupt cellular metabolism.
Macrocyclic musks, which are derived from plants, most closely resemble natural musk. Leopold Ruzicka first synthesized the compound in small amounts in 1926, but macrocyclic musks were not produced commercially until the late 1990s due to difficulties in their manufacture that drove the price up. Interestingly, around half of the population is unable to smell macrocyclic musks.
White Musk and Popular Fragrances
White musk is considered a staple note in many popular fragrances, and some fragrances "spotlight" the white musk smell. These include Serge Lutens' Clair de Musc, Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Cristal de Musc, Il Profumo's Musc Bleu and Montale's White Musk.