Asking a parfumier about their favourite olfactory note is a difficult question. When pushed, Roja Dove talks most colourfully about the weirdness and wonders of civet – both for the alchemy it creates and its extraordinary backstory, which traces back to African tradition and folklore. Around 99 per cent of people who smell unadulterated civet would recoil. It is a weird and complex hit of butter, barnyard and something intangibly kinky. But as a tiny component in the mix of Guerlain’s Shalimar, Chanel No 5 and Tom Ford’s Noir, it elevates a fragrance in a way few other ingredients can. 

“Our attraction to it can be explained by something quite obvious,” says Dove. “It smells of the anus. So, when we get a whiff of it, our brain knows what’s nearby. It’s a trigger.” Dove has a well-rounded Patrick Süskind perspective on civet, believing our perception of scents is culturally specific, and that Europeans have a paranoia about germs and over-sanitise everything. Like whisky or blue cheese, appreciating civet is a refined art, and the 99 per cent of people who recoil simply lack taste: “In Ethiopia, it was traditional to put it in your bathwater if you were a woman getting married, and the groom would have it as a paste in his hair.”

Dove has a favourite party trick, where he hands a sample of civet around to gauge people’s reactions to the smell, and then layers a more accessible fragrance over it on his skin. The result is a kind of sorcery, adding depth and opening it up. “It’s extraordinary how it changes. An ordinary perfume becomes extraordinary. And people adore it.”

The parfumier and author Mandy Aftel has her own museum – the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents – close to her home in Berkeley, California, which includes hundreds of natural essences, including an antique jar of civet. “It has the perfect yin and yang – there’s nothing else like it,” she says, “It’s the original faecal floral. It’s not just how it smells – it’s how it affects everything else. It’s like cooking with salt – if you cook well, you don’t get salty food, you get a more vibrant taste.”

For decades organic civet was a key component in Chanel No 5, Jean Patou Joy, Schiaparelli’s Shocking and Cartier’s Le Must de Cartier, among many others. So overwhelming was the odour that there were “civet rooms” at the HQs of luxury brands with extra-thick doors to prevent it seeping out and polluting the rest of the building. But sourcing organic civet is deeply problematic: it is excreted from a gland near the anus of the civet, used as a way to mark territory in the wild. The farming of civets goes back to the 12th century, but the beauty industry unanimously abandoned the use of the natural musk as part of its cruelty-free ethics awakening in the 1990s. The major brands made the manufacture of a convincing synthetic civetone a priority, and they had the budget, spurred on by public pressure, to do it. Today, all mass-produced fragrances – no matter their price point – use synthetic civetone that is indeterminable from the “real thing”.

Animalic magic

Must de Cartier, £158 for 50ml parfum
Must de Cartier, £158 for 50ml parfum
Memento Mori, $210 for 8ml EDP, aftelier.com
Memento Mori, $210 for 8ml EDP, aftelier.com
Civet de Nuit, $400 for 48ml EDP, areejledore.com
Civet de Nuit, $400 for 48ml EDP, areejledore.com
Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles, £83 for 100ml EDP, roullierwhite.com
Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles, £83 for 100ml EDP, roullierwhite.com
Serge Lutens Musc Koublai Khan, €290 for 50ml EDP
Serge Lutens Musc Koublai Khan, €290 for 50ml EDP

“We have not used any animal-derived animalic notes in our fragrances for a long time,” says Dr Shimei Fan, chief scientific officer of Coty, the company that produces Calvin Klein fragrances. “In CK Obsession we use a synthetic civetone – in combination with different balsamic and musky notes – that serves to enhance and extend the soft sensual facets, ensuring the scent lingers in the air. Animalic notes have historically been used in perfumery to impart sensuality, depth and richness to fragrance composition. The sourcing of these ingredients changed many years ago, as scientists were able to identify the key molecules driving the olfactive signature and produce them synthetically, removing the need to source them from animals.” 

Nevertheless, farming continues with very little regulation. It’s still a touchy subject for many. Chanel declined to participate in this story, even though it hasn’t used natural civet since 1998. Much of what’s now farmed ends up in China, for medicinal use, but a small percentage still makes its way into the fragrance market.

And there are those who believe that civet farming might yet be made legitimate again. As Dan Riegler of the Apothecary’s Garden blog and shop based in Hamilton, Canada says: “Families in Ethiopia have been farming them for hundreds of years. In the past at least, farmers would feed their civets high-protein foods such as eggs and meat even if their families had to eat much simpler food.” Farmers in Africa have created ritual around what they do, customarily using an ox horn cup to collect the excretion, and the vessels are handed down from father to son. There’s also a belief that strangers can’t look at a farmer’s civet, or bad luck will befall it. Riegler visits Africa regularly and is actively involved in trying to take the oxymoron out of ethical civet farming. “I am travelling to Kenya soon to work with a farmer there,” he tells me. “I am looking at harvesting civet paste from rocks after it has been naturally secreted, so there are no cages used.” 

One of the very few parfumiers who will admit using contemporaneously farmed civet is the man known as Russian Adam, based in Jakarta, founder of the niche fragrance brand Areej Le Doré. “I never believed ethical civet was possible, and never used it because of the cruelty involved,” he says. “But then I came across a farmer in Ethiopia whose civets have the run of his garden and are only brought to a cage three times a month to have paste collected. I watched the process and was reassured enough by his treatment of the animals to collaborate with him. We recently distilled natural civet from the farm with rare Indian sandalwood into a rose water. This result is mindblowing – extremely rich and animalic. I think it is the first time ever that civet has been distilled.” 

Currently, Russian Adam uses an antique civet for his Civet de Nuit fragrance, a one-batch scent that will never be made again. Civet de Nuit is actually soft on civet notes, with more pronounced tones of tobacco and sandalwood. What Russian Adam comes up with next in conjunction with his farmer could create an argument by certain parfumiers for the use of an ingredient that has been organically derived. But it’s unlikely that anyone would notice a difference if Civet de Nuit was made with synthetics.

Ethics in civet farming are rare because the more animals a farmer has, the more civet they harvest, so the more profit is generated. “PETA Asia has investigated and revealed the filthy and cramped conditions the civets are confined in,” says PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk. “Male civets have their glands scraped every eight to 10 days, a process so traumatic and painful it causes many animals to withdraw into shock and starve to death.” Russian Adam’s description of his Ethiopian farmer suggests his contact is an outlier. And if Dan Riegler manages to find a way to make foraged civet achievable, it will be ruinously expensive. Niche parfumiers who want to work with all-natural ingredients are likely to buy it, but that’s a tiny market. And it’s unlikely to change the nature of farming as a whole. Helping the civet farmers that PETA has investigated create alternative ways of making a living is essential. And options are limited.

From left: Calvin Klein Obsession, £74 for 100ml EDP. Chanel No 5, £126 for 100ml EDP. Guerlain Shalimar Eau de Toilette, £72 for 50ml EDT. Le Labo Fragrances Oud 27, £157 for 50ml EDP
From left: Calvin Klein Obsession, £74 for 100ml EDP. Chanel No 5, £126 for 100ml EDP. Guerlain Shalimar Eau de Toilette, £72 for 50ml EDT. Le Labo Fragrances Oud 27, £157 for 50ml EDP © Brea Souders

Besides, such is the quality of synthetic civetone these days that the need for farms seems obsolete. Bal à Versailles, originally produced in the 1960s by Jean Desperez, then brought back to market – using synthetics – by a Florida-based businessman a few years ago, is one such example. Whenever Roja Dove can get his hands on stock, he buys it in bulk to sell alongside his own fragrances online. “Bal à Versailles is so good,” he says of its appeal. “They almost never produce it, and it’s amazing. It is an opulent reinterpretation of a very old accord called a L’Origan, which was first created by Coty in a perfume bearing the same name. It was developed into an amber style, with an important element of carnation and a warm clove-like note – a creation that defined a fragrance genre.” At Roullier White in south-east London, a store that specialises in rare fragrances, it has been out of stock for more than a year.

Look at many of the most distinctive fragrances of modern times, and you’ll frequently find a whiff of civetone, including Veilleur de Nuit by Serge Lutens and La Botte from Byredo. There’s a louche, sexy accent to them. Go back further, and it was even more common. When Elsa Schiaparelli worked with her nose Jean Carles to create Shocking in the 1930s, civet was a key component. Heavy rose notes were in the mix too, as Schiaparelli wanted to create the olfactory equivalent of her trademark pink. But the science behind it was raunchier: “Her parfumier used beeswax, and worked the civet around the rose note, so it smelt honeyed,” says Dove. “It was in homage to what was once called ‘odor di femina’. Likewise, when a tiger went on a killing spree in Pandharkawada back in 2018, hunters lured the cat in by spraying civetone-infused Obsession by Calvin Klein on their camera traps. 

Pheromones aren’t a trend that comes and goes, they are our essential scent, so it makes sense that parfumiers would want to play with the ideas around it. When Mandy Aftel set out to create a fragrance to commemorate “someone she had loved and lost”, she reached for a century-old bottle of civet paste. “I wanted it to be a sad perfume,” she explains. “It’s about being close to a certain human’s body, and being familiar with their smell, but knowing they are gone and you’ll never experience it again.” The result was Memento Mori. “The body aromas in the fragrance make it really precious,” she says.

Whether synthetic, antique or foraged, civet transports you, even if you don’t realise what it is you’re smelling, or where it’s taking you. It’s a profound pleasure, both a common and uncommon scent. It’s weird, primal and magical. It’s human. Breathe it in, but have respect for the civets to enjoy it too.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
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