Saturday, March 23, 2019

Olfactory Curiosities: Equine Musk from a Horse Named James Bond

If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living that moment all over again. —Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

James Bond's debonair horse musk has been macerating for a little over six months. The musk tincture was made using pieces of an aromatic callous-type growth called equine horse chestnut that grooms remove by gently rubbing them off a horse's leg. The shape and positioning of equine horse chestnuts are unique to each horse. Their origin and purpose is still a mystery, though some speculate that they're vestigial scent glands or toes.

Equine musk isn't found among animalic essences in a perfumer's training kit. There are several musks (all synthetic), castoreum, civet, civetone (synthetic civet), and ambergris-type molecules, but nothing associated with the smell of horses that's derived from horses. This is rather odd, considering that perfumery was born in the Middle East in 1200 BCE and research suggests that horses were domesticated 9000 years ago in the Arabian Peninsula.

James Bond, the horse with the debonaire musk.
Image by Michelle Krell Kydd.

Horse musk derived from equine horse chestnut was explored by a group of curious natural perfumers, and documented by Lisa Abdul-Quddus in a post for Le Parfumeur Rebelle (February 21, 2011):

It happens often, yet I still get amazed at how simple actions can spark inspiration and discoveries. Take, for example, a conversation back in January 2009 between Natural Perfumer Justine Crane and one of her Antiquarian Perfumery students, Paulha Whitaker. Paulha started a discussion about a subject totally different from where that discussion ended. Basically, she casually mentioned the smell of [equine] horse chestnuts and very briefly described what they were. Justine suggested she tincture them and voila The Natures Nexus Academy of Perfumery Arts students had begun a journey in horse smells. Paulha generously supplied the students with [equine] horse chestnuts and there began the experimentation.

Lisa Abdul-Quddus attends Smell & Tell programs at the Ann Arbor District Library and shared her equine horse chestnut story during a 2015 presentation I gave called Musk: The Essence of Seduction. A few weeks later she shared a sample of her tincture with me. I still remember the first time I smelled it. It was sublime, powdery, musky and evocative of softer tones found in Tonquin deer musk.

James Bond, retired racehorse extraordinaire, enjoying the good
 life in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Image by Michelle Krell Kydd.

I visited a retired racehorse named James Bond in Ann Arbor, Michigan with Rebecca Bizonet, a librarian and archivist, who is friends with the horse's owner. We obtained equine horse chestnut for tincturing, which Bizonet used to shape Madam Plague Doctor perfume for The Plague Doctor's Cabinet of Olfactory Curiosities. She's attended Smell & Tell events since 2012 and is an avid natural perfume hobbyist.

Equine horse chestnut from James Bond. The pocket knife was used to
break up pieces after they were removed by hand. Instruments aren't
needed to remove stubborn chestnuts, but are helpful in separating the
layers after they're removed. Image by Michelle Krell Kydd.

I obtained rear and front samples of equine horse chestnut, and front and rear samples of another type of keratin-containing growth called an ergot (unrelated to alkaloid producing ergot fungus found on rye and related plants). Rebecca and I also visited an Icelandic horse named Zoltan, whose owner loved the idea of tincturing the smell of a horse, a scent she described as spiritual and comforting.

An equine horse chestnut on the inside of James Bond's front right leg,
seen to the left of his shadow. Image by Michelle Krell Kydd.

The goal of the equine musk experiment was to find out if the there was a difference between the smell of rear and front equine horse chestnuts. This is what I discovered after making tinctures with a 1:5 ratio of animal material to 190 proof alcohol, and evaluating them after six months of maceration:
  • Rear horse chestnut tincture from James Bond smells of sweet hay, flinty musk, powder, sun-warmed blankets and horsehair. A facet in the drydown smells like pages from an old book. 
  • Front horse chestnut tincture from James Bond starts off boozy and fruity, carrying the same tonal qualities as the rear horse chestnut. Drydown is more assertive and vaguely salty—it smells like the horse is in the room with you when you close your eyes and smell the fragrance blotter. 
  • Front and back equine ergots from James Bond were combined to create the proper ratio of aroma material to alcohol (there were less ergots to work with). Equine ergot tincture is milder than equine horse chestnut tincture. It has a faint trace of white floralcy (methyl dihydrojasmonate) when the fragrance blotter starts to dry.
  • Front and rear equine horse chestnuts were collected from Zoltan, an Icelandic horse known for long hair on its mane and tail. Samples were collected when the outside temperature was 90 degrees, and Zoltan was a bit sweaty compared to James Bond, who has less hair. 
  • The front equine horse chestnut tincture from Zoltan smells funky and barn-like when initially smelled a perfume blotter. The funk disappears when the alcohol evaporates. The resulting aroma is sweet, musky, powdery and redolent of dry straw and horsehair. Something akin to Tonquin deer musk is also present (confirmation by GC-Mass Spectrometry needed) with nuances of honey and vanillic urine.
  • The rear equine horse chestnut from Zoltan smells the same as the sample taken from the front. Similarity in odor may have something to do with the fact that Icelander's have more hair and produce more sweat on a hot day, which affects their overall scent, including that of equine horse chestnut.
Jame Bond's dark brown coat shines under a warm September sun
revealing topline musculature. Image by Michelle Krell Kydd.

Equestrians have strong bonds with their animals that are meaningful, emotional and highly sensory. Sara Stenson of Art of Equine Massage and Bodywork has this to say about the scent of a horse:

The scent of a horse is holy to an equestrian, a spiritual mantra, and a koan for living. We can go for a few days without that bouquet in our noses but that is pushing our limits. When things get rough we hightail it for the paddocks to replenish our fragrance of horse. It is a warm smell, somewhat of a musty smell like hay in the spring, it is a sweet smell, more radiant than a rose. Bury your face in a horse's neck and the whole of that horse enters into your blood stream to permeate your whole body until all the nerve fibers vibrate in its essence. It is a natural sedative and no perfume made comes close to what horse musk awakens inside the human. It stirs the sense of tranquility, that somehow no matter what is wrong the aroma of a horse will make the world seem fresh again. It is a whiff of contentment, a sigh, a breath, a whisper, a kiss of wind that floats you into their soul, down the portal of their eyes to see the truth written there. The world is once again at peace.                                                                           
—Sara Stenson, "Scent of a Horse" (May 22, 2015)

Research on the aromatic properties of equine horse chestnut tincture can shape new molecules for use in perfumery. The first step would be a GC-Mass Spec analysis of tinctures to isolate specific molecules responsible for dominant olfactory characteristics of equine horse chestnut.

These molecules should possess performance characteristics of animalic base notes used in perfumery (see notes section). We need this kind of creativity and innovation in fine fragrance, especially where animalic materials are considered as horses aren't harmed when their chestnuts are removed as it's part of their regular grooming routine.

Experience Equine Musk on March 27, 2019
I'll be sampling equine horse chestnut tincture from James Bond at Haute Skank: An Olfactory Menagerie of Animalics in Perfumery on Wednesday, March 27, 2019 at the Ann Arbor District Library. I've been asked to develop a Smell & Tell program about my equine musk experiment and am giving it serious consideration. Smell & Tell events at AADL are free to the public and take place monthly.

Horse chestnuts that grow on trees.

Horse Chestnuts and Equine Horse Chestnuts are Different
Equine horse chestnuts are unrelated to horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) that grow on trees, which are toxic to horses as they contain esculin, a coumarin glucoside. The scent of horse chestnut flowers is beautiful and deserves further exploration in perfumery. Horse chestnut tincture has a barn-like aroma (lower volume funk when compared to monofloral chestnut honey). The term "equine horse chestnut" refers to the aromatic growth on a horse's leg versus the plant material.

Function of Animalics in Perfumery
Animalic notes reduce volatility and bouquet ingredients in a fragrance formula. They also and add a touch of sexiness to perfumes, evoking intimate human aromas that remind us of the fine line that occupies the space between intimacy and animal archetypes.

Animalics Can Be Polarizing
Yuanxiao Xu, a copyright specialist at the University of Michigan Library, invited me to speak at a lunch and learn on copywriting smells and tastes on October 11, 2018. (Xu attended Follow Your Nose in the Great Outdoors, an autumn scent hike, in September 2018). I blind sampled six-week-old equine horse chestnut tincture from Zoltan with attendees (it was allowed to dry on perfume blotters and enclosed in glassine paper the day before the event).

A majority of attendees described Zoltan's musk as floral, powdery/chalky, musky, sweet, sweaty, like a wet screen door, and almond-like. One attendee found it fusty and metallic. She revealed that she was sensitive to smells, which makes sense when one considers that scent evaluation is subjective. It's not easy to migrate to an evaluative point of view when you're distracted by what you like or dislike, which is what I focus on when teaching others how to evaluate aromas at Smell & Tell events.

Blind Evaluation of Zoltan's Musk at Westland Library
Equine horse chestnut tincture from Zoltan was used at the September 26, 2018 Nose-talgia Smell & Tell. The tincture was 13 days old (a mature tincture requires three to six months).  The best evaluations came from two elderly women who appeared to be in their seventies. Each was spry and confident, one more outgoing than the other (the mild mannered woman later asked why her dog "Suzie" liked to spend a lot of time smelling her when she entered the house after an excursion).

The two women offered the following descriptors before being told that they were smelling equine horse chestnut tincture on perfume blotters: powdery, sweet, musky, soft, floral/fungal (Suzie's owner) and "smells like outside". The tincture was young and would shape shift in a few weeks, but the descriptors were likely to remain. The "smells like outside" element comes from hay, earth and other natural materials in the horse's environment. The rest is, more than likely, the smell of the horse.

Why Animalics are Attached to Myth
Interest in animalic ingredients as medicinal or aphrodisiac is commonly attached to myth. If an ingredient smelled to high heaven (the excreta-like scent of civet), had a history of use in attack or defense (external or within an animal's body, e.g. ejected as ambergris), or was associated with a rutting beast (deer musk), it was purported to have powers that enhanced fertility/virility, defied death, and/or kept one invigorated when taken as a tonic. Some of these myths continue to be held as beliefs today.

James Bond and Perfume
Sir Roger Moore's favorite perfume was in keeping with suave characters he played in film and television (Simon Templar, James Bond, etc.). Moore's favorite fragrance was Jicky by Guerlain (1889), a perfume that changed fragrance history with its abstract structure and the inclusion of synthetics. It was also a favorite of Sean Connery. Moore gets perfume props because he was a member of the FabergĂ© Inc. board and a debonair Bond.