Angel Belsey is a Londoner. She owns too much perfume and too many books.

Muscs Koublaï Khän

I recently discussed a couple of words that begin to feature regularly in your reading when you start to develop a more serious interest in perfume: Mitsouko and cumin. Actually, that discussion was slightly wrong. Yes, Mitsouko turns up with alarming regularity in just about any perfume discussion--but cumin may not, depending on where you start your own journey. I started mine in the darker, seedier part of Perfume Town, thanks to my lifelong interest in patchouli, musk, amber, and even jasmine (which seemed more innocent at the time than it really is). Cumin hangs out on all the corners and in all the bars on that side of the tracks, so naturally I saw more of it.

So today I want to have a little discussion about another big player on the skank side of town, one you're definitely going to read about if your perfume interests are like mine. Three little letters: MKK. And those letters stand for Muscs Koublaï Khän.

When you read about Muscs Koublaï Khän without having smelled it yourself, you may well become a little frightened. Various commenters refer to it as "disgusting," "fecal," "the smell of unwashed private parts," "dirty matted fur," "dairy farm," and so on. They say it's packed with sweat and cumin. One commenter's husband, upon catching its sillage, asked whether the cats had peed in the house; another commenter said she had anxiety dreams while wearing it.

But then others say something quite different. They say it's warm, wearable, human, sweet, peachy, powdery, even floral.

This leads me on to a brief digression: One important thing about the reviews I do here (and I think this probably applies to most fragrance-focused websites) is that it's very hard to give a truly negative review of any given scent. This is because (1) body chemistry varies so much that what works with your skin may not work with mine, and (2) even if something works with your skin, you may not like the fragrance. I can talk about whether I personally like something or not, but it would usually be wrong to say that something is simply a "bad" fragrance.

So, while in real life I can be (to my husband's dismay) a very black and white person with defined (and sometimes inhumanly logical) ideas of right and wrong, in Perfume Town I'm a real relativist. I'll try anything at least once, and I'm unlikely to pass judgment even if it's not personally right for me. In fact, spending time in the world of scent is probably a good way to become a little more flexible and understanding in everyday life--


Anyway, MKK is one of the few Serge Lutens offerings for which I have both a wax sample and a liquid sample, and it's through the experience of trying both that I can say that the wax samples are good approximations of the "juice" (as it's sometimes called), but they're not quite the same.

Upon trying the wax sample, you might well say to yourself, "Man, if you think this smells fecal, I need to start eating what you're eating." The wax goes on quite tender, peachy, and powdery, and on me it quickly turns into a floral musk, then fades down to honey.

There's nothing more to it. Yes, if I squint, I can perhaps see how the peach might be slightly overripe, and the musk is present, so it does smell animalic in the way that musk does. But if, having read all the reviews, you were expecting a rampaging sweaty bull, you might be surprised, confused, and perhaps a little disappointed by the wax.

The liquid, though, is an entirely different, ahem, animal. It goes on very adamant that it is going to smell musky, and you have no choice about it. Straight away, depending on your chemistry, this is where Muscs Koublaï Khän will take a variety of routes. Some people will indeed possibly get a fecal scent; some will get an animal scent; I think I am lucky, because I just get a clean human scent (no sweat, no cumin!). It's not dirty or embarrassing on me (some say they can't wear it to church because it smells like they've just got up to no good). On me, it just smells like human skin, amplified.

Another digression: I don't know if you've ever read Perfume by Patrick Süskind, but I first read it when I was around 14. I have been told that it's not one of his better books, but I loved it as a teenager and re-read it many times.

Anyway, my point is that the main character in Perfume is born without his own human scent, and that he becomes a perfumer with an aim to capture various types of human scents to use on himself. If Muscs Koublaï Khän had been around, he could have saved himself a lot of bother (and we might have a few more pretty redheads knocking around the gene pool).

So, yes, the first couple of hours of MKK determine the path it's going to take you down--and it's important to note that you've really got no choice about your chemistry AND it's got a lot of staying power. If you're trying a liquid sample for the first time, do it on a weekend, and for heaven's sake don't get it on your clothes until you know you like it.

Once you're a couple of hours down the road, though, the gentle heart of Muscs Koublaï Khän comes to the forefront. On me it's that tender, peachy, powderiness that I get from the wax sample, and from reading various reviews online I believe it's similar for a lot of people, even those who were unfortunately led into a barnyard at first. I remember someone writing that it's sleepy and warm, like being snuggled up in bed.

Many people seem to agree (though I haven't tried it) that MKK will layer well with other fragrances, because it stays close to the skin and is not overpowering. That's quite a different sentiment from "cat pee and toilets," isn't it? I do wonder if you'd need to wait for the heart to come shining through before attempting to layer, though--you could end up with all kinds of mess otherwise.

The ultimate judgment, then?: well, it's hard to say. In all honesty, I don't think I really like Muscs Koublaï Khän, but it's something I keep coming back to, so I'll happily admit to finding it intriguing. I'm still not convinced by it, though--see above, where I said that even if something works on your skin, you may not like the fragrance. And it does work on my skin; on me, there's no danger of it smelling like I've soiled myself, so I suppose I'll finish up the liquid sample and see where I am then. These Serge Lutens scents have a way of inveigling their way into one's heart.

Muscs Koublaï Khän, Serge Lutens, 1998 Notes: civet, castoreum, costus roots, cistus labdanum, ambergris, Moroccan rose, ambrette seeds, vanilla, patchouli, musk

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