There is still much about last year’s eye-opening trip to Java that I haven’t spoken of, not least the vanilla course and the amazing things we experienced on the plantation in Bandung. But I was wearing Bal A Versailles the other day, lost in its animalic, bacchanalian richness, when I suddenly remembered that I had, in fact, actually seen (and smelled) a real civet in the flesh – the animal whose secretions form a crucial, and giddily sensual, component in some of the world’s most important perfumes.


On that day we were taking a break from vanilla to look at cardamom, lemongrass, dragonfruit, and papaya plantations, but just as we were leaving, after a delicious home-cooked lunch, our guide happened to mention, as part of an overview of the farm, the special gourmet ‘civet coffee’ (or kopi luwak) that they produced in small quantities. As this is by far the most expensive coffee in the world, produced by letting the Asian Palm Civet, or Paradoxurus Hermaphroditus (what a name!) consume the coffee berries and gathering the subsequent droppings that have left the beans intact and undigested but imbued with the luxuriant velvet of the civet’s internal magic, the civet coffee formed a significant form of extra income.



On that day, having only ever read about the great animals of perfume until that point, I was astonished to have the chance to actually see one in front of me, and begged the plantation owners to take a civet from the cage and let me photograph it. As you will see, they did, and what a beautiful animal it was, if scratchy, and writhey; muscular and fierce. Poor creature, though – there have been many reports of cruelty inflicted on civets for their use in the global coffee trade, and they of course suffer even more for their use in scent: kept in cages and antagonized until the prized civet musk is painfully extracted from their anal glands, made into tinctures, and used, in miniscule amounts, in fine perfumery.



It is not really my aim to discuss the ethics of animal ingredients here – though feel free, of course, to comment on how you feel about this issue (as far I as am concerned, as a non-vegetarian, although a person who doesn’t eat much meat, I don’t really have a leg to stand on in this regard, as any animal slaughtered for the butcher surely suffers way more than a civet locked in a smoky cage, but I do of course realize that there are differing opinions on this subject). Also, for a more detailed and comprehensive overview of animalic notes in perfume, there is none better than this article by the brilliant Perfume Shrine, which covers this salacious area of perfumery frankly, knowledgeably, and quite beautifully.




So, civet. Not my favourite note I will admit, and yet, when it is used properly and judiciously, I can love it. In the minute doses it is added to in such classics as Arpège and Calèche, Shalimar and the like, this sweet, warm, faecal material gives an incomparable skin-softness and carnality that you notice the lack of immediately in reformulations. It is much more pronounced in Bal A Versailles, though, and as I have written before, on the wrong day, if you are too sweaty, or in ill humour, this thick and gunky floral animalic can be quite repulsive. At the right time, though, there is nothing better. Similarly, Kouros, one of the most raunchy of masculines I have worn quite successfully over the years, would be nothing without civet and its urinous intimations of male reproduction; combined with its plethora of spices and florals and citrics it is quite the potent prick-teaser .



Having said that, much as I love such scents as Ysatis, Paloma Picasso, Givenchy Gentleman, Mystère, Must De Cartier, Obsession and their like, all irreproachably erotic and compelling, even a mere soupçon too much of civet in a perfume and I am sometimes repelled. I often feel this way about vintage Joy, for example, and also Jicky and Mouchoir De Monsieur, which take the civet note to a very precarious extreme that I can’t entirely abide, although it is nothing compared to the plentifully civetful Ungaro Pour Homme II, which is hilarious.



The most perfect use of civet, ultimately, I would say, is probably in Chanel N°5: so multifaceted and charming with its champagne aldehydes and silky florals, and that rosy, dermal, softness in the base, partly achieved with the help of the bright-eyed, unwilling animal you see in the picture.





In fact, like some crazed pervert, as soon as I realized there was a civet on the premises I leapt up, dying to sniff it out like wide-eyed, nose-quivering, Grenouille in Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. And there I was, actually sniffing around the bottom of the cage, much to the amusement of the Indonesian coffee growers and purveyors of cardamom, who seemed to have no idea what I was doing or even talking about. You know, though, there really was some kind of perfumey odour hanging about the corners of the animals’ cages. I am not one for dung, but there was, somewhere in the feral undertones, a whiff of Chanel N°5, its closing stages, lodged odorously in the depths of that rich animal bouquet: its, cruel, redolent, red-blooded origin.









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  1. Would you say that the civet tone is stronger in The vintage Ysatis than in The present Ysatis? If you would be So kind as to crawl as low for a civet whiff in the Douglas And Etos-version as you did in Indonesia for the real stuff? Because If the vintage kind is stronger I’m going to look for one. Effect might be interesting. So what do you think Or what do you smell is better to ask.

  2. PS The film was endearing. You handled the cat beautifully. Maybe it was the magical Name of Chanet that lured him to the catwalk

  3. Well, as I have only an icon to refer to …
    What is vintage Ysatis? From the eightiies, nineties? When did it go “off” according to you?

  4. Thanks. And I was looking more At The cat than At The person when I looked At it again

  5. No I don’t think So. But can you be Catty? Or even better, cat-like? Once there were cats in my life, red ones. And I remember them with absolute fondues, no fondness. (I left that one for you, because you like vertikkingen, misspellings)

  6. jennyredhen

    Neil…. you are absolutely hilarious and immensely entertaining. Some light relief. at this fraught time of year……Felice Navidad.

  7. Cotton Red

    Were you able to sample some kopi luwak while there? I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but my husband & I brew a small pot of it nearly every weekend as a Saturday morning ritual to go with our breakfast. It’s the only coffee I’ve been able to consistently finish an entire cup of; it’s THAT smooth. Anytime my family back home asks what I’d like in my yearly care package, it’s unfailingly #1 on my list (definitely worth its weight in gold). Considering my intense fondness of animalic scents (whether Muscs Koublai Khan or that of my half-shiba inu dog), there may be a correlation based on your post. In any case, thanks for sharing such a beautiful diary entry of your travel there. Btw, I scored a small vintage sample of Bal a Versailles (can’t ascertain which concentration)- swoon! So thanks for that as well!

    • Really: you like it? I am delighted! How does it smell on you? When are you in Japan?

      My email is opoponax8@hotmail.com if you want some Nippon insider tips.

      • Cotton Red

        BaV for whatever reason recalls my previous experience with vintage Arpège (perhaps due to its dense floral arrangement?) but blends with my own skin more readily. What I appreciate about BaV is that I can never fully discern its entire structure, as I always get hit by a radically different facet whenever I catch a whiff or hold my skin to my nose merely seconds apart. It can play peek-a-boo with me all day long, which really tickles my senses to no end. This is definitely one to wear to get lost in some kind of olfactory reverie.

    • Re the coffee though, I have a small bag of it somewhere but I just can’t face it. I don’t like smooth coffee to begin with ( I like it perky n’ fresh ), but the word ‘smooth’ combined with pooped out coffee cherries gives me the jeebies.

  8. That civet was so precious. I would adore just holding it and rubbing his scent all over me. I would be sooooo skanky, but I would adore it.
    I would live to try that coffee, it sounds amazing, simply amazing.

  9. ninakane1

    That civet was GORGEOUS!! So cute and perky! I never realised that was in Chanel number 5. Lovely to hear your voice on this. Very audio-genic! You’d make a good radio presenter.

  10. Mimi G

    I hands down adore your writing ! All of it ! Including your latest rant about knot and snobbery sales people about which I totally agree . .Merry Christmas !!! Happy hols in Miami .

    • I have tried Weasel Coffee which is a more affordable version of Kopi Luwak and it certainly had a uniqueness to it, nice but not anything special. Civet is a love /hate note for me, as you say too much and I can’t with a perfume, I have a Joy EDT from about 10 years ago with the black cap and the civet is overwhelming. I recently bought vintage La Nuit and I almost gagged, the rope musty warmth of the scent is a no no for me, I will be trying again in Winter, till then LN will sit in my cabinet looking fancy. That palm civet looked like it wanted to escape, the whole situation is saddening, thanks to those coffee drinkers who require their exclusive hit. If the perfume world’s hand can be forced why can’t the special food industry? Thanks for sharing:)

  11. Love the short clip. Wow, to see a real civet cat. I would love to. Somehow, I’d pictured them larger, but what do I know? I thought it was nice of him/her not to bite the handler. Admirable restraint. And the cage smelling N°5-ish? Ah, I wish I’d been there.

    An interesting subject. I haven’t smelled the masculine civet bombs you mention, but I’d like to for perspective. I don’t seem to be particularly sensitive to the note, it seems to me, or at least rarely if ever put off by it. I do love the notoriously civet-y perfumes I’ve tried, but to my nose the civet never leaps out. Just dabbed on some vintage Joy parfum to experience the overload, but it seems to be going over my head (nostrils?). Musks, too, I can’t really sense separate and apart from the rest of a composition. I do know that almost every classic that’s been reformulated lacks enormously in the base-note department to my nose, so in that sense I’m very aware. I had thought that Papillon’s Salome had a good whack of civet up-front — seems significantly fecal in the first half hour — but I’ve read that I’m not smelling civet at all, but rather castoreum and hyrax, neither of which has ever struck me as shitty. Hmmm. Confusing. As for BaV, only that crazy reeking batch of edc that was going around ten years ago or so ever made me pull my head back in temporary aversion. More the shock of so much of it.

    I do want to compliment you on your speaking voice, Neil. It’s very easy on the ears. Somehow, I had a feeling it would be.

  12. Tara C

    You have a lovely voice! And what a thrill to see a real civet cat. I wish they were kept in more comfortable quarters, but at least the handler seemed gentle.

    My favourite civetty scent is vintage Ysatis, god it was wonderful. Need to find some more, all I have is a newer bottle someone gave me but is quite unsatisfactory.

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