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.