What happened to the The Great Age of the Castoreum Monsters ?


It’s not much to look at, is it? Anyway, I’ve been working on this post for a while (which discusses only scents marketed to men), but I have decided to just go ahead and publish it, despite the possibility that there may be some mistakes (and if that’s the case I think they will be minor). but if you notice any please leave a comment. Because of the lack of information the public is given for many if not most scents, one can only say so much if one is not an “insider,” such as which ones contain castoreum (it may be required to disclose that on the boxes now, but in the “great age” it was not, apparently). For those of you who don’t know, castoreum is made by beavers, and is literally “animalic;” if you want to know more, read the wikipedia entry:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castoreum

It is often described as smoky, dirty, earthy, animalic, leathery, fiery, inky, bloody, tar-like, etc. (even “synthetic”), though this is in the context of a scent, which might include other notes that change the perception of the castoreum, assuming it is at least fairly strong. Luca Turin said this about Yatagan, which seems to contain quite a bit, in his “Perfumes: The Guide” book (page 363):

Yatagan goes for a uniquely strange, high-pitched, hissing tone, with odd, borderline sweaty-sour notes of caraway and sage up top, and a dry, inky wood structure below…

Note that there is no mention of castoreum! Turin does discuss quite a few perfumery materials and even has a glossary of such terms in his (and Sanchez’) book, but for some reason this material is omitted from all mention in it (from what I recall). In some note pyramids, “leather” seems to be used to describe the castoreum note. It is used in some “feminine” scents, but apparently to a much lesser degree than it is in the “masculine” castoreum monsters. Here are some “masculine” scents which I think contain more than a barely perceptible amount of it:

Yatagan (1976)
One Man Show (1980)
Antaeus (1981)
Krizia Uomo (1984)
Davidoff (1984)
Vermeil (19??)
Salvador Dali Pour Homme (1985)
Les Copains Homme (1990)

There may have been quite a few others in the late 70s and early 80s, and of course this may only be the case for original formulations. For example, in an apparently more recent bottle of Vermeil, the castoreum note seems considerably weaker. However, what I think is the newest formulation of Vermeil is a good “training wheels” scent for castoreum scents, IMO. I wouldn’t include Leonard Pour Homme, Sybaris by Puig, Acteur, or vintage Van Cleef & Arpels Pour Homme because the castoreum in those is not especially strong. From what I’ve read, vintage Trussard Uomo and Marbert Man may contain quite a bit, but I haven’t tried those.

One of the major complaints I have with “Perfumes: The Guide” is that in some reviews there is no mention of what the scent actually smells like (Polo Double Black, for example, which surely is at least somewhat unique!). On the other hand, there are reviews in which the reviewer appears to really want to describe the smell but is tripped up, so to speak, by the castoreum note. For example, below are excerpts from just the Basenotes.net reviews of Salvador Dali Pour Homme. Note that only two of sixty-six reviews mention castoreum, which is one reason why I thought a post about this substance may be so helpful.

Salvador Dali is a dark potion: strange bottle and stranger scent. Having said that, I like this a great deal. Quite unique with a niche-like sense of adventure. Sillage and longevity are outstanding.

I won’t pretend to understand what I am smelling here. Initially it seemed to be a civet-tobacco in the Givenchy Gentleman tradition, but GG mellows into a smooth leather. Salvador Dali Pour Homme is not such a gentleman unless one’s idea of a gentleman is Kim Fowley circa 1968.

There is sweetness in here but I cannot call this a sweet fragrance; it’s certainly not a gourmand. The sweetness is like one of the voices emanating from Regan in “The Exorcist.” It’s there and then someone else shouts a bit louder – first smoke, then tobacco, then leather, then musky, musky civet. Is that Bal a Versailles I just saw for a second?

This is among my more satisfying recent purchases, since I know I won’t come across many clones of this bad boy.

To be honest, i still have not been able to get my nose around, by note, any of the florals i know are in this scent, but is the floral sweetness in it, apart from the vanilla, that makes this scent wearable. In about an hour into wearing, SDpH takes a turn into a much more mellow path, but all i can smell (and feel – strange!) is leather, leather and more leather. The notes do not indicate it but i always detected (subliminally?) castoreum, a lot of it. To confirm this, i have sprayed some AbdesSalaam Attar Profumo Castoreum (pure and natural as castoreum can be, with birch tar added) on one hand several times for a side-by-side with SDpH and yes, that is it. That “note” that has been described as blood, hades, smoke and what have you must be castoreum infusing itself into the other constituent notes. Sublime.

Smoky
You smell the wood burning
It is fresh, wet wood with green still on it
As it starts to dry a more rich smoke smell develops
It’s like a smoke that’s meant to be smelled, not just a nuisance smoke
Then a mossy dark scent starts to emanate
Thus you realize this fire is burning in a hobbit hole with walls of dirt, root, and herb
Intriqued you stepped into the other room
Now you’re surrounded by an earthy, musty smell with a hint of smoke
The smells of odorous trinkets, furniture, and and halfling crafted fragrances mingle
And thus you sit down into a luscious leather armchair with a dusty old book. A crackling wood fire in the room next door.

…You can find him in his basement at night painting still pictures of flowers, using motor oil and burnt rubber for his art. He smells of darkness and cinnamon and he’s aware of his weirdness. His nature is not actually of an animal: more like your surreal image of a dream fantastic creature.

…So I sprayed the thing and went to please my friday. And damn, then it happened! Dark sorcery, gummi-mastery, his magnificence Salvador Dali pour Homme just revealed THE THING!! Rubber, coal, incense. Outstanding and intense. Salvador is the door to my dark path in fragrances.

I am a huge fan of this fragrance, it is both dirty and sweet in its opening: like a dark latrine pit, or perhaps some freakish pitcher plant, into which someone has poured a sack of lime and into which several small animals may have fallen to their deaths. It also reminds me of the sweet smell of a recently dead animal decaying in the hot sun, which has then been covered in spice and added to a bowl of pot pouri. Throughout its early life, there is a dirtiness which is slightly veiled by a sweet spiciness. There is also at the same time, a bitter aspect – almost like cloves are present (even though no cloves are listed as ingredients).

After about an hour (or slightly longer or shorter depending on whether your watch has gone all floppy and has ants crawling all over it) this fragrance has toned down a little, but is still dark and brooding….

Vincent Price bottled…dark, enigmatic, smoky, craggy, menacing, scary to some… but ultimately camp…perhaps like Salvador Dali himself in which case this scent is an artistic triumph that has successfully captured his persona in a smell. If you soaked some burnt toast in Quorum for week, you might end up with something similar to this.

…Trust me, you won’t smell your favorite fragrance notes in this. This is more of a dark morass than a perfume.

Don’t expect me to describe what this smells like using perfume terminology. The best way to describe this is that it smells like burning road tar and metal mixed with every spice, wood and floral note known to man. Though this was released in 1985, it has nothing in common with the big powerhouse frags from that era. Frags like Kouros and Quorum smell mainstream and watered down by comparison. Salvador Dali gives new meaning to the term “powerhouse fragrance”.

If this sounds like a negative review, don’t take it that way, it’s not. This also happens to be the most unique and daring fragrance I have ever smelled. It takes balls to pull off wearing this. This is an extremely dark and spicy fragrance, and you will definitely set yourself apart from anyone else around you. Sure, it smells synthetic, but it also smells very exotic. It deserves a thumbs up for its uniqueness alone, and its refusal to follow any perfume trends. Salvador Dali Pour Homme is OUT THERE.

…Who follows my reviews on Basenotes knows my passion for the naughty dark potions. This one, emphasis apart, is something olfactory grotesque as an obscure hooded fellow whereof you detect under hood white eyes without a face. The problem is that this potion for 3/4 of its development is almost off-putting, strangely and marvellously off-putting. I figure in my mind some old desolate aristocratic theatre but paradoxically (it depends from the level of development) even a huge bare basement where you feel a presence somewhere behind a pillar or an heap of tires. This scent is not particularly viscous or dense but is anyway cold as a stone and dark as dark ink or better it projects the colour of its bottle, dreadful and appalling with those gigantic lips. I wear it just in some occasions, when feel in a certain mood, like a solitary dead man walking in this strange life…

What I have found is that one can go from barely perceiving strong castoreum (when I was a “newbie”) to hating it, and then to really enjoying it. I used to say that some scents possessed a “nose turning” (somewhat astringent, though not as far in that direction as geranium) quality, and ones with strong castoreum used to have that effect on me. My advice is to try to accustom yourself to it over a period of time and by using a lot less sprays than usual, perhaps only one. If you sprayed it to the chest and it’s bothering you, put on another layer of clothing to buffer it a bit. And if you dislike one scent with strong castoreum, you might want to try milder or ones with better balance. I suggest Davidoff or the newest Vermeil formulation, for example, rather than One Man Show, the original Vermeil formulation, or the Dali. Krizia Uomo may work out, but don’t be fooled by the apparent lightness of it at first. The castoreum eventually comes out with a proverbial vengeance. Lastly, consider wearing it during cooler weather at first, and when you think you will be outdoors much of the day. The great age of the castoreum monsters may be gone forever, but many of the scents that best represent it are still available at reasonable prices, at least on ebay, so you don’t have to feel that you missed out on it.

NOTE: For those of you who are saying to yourselves, “he hasn’t really told us what castoreum smells like,” the problem is that it is unique. Once you know what it smells like my guess is that you will always recognize it, so long as there’s more than a tiny amount present. Moreover, for all I know there are different grades/qualities or varieties, so that some smell more vanillic, leathery, or whatever. When I was learning the major notes, I essentially went through a mental checkllist, and whatever I did not understand I would try and correlate with note pyramids. Castoreum should be a bit easier to identify because it is so unique, but I think you really have to “rewire your brain” to understand not only many notes but also how to disentagle them, so to speak, and that will take time and a certain amount of diligent study.

NOTE #2: Others have claimed the following have castoreum: Jules, Bel Ami, Aramis, Macassar, and Quorum. I haven’t studied all of these in great detail and can’t say I’ve detected it in Aramis or Quorum, but I would not be surprised if they had relatively very small amounts. Of course some much older scents contained it, possibly The Knize Ten, but with reformulations and the near impossibility of testing many if not most of the older ones that contained it, there’s no way I can know much about them. In fact, for all I know there was a great castoreum age decades before 1980 !

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2 Comments

Filed under The basics.

2 responses to “What happened to the The Great Age of the Castoreum Monsters ?

  1. Hi Bigsly,
    I wonder if you are correct with Krizia Uomo,since there is no trace of Castoreum in it (K.U., year 1984, I mean the perfume with an heavy pine-needles note). Castoreum smells like a sort of wet animal “fur”, many dislike it, noteable examples are “Portos” by Balenciaga, or vintage Antaeus by Chanel or Knize Ten.
    Real Castoreum was not used anymore since years 1995-2000, replaced by chemical substitutes.
    Have a merry Xmas!

    • How do you know that KU has no castoreum? Have you done a GC test or do you know of such a study? I would agree that the castoreum may be more blended into KU than the others I mentioned, or that the strong pine, etc. sort of masks it to some degree, but just because it’s not listed in the notes does not mean it’s not present! Right now I have two bottles, both of which I think are “vintage” in the sense that they were not made within the last decade or so and don’t smell especially “synthetic.” One has a more buttery quality whereas the other is crisper and I’d guess the top notes in that one have held up better. However, when I smell them up close on the skin my thought in both cases is, “there’s a nice dose of castoreum in there.”

      Happy Holidays to you as well !

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