Is there a civet in your perfume?

3 06 2007

One of the most curious aspects of dating and relationships in technologically advanced countries is the need for people to cover up their natural scent with lots of different products. For my own part, my current shampoo, conditioner, body soap, deodorant, and cologne are all different, and I douse myself with foreign scents to make sure that I do not offend the olfactory sensibilities of others. But where do such scents come from? There are plenty of synthetic chemicals that mimic naturally (or unnaturally) occurring scents, but, interestingly enough, some fragrances still require animal sources. As Terry Pratchett wrote in The Unadulterated Cat (which ironically sits next to a basket of the products I mentioned above in the bathroom);

Civet

An 1894 Richard Lydekker painting of an African Civet

The civet cat has been a nervous animal ever since it discovered that you can, er, derive civetone* from it and use it in scent. Exactly how this is done I don’t know and do not wish to research. It’s probably dreadful. Oh, all right, I’ll have a look.

It is.+

*A 17-member ring-ketone, according to my dictionary, as opposed to the mere 15-membered muscone from the musk deer. Does the civet feel any better for knowing this? Probably not.

+Who invents these scents, anyway? There’s a guy walking along the beach, hey, here’s some whale vomit, I bet we can make scent out of this. Exactly how likely do you think this is?

Indeed, the civet’s (specifically the African Civet, Civetticus civetta) scent is also useful to those wishing to track big cats, a researcher in a recent issue of Natural History relating that central american jaguars (Panthera onca) are especially drawn to the civetone in Calvin Klein’s “Obsession.” Good to know if you’re in search of big cats, but it still leaves the question of what civetone actually is and why it is important. For that, I turn to Richard Despard Estes Behavior Guide to African Mammals, in which he describes the olfactory communication of the animals;

Olfactory Communication: scent-marking with dung, urine, perineal gland.
Perineal-gland marks appear to be concentrated on trees fronting roads and pathways, especially trees that produce fruit eaten by civets. A passing civet pauses every 85m or so to press the everted gland against a trunk. The secretion is a thick, yellowish grease that hardens and turns dark brown and more visible with age, while the powerful and disagreeable scent remains detectable for at least 4 months. The musk scraped periodically from the perineal gland of captive African civets is refined into civetone, which “exalts” the fragrances of expensive perfumes.

Why not just cut out the middle-man and press a civet’s butt to your arms, neck, or chest? Such is what a cartoon (and rather low-quality article) from the Softpedia article “Get the best perfume from the cat’s a**” portrays. This is not entirely accurate as the civet’s secretions must be combined with alcohol and other chemicals to bring out its “pleasant musky odor,” but this does not change the fact that for centuries fragrance makers have relied on greasy secretion near a mammals anus to produce more pleasant personal scents.

Fortunately, synthetic civetone has been produced, but many “high-quality” perfume manufacturers still prefer scraping a civet’s musk glad the old fashioned way. From Yilma D. Abebe’s “Sustainable utilization of the African Civet (Civetticus civetta) in Ethiopia” (which is also found complete here);

Despite civet musk being produced artificially in the late 1940′s, high quality perfume producers still prefer the use of civetone (Anonis 1997). Demands for a synthetic alternative have been growing in recent years however with the British Fragrance Association (BFA) and the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) of the opinion that perfume industries are more likely to use artificial musk (Pugh 1998).

Indeed, the harvest of “natural civetone” continues, (despite some web sites suggesting that it has stopped with the invention of synthetic civetone) and while the African Civet is not threatened it does not change the fact that cruel practices have been recorded among civet farmers and wild civets are continually caught to replace those that die of stress in captivity (I’ll leave you to imagine why they’re so stressed).

The author also notes that local superstitions and husbandry practices make the trade very hard to regulate and control, and the process is considered unsustainable (although unlikely to stop because of economic gain associated with civet farms). Also of interest is the assertion that predominantly Muslim farmers in Ethiopia harvest civetone from civets. The author writes;

In Ethiopia, only Muslim communities are practice civiculture. According to oral history the legendary leader Nessiru Allah, who lived in Limu, Keffa, suffered from an eye affliction that was cured by an application of civet musk. Once cured, Nessiru Allah ordered followers of Islam to farm African civets (Mesfin 1995).

So what are we to do? Personally, I would check your own perfumes to see if “civetone” is listed in the ingredients, and even contact various perfume companies to see if they’re using civetone derived directly from civets and to ask for a ban on using the harvested secretions from the carnivores. Even if large companies switched over to artifical civetone, however, the practice would likely survive to some degree in Ethiopia and would be resistant to reform, so local and government workers would have to work with the farmers to ensure humane practices (i.e. scraping civet musk off bars or posts they deposit it on rather than sticking a spoon into the animal’s gland) and open up other economic opportunities so that the farmers are not relying on civets for income (even in the IUCN report mentioned above, civetone seems to be bringing in less and less money to Ethiopia). Such is the problem with humane practices and conservation, however; merely establishing the science aspect will not convince the farmer who needs income from his practices, and care for both the animals and people is needed if a positive change is going to be made.

End Note: Civets aren’t the only animals to be farmed for particular scents or secretions; bears and musk deer (also important to the fragrance industry) suffer similar consequences as well, and both will require seperate posts to do their stories justice.

End Note 2: I’ve corrected some of the mistakes I made in the initial post. I started getting a pretty bad migraine in the middle of writing this so I didn’t entirely pay attention to what I was doing. I’ll have some more posts up when I recuperate.

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28 responses

4 06 2007
luca

Laelaps, very nice piece. I didn’t even know of this animal before. I thought only deers produced musk, and ingenuously thought that practice was extinct right now, with the availability of synthetic alternatives. Too bad.

You make a good point, when you say that both the human and animal side have to be taken care of if you look for a positive impact. It’s a point of view unfortunately not understood by the vast majority of enviro-mentals, who screams for animal rights forgetting that not every culture has their disney-based view of animals – I learned this the hard way thank to the fact that I have an african girlfriend, whose outlook on nature is very much eighteeenth century and pretty different from mine.

4 06 2007
laelaps

Thanks Luca; I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while, so I’m glad I finally got around to it. I plan on doing one on the Musk Deer and bears farmed for their gall bladders in China as well. There are so many “traditional” practices that are kept up simply for that reason, but like I said in the post (and like you mentioned in your comment) people need to be taken into account too. Animals may have been here first, but we’re not doing a good job if we secure rights for animals and the environment but we cause the poor to starve. As I’ve said before, I think there’s an economic threshold before you can care about the environment; if you don’t know where your family’s next meal is coming from, it’s hard to respect poaching regulations (which is why there is such a problem with tiger hunting in India and elsewhere).

9 08 2007
johnny

In the environ-mental world of people, sustanability of livlihoods and culture is mainstream thought and has been a long time: our environment is a product of human-nature interaction, and ‘wild is generally a misnomer.

Perhaps this awareness is not strong in the public domain though, especially given the way news reports are offered on tv.

But animal rights, if they exist, do come first. Either you kill them , or you don’t. Even the purpose of medical research in using animals is suspectin that case, if we entertain the notion that animals have souls and suffer, and human illness is a fact of life, largely governed by our own lifestyles: we do not need to seek ‘cures’ with medicines.

Traditional practices were generally sustainable, even scraping down trees. Perhaps these are the best sources?
Harvesting from wild cats is more of a modern practice, and not essentially part of local culture, which is more agriculturally based. It is here that most jobs and self-sufficient livelihoods are lost due to rapid modernisation and market changes (world bank etc). It is because of these losses, that more displaced people turn to marginal markets, like harvests of civet.

It might be good to find out whether leading French perfumerers prefer civet from trees or from the farm? If trees, then that’s a good basis for a rationale to increase wild civet environment and trees!

9 09 2007
Book Notes: Big Secrets » Webomatica - Technology and Entertainment Digest

[...] in perfumes: Do you know what ambergris, fatty aldehydes, or civet [...]

1 07 2008
Amy

I was reading a book about Henry VIII and came upon some of the perfumes that Katherine Parr, Henry’s 6th wife preferred. Juniper and civet was the combination that she liked most in her private chamber.

I was glad to find your article.

26 04 2009
Altaf

Very interesting and beneficial. I particularly like you suggestion of taking civetone by scraping from barks and posts rather than spooning from the glands.

Thanks.

20 07 2009
cindi

thank you for this article, I have to ask…
many years ago I read a piece and never could forget about it, it said that the perfume Chanel #5 was made with Civet oil, and in the article it said that the animal was whipped/lashed to secrete the scent- oil? anyone recall?

29 09 2012
helenaurelia

Yes, you read right, The practice of whipping or lashing the civets comes from the very old and ingrained superstition (totally untrue to boot) that an angry civet produces more civetone. I know you wrote this years ago, but thought it might send a copy of this to your email addy. Either way, this is just another reason that this beyond cruel, very painful and totally needless abuse should be stopped to these poor animals. Even the scraping is very painful to the Civet, even without any whipping or lashing. And we call ourselves civilized. Right.

29 09 2012
cindi

I’ve NEVER bought any perfume, or oils that have any animal products since i read about the horrible torture they endure for our vanity. There are endless combinations of plant based essential oils that any person can find their favorite, and one that compliments his or her chemistry. I read about how this animal suffers for Channel perfumes years, and years ago. How can anyone go back to enjoying the fragrance of another living creatures torture to make it . sick

21 10 2009
Asianangelz

I really enjoyed reading this peice ….now I’m afraid to checkout what’s really In my perfumes …I only wear Chanel ….I will be totally sad

19 01 2010
dfg

I read Chanel is so popular, because they rubb each bottle against whale anuses to make it more natural etc.

True story

29 09 2012
cindi

sad,? you should be happy YOU will not be the means of this horrid torture! I applaud you!

19 03 2010
Nagi Reddy

Very interesting information about Civet Cats. Recently TirumalaTirupatiDevastansam(A temple in India) got the permission to have this cats in the ZOO maintained by the Temple authority and to use civet cats oil in the in the devotional activates

25 05 2010
Medieval Animal Perfumes

[...] Story Of Civet: Civet in the 17th century and onwards. Is there a civet in your perfume? Does civet come from tortured cats? Does kopi luwak coffee come from pre-eaten [...]

8 06 2010
Jaguars ‘Obsessed’ by Calvin Klein Cologne - Dot Earth Blog - NYTimes.com

[...] about the source of some musk used in perfumes and the like — civets and other wildlife. A student posted some useful background on this awhile [...]

18 02 2011
Mohammed

Dr…
From Ethiopia -mk agency
natural civet musk 100%P

16 03 2011
Mohammed Lambat

I came across this website whilst I was reading an Arabic book in which the word ZABAD was written. I checked it’s meaning in the dictionary and found CIVET. I googled it and found this site. Really informative AND got confirmation of my translation as well.

29 04 2011
Friday mystery object #92 answer « Zygoma

[...] to retain a strong smell has been known for a long time and it has been used as a traditional base for perfume for [...]

26 05 2011
Alberto Daugaard

I needed to put you that bit of word to give thanks the moment again about the exceptional advice you’ve documented here. This has been certainly seriously generous with you to convey freely all many people could have offered for an ebook to end up making some profit for themselves, even more so considering the fact that you could have done it if you ever decided. Those techniques as well acted as a fantastic way to be certain that some people have a similar dream the same as mine to know a lot more with regard to this condition. I know there are some more enjoyable moments ahead for folks who look into your site.

10 02 2012
اسبشل ون

ان تواجد عطر الزباد الذي يبلغ قدمه 60 الى 100 عام فمالسعر المستحق ؟؟؟؟

10 02 2012
اسبشل ون

Paralyze won (02:56:39):
That the presence of the civet perfume by 60 to 100 years Fmasar due????

11 02 2012
اسبشل ون

we have civet perfume, french product since 60.
to 100year
?what price now of this perfume

13 03 2012
Luis Espinosa

Can I buy this perfume from you?

25 05 2013
Malinda

I am curious to find out what blog system you’re utilizing? I’m experiencing some minor security problems with my latest
blog and I would like to find something more risk-free.

Do you have any recommendations?

30 01 2014
fate

hello guys we are manufacturer and exporter of CIVET MUSK from Ethiopia if any one want to buy you can contact as by these email: civetfromlimu@gmail.com

1 04 2014
Lalaland

And next up….where does your steak come from??

30 04 2014
Eau de… What?! | Sophie's Assemblage of School Pertinent Things

[…] is quite cantankerous, having a similar composition to the scent released by skunks, “The secretion is a thick yellowish grease that hardens and turns dark brown and more visible with age, […]

27 05 2014
abu ahmed

what is the name of civet musk in arabic

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