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There is a connection between TNT, the male musk deer, and your perfume

You may not know it, but your favourite perfume probably has some (literally) crappy base-like quality to it.

Arab perfumers in the sixth century were the first to discover that diluting the obnoxious smelling dried contents of the little pod found near the anus of the male Asian musk deer not only resulted in a pleasant odour but when added to perfumes gave them long-lasting power. Musk was even incorporated into the mortar of important buildings so that it would waft a pleasant smell into the air. There was even a belief that the aroma had aphrodisiac qualities and would, therefore, enhance the pleasure of certain activities.

Europeans learned about perfumery from the Arabs and recognized the value of adding musk to their products. Of course, the problem was a scarcity of supply. Some musk-like fragrances were found in the glandular secretions of other animals such as the musk ox, the African civet cat, and the muskrat but they were as pleasant smelling as that which was found in the musk deer.

Then along came Alfred Baur and his tinkering with TNT, trinitrotoluene. TNT had been first prepared in 1863 by the German chemist Julius Wilbrand as a yellow dye and was composed of carbon, hydrogen, and three nitro groups, which supplied the oxygen needed to combust the molecule. When TNT's explosive potential became evident, there were all sorts of attempts to improve its explosive power by altering its structure.

Baur thought that by adding four carbon atoms to the molecule, what in chemical terms is known as a “butyl” group, he would increase its internal fuel supply. Turns out it didn’t work and the idea was a literal stinker! Baur recognized this new TNT smell as being similar to that of musk, showing that the scent could be easily and cheaply produced on a large scale.

These nitro musks are still used today and are often used as the basis for many perfumes.

The male musk deer is, no doubt, relieved.


@JoeSchwarcz

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