Smelling Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khän (1998, by Christopher Sheldrake) is a rite of passage for perfume nerds. I’ve seen “MKK” used as a kind of olfactory landmark more than a few times in others’ writing about scent.
I bought MKK online, never having sniffed it, after reading about its notorious “fecal note.” A bit later, I wrote,
“It smells dirty, in many senses of the word, thanks to cumin, cistus, ambergris, costus root, castoreum, and other musks — plural. I like it, but it smells too much like an ancient ashram for me to wear it frequently. It’s a little costumey on a white suburbanite like me, as if I had arrived at the office wearing a dhoti.”
But no other fragrance has so clearly demonstrated to me that the nose can be taught. When I smell it now, the impression isn’t dirty or fecal but rich and dreamy. I smell the notes above, but now I also smell vanilla, benzoin, snuffed candle, and lots of rose. MKK isn’t a dhoti; it’s a tailored coat of silk and fur.
This is Muscs Koublaï Khän, not Genghis Khan, and it brings to mind not the ruthless conqueror but the lord of the pleasure palace at Shangdu (a.k.a. Xanadu), enjoying rarities from every edge of the Yuan Empire.
MKK and its “dirtiness” (Tania Sanchez notoriously called it “the armpit of a camel driver” and later changed her mind) also beg a different discussion about scent: Why do people, especially Americans, want to smell “clean”? And what does “clean” smell like? Those questions warrant their own posts.