Unfortunately most of us have never smelled civet. I, in an earlier phase of my experimentation, knew it came from an animal, but not a tormented one.
Most of us who know just a bit about civet think it comes from cats and is a form of cat spray. However, it is not derived from cats, but rather civet cats, an unrelated species. Civet, like musk, is an excretion of the anal gland. In the wild, the civet cat wipes this material on trees to signal its presence to potential partners.
It would be fine to harvest this material from trees in the wild, but the problem begins with human intervention. The cats are caged and teased with sticks. This "teasing" is said to get them to excrete more of the anal "paste." The paradox, is that many more of us would buy and use civet if the anal paste was harvested in a humane way.
I did hear of a guy in China who was doing exactly that. After much searching I found his website where he claims to raise the civet cats in large enclosures and refrain from tormenting them. I immediately contacted him, but he told me that the civet is used for Chinese medicine, not in perfumes. Bummer. While using civet these days is unethical, I don' suppose a little white lie would be as I develop an intense fascination with Chinese medicine.
Civet comes as a revolting smelling army-green paste. When kept tightly sealed, it is said to remain intact for many years. It is important to keep it well sealed or it will stink up the whole lab. But like ambergris, civet paste has no value until it's tinctured.
My civet collection
Occasionally, civet is sold as an absolute. While strong and easily tinctured, the absolute shows none of the beauty or finesse of the tincture made directly from the paste. The tincture from the absolute remains stinky and unpleasant even after several months. The tincture made from the paste, however, develops a subtly and delicacy that is intriguing, if a bit urinous. It's one of those things, like ambergris, that you can't stop smelling.
Civet does wonderful things in perfumes, especially florals, which it brings to the forefront. It is (or was) very popular in French perfumes because the French prefer a little funk. Americans want their perfumes to smell like clean laundry. Very little civet is needed to produce this funky effect. One percent of a three percent tincture is usually enough.
Attempts have been made to produce synthetic musks. The only one I've smelt is Civetone and, to be blunt, it is a compound I would never use. It just smells aggressively sticky instead of almost fruity like natural musk.
I bought my civet from a perfume supplier in Italy who presumably gets it from Ethiopia. If he and others applied pressure to raise civet cats in an ethical manner, we could all use the stuff. I've found , however, that suppliers get very prickly when you start talking about sustainable harvesting. But if we could convince them of the value of this, we could all have our civet. How marvelous.