Vintages Cuir de Russie: The Smell of War or Peace?

Cuir de Russie: The Smell of War or Peace?

12/29/14 17:04:28 (18 comments)

by: Sergey Borisov

Cuir de Russie perfumes never fail to make me happy and sad. My happiness comes from the fact that my Motherland is marked on the perfume world map. My chagrin is brought by the many misconceptions and military connotations associated with this perfume group. And now, having decided to write about a rare, almost forgotten, and therefore “non-existent" perfume, Guerlain Cuir de Russie, I remember all these delusions again.

Anyone who writes about the Cuir de Russie vintages cannot travel back in time to the 19th century to soak up the atmosphere, discuss perfumes and their names with the perfumers, ask the people of Russia and European countries what they think of Russian leather, etc.. All of us write based on a limited number of sources. Corporate PR and perfumers' biographies provide only one-sided information, as Chanel PR would never write about Guerlain and Jean Patou, and vice versa. And the Internet, since it was not invented yet, brings so little from the 19th century.


Probably, the linking of Cuir de Russie with the smell of Cossack boots in Paris in 1814 was created by some pseudo-historians of pseudo-patriotic (for Russians) and militaristic (for Europeans) legend. And it rooted so quickly, as every simplistic theory does. The simpler an idea is, the faster it will be rooted. They say Parisians learned the scent of Cuir de Russie by sniffing Russian military boots. It's the most popular idea, and I myself followed it for some time. Not now. To understand, it's necessary to step aside from politics and newspapers and we'll find other explanations.

The history of leather is the story of its manufacturing from hide: removing the fur and meat, working, tanning, coloring and perfuming. Each country makes leather in its own way: Turkish, German, Spanish, Hungarian ... Leather manufacturing was a terribly smelly process for a long time (soaking and especially liming in chicken manure), and finished leather also had an unpleasant odor. To the satisfaction of noble gentlemen, leather masters created a final preparation for leather: the leather were impregnated by fragrant oils and tinctures. Thus, Peau d'Espagne was perfumed with rose water, ambergris, camphor, cedarwood oil and musk; Italian leather smelled of sweet almond, orris, musk, ambergris and civet. The perfumers of France have been linked with leather perfuming—perfumers were also masters of glove manufacturing (the title Maitres Parfumeurs et Gantiers was first granted in 1614), and Grasse became the center of the craft in the 17th century. The perfumers of Grasse used ambergris, civet, musk and rosemary.

Russian leather (Russian yuft, Cuir de Russie, Russisch Leder) had the smell of birch tar (historically, fast birch tar impregnation had replaced the long process of rawhide fuming, which was one of the traditional ways to preserve rawhide known to the Slavs, Evenks, Mongolians, Indians, and most tribes), but European traders were buying Russian yuft well, despite the smell.

In the reign of Alexei Mikhailovich (1645-1676) red yuft from Kazan was one of the six export items in the monopoly of the royal treasury, together with gold, furs and Chinese tea. In the 16th-17th centuries, foreign demand for Cuir de Russie was so great that Russia did not have enough supply for it, and merchants bought skins and rawhides from Malorossia and Livonia for processing in Russia. At the time of Peter the Great (1718), yuft was starting to be treated by a mixture of birch tar and sea animal fat, for the sake of greater water resistance, and the demand for it grew even more, despite the British patented forgeries. (There's also great reading about the history and methods of birch tar production—its underground process was so far from hygienic and has nothing of a laboratory pyrolysis reaction in metal cans).



  Tanneries in Marrakesh (wikipedia)

Therefore, the Parisians were not introduced to Cuir de Russie by Cossacks in 1814 year—Europeans knew Russian leather and its special fatty smell of birch tar quite well, about 150 years before the Napoleonic Wars. Europeans used waterproof Cuir de Russie for military footwear, but also for peaceful handbags and cigarette cases, for travel coffrets and suitcases, and various furniture. In Britain, Russian leather was widely used for book covers, especially law books and Bibles. So I would argue with the Cossack military shoe interpretation of Cuir de Russie.

I'd suggest that Cuir de Russie was a symbol of the educational spirit, as it was bound with the most peaceful books or the desire for new knowledge and impressions in the form of travelers' luggage. (The other two versions about the shoes of Ballets Russes dancers and the leather boots of Russian nobility started in the 20th century, and therefore can explain only some of the gain in popularity of Cuir de Russie perfumes in Europe.)

Who created the first fragrance of Cuir de Russie? 
It was not Ernest Beaux, with the leather-iris-aldehyde fragrance Chanel Cuir de Russie (1924). One of the pillars of the genre, the most famous Russian leather scent is well-known because its production has never stopped since 1924.

Cuir de Russie perfumes were produced by many historical houses: Volnay, Julien-Joseph Godet, Lubin, Guerlain, Houbigant, Coudray, Rigaud, Violet, Robert Bienaime, Bertelli, Agnel, E. Coudray, L.T. Piver, J.Floris, Molinard, Mury, Roger & Gallet et al.—and we can observe the popularity of Cuir de Russie upon Russian emigration (not after the victory of the Russian army in the Napoleonic wars!). It seems to me, perfumers found a Cuir de Russie theme potentially good-selling for the Russian market first, along with frankincense, myrrh and other Orthodox incenses—and after the revolution, for immigrants and sympathizers.

Some web sources claims that Cuir de Russie perfumes were created already in the 19th century. Along with Guerlain, it was also produced by Eugene Rimmel, Georges Delettrez and The Crown Perfumery. Perhaps there were others. Consequently, Aimé Guerlain was one of the few. I am not sure that he was the very first. I've seen three different years of Guerlain Cuir de Russie creation—1872, 1875 and 1890—without justification. There's no real evidence, in the form of archival records with dates of the launch, advertising pages of 19th-century catalogs, accounts and orders of sale, and named bottles with the perfume remnants—which is strange, because Guerlain's history can be traced back to its foundation through archives, as opposed to 206 other French perfumers-entrepreneurs (from the 1850 census), few of which left any memory. And there were English, Italian and German brands. To accurately name the oldest Cuir de Russie perfume, historians will have to work in libraries and perfume house archives. But today it's possible to rewrite history, as anything that cannot be found on the Internet never existed!

In the 19th century the smell of Russian leather was not decent enough to become a common perfume: the decent perfumes for the bourgeoisie were light citrus and lavender colognes, ylang-ylang and rose waters, and, starting from the 1960s, violet perfume. In mid-century, during a visit to Paris, the Queen of England was destroyed in the press for the fragrance, which “has too much musk.” Quote from the novel Nana by Emile Zola (1880): "Toutes les boutiques lui étaient connues, il en retrouvait les odeurs, dans l'air chargé de gaz, des senteurs rudes de cuir de Russie, des parfums de vanille montant du sous- sol d'un chocolatier, des haleines de musc soufflées par les portes ouvertes des parfumeurs" ["He knew all the shops, and in the gas-laden air he recognized their different scents, such, for instance, as the strong savor of Russia leather, the perfume of vanilla emanating from a chocolate dealer's basement, the savor of musk blown in whiffs from the open doors of the perfumers"] can confirm that the Russian leather smell was not pleasant in those years. Therefore, whoever was the first perfumer to issue such a perfume was truly experimental and a brave man.

It is really possible that it was just Aimé Guerlain. First of all, the house of Guerlain already had a relationship with the Imperial Court of Russia. Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain created several colognes for the Great Princes and Princesses by the time. To continue the tradition, his son Aimé created Moskovskaya Slava and Parfum Imperial Russe for the coronation of Alexander III. Therefore Cuir de Russie appears in the range of Guerlain logically. (It should be noted that Georges Delettrez also released a series of “Russian” fragrances in the 19th century: Imperial Russe, Eau de Cologne Russe, Aux Violettes Russes, Aux Violettes Blanche de Sibérie and Cuir de Russie. However, the house was closed in 1955 and I don't know about any Delettrez archives or public relations.)

Let's stop mumbling about the background. Here it is in front of me—the Carre flacon, that traveled from the French town of Anglet. A pharmacy bottle labeled Cuir de Russie in the middle of a crowned shield decorated with ribbons, inscribed "Guerlain Parfumeur Brevete, 68 Champs-Elysees Paris." A blue cardboard box with diagonal ornamentation, a light silvery ribbon with the inscription "Guerlain," a rectangular label—the cardboard with no sign of luxury. No volume markings.

Is it possible to determine the age of this fragrance? Judging by the address of the boutique (68 Champs-Élysées Paris), the perfume was produced after 1914.

Monsieurguerlain's blog affirms that Cuir de Russie was not bottled in Carre flacons after 1935, as the reformulation by Jacques Guerlain was poured into Quadrilobe flacons. Michele Atlas and Alain Monniot claims in their book that Guerlain used Carre bottles from 1872 to 1950. The bottle with a height of 9.5 cm was used from 1914 to 1939. It turns out that my "precioussss" bottle was produced between 1914 and 1935, in the interwar period (thanks to Catherine Khmelevskaya for the invaluable help and discussion!). Thus, it is definitely not the perfume that recently was restored from the formula archives by in-house perfumer Thierry Wasser along with assistant Frederic Sacone, among with other patrimonial perfumes represented in the flagship boutique on the Champs-Élysées.

The perfume is somewhat damaged, but not destroyed. It does not seem unpleasant for a single second. The damaged initial notes disappear from my warm wrist after a couple of minutes but could be smelled from a blotter. Dry brittle aromatic herbs and flowers like lavender, thyme and rosemary are discernible in flying shatters at the perfume's start. Their bitterness is balanced by the balsamic benzoin sweetness. The citrus notes have almost completely disappeared, if they were not replaced by lavender.

After five to ten minutes Cuir de Russie recalls fumed rawhide, the soft scraped skin, smoked to a light brown color but not soaked in birch tar. Resinous notes of cistus and styrax, smooth and transparent, appear cautiously, and if smoked birch tar is present, it's in a very minor quantity. The animalic character is complemented by a very natural soft musk and warm civet. Some orthodox smell of styrax and benzoin is added to the leathery facet. Later, beneath the resins are found bitter woody chords: notes of oakmoss and vetiver, with smooth warm balsamic notes and possibly orris—smells like a lacquered table, partly covered with leather. It already has the severe drydown of Mitsouko, without its feminine caress of peach lactone, jasmine and roses.

In the last gasps the perfume gives slightly sweet warmth, but not that of flowers. Instead it's the warm, undyed underside of a leather belt, just taken off the body, and a thin benzoin sweetness reminiscent of Soviet sugar dragée.

The Guerlain smell is not similar to its iris-aldehyde pale namesake from Chanel. It's primal compared to it, like a fumed rawhide parfleche compared to an Hermès Kelly bag made of vintage Cuir de Russie.


Guerlain Cuir de Russie is a totally dry, smooth and slightly raspy perfume in the spirit of natural perfumery made without flower oils and absolutes. Its thin, translucent amber with a slightly smoked facet is the exemplar of another century's perfume, different from all the modern leathers and ambers. To try it is like reading a book written in Old English: each individual letter is clear, but they are aligned into strange words. Some letters have faded, others disappeared; every word is difficult to understand, as the general meaning is blurring. But some ages knew no other languages!

As with almost all ancient perfumes, Guerlain Cuir de Russie lasts much longer and is more luxurious smelled from blotters, cardboards, hair or handkerchief, in that case pausing at each stage and allowing itself for scrutiny, whereas on warm skin the perfume quickly flies to the styrax, oakmoss and benzoin accord. (At the time, it was obvious that perfumes are beautiful on fabric—Mouchoir de Monsieur was born for a reason). On a paper, Guerlain Cuir de Russie behaves itself like a leather perfume, but on the skin it smells more like a light amber perfume. Probably Aimé Guerlain came to the idea of Cuir de Russie as a possible development of the theme of warm amber-incense colognes, which he had created before for the royal Russian clients.

I happened to read the claims that the Cuir de Russie idea appeared because the Cossacks scoured the dirt from their black boots after long rides with white birch bark, or that Cuir de Russie as a scentscape was randomly born when a Cossack, galloping across the endless Russian steppe, came up with the idea of rubbing his leather boots with birch bark in order to waterproof them. Now I have some arguments for the people who have never seen Russian mud, birches and steppes: where did Cuir de Russie appear first—boots or books?

Guerlain Cuir de Russie

Top notes: Lavender, Rosemary, Thyme
Heart notes: Orris, Styrax, Labdanum, Benzoin, Birchtar,
Base notes: Amber, Musk, Civet, Vetiver, Oakmoss, Balsamic notes

 

 

Serguey Borisov

Serguey Borisov has been known in the Internet world of perfume under the nickname moon_fish for more than 10 years. Now he writes about perfumes for GQ.ru and Vogue.ru, and contributes on the subject for glossy magazines.

 

 

 

 



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ranchorita
ranchorita

This outstanding essay is intensely interesting and took me on a delightful little journey in my mind.
Thank you!

Jan
06
2015
Sherihan
Sherihan

"and, starting from the 1960s, violet perfume." I think what the writer wanted to say is "1860s" not 1960s

Jan
05
2015
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

The infiltration of European diplomats into the Russian courts and the political arena already from the times of Peter the Great is a palpable reality that accounts for much of the background of this ~before the Napoleonic Wars. The first Greek prime minister Ioannis Kapodistrias had been the Czar's consultant and confidant, and with him he brought the spirit of French Enlightenment, as did the many French diplomats. They are therefore responsible for the "romantization" of everything Russian (in Greece this had a very forceful political overtone, as the fellow Orthodox nation was seen as the "natural savior" of the Ottoman occupied territories in the Balkans). The "Russian-leaning" political party in many of these counties championed many Russian-leaning habits and preferences. (The other two tangents were the Enlish-leaning and the French-leaning, thus denoting the 3 "contestants" for the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the "grand" ill beast that everyone was aching to chew a bite off. This is a major historical 18th-19th century geopolitical issue).

The military proficiency of the Russian army was mingled with the tough terroir in order to create a "legend" which culminated into ....perfume!
Tar does waterproof (see shipbuilding) and birches are very common in Russia, so putting two and two together, the legend of Cuir de Russie dawned.

The French Committee Colbert (French Luxury Committee, named after the famous minister of the times of Marie Antoinette) mentioned this, by one critic (and I had included it in my Chanel Cuir de Russie review):
"nothing is more foreign to our tradition than those violent bursts, those frantic and intense dances, this instinctive frankness, this disproportionate imagination. The discordance is so brutal that one would be astonished by the tenacious favour that those people over there hold on us. The simple truth is that Russians fascinate us because they disturb us"
Telling, huh?

Chanel's Cuir de Russie however was never directly inspired by Cossack boots (or Russians for that matter), whatever the Internet or their PR says. :-) They're directly inspired by the soft insides of jewelry boxes in the beginning of the 20th century; this comes directly from in-house perfumer Jacques Polge who I suppose is a credible enough source.

Hope this is of some clarifying help to anyone further interested to the subject good Sergey so eloquently describes.

Jan
05
2015
nez
nez

Jesus, I live in Anglet, France. I was very close to it.

Jan
05
2015
plyushka
plyushka

A fascinating read! Many, many thanks Serguey for your wonderful article! if you ever decide to publish a book, I will be first in a line to get one!

Jan
04
2015
woodlandwalk
woodlandwalk

Interesting article. I love Chanel's Cuir de Russie and would love to sniff the Guerlain! I also like Maitre Parfumier et Gantier's Cuir Fetiche, which seems to recall all the leather-scenting processes you mention

Jan
03
2015
daniela3
daniela3

Great article, argumentative enough with many supportive Information!

Jan
02
2015
SNOOPY
SNOOPY

Awesome article.
So much of the information on the internet is bogus and with the aid of technology urban legends and revisionist history spreads like wildfire.
Nice to find something informative that seeks to ask the questions instead of just make up answers.
Thanks for the education.

Dec
31
2015
TillyWave
TillyWave

Beautiful, articulate, and well rounded article. I wish all perfume could have this much art and history! Thanks for writing this.

Dec
31
2015
drugstore classics
drugstore classics

I am feeling lucky.....

Lucky to belong to a Fragrance club with monthly articles of THIS caliber. :)

Many thanks, Serguey!

Dec
30
2015
theperfumedveil
theperfumedveil

Leather boots and soldiers. Skank and sex. That's what I picture after reading this. Nice.

Dec
30
2015
Deppaholic
Deppaholic

Boots! War, wars and more wars! Great read!

Dec
30
2015
Diana Alcantara
Diana Alcantara

Brilliant text! A real class about Cuir de Russie! I never see Russia, a tannery ou birches, I only know Chanel's creation, but I can fell the smell through their words...

Dec
30
2015
derailroaded
derailroaded

Such a pleasure to read your article, thank you very much!

Dec
30
2015
Ms Koko
Ms Koko

Thank you Serguey, for a very informative and enjoyable article.

Dec
29
2015
Allan R
Allan R

Fascinating and well written essay, thank you for this!

Dec
29
2015
fazalcheema
fazalcheema

brilliant article...Serguey is arguably my most favorite writer on Fragrantica

Dec
29
2015
NebraskaLovesScent
NebraskaLovesScent

What a find, lucky Serguey! Thanks for sharing it with us and for this well-researched article!

Dec
29
2015

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