Raw Materials Leather Fascinations: a Perfume Genre Like No Other

Leather Fascinations: a Perfume Genre Like No Other

10/09/13 13:35:32 (19 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

"There are three idealists: God, mothers and poets!
They don’t seek the ideal in completed things—they find it in the incomplete."


This aphorism by coffehouse bohemian Peter Altenberg perfectly encapsulates the magnetic pull of artful objects which require our own poetic (or motherly, as each individual case allows) addition to make them gain life in our hearts and in our minds. Though perfumes are largely an affair of design and craft, the personal touch that the wearer adds creates an inextricable bond between substance and form, between the ideal and the real. Fragrances imbued in notes reminiscent of leather come with their own complex subset of attributes: one of sensuality, another of spirituality, based as they are on fantasy in all the nuances the term encompasses. They straddle the borderline, eternally poised between "avoidance" and "approach," a difficult but rewarding set of scents in more ways than one, which stand somewhat apart from their related "chypres" (according to the French Society of Perfumers,they form their own "fragrance family," albeit a not very populated one) and more recently approach and even invade the border of orientals in many of the softer interpretations available on the market.
 


Leather fragrances (parfums cuir, from the French for leather) form a vast area of the mind, more than a segment of essences laid in rows on the perfumery organ for the perfumer to use. They can evoke the insides of a new posh car, refined leather goods and delicious luxury shoes with that buttery soft touch we so love, a weather-beaten biker jacket, fetish wear, Catwoman, equestrian paraphernalia or pliable suede for a hundred uses; in short, running the gamut from tough to soft and back again, from tame to wild, from luxurious to utilitarian. It approximates the scent of skin both by its olfactory make-up but also due to its proximity to the shape it holds. Leather is both luxurious and subversive, evocative of both wealth AND rebellion. In the parodial words of Ron Burgundy's pick-up line in Anchorman, "I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany." There's something sophisticated about such a man-made scent.
 

There is no actual "leather essence" available for perfumers, you see, weaned from hides, but rather a combination of essences and aroma materials such as quinolines, castoreum, birch tar, cade oil, labdanum, saffraleine and the like, which render a "leather note" in fragrances. Therefore tackling these scents from a fantasy point of view is justifiably recommended. There is no denying that most women have an intense love affair with their shoes (and their handbags to a lesser degree) and many heterosexual men share this fascination in a somewhat more sexualized manner. It's also no coincidence that high heels appear phallic and handbags stand as a symbol for female genitals in classic psychoanalytic theories. A 19th century prostitute is recorded as saying that “several of her clients desired the odor of new shoes in the room, and that she was accustomed to obtain the desired perfume by holding her shoes for a moment over the flame of a spirit lamp” [Havelock Ellis, 1894, Sexual Selection in Man]. Clearly the material itself with its pungent, animalic notes calls upon a primal urge that is expressed in the oldest act of man as well. But history has a way of providing the little details which fill in the small holes in the fabric of the story.

The leather note, although idolized in private passions championed from antiquity onwards and recorded as a stimulant in libertine authors' works, really entered the consciousness of perfume makers in the 19th century, trickling down from the specialized sexual passions into the mainstream bourgeoisie that was accustomed to shopping at Eugene Rimmel, L.T Piver and Guerlain.

But let us do a detour first.

What began as a primitive means of comforting from the cold and hiding our ancestors' genitalia, became, in ancient civilizations, especially Greek and Roman, a symbol for virility, hardship and battle. Tanning the hides made them more durable and more pliable. The Romans had two main ways of tanning, one of which, mineral tanning, or "tawing" (which was not really tanning at all) involved soaking the hide in a solution of alum and salt. The preferred hides were cattle, pig and sheepskin. Leather sandals were of course the most memorable and useful item, for which wood couldn't serve—and to this day it is the most referenced image of leatherware in the Mediterranean basin. The Arabs macerated the hides in materials less than desirable, such as cow dung and urine, but which broke down chemical bonds and resulted in making the leather supple and fit for manufacturing into refined garments and leather goods.


The scented history of leather truly starts gaining speed in the 16th century, when tanners used to scent chamois with newly distilled essences of flowers and herbs and, as a final step, smeared it with civet and musk. This was known as Peau d’Espagne (Spanish skin). Chamois is by itself a sensual material: silky, feeling wonderful in the hand, contributing its own leather undertone, providing depth and softness. The ubiquity of chamois for the gloves of the aristocracy made the reference a prized bouquet, popularized by the Maitre Gantiers and Parfumeurs Guild. The tradition of scented gloves was ushered in the French court by Catherine de Medici, from her native Florence and her trusted perfumer (and poison maker!), Rene le Florentin. The Moors in Spain had influenced the country with their fragrant compositions which were redolent of the southern rich florals, such as jasmine, and their abject love for musk, sacred in the eyes of the Prophet. Thus the Spanish Skin leather scents came into being, with Essence Peau d'Espagne by Pinaud, Paris, among the survivors into the 19th century.
 

The composition was intensely floral, animalic, very very musky indeed and the closest thing to female skin's natural odor, according to many perfumers, awarding it thus an added flair that can make the imagination run rampant. There are disparate data concerning the ingredients used, but we do know that by the 20th century the Spanish leather "recipe" from Roger & Gallet (1895) to Santa Maria Novella (1901) contained styrax, geranium, tonka bean, cedar, and vanilla among other things. Truefit & Hill and Geo F. Trumper still produce "peau d'Espagne" scents, fragrances which do not immediately recall leather but rather evoke a plush and pungent ambience. Although the first officially recorded "leather fragrance" is supposed to be Royal English Leather (1871) by Creed for King George the III, who, it is argued, loved the scent of his gloves so much that he had asked for a body product in the same scent, the theory perpetuated by Creed holds little water. By Georgian times the fashion of scented gloves was falling out of fashion, as did that of pomanders, although scented adornments such as powdered wigs were continuing to flourish, with fresh spicy scents being all the rage for men. By the time of the Regency and Empire periods there was an olfactory chasm with the prior animalistic fashion for intense scents and both men and women favored Eau de Cologne. On top of that.George III, a down-to-earth guy by all accounts, no matter his later "madness," supported the native English manufacturers.

What we need to remember is that "Spanish leather" type scents comprise notes that have traditionally been used to perfume leather instead of leather notes being the inspiration for it in the first place, much as has been described above for the curing of chamois. Ergo we come full circle: the material that inspires the trend is absent and in its place there is the evocation it produced through the means of a "loan," a metaphor for connotation. George Bataille would have felt at home!

The revolutionary invention of quinoline in 1880, harsh tar-like chemicals which imitate the sharp pungency of the curation of animal hides, ushered a new style altogether. The trend for Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather) fragrances (offered by E.Rimmel in 1886 and proposed by Guerlain as well in the same period) was its natural consequence; a new material or technique always has pioneers eager to explore in creative manners with no "story" necessary to further justify their curiosity.

Legend nevertheless, as is always the case with clever perfume, has it that Cuir de Russie was born when a Cossack warrior, galloping across the endless Russian steppe, came up with "the idea of rubbing his leather boots with birch bark in order to waterproof them."

The supremely cute illustration on the L.T Piver bottle certainly draws its inspiration from this tale ...

Several modern Cuir de Russie scents, however, merely draw their inspiration from birch, while using isobutyl quinoline instead to render the tar-like note, which was traditionally fueled on birch tar and the fat of sea animals "cooked" on big pans in the open air. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, producing no less than 30 different "Cuir de Russie" type fragrances by different houses, from the fin de siecle till the 1950s, but especially when the Russian Revolution of 1917 aftermath resulted in a flood of émigrés across Europe. The leather used for military garments of the Russian army, and especially for boots, held a certain aura of authority and in its wake it brought images of hardship and virility, but also a fallen grandeur that the anti-communist European societies were sympathetic to; "virile" even bears an etymological association with the Latin virtus, meaning virtue. Those were of course traits highly coveted by men who wanted to embody such images. But in the time of women’s emancipation in the beginning of the 20th century, when leather scents really knew their heyday, they were also coveted by the fairer sex.

A pleiad of beautiful and unsettling perfumes for women thus catapulted onto the market: Tabac Blond by Caron (1919), the first "gender bender" leather scent specifically aimed at women by Ernest Daltroff, himself Russian, and conceived to mask the stench of cigarettes, at the time a sign of loose morals. Chanel Cuir de Russie (1924), composed by Ernest Beaux as paying homage to Coco's love affair with Prince Dmitri and her Russian collection, and richly invested in orris. Caron's other leather wonder, En Avion (1929). Lanvin's Scandal (1933), in the words of famous perfumer Guy Robert "a beautiful flower snapped in a new leather handbag."

Armand Petitjean, the founder of Lancôme and an insightful entrepreneur, to put it very modestly, replied to Lanvin's hit by christening his new leather scent Révolte a few years later (it would be subsequently relaunched as "Cuir," adhering to its genre, and taking the heart of many perfume collectors in its recent re-issue in the Collection editions by the company). The whip-cracking Bandit (1944) was Piguet's and perfumer Germaine Cellier's offering to dykes, harsh on the acid green aspects of quinoline. Cabochard (1949) by Grès, a prickly orange and flowers in nostalgic sepia.

The Roaring Twenties championed the model of la Garçonne (named after the 1922 novel by Victor Margueritte, which featured a sexually emancipated woman seeking sexual gratification outside the norms, but pre-existing as a term in the work of 19th century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans); essentially this was the type of woman Americans referred to as a "flapper".

Choosing a subversive fragrance to accompany the androgynous style of dress and comportment didn't jar. Women shared men's colognes in earnest, such as Vincent Roubert's Knize Ten (a patron of whom was Marlene Dietrich, God bless her austere androgyne image). Although Knize Ten is of a different mold—the Spanish leather type—it holds the same animalic fascination that has sustained through to our modern times. Even after fashions became more feminized, as they always do in times of international economic crisis, following the Crash of 1929, leather scents continued to be a cult niche that didn't seem to die away, bearing witness to the appeal of the aroma. Kolnisch Juchten, denoting lineage from the city of Koln in Germany, is still in production by Farina Gegenueber, the oldest German brand for cologne founded in 1700 by an Italian druggist. Farina made his own Cuir de Russie (Russisch Leder) by Hugo Janistyn in 1967. For many, however, Kolnisch Juchten, a German fragrance, is how Russian leather should really smell like!

Discreet leather accents have sustained themselves in many non "cuir" fragrances, usually in the chypre/woody floral or citrus family of scents, often in bestselling classics such as the original Miss Dior or Vol de Nuit by Guerlain, Chanel No.19, or in more esoteric cult scents such as Eau d'Hermès or Balmain's Jolie Madame. And some outwardly leathery fragrances composed in previous decades are still in production, something more faithfully, other times less so, such as Estée Lauder’s Azurée, Caron Yatagan, Diorling by Dior (in their more esoteric distribution), Cabochard by Grès and Bel Ami by Hermès. Others perished, falling prey to mega-trends that necessitated space on shelves, such as the sweaty La Nuit by Paco Rabanne, or the criminal disregard of the mainstream customer for sheer beauty (enter the buttery goodness of impossible to find Doblis by Hermès, arguably the finest leather in existence).

But it is modern niche perfume brands who have thrived on leather scents offered to aficionados who, like 19th century fetishists, aesthetisize their sensualist purchases and seek a spiritual engagement, present in the idea of the object more than the object itself, as any fetishist worth his/her salt will tell you. It doesn't hurt that the gay leather "movement" whose fans enjoy the "sight, smell, feel, creak, and even taste" of the material (in the words of cuirmale.nl) has come out of the closet. In a way the sub-culture is feeding and expanding on its own memes. In "Venus in Furs" we encounter the male dominant, reminiscent of Apollo flaying Marsyas, in the following description: "He wears high black boots, closely fitting breeches of white leather, short fur coat of black cloth, of the kind worn by Italian cavalry officers, trimmed with astrakhan and many rich loops; on his black locks is a red fez." The leap onto commercial products which play off these memes is but an inch.

Black by Bvlgari doesn't even try to hide its quirk, proudly standing among mainstream tutu-wearing fruity florals in all its rubber glory. Dzing! by L'Artisan Parfumeur, although recalling the vanillic effluvium of an antique bookstore, has a delectable suede and circus sawdust note in the background which for many perfumistas has been the introduction into wilder explorations. For those with access only on the mainstream circuit, Kelly Calèche (Hermès) is an introductory floral leather for debutantes, inspired by Jean Claude Ellena's visit to the venerable saddler's vaults of cured leathers; the smell was "surprisingly floral."

It would be futile to attempt to catalogue all contemporary leather scents, so many are they and so nuanced. Suffice to say that they can run the divide between the Spanish "musky, animalic" type (Cuir Mauresque by Lutens, Parfum d'Empire Cuir Ottoman, Ramon Monegal Mon Cuir, Bottega Veneta), the Russian butch "tar" type (Lonestar Memories by Tauer, Le Labo Patchouli 24, Parfums Retro Grand Cuir) and the soft "suede" type which is really an orientalized spin built on vanillic, ambery and fruity notes (Daim Blond by Lutens, as well as his Boxeuses, Keiko Mecheri Fleur de Peau, Guerlain Cuir Beluga, Ramon Monegal Cuirelle, Tuscan Leather by Tom Ford). And although some of them follow the classic structure of their genre, others play it with a glissando.

In the end it does not matter. Like with all objects that pertain to our idealism, one needs to find out what works best for them, the mind reeling from reality into fantasy and the elevation of the spirit. And even though Plato did not particularly condone the materialism of added fragrance, his theoretical system certainly has legs in the domain of perfume appreciation.
 

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she contributes to publications around the world.

 



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WildDove
WildDove

Wonderful article! I've always loved leather notes.

Aug
20
2015
malefiscent
malefiscent

It is indeed fascinating to read the history behind leather. I would love to know a bit of arabic leather perfumes and a bit of Moroccan too. That would have added another angle to the leather scene.

Aug
19
2015
miracleborgtech
miracleborgtech

Great article! I had never thought to be interested in the history of leather, but after reading this I am fascinated. Thank you!

Sep
14
2014
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@Kharnak REx,

thanks for the nice words and for your descriptors of the various other leather niche (or not) fragrances. There's something for everyone out there, so I suggest everyone grabs a few and experiments!

Oct
15
2013
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@hunter,

thanks for saying so. I believe the comparison with somewhat older batches in No.19 is a fascinating one (and feasible one as the chronological distance isn't too long therefore risking the oxidation of the fragrance), not only because of the leather quota, but because it showcases perfectly how the softening of the composition has been mirrored and exceeded in the Poudre version. It shows an evolvement of tastes in the market.

Oct
15
2013
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@Chickenboo,

thank you for your compliment and nice words.
And so glad the Anchorman quote was enjoyable! ;-)
I have heard a lot of complaints about the newer batches of No.19. I like it still, but yes, it seems a bit tamer. I suppose nothing's safe these days.

Oct
15
2013
Kharnak Rex
Kharnak Rex

Amazing historic fascination, yes. Skin, tanned hides... A family i'm very very fond of myself. A whole family wheel all to itself to categorize. But it's important to try.
My recommendations:

Dior - La Couturier, Leather Oud: expensive "white" leather purse
Thierry Mugler - A*men touch of leather: familiar angel, but with rich black suede, like new shoes

Etat Libre D'Orange - Rien: Potent, dry leather, jackets, train cars...
Etat Libre D'Orange - Je Suis un Homme: Tarry black leather regimental boots, harsh citrus, cognac
Etat Libre D'Orange - Tom of Finland: sweet vanilla, Vinyl/Suede leather jackets
Avon Black Suede: powdery smooth, sweet Suede, Nutmeg

Oct
12
2013
hunterblu
hunterblu

Wow, what a perfectly written article Elena. Your prose always seem to mirror the beauty in whatever fragrance and/or notes you are writing about. I am always excited to open another of your posts.

I must try and find a sample of vintage Chanel N19 as I do very much enjoy leather notes and Chanel N19 edt is one of my top five fragrances ever. In fact, I'm in bed right now reading before sleep and wearing it...about four hours into it's evolution and lifting my wrist to my nose several times while reading the above. I do sense a leather(ish) note in my N19 but am extremely curious to compare it with the vintage.

Thanks for the fascinating read. I did not know much, if any of the history of leather notes in perfumery.

hunter

Oct
12
2013
Chickenboo
Chickenboo

Dear Ms. Vosnaki,
thank you so much for your very informative article! I love reading your posts; when I read them I always learn something new! One of my favorite perfumes is Chanel no.19 EdT, but it seems to have discarded the leather note in the current bottles. I don't (yet) own a bottle of Knize Ten; I think it smells great! I also love the smell of Le Labo Patchouli 24. And I also want to thank you for the Anchorman quote- that made my day!
Warmest regards!
CB

Oct
11
2013
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@Jeca,

I can understand, not everyone likes the butch leathers, not everyone has to to participate in this fabulous genre.
What about Cuir Beluga? It's cuddly, soft and rather vanillic.

Oct
11
2013
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

Fazli,

very glad you enjoyed the article, thank you for saying so.

That is a good idea actually, maybe a nuance in the adjective descriptors in the right hand "list"? It's worth putting up for consideration. Thanks!

Oct
11
2013
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

Jeffrey, thank you for the vote of confidence :-)

Oct
11
2013
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@Sctje,

thank you!
In some of these categories, historical details really "make" the whole story and from then on everyone adds their own little piece, I suppose.

@ehv,
thanks for the compliment!

@Isablsabella,
glad you enjoyed!

Oct
11
2013
jeca
jeca

Thank you, Elena! I like leather fragrances, but still can't find my kind of leather, I would prefer leather without smoke... like Kelly Caleche

Oct
10
2013
fazli ikram
fazli ikram

Great Articles elena..i hope that fragrantice create another subdirectory for leather pictures, to show if it is the smell of real leather, burning leather, fresh leather etc..because sometimes when the notes mentioned leather for a specific perfume, assumption is made that it is the smell of ready made leather like shoes , bags etc..last but not least , i love the articles and i do love leather smell, butch leather smells like knize 10 and bandit....

Oct
10
2013
jeffreydame
jeffreydame

Superb as always Elena!

Oct
10
2013
IsaIsabella
IsaIsabella

Thanks for the article. :)

Oct
10
2013
ehv
ehv

Excellent article! Thank you very much.
Add me to the list of cuir lovers.

Oct
10
2013
Scatje
Scatje

Great article! Always love historical details. Love cuir-scents myself and I have some in my collection

Oct
10
2013

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