Leather as a style has existed in fragrance for centuries. There are several histories that modern perfumers draw inspiration from such as Cuir de Russie and Peau d’Espagne. Traditionally perfumers worked with master tanners to scent hides used for the creation of perfumed leathergoods such as gloves that were the fashion in 17th century France. Leather holds its own scent, which is enhanced by the tannins that have been used to transform the hide into leather. Modern tanneries use a combination of mineral or chromium salts to halt the decaying process. The hides are then drummed and dyed, further developing the hand and grain desired. The hand refers to the sensual touch of the leather and grain is the visual aspect. The master tanner will monitor this drumming phase with care to create the hand and grain required. Aniline and semi aniline processes create leather that is very natural and has a wonderful hand. This natural aspect shows the true nature of leather, each piece is individual and bares its soul. This style of leather will develop its own patina with time and becomes darker. Many buyers of luxury leather goods do not fully appreciate this natural aspect and prefer more processed types of leather that have been coated, protected and the grain is artificially enhanced or sometimes embossed. While these types of products are beautiful and maintain their original appearance day after day, I have a great appreciation for the natural leathers that age with you. Each mark and abrasion tells a story of time. One of my favourite leather products is a Louis Vuitton wallet from their Nomade collection. Its caramel colour is natural, coming from the tannins used. For this collection the French travel goods maker favours the use of natural tannins derived from a variety of tree barks and plant materials such as Quebracho and Mimosa. This is the traditional way of making leather and each master tanner has his or her own secret method of production. The use of vegetal tannins has influenced the way perfumers illustrate the leather note in their work. Birch tar is traditionally the key ingredient in a leather composition. Its smoky phenolic scent is often associated with leather. Legend has it Russian Cossacks rubbed their riding boots with silver birch tar to waterproof the leather. The scent is said to inspire the classic Cuir De Russie, a nineteenth century formula that has been widely interpreted by many including Chanel, LT Piver and Creed. Peau d’Espagne is another leather story. Spanish Skin is more sensual compared to its Russian cousin. Traditionally it is a mixture of citrus, neroli, rose and spices. It is fixed with animalic notes of civet and musk. As the scent of leather cannot be obtained in any way from the leather itself, perfumers formulate oils that create the illusion of leather. Until it appeared on the IFRA restricted list, birch tar was the main ingredient the perfumer used to create a leather scent. More popular now are quinolenes, a family of aroma chemicals that played a key role in many of the men’s fougeres and chypres of the 1980s. Mixed with phenols (smell of creosote) such as para-cresyl acetate a basic leather note can be formed. This is further modified with moss or labdanum and other resins adding a fecal animalic note. Vanilla can round and soften what is by itself a very austere smell. Particularly if birch tar has been used an undeveloped leather accord can smell like road works. Iris makes a nice floral companion for leather fragrances (Christian Dior’s Dior Homme). Orange blossom offers an exotic eastern twist (Miller Harris’ Cuir D’Oranger). Leather fragrances before the late nineties were less creative in their floral departments relying on the floral trinity, rose, jasmine and muguet. Only recently has leather become a main theme in fragrances. Classics such as Chanel’s Antaeus feature leather only as a supportive note. More recent perfumes that get attention for their use of leather are: Parfum d’Empire Cuir Ottoman, Tom Ford Tuscan Leather, L’Artisan Parfumeur Al Oudh. And although it is much more than just a leather fragrance, Amouage’s Epic for men is a personal favourite in terms of the leather theme. Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage Cuir Fraicheur is an interesting interpretation of leather for men, as it doesn’t contain any of the traditional ingredients used for this genre. Lancome’s Cuir de Lancome is a solid performer in terms of a traditional leather scent.
Leather notes in perfume