Leather has enjoyed a revival in perfumery, partly due to niche perfumers that have enjoyed using leather to tell their stories over the past decade. For L’Artisan Parfumeur ‘s Dzing, Olivia Giacobetti uses elements of leather to create an olfactory image of a gypsy circus, of animals and warm hay. In Puredistance’s M, Roja Dove creates an olfactory image of an Aston Martin’s fine leather upholstery. The use of leather notes in perfumery is deeply seated in history. Grasse, the historic centre of French perfumery was once a major supplier of tanned hides used in France and Italy’s burgeoning leather goods industry. Perfumery flourished here during the 18th century when the trend of the perfumed glove was at its peak. Due to high taxation of leather and shifting trends at the end of the 19th century, Grasse’s leather industry declined but perfumery flourished. When modern chemistry changed the way perfumers worked, Grasse embraced the change and with over a century of know-how, the small town that overlooks the French Riviera was at the forefront of early 20th century perfumery. It was at this time a determined Coco Chanel visited Grasse seeking help to create her first signature scent, which would become No. 5, the most successful fragrance in the world. Her perfumer was a Russian immigrant and now legendary perfumer, Ernest Beaux. After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the collapse of his Empire, many Russians were forced to leave their country. Historians count the French Riviera as one of the popular locations where affluent Russians lived in exile. Through these social circles Coco Chanel met Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and a love affair ensued. During the 1920s a Russian influence pervaded many of Mlle Chanel’s creations. Following the successful launch of No. 5, Ernest Beaux created additional perfumes, Bois des Iles and Cuir de Russie. The latter is inspired by the odour of leather boots worn by the Russian military. The leather was rubbed down with birch tar as a form of waterproofing, resulting is a smoky wood and leather odour. Chanel must have appreciated this masculine scent in the same way she appreciated masculine tailoring as a source of inspiration for her feminine garments. As Chanel’s couturier style influenced French fashion in the 1920s, Chanel’s Cuir de Russie influenced French perfumery along with Caron’s Tabac Blond. Lanvin and Lancome are just a few fashion and beauty houses that followed, launching women’s fragrances draped in androgynous leather notes. Leather continued to feature in women’s perfumery up until the 1950s. After some years in retirement, Cuir de Russie was returned to Chanel boutiques at the end of the 1980s and again in 2005 when the house launched Les Exclusifs de Chanel. In its most recent incarnation it is regarded as one of today’s most sought-after leather fragrances. Just as leather comes in a variety of grades, Chanel’s Cuir de Russie is an impeccable quality; a luxurious leather perfume with a finesse like soft lambskin.
Leather notes in perfume tend to have a raw, brutish quality about them. Perhaps this is why perfumers often favour the use of leather to communicate masculinity in their work? Even the most feminine leather perfumes have a serious nature, like a school head mistress staring down at you past the spectacles she has deliberately lowered to the bridge of her nose for added effect. Of all the leather fragrances in my collection, I find Chanel’s Cuir de Russie to be the most seamless. Its edges are carefully guarded and only with careful consideration does it allow viewers inside to dissect its many parts. Unlike Helmut Lang’s Cuiron, which is filled with isobutyl quinolene or Serge Luten’s Cuir Mauresque, which overflows with white flowers, Chanel’s Cuir de Russie is much more subdued, showing only momentary flashes of waxy petals, an oriental accord, beautiful jasmine that Chanel is so famous for and of course leathery birch tar. Unlike Chanel No. 5, which has parfum and eau de toilette versions that are remarkably different from each other; Cuir de Russie parfum is more or less the same character as the eau de toilette, only it is more concentrated. Cuir de Russie begins with citrus and orange blossom, quickly building into a waxy green ylang ylang note. This becomes jasmine on a backdrop of Beaux’s oriental accord seen in its full glory in Bois des Iles, created one year earlier. Perhaps owing to its lightness, the eau de toilette has a slightly soapier gush towards the beginning, smelling like a freshly cleaned riding saddle. In the parfum version this soapy effect is covered by an accord of rich leather that has facets of hay, tobacco and smoky woods (Albanian birch wood). At this point the parfum develops an intense dryness nourished only by the moisture of oriental jasmine petals. The parfum is tenacious at a quiet volume and lasts a number of hours.
Although Cuir de Russie was initially designed for Coco Chanel to please her female clientele, I feel sufficiently liberated to be at ease with wearing this androgynous classic. Men who are looking for a more rough-and-tumble type of leather could prefer Tauer Perfumes’ Lonestar Memories or the more traditional Yatagan by Caron. Chanel’s Cuir de Russie is a refined approach to leather, which I enjoy wearing during work hours or afterhours at functions or dinners. Its dryness and depth make it a great choice for autumn and cooler climates. Better suited on men in their 30s or above and a good perfume option for men who are smokers.
Lanvin Scandal, Lancome Cuir de Lancome, Caron Tabac Blond, L’Artisan Parfumeur Dzing, Hermes Santal Massoia
Perfumer: Ernest Beaux
Bottle Designer: Coco Chanel, Jean Helleu
Release Date: 1927 (via Chanel and Fragrances of the World – other sites may differ)
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Dry woods