January 2011

Image: Uncommon Scents Hide in Plain View

Leather’s subtle notes are just the antidote for holiday fragrance overload for men and women by DENISE HAMILTON


We’ve spent the holidays indulging, but now it’s the New Year, so put down that bonbon and let’s see some perfume discipline. Bring on the braided whip that descends with a crack on winter-pale and slothful skin. Drag out the London club chair, hand-tooled Vir­ginia saddle, tanned hides and Italian stilettos, purses and jackets. January is the time to explore fragrances that evoke leather. All you fruit- and floral-loving people are likely aghast, won­der­ing why anyone would go down such a dark and pungent olfactory alley.

Maybe it’s the whiff of luxury evoked by fine leather goods and perfumery leather’s compatibility with everything from florals and citrus to hay and tobacco—something that appeals equally to men and women.

A while back, every perfumer worth his ambergris began adding cuir—French for leather—to the names of its scents: Parfum d’Empire’s Cuir Ottoman, Miller Harris’ Cuir d’Oranger, James Heeley’s Cuir Pleine Fleur, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s Cuir et Champignon, Armani Privé’s Cuir Améthyste and Parfumerie Générale’s Cuir Venenum. Even gour­met fragrances with no discern­ible leather, such as Guerlain’s Cuir Beluga, hopped aboard.

Today, perfumers are also marrying leather to oud—resin from the Aqui­laria tree. Montale Parfums, which wafted to prominence selling these fragrances laced with rose, makes Aoud Leather and Aoud Cuir d’Arabie, a brawny dominatrix of a scent that would fell the Marquis de Sade. At the other end of the spectrum, couture king Christian Dior’s new Leather Oud is plush, honeyed and refined.

For a somewhat pagan take on leather, there’s Wode Paint by Boudicca, cobalt blue juice in an aluminum can that disappears moments after hitting skin. I picture this tribal queen from ancient Britain smeared with woad (the blue plant said to frighten enemies), draped in animal hides and smelling riper than a Woodstock hippie. Luckily, Geza Schoen—the John Cage of the perfume world—has mediated those smells for 21st-century noses but retained the note of hemlock Boudicca herself used to commit suicide when her uprising against the Roman legions failed.

Leather perfumes can use natural ingredients like rectified birch tar or aromatic chemicals like isoquinolines. They can swagger like James Dean—Vero Kern’s Onda—or whisper old-world money and opulence like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, a 1927 creation by Ernest Beaux that blends iris, jasmine and ylang-ylang with the softest buttery leather.

Creed once had its own fine Cuir de Russie Millesime (now largely discontinued), but consolation awaits in its Royal English Leather.

Leather’s popularity with women has waxed and waned since the early 20th century, when Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, Lancôme’s Cuir, Robert Piguet’s Bandit, Knize Ten and Caron’s Tabac Blond—the latter with its mix of leather, tobacco and heady dark florals—were embraced by Deco Moderne ladies who smoked, gargled champagne, drove fast and jitterbugged through the night.

By midcentury, perfumery’s love affair with leather was in full flower, as evidenced in Cabochard by Grès, Diorling, Miss Balmain and Jolie Madame, an inspired pairing of leather with violets. Hermès—which began life as a Paris saddlery in 1837—has many fine leathers in its stable, including Equipage, Bel Ami, Calèche and Kelly Calèche.

Closer to home, Estée Lau­der’s afford­able 1969 creation Azurée is still around, though cult favorite Max Factor Gemi­­nesse has been discon­tinued. To drown your sorrows, reach for Aramis, Bernard Chant’s 1965 master­piece of leather, oakmoss and citrus.

Just as leather began to slink off department-store shelves—when sillage (as in, the scent that lingers) monsters like Giorgio, Opium and Poison hit big in the 1980s and fruity florals dominated the 1990s—the alchemists of niche perfumery began to embrace it. For example, French perfumer Serge Lutens’ Sarrasins—the muse who inspires him is clearly a Venus in Furs in boots of shiny Moroccan leather—is a purple-hued blend of indolic jasmine, leather, apricots and suede. It was an instant classic when it debuted in 2007 but is now only available at Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido in Paris. Ditto for his El Atta­rine and the new Boxeuses. In the States, you’ll have an easier time getting ahold of spicy, horsey Cuir Mauresque and Daim Blond, a candied-apricot, honeyed take on suede.

Other contemporary scents with leather notes: Olivia Gia­co­betti’s Idole, Duro by Nasomatto, Etro’s Gomma, Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather, L’Artisan’s Dzing! and Tango by Aftelier, a Bay Area maker that uses only natural ingredients.

For slimmer wallets, Deme­ter’s Russian Leather still lurks online, and Dana’s English Leather is a ubiquitous drug­store scent—though I prefer its predecessor, Mem’s English Leather. Other defunct brands that can pop up at garage sales include Russian Leather colognes by Royal Argenta and Imperial del Oro, both made in L.A. (Avoid bottles sitting in the sun—heat and light are perfume’s natural enemies.)

I think maybe we crave the scent of leather because the farther we get from nature, the more our noses, paradoxically, seek what was once part of our ancestors’ olfactory landscape.

I’ll be pondering that as I spritz, hoping a lashing of leather will inspire me to fulfill my New Year’s resolution—bringing order to my unruly perfume collection.