Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Leather Perfumes

The aroma of leather in perfumes has been endlessly re-imagined over the last century; conjuring up everything from diesel fumes to softly scented gloves. It can be a dominant feature, creating an unmistakably leather fragrance, or a subtle accent that lends a deeper, smokier tone

Creed (an English perfume company) were the first to create a leather perfume - Royal English Leather - in 1781, and in those days this would be intended as a masculine fragrance reminiscent of riding boots, horse-riding and other such virile pursuits. Then in 1924, Coco Chanel, always aiming to challenge tradition, created Cuir de Russie for women (now very much a unisex, or a perfume many would  perceive as masculine)

There are numerous ways a perfumer might create the idea of leather. For example Birch Tar was used to cure leather in Russia and lends a phenolic, acrid note not dissimilar to that found in coal-tar soap. Styrax is a resin which gives a slightly softer, sweeter leather impression, saffron in combination with other notes suggests leather, labdanum resin can also smell 'leathery' as can castoreum, which was originally sourced from badgers but now produced synthetically. Castoreum has a urinous quality which in small amounts, or blended with other notes lends a skin-scent quality. (All the above are usually, but not always synthetically created aroma chemicals).

This association with warm skin and luxury is a large part of leather's appeal in perfumery - variously sensuous, comforting, animalic or erotic, depending on how it's handled by the perfumer.

Perfumers enhance aspects of these notes to conjure up a range of moods, so the most successful leather perfumes evoke ideas of leather such as the scent of luxury handbags that retain notes of floral perfume or make-up, or worn car seats and an air of travel.

The following perfumes are among the most evocative leathers..

Soft, suede-like leather

Cuir de Lancome, by Lancome
My grandfather made teddy bears after he retired from engineering - I remember bags of suedey fur around his house and the leather of Cuir de Lancome reminds me of that cosy, soft smell.

It opens with a rich, warm citrus complexity not dissimilar to Shalimar's top notes, much softer though. The tangy warm feel develops into a dusty/sweet quality (that could be both hawthorn and saffron) and there’s an anisic note that smells like liquorice. Alongside the birch tar and styrax notes the effect is chewy and leathery, almost gourmand (I'm reminded of a chocolate flavoured liquorice all-sort!)

Cuir de Lancome is complex yet cosy and easy to wear, sweet but quite unisex. It’s lightly musky but not animalic, more sensual than erotic. It's very suited to autumn, but I think it could be worn any time of year, especially evenings, for a luxuriously soft, warm and elegant aura. Everyone will want to cuddle you!

Daim Blond, by Serge Lutens
Even more suede-like than Cuir de Lancome, Daim Blond combines apricots and iris for a soft and sweet skin-scent. The suede feel is achieved synthetically through the aroma-chemical 'suederol' which is also present in Tom Ford's Tuscan Leather and many other contemporary perfumes. For me, suederol smells slightly synthetic; something doesn't convince my nose - a lack of complexity perhaps - real leather has a very complex smell which is why people love it.

Russian Leather

Cuir de Russie, by Les Exclusifs de Chanel 
If I'm to be completely honest, which I aim to be in these reviews, I must confess that for me, all the other leather perfumes might as well not exist as long as Cuir de Russie exists!

I'm a fan of 'phenolic' notes; barbecued meat and creosote-soaked fences, coal-tar soap and the scent of burning driftwood. I love this acrid smoky/sweet/salty aroma. Not that Cuir de Russie is as one-dimensional as any of the above smells. 

Birch Tar (traditionally used to cure leather in Russia) provides this effect, but this is perfection in terms of balance. Cuir de Russie's leather is simultaneously clean and dirty, with elegant iris (orris) and floral soapiness, tingling with a light touch of animalic castoreum.

There is no other leather perfume out there, to my knowledge, which so perfectly conjures up the scent of actual leather, also the idea of old world luxuriant travel, not a hint of Ryan Air! It's been compared to the leather seats of a Bentley and there is a slight touch of smoke which makes this less leather handbag and somehow more streamlined. Though originally marketed towards women, it's absolutely unisex, and was created by Chanel's most talented nose, Ernest Beaux, in the 20s.

Cuir Pleine Fleur, by James Heeley
Far less well known since James Heeley is a relative newcomer and more niche than mainstream. Cuir Pleine Fleur is another convincing leather with castoreum element to create a more animalic feel, this is balanced elegantly with violet leaf, then into dry-down muskier notes prevail alongside lime and vetiver which makes for a more masculine scent, to my nose. Somehow I imagine expensive man-bags and a metrosexual man about town

Les Heures de Cartier: La Treizieme Heure XIII, by Cartier enhances the smoky aspects and is slightly darker, or earthier with the addition of patchouli. 

Fireside, by Sonoma Scent Studio takes this smoky feel further, we're in camp-fire territory more than luxury leather. Lovely, but not so easily wearable perhaps

A touch of leather

There are literally hundreds of perfumes out there which feature notes of leather,
for obvious reasons - leather has a luxurious feel so its addition to perfumes makes for a more expensive smell. Having said that, it can also lend a slightly 'hard' edge to perfumes, and since sweet fruity florals are the most popular category for young women, not everyone welcomes the leather effect.

Many of the most classic and iconic perfumes feature notes of leather, such as -
Shalimar by Guerlain, Miss Dior by Dior, Diorling by Dior, Chanel No. 19, Habanita by Molinard

Lastly, some contemporary perfumes with a touch of leather -
Bulgari Black, Cuir Mauresque by Lutens, Dzing by L'Atisan, Bottega Veneta by Bottega Veneta, Kelly Caleche by Hermes, In the Library by CB I Hate Perfume


  1. Wearing today Heeley's Cuir Pleine Fleur: surprisingly soft suede-like, reminded me of Fahrenheit in the opening notes thanks to the violet leaf, and became a skin scent later. Very cozy and comfortable for a leather. I like it, but I dare disagree with you about being more in the masculine side, as I see it as perfect for women, a feminine counterpart for Fahrenheit!
    Congratulations, your blog is very interesting and entertaining!

  2. Hi Insensé, nice to see you here! You're right, a perfume's gender is all in the eye or nose of the beholder! I love the violet in Cuir Pleine Fleur but then it changes in to dry down, maybe that's just me!
    Thanks so much for your kind words and do visit again soon!