Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cuir de Russie by Chanel: fragrance review and history

Whenever I think of Cuir de Russie by Chanel I think of a particular place and a woman I once saw. She is of Slavic features, quite old and she must have been beautiful at her prime. Now the fallen features speak of a splendour gone by, an existence that was once luxuriously pampered now reduced to wandering the busy, buzzing city sitting at the old derelict café that was Zonar’s up till some years ago. Situated at the city centre, amidst the crowded shopping district and face to face with an uber-luxe jewel shop (which in itself had been a traditional, picturesque ouzeri in a previous incarnation), Zonar’s had been for almost half a century the Mecca meeting point of local and visiting intelligentia.

And then like old civilizations, it withered and almost died…Abandoned, frequented only by the decadent and the nostalgically traditionalists. She was there, all right: mink fur jacket on her back, but almost tattered and yellowing at the edges. Antique gold bracelets that must have been family heirlooms from a Bosporus clan. Her hair coiffed in an old fashioned style that must have gone out of fashion about 30 years ago, her eye pensive and introspective. Her black croc bag, good quality, but showing years’ long wear. To paraphrase Poe, a "woman of the crowd"…

Cuir de Russie has this exact décadence avec élegance vibe that made an impression on me upon setting eyes on that woman.

In the words of Luca Turin:
“sumptuous leather, light and balsamic, forgoing any sugary compromise, Cuir de Russie regains its place at the top of this category, right next to the rather more jovial Tabac Blond. [...]Cuir de Russie is a striking hologram of luxury bygone: its scent like running the hand over the pearl grey banquette of an Isotta Frashini while forests of birch silently pass by”.

Amanda Lacey, famed London facialist, to whom this was gifted by Jacques Polge, put it in simpler terms:
“There's something about it that makes me emotional - it reminds me of Paris and of times gone by when people had an elegant approach to life. I feel I'm wearing a wise grand dame around my neck.”

Chanel's Cuir de Russie came out in 1924, a time at which the impact of Les Ballets Russes (1909-1929) was palpable. Russian émigrés having fled the motherland because of the revolution in 1917 had populated Paris and had lent it their own mark of decadent sophistication. Suddenly the exotic East, in which westerners classified the vast Russias since before the time of Peter the Great, became all the rage and the embodiment of everything forbidden and alluring. The datchas, the orthodox churches, the ballads on balalaikas, the Cossacks.
In the words of a critic of the times:
“nothing is more foreign to our tradition than those violent bursts, those frantic and intense dances, this instinctive frankness, this disproportionate imagination. The discordance is so brutal that one would be astonished by the tenacious favour that those people over there hold on us. The simple truth is that Russians fascinate us because they distrurb us”.

From the Commitée Colbert.

Coco Chanel herself would indulge sartorially into the craze for all things Russian, setting up the atelier Kitmir, which will later create the broderies inspired by Russian folklore for Jean Patou, himself the lover of the Grand Duchess of Russia. Coco also created the costumes for 4 ballets, one of which is Le Train in 1924; coincidentally the year Cuir de Russie is issued.

Inspired by Gabrielle’s own love for the exiled Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovitch (1891-1942) ~ cousin of Tsar Nicolas II~ and paying homage to Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Serge Lifar, protégé of Diaghilev, with whom she was friends, Cuir de Russie exploited an old theme with a modernist palette.

Legendary nose Ernest Beaux, guided by Chanel’s desires to dare, made women indulge in what is essentially a men’s scent formula, garlanding it though with sparkly, dry aldehydes and the eternal feminine flowers: jasmine (an abundance of it!), rose and ylang ylang; redolent of No.5’s own heart, giving a warm, honeyed aspect that contrasts with an icy element that enters and exits the scene like an aloof, declassé aristocrat ~in perfect accordance to what was previously revealed as being the idea behind it: the leather pouches for jewels.

The inclusion of rectified birch tar, supposedly along with styrax, gave it the brutish animalic touch of 20th century and the intelligent beauty of Constructivism arhictecture. None of the sweet, contemporary niche leather harmonies and further off the smoothness of Diorling {click for review}. Sublime cadenzas of amber and resin provide the warm but never too congenial backdrop hinting at a bygone luxury and perhaps a little smoking fetish, letting off a subtle hint of tobacco. Contrary to Tabac Blond however it weaves smoothness of skin and rounded contours under the dress that cloths the woman. This is supremely manifested in the far superior extrait de parfum concentration which, like all Chanel parfums, exploits the best of raw materials and gives the most luxuriant experience.

Notes: aldehydes, orange blossom, bergamot, mandarin, clary sage, iris, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, cedarwood, balsams, vetiver, styrax, incense, cade, leather, amber and vanilla.

The current eau de toilette version, which had been first re-orchestrated by in-house perfumer Jacques Polge in 1983 (toning a tad down the harsher leather aspect), now circulates in the gigantic sparse bottles of Les Exclusifs range in 200ml, distributed at Chanel boutiques and very select doors. The extrait de parfum concentration is not easy to come by any longer (it used to be available easily on Chanel.usa), regretably, but it is definitely still being made, distibuted to certain boutiques and definitely available in Paris if you travel there.

Translation of quotes from the French, author's own. Pic of young woman in gloves by glovelover 2006/flickr. Pic of Zonar's from Naftemboriki. Pic of ladies in furs by Kchen/flickr. Pic of leather cases for jewels courtesy of wealthwood.com


  1. Malena16:39

    dear e. :)
    cuir de russie is among my favourite scents, especially in the extrait version which is much more complex than the EdT (which i own as well, fortunately in the 100 ml bottle).
    my favourite leather scent might be tabac blond extrait, though, which is so smooth & elegant & develops wonderful on my skin - at least i think so LOL
    in the beginning i had problems with chanel scents in general & found they didn´t smell good on me. now that has changed & i own quite a few
    i wear cuir de russie only on special ocassions - it reminds me (don´t ask me why ;) ) of a russian princess who has a tragic love story with a poor man whom she´ll never be able to marry.

  2. Dear C,
    it is lovely in its old fashioned way, isn't it? I wish it was easier to get and thereofre more people would know it.
    Personally I haven't found a Chanel that doesn't work well on me. They're all pretty and my favourite is probably No.19.

    About the Russian princess: we had perhaps a comparable vision, only in mine she married the poor man and she got disinherited ;-)

  3. Of course, you know that Chanel Cuir de Russie may be my favorite scent of all time (for this year). I love the way the aldehydes open up the leather and give it a faint shimmer (I actually came to "tame" aldehydes through CdR); the iris cools it off further, cutting through the styrax-amber-cedarwood heaviness. I don't get a nostalgic vibe from it at all, however: to me, it remains modern, with a mixture of warmth, aloofness and class that is neither feminine nor masculine: a great hermaphrodite scent.

  4. "Hermaphrodite"--an excellent word for CdeR! "Unisex" connotes a sort of sterility, which it doesn't have at all. I'm another who finds it old-fashioned and a little perverse, in a good way. I'm lukewarm on Chanels generally, and Cuir de Russie is the only one I'd call intriguing.

  5. Dear D,
    this is so funny and true for a perfumeholic: "my favorite scent of all time (for this year)".
    I wouldn't have pegged you as a non-aldehydic lady, though; I am surprised!
    Warmth, aloofness and class it does have in copious amounts. Interesting that you perceive it as modern: I guess that would be subject to what constitutes modernity or synchronisity in any case; which is an interesting subject to discuss further on!
    "Hermaphrodite" is a great word for it, agree.

  6. Dear M,
    unisex is not my favourite word for perfume either; sort of reminds me of eunichs for some reason.

    I believe the great secret of enjoying a Chanel is forgetting everything about the brand, the myth, the glam and the name and focusing on the scent only. Decant in a plain glass bottle if you must!
    I think there are some gems there to be discovered, especially in their extraits de parfum.

  7. Aldehydes and me: long story. I wore Rive Gauche as a teenager and First as a very young woman, so I wasn't always averse to them. Then I wore Habanita exclusively for 10 years,went through a long Caron phase before moving on to Lutens. Aldehydes equalled Chanel N°5 to my nose and, well, N°5 has the dreaded hairspray smell to me (hangs head in shame). I actually began to enjoy the soapy aldehyde-jasmine combination in tiny doses in Cuir de Russie and Bois des Iles. I now own L'Ame Soeur and N°22 is on the list when I finish my mini...

  8. A ha! Interesting D!
    I do think Rive Gauche is an excellent choice for a young woman: it smells icy, cerebral and alluring all in the same breath. Of course Habanita, Caron and Lutens did tear you further off the aldehydics.

    Re:No.5, do you find that the hairspray note is evidenced in the Extrait and the Elixir as well? I would bet that those two would go on smoother on you.
    No.22 is a more playfull aldehydic than No.5 and a little less sexed-up. I think you should splurge...*evil grin*

  9. I've tried neither the parfum nor the elixir -- I admit I've never made a huge effort because N°5 is so ubiquitous. Some day...
    Coming back to the notion of "modern": to me, for instance, the Carons do not smell modern because of the base. They are very much of their time. Neither does Habanita. Nor do many chypres, starting with the Coty. I'm not sure exactly how to formulate it: it's to do, for me, with powdery bases and a certain opulence.
    And about the term "hermaphrodite" in perfumery: I think I'm the first to use it. It's definitely a lot better than unisex which,as you and Bittergrace say, sounds sterile and sexless. Although for Cuir de Russie, maybe androgyne is better? Your knowledge of ancient mythology would serve us here...

  10. You should give both concentrations of No.5 a chance I think: the Elixir especially is not immediately reminiscent of the classic No.5, which is in this case is a plus (not being as ubiquitous, I mean). I can understand how you want to wear something that not many people know and it leaves one wondering.

    I completely agree about the Carons (and with Habanita to a lesser degree): they have this musty rose thing that is so characteristic of a bygone era. I can't wear many Carons because of that.

    Chypres? Well, I wear some of them in completely casual attire and in warm weather and they smell very "new" and subversive (Bandit mostly)or I don them in autumnal rainy weather and they are more contemplative (Mitsouko, Femme). Others tend to be a little dated...and thus I don't wear them that much...oh well...

    I think not all powdery stuff is old-fashioned though: look at Flower by Kenzo, or DK Cashemere Mist ~very powdery both, very much a product of their times and because they are so cleverly advertised as modern they are bestsellers among the very young (I am talking about 20year olds).

    Re: Hermaphrodite: ancient mythology puts a rather sinister spin on this, as it derives from Hermes and Aphrodite. I think it would pertain to characteristics that would graft themselves to both sexes (as in this scent in question; hence I though it well said), yet it is in itself a sense that is too self-sufficient, recalling (to me at least) self-pollinating plants or similar non vertebrae.
    In that regard it might hint at too much independance, which in itself is a bit un-erotic. Eros being the desire to merge with another. You see my point.

  11. Leather scents are my latest fascination..
    I found both Caron Tabac Blond and Chanel Cuir Russie while in Paris .. and fell madly in love with them both ...
    Caron Tabac Blond on me wears more youthful and I prefer to wear it during the day ...
    I wear Chanel Cuir Russie at night or special events ...
    and I am constantly stopped and asked what kind of scent is it..
    I respond with a naughty smile..

    I must continue on my quest for collecting leather scents...
    thank you for your amazing blog

  12. ...As you know, Coco Chanel was romantically involved with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov through whom Chanel met perfumers in Grasse and master perfumer Ernest Beaux. It was Beaux who was thereafter asked by Chanel to encapsulate the essence of her romance with the Grand Duke. The idea was to create a fragrance of wild cavalcades, wafts of blond tobacco and the smell of boots tanned by birch bark, which the Russian soldiers would wear. I personally think that this idea was brought to the absolute realism! This is because of a memory from my childhood... I vividly remember my father, who was a Russian military man, smelling exactly like Cuir de Russie by Chanel!!!

  13. SF,

    thank you for your comment! (which I saw late)
    Leather holds a potent fascination, doesn't it? :-)
    Excellent choices and wear them in good health!

  14. alexis,

    thank you so much for bringing a -shall we say- more personal and familiar corroboration to the Russian leather touch to this fragrance!

    Indeed Beaux is recounted as being introduced to Coco through the Grand Duke. Needless to add that Beaux was supposedly pushing a prior formulation he had in his drawers while working for Rallet for her No.5 and added bits & pieces from his own remembrance as well for the next fragrant compositions (CdR and BdI, both inspired by Russian culture, as recounted in a memoir). Makes one wonder where one personality ends and where the other begins...but that's the beauty of creation!


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