Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Leather Series 5: Cuir de Russie vs Peau d'Espagne

Among leather fragrances in the past there were two major schools of thought. Both sealed their era with their characteristic flair: the Russian leather types and the Spanish leather types. The two present their own idiosyncrasies, like spirited people who enjoy disagreeing from time to time and cut out their own decisive path in life.

Russian leather (cuir de Russie) scents have been inspired by the odour of leather cured in traditional tanneries in the vast steppes of Russia; steppes populated by the lonely silhouettes of silver birches like a page out of Tolstoy. The leather used for military garments of the Russian army and especially boots held a certain aura of authority and in its wake it brought images of hardship and virility; the latter in its etymological association with the Latin virtus, meaning virtue. Those were of course traits highly coveted by men who wanted to embody such images. But in the time of women’s emancipation in the beginning of the 20th century, when leather scents came into vogue, also by the fairer sex.
Birch tar is therefore the characteristic aroma that has been implicated in the makeup of Russian leather scents in the past. To soften dried leather they used birch tar and the fat of sea animals, which give off their own unique odour. Legend has it that Cuir de Russie was born when a Cossack warrior, galloping across the endless Russian steppe, came up with ‘the idea of rubbing his leather boots with birch bark in order to waterproof them’. Several modern Cuir de Russie scents merely draw their inspiration from birch, however, while using isobutyl quinoline instead to render the tar-like note. The recipe proved so popular that every house launched their own version from Piver to Le Jardin Retrouvé(1977) through Guerlain (1875), Chanel (1924) and Creed (1953).

Chanel certainly used birch tar in their Cuir de Russie enhanced by floral notes and aimed at women ~but serving admirably as a unisex scent. Recently it was repackaged in gigantic bottles of eau de toilette in Les Exclusifs line to be distributed through very select channels and is somewhat weakened.

Cuir de Russie by Louis Toussaint Piver was originally created in the late 19th century. Piver has this to say:

“Created at the end of the nineteenth century, the original version of this exceptional cologne has been adapted to today’s market. {re-orchestration in 2003 according to Osmoz}. Very “landed gentry” its fragrance is inspired from the leather smell of Cossack riding boots protected against the wet with silver birch bark. The entrancing and impossibly elegant smell of leather peppered with the tangy notes of mandarin and bergamot orange to leave skin feeling totally refreshed. Next come the wooden and spicy notes before these in turn give way to the aroma of honey. A fragrance that surrenders itself discreetly, unveiling its splendour all in good time and presented in a highly structural bottle inspired by the Russian constructivist period. Convivial, refined and yet never ostentatious. Absolute luxury”.
Worthy of mention however that the unisex Piver’s Cuir de Russie is listed as a 1939 scent on Basenotes.
The endearingly retro label depicts a traditional Russian dance in the snowy landscape, while the cap echoes the Cossack’s toque.

Koelnisch Juchten is {edit: is being debatable} the German name for Russian leather and the eponymous scent is still in production by Farina Gegenueber, the oldest German brand for cologne founded in 1700 by an Italian druggist. Much older actually than Muelhens (of 4711 fame), which copied the 'Eau de Cologne' recipe from Farina and allegedly invented a tale about how it came to their hands. Farina made his own Cuir de Russie (Russisch Leder) by Hugo Janistyn in 1967. For many, however, Koelnisch Juchten is how Russian leather should really smell like.
Others followed suit. A true legend was born!

Spanish leather (peau d'Espagne) has a fascinating background that goes back in history as well. In the 16th century, tanners used to scent chamois with essences of flowers, herbs and fruits and as a final step smear it with civet and musk. This was known as Peau d’Espagne (Spanish skin). Chamois is by itself a sensual material: silky, feeling wonderful in the hand, contributing its own leather undertone, providing depth and softness.

More specifically, according to Havelock Ellis:
Peau d'Espagne may be mentioned as a highly complex and luxurious perfume, often the favorite scent of sensuous persons, which really owes a large part of its potency to the presence of the crude animal sexual odors of musk and civet. It consists of wash-leather steeped in ottos of neroli, rose, santal, lavender, verbena, bergamot, cloves, and cinnamon, subsequently smeared with civet and musk. It is said by some, probably with a certain degree of truth, that Peau d'Espagne is of all perfumes that which most nearly approaches the odor of a woman's skin; whether it also suggests the odor of leather is not so clear”.
For some it is this ancestral echo of the sexual stimulus of skin odour that accounts for its success. And for others it is a scent of profound reminiscence. One of the most touching ~and evocative of a lost memento~ tales comes from Peter Altenberg, the Viennese coffeehouse bohemian, according to whom
"There are three idealists: God, mothers and poets! They don’t seek the ideal in completed things—they find it in the incomplete."

Here he talks of a 1830 fragrance:
“As a child I found in a drawer in my beloved, wonderfully beautiful mother’s writing table, which was made of mahogany and cut glass, an empty little bottle that still retained the strong fragrance of a certain perfume that was unknown to me. I often used to sneak in and sniff it. I associated this perfume with every love, tenderness, friendship, longing and sadness there is. But everything related to my mother.
Later on, fate overtook us like an unexpected horde of Huns and rained heavy blows down on us. And one day I dragged from perfumery to perfumery, hoping by means of tiny sample vials of the perfume from the writing table of my beloved deceased mother to discover its name. And at long last I did: Peau d’Espagne, Pinaud, Paris. […]
Later on, many young women on childish-sweet whims used to send me their favourite perfumes and thanked me warmly for the prescription I discovered of rubbing every perfume directly onto the naked skin of the entire body right after a bath so that it would work like a true personal skin cleansing! But all these perfumes were like the fragrances of lovely but poisonous exotic flowers. Only Essence Peau d’Espagne, Pinaud, Paris, brought me melancholic joys although my mother was no longer alive and could no longer pardon my sins”.
By the late 18th century, when the vogue for strong animalic scents which had monopolized the tastes of the rich and powerful for over two centuries had subsided, Peau d’Espagne remained an exception to the rule of the floral nosegays and the light handkerchief waters used. And by 1910, Peau d’Espagne had evolved into a fragrance to be donned on one’s person, rather than merely as the aroma of little bits of leather for scenting stationery and clothing. So cachets and gloves get a smell not only of leather itself, but also of spices and flowers added. The recipe was enhanced by the addition of vanilla, tonka beans, styrax, geranium and cedarwood. A powerhouse! Many followed the recipe from the discontinued Roger et Gallet (1895)to Santa Maria Novella (1901).

One of the scents that bear the name of Peau d’Espagne , albeit tranlsated as Spanish Leather is by Geo F.Trumper. The note on Trumper's website seems to be saying that there is no leather note in their Spanish Leather, however. A little soapy, a little sweet, it has a slight barbershop ambience to it and provokes antithetical responses from people: some love it, others hate it. The notes include musk, rose, patchouli.
Another Spanish Leather is by Truefitt and Hill: softly leathery, with slightly noticeable spice of which black pepper is more prominent. And of course there is the Santa Maria Novella Peau d'Espagne: one of the oldest and also one of the most controversial but still in production. It has the strong odour of liniment ointment, a powerful ambience for an assured person...

Spanish leather scents threfore comprise notes that have traditionally been used to perfume leather instead, much as has been described above for the curing of chamois. Ergo we come full circle: the material that inspires the trend is absent and in its place there is the evocation it produced through the means of a loan, a metaphor for connotation. Bataille would have felt at home.

Leather Series will continue with a tittilating spin on just how leather scents evolved into erotic ethos! *wink*
Pics from osmoz and Gentlemans-shop


  1. Piver's Cuir de Russie is one of my faves.. The bottle and box are adorable, I just love having them on my dresser. Have you smelled it, E.? What is your opinion of it?

  2. Dear D,
    it is a lovely bottle and label, to be sure. I can understand the fascination! I know you like beautiful things.
    I am very willing to hunt this down. Will get back to you when done :-)

  3. I'd love to try the Piver !

    I think it's fascinating how polarizing leather scents are.

    I adore the bizarre Cuir de Russie of Creed, Kolnisch Juchten, SMN's Peau D'Espagne- none of which would endear me to my own family, I fear.
    Admire Chanel's, but can't wear it well.

    Perhaps it is the unabashed, unapologetic nature of these animalics that gives the "approach- avoidance" aspect that I love.

    What a terrific series.

  4. Aren't they polarizing, dear I?
    Very good explanation of how they work. LOL on the "endear me to my own family"!

    Thank you for the compliment on the series. I try to do something different, hope it communicates.

  5. Malena17:56

    very interesting article!
    though neither LT piver cuir de russie nor SMN peau d´espagne are amongst my favourite leather scents, it was great to read about the origins of both leather types.
    i´ve always to smile when i read kölnisch juchten is the german name for russian leather - it must be a very old expression, because i never heard anybody using it, here - not even perfumistas ;) - !

  6. Thanks Malena :-)
    Fascinating to research into those aspects for me. Glad to see it interests other people too.

    Re: kölnisch juchten, this is the info I found. I am willing to learn if there is another name!

  7. Malena20:33

    hi helg :)
    i already read about kölnisch juchten = german for russian leather on another blog a while ago & i was surprised: me, being german, had no clue that there´s a term like that.
    perhaps it´s a really old word or a kind of dialect i´ve never heard of.
    the part of germany i live is said to be speaking the best german (=without any dialect) so that might be reason as well.
    or it´s another german "myth" like the story i saw on TV some time ago: amricans hanging fake cucumbers on their christmas trees because it was said to be a german christmas custom - well, that i know for sure: it isn´t!!!

  8. Actually, Malena, the myth is perpetuated on Basenotes!
    But I had seen this mentioned in a site about perfume publications as well, which no longer is online (pity, they had good material; perhpas there was some copyright infringement and they closed down?). The author wasn't German though, but American.
    Can't vouch for the accuracy, but it was a source...

    LOL on the cucumbers! ;-)

  9. kölnisch juchten (leder) - I have quite a number of german old bottles and ads with that kind of name and some formulas of perfume. I didn't check the spelling yet ... but it was a kind of leather smell with tobacco notes.

    peau d'espagne. - it didn't smell at all like the leather we are used to. it was floral (very) and musky. Houbigant has one perfume ... very good, 100% natural.

  10. Thanks for the comment, Octavian.

    Very interesting as always and sheds some light to the matter (which merits its own investigation I guess; looking forward to your checking the spelling and getting back to me, if possible).

    Thanks for the rec on Houbigant Pd'E! :-)

  11. Forgot to add that with my incredibly limited knowledge of German words I know kölnisch reminds me of Cologne (the city and the Wasser: eau de cologne)...

  12. lillie13:50

    This series is truly different but stays the same regarding information, intelligence, fascination and wit! Eager to get to know more leathers, now...

  13. Malena15:21

    helg :)
    you´re absolutely right with your association:
    köln is the german word for the city cologne, something from köln (cologne) is kölnisch (adjective). moreover 4711 eau de cologne is in german echt kölnisch wasser, real water from cologne/cologne water. here in germany, i think mostly really old ladies were this scent (or tocade as another example for a extremely dated - in a negative way - scent. nobody younger than let´s say 70 years would wear it.
    i consider myself as pretty open minded, but even i wouldn´t wear it...LOL

  14. Dear Lillie,

    thanks!! *blush*
    I am looking forward to hearing your views on this new for you category when you do try them out.

  15. Dear Malena,

    LOL on the 4711 and older people. Aren't trends funny? Another time, another place, this was all the rage. Of course one is somehow influenced, even just a tiny bit.

    I didn't know that about Tocade, as well; this is highly interesting!!

  16. Malena16:58

    i made a very bad mistake *shame on me* :o
    it´s not tocade i wanted to mention (no wonder that you were surprised...), but tosca! as well as nonchalance. do you know these?
    so sorry for the mix up :(

  17. Oh Tosca! Of course! I remember that one!! It has quite a funny effect when said over and over again in Greek...LOL! I remember we used to make fun of it that way when we were children. I think I might even have a mini, hidden somewhere in a closet of shame.
    Nonchalance, I am not familiar with...

  18. Malena18:46

    here´s a link to the nonchalance website:
    it´s a very inexpensive fragrance, like 471 & tosca (all of them cost less than 10 euros, i think).
    hmmm. now you made me curious ;D - does tosca has a "special" meaning in greek?

  19. Thanks for the link, dear C. I hadn't seen this before. There is something new to learn every day

    No, no special meaning, unless you reverse the syllables saying the second first and the first afterwards (which happens naturally if you say the name over and over again quickly).
    It then means...shit.


  20. Hi there- does anyone know if Chanel changed the formula of Cuir de Russie when they repackaged it? Thanks,
    Flamfoo, Melbourne, Australia.

  21. Flamfoo,

    terribly late, but to give a short answer: Yes! Most definitely.
    Plus birch tar is diminished because it's been regulated under the new perfume restrictions by IFRA.
    I find the Les Exclusifs edt weaker. And rather flater, maybe less tarry, more clean smokey.


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