Friday, December 9, 2011

Guerlain Cuir de Russie: fragrance review of a rare vintage

The Russian Leather theme (termed Cuir de Russie due to the invasion of the Francophones into the Russian diplomacy) was very popular at the end of the 19th century. (Refer to our article Cuir de Russie vs. Peau d'Espagne for history and differences between leather themes). Tanning de facto involved less than pleasant smells and tradition in many countries was to further aromatize the end product with fragrant essences to hide the manufacturing process off notes: In Italy they used frangipani (hence gants frangipani), in Spain camphor and ambergris, in France orange blossom, violet, iris and musk were the usual essences prefered. Legend has it that Cuir de Russie as a scentscape was randomly 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’. Russians tanned their leathers with willows and poplars, as these are common species in the vast steppes. The finishing off involved birch bark oil, which when "cooked" in large pans over an open fire gives a very distinctive odour profile. This is roughly what we have come to describe as "Russian Leather" in perfumery.

This commonplace, rural idea gave rise to perfumes termed Cuir de Russie indeed by L.T Piver, Vonna, Godet, Figuenet, even 4711 or the Russian Leather by Davlin (but forget about Caron's famous Tabac Blond: that one was conceptually different), to results that would capture the imagination of perfumers for the better part of the early 20th century. The most popular and well-known incarnation is undoubtedly Chanel's Cuir de Russie (1924), but Guerlain took the idea and flew with it almost exactly 50 years prior to Coco (in 1875), producing one of the first documented Cuir de Russie fragrance types.

Chanel was inspired by the popularity of Les Ballets Russes in the 1920s and her affair with Russian Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich; Guerlain and their perfumer Aimé Guerlain by the military grandeur of all the Russias. At the 1870s Russia was in a pre-revolutionary turmoil, its population booming beyond any expectation (its peasants comprising four fifths of that sum), its military always feared whenever they intervened southerner of their Azov and Don border. Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina (and publishing in instalments in The Russian Messenger) and War and Peace; both significantly involving military men in the plot. If the French had learned one thing through the recent Franco-Prussian War it was the necessity of building a modern army. Military themes were into the back of people's minds throughout Europe. And, irony of ironies, while the rest of Europe was paying attention to the much needed modernisation proceedings in Imperial Russia, the emerging clan of the Slavophiles was hard at thought on how to return to a simple peasant life!

With this historical  flashback in my mind, I was lucky enough to get some  of the preciously rare old Guerlain perfume through the dedication of an Austrian collector and the fragrance seems to me as the spermatic idea of the leathery backdrop to the quinolines of Guerlain's most classic scent, Shalimar. In fact what I smell is like a cross between Cuir de Russie by Chanel (elegant floralcy upon leather backdrop) and Jicky or Shalimar's drydown (smooth, suede-like, tactile feel, a little smoky).
Even though Cuir de Russie by Guerlain is initially properly bitterish with what seems like herbs, galbanum and oakmoss, with a smoky aspect and not too much tar, the progression veers into a much more supple finish superbly poised between masculine and feminine. The opening notes are folded into the spicy (like carnations), leathery, bitter-almonds facets of styrax resin ~and maybe a hint of the sweetness of Peru balsam as well.
The heart is fanned on jasmine (boosted and "opened" by animalic civet, possibly) and the intermingling with leather is delicious and lush: what I see through Guerlain's Cuir de Russie are purple suede gloves gathering Indian blossoms in the cool evening breeze; a warm wrap upon naked shoulders brushing off long, chandelier earrings while sitting at the dacha; the feel of a firm gloved caress rather than the crack of a military whip...

Visit Mr.Guerlain for great photos of Guerlain bottles
Painting On the Turf by Russian painter Ilya Repin


  1. Anonymous10:01

    I can almost smell it! Beautiful story.

  2. Fiordiligi11:06

    My dearest, what an absolutely beautiful review! I long to smell this wonder; the sight of the bottle alone is giving me palpitations.

    How marvellous to read such a fascinating piece amidst all the tedious reviews found elsewhere of the latest pink department store offering!

  3. Christ! (sigh) I want it. I want it! Love the bottle.

  4. Rappleyea15:06

    Such a beautiful review and glorious picture to greet me on this Sat. a.m. Thank you! I will admit to the sin of coveting it. ;-)

    Interesting that you compare to Chanel's CdR as recently someone asked me about the Chanel CdR extrait and I described it as the edt with a Guerlainade base.

  5. D,

    thank you darling, it's wonderful of you to say so.
    We need to stop and think of all that grandeur that existed, every once in a while. It mends the soul. :-)

  6. TFC,

    it's a lovely fragrance with references of both Jicky and Shalimar to it.

  7. Donna,

    glad you enjoyed the review! It's kind of you to say so.
    It's definitely among the very pride of my heart that I have been able to sample all these rarities; it has enriched me as a person and I'm deeply grateful.

  8. Oooh, that sounds amazing! Beautiful photo!

  9. Drool.
    I'm crazy after most, if not all, things cuir.

  10. Very beautiful post, as always Elena!


  11. Thank you Juraj,

    that's very sweet of you to say :-)

  12. So interesting to read your post. I have a sealed (paper & cord) Guerlain Cuir de Russie. It was my Grandma's. It's 3 1/2", like bottle above but has different stopper. Do you know how old it is? Grandma was born in 1905.

  13. So excited to find your post about Cuir de Russie. Beautiful picture of an elegant, bygone era. I just found a bottle of Guerlain Cuir de Russie in my collection (was my grandma's). It's sealed with paper & cord, 3 1/2 in, different stopper than bottle above. Do you know how old it is?

    1. Hi Alicia!
      Thanks for coming onboard the Perfume Shrine!

      Your bottle sounds lovely, the size is quite decent. I believe this is the only standard cap for this style of perfume bottle (le quatrilobe) according to the archives. The style has been in constant production for various perfumes by Guerlain since 1908 (os it could be from any period after that, really). Your bottle being sealed and corded and having a different stopper is kinda odd. In rather bigger sizes of this type the stopper does look a bit "elevated" but the shape is exactly the same, cord goes into the ridges on top and around neck. Do you have a picture of it? I'm curious to see it.

    2. Sure. Not sure how to attach.

    3. I did more research. It's the carre decanter. 2.37 oz

  14. Alicia,

    could you please upload on Photobucket or some such place and provide the link for me to see? That would help a lot.

    1. I will email you a picture


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