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.
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!
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...
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Painting On the Turf by Russian painter Ilya Repin