Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Leather Series 1: Definition and Classification

The aroma of leather in scent is akin to smelling a forest of silver birches in the cold ringing air for the first time, inhaling the insides of a pallisander humidor full of “Cohiba” accompanied with a good malt in a tumbler. It's the razor strap of an old-fashioned barbershop and the smell of saddle and leather-bound old books or savouring a post-coital cigarette. Much like the latter it is often hard to resist and a habit difficult to curb.

Whether one is familiar with perfume lingo or not, fragrances rich in the tannic essence of leather are bound to make an impression, be it one of rapture or one of abjection. It is no coincidence that either of those two sentiments usually ensues on people smelling leathery scents: there is seems to be no middle ground.

But let’s begin at the beginning. What is a leather fragrance? Why is it called thus? What does it smell like?

Leather scents pose a problem in taxonomy. Often appearing as a subdivision of the chypré family, leathery scents span the spectrum between feminine and masculine propositions often marrying other accords which might shift the focus into other families (fougère, oriental and chypré). Perhaps the answer to that is to allot them a separate family, as already properly classified (cuir) by the Société Française des Parfumeurs and from thereon subdivide into nuances. To be more specific, SFDP classify leather fragrances as category G, to be divided in true leathers (G1), floral leathers (G2 usually with notes of iris or violet) and tobacco leathers (G3, with smoky or woody notes and blond tobacco).
It is perhaos a great unjustice that leather/cuir has been a bastion of masculine perfumery. Feminine exempla do occur though and with wonderful results of refined taste.

It is worthy of note that leather is one of the oldest notes in perfumery, going back to the tradition of Gantiers et Parfumeurs; a Guild occupying itself with scenting the leather gloves of the aristocracy, in the 16th century, when pleasurably scented essences were used to mask the malodorous aura of newly tanned leather that had the lingering smell of the materials used in curing the hides, such as urine and dung. A profession out of which that of the perfumer arised. On this subject we will revert on a subsequent instalment. Nonetheless the notion of leathery scents stems from those times and is associated with those materials, trying to replicate the aroma of cured hides. Rendering an animalistic aroma that is redolent of Thanatos and inevitably Eros.

However leather perfumes can have several pitch variables, whether naturally or synthetically derived, making the perception of “leather” confusing and variable. From slightly sweet or with a smoked ambience, especially in specimens when the leather note is coupled with that of tobacco, to possessing a tar-like aroma that is especially simpatico with some idiosyncrasies, perfumes of this genre cater to different interpretations of leather. The matter is further complicated by the modern mention of “suede” note, a synthetic slightly salty accord that interprets the imaginary note of a soft, velvety pliable material we are all familiar with through fashion ~especially shoes. And lately fashion has been instrumental in bringing this forgotten family of scents back au courant.

It is often the association with clothing and accessories such as gloves, luxurious handbags and briefcases, chaps/breeches and battered motorcycle jackets that are most often at the back of people’s minds when thinking about a scent that smells of leather.
Upholstery of expensive cars and gentlemen’s clubs with leather Chesterfield sofas help ante up the luxury factor; while libraries with wall to wall shelves of leather-bound books fulfill the dream of every British-novel-loving acolyte admirably and I consider myself one of them. I can't imagine an afternoon more exquisitely spent than immersed in a big armchair leafing through old books on wizardry from Praha or a fat tome by Gibbon.
There is also the fetishist scene that adores leather for its rough/smooth aspect which is mirrored in the scent itself. This is played up into the evocation of several leathery scents that project an aura of the forbidden or the risqué. But liberty, freedom and individualism can also be viewed as expressions of leather, especially when conjuring up images of adventure, motorcycling, aviation and equestrian activities. The simple leather cord suspending a silver charm on the neck of a youth full of vigour is tantamount to a signal to the world at large of an emancipated identity.

The evocation seems to be conditioned though by frequent exposure to leather that has been treated with aromatic essences, taking into account that the whole aromatization business of hides rested exactly on the axis of people not liking the raw smell of leather per se. Perhaps the subconscious evocation of death and decay that is intrinsic to tanneries is at the heart of this aversion.

There is also the matter of differentiation between different animals procuring their hides: cowhide smells quite different than horsehide, for instance.
Many people also report gasoline or petrol impressions emanating from the bottle of a cuir scent: this has to do with methods of production and is not just their cranky nose, apparently, as you might have thought.

Whatever it might consist of, leather has its special magnetic pull: upon opening an Italian handbag of pedigree, you can’t resist burying your nose into the insides and inhaling the smooth, pungent smell of luxury. And that of nostalgia too: the longing of smelling a forgotten furry-trimmed glove on the back seat of a Rolls.

Next instalments on the series will focus on origins of leather scents and the production of leather notes.

Pic of Monica Bellucci courtesy of Pic of library by


  1. Anonymous22:08

    Yes, it seems as if the term 'leather' in fragrances these days is about as general as the term 'ham' is, in cooking. :)

    I have always liked leather in scents - only recently was it revealed to me in so many mid-century womens fragrances (Tabac Blond, Bandit, Cabochard...) where I found it quite surprising and yet just perfect.

    I think I may have found my leather holy grail - I am coincidentally wearing it today. But I don't want to say what it is, until I read some of your posts tomorrow.

    Look forward to reading more. As always.

  2. Thank you Mike for your comment and I hope I won't disappoint.
    Leather is a small family but with some overlapping in other areas. It's greedy! LOL
    There is a refinement and also agression in many leather scents, some of which you mention.
    I am looking forward to your revealing your holy grail!

  3. Mike, I'm very curious too. Helg and I have been sampling at least 75%, if not more, of the currently available leathers (and a couple of the unavailable)... I personally have at least 5 cult leathers in my "favourites" rotation but hope to discover others.

  4. LOL, Denyse, you said it: leather frenzy in action!
    Let me don my chaps! :-))

  5. Count me in as a leather lover !
    I love it with flowers, with incense, with tobacco, with vanilla, with vetiver...
    Ad nauseam.
    To be continued....

    [Oh- and check your mail/ email !]

  6. Anonymous14:36

    Oh Helg,
    what an exciting excusion! I am looking forward to the continuation as with leathers i have found that i had to grow into them, during the last years. Some are irresistible in its iridescing between roug and delicate, some still appear harsh and pricking to me, but i am eager to experience and learn. And there are times i cannot resist a little twinge!
    Thank you!

  7. E., Another fabulous series!! I'm so anxious to read all yr reflections on this marvelous note/accord. It's kind of strange - I love Montale's Aoud Cuir d'Arabie but in warm weather with my shirt unbuttoned ... when lots of other leather scents are only wearable when the temperature plummets.

  8. Dear I,

    of course leather would be agreeable to you! :-)

    I will go read the mail and reply!

  9. N,dear,
    I know; it's an acquired taste.
    Thank you for your kind words as always and your encouragement.

  10. Dear C,
    I have heard so many good things about this one. I have it on my sampling list before the series ends ;-)

  11. I so look forward to this series on your blog, dear. Love me some leather here. Top faves of all time: Tabac Blond Caron, Knize Ten and Cuir de Russie Chanel. The holy trilogy as I like to call them.

  12. Thanks A! Glad to see you here; you're a leather connoiseur!

  13. You write so well, what a pleasure to read! I like Donna Karan's perfume, the one in the black swan-ish type bottle with a flash of gold - it doesn't seem to have a name but it's an edp and definitely has that ahem, "suede", I think it must be? Not sure if that has been reviewed or tested by your fine nostrils haha but I adore that one - must try some of these recs next! Off to check the rest of this series now....

  14. Gail,

    what a great compliment, thanks so much!
    Indeed the original Donna Karan in that -ahem- swan bottle (it looks like a sex toy to me, LOL) is suede-rich. Good nose! It's quite lovely.

    Hope you enjoy the leather series and please feel free to check the others too (and comment/question/disagree, whatever)


Type your comment in the box, choose the Profile option you prefer from the drop down menu, below text box (Anonymous is fine too!) and hit Publish.
And you're set!

This Month's Popular Posts on Perfume Shrine