Monday, December 10, 2007

Leather Series 4: A touch of Regal Stench

by guest writer Denyse Beaulieu

For centuries, leather and scent have gone hand in hand; and for centuries, that hand was sheathed in the finest of gloves… Like his predecessors on Western thrones from Catarina di Medici onwards, King George III (1738-1820) – the English monarch whose reign was interrupted by his descent into madness - shielded his regal nose from stench with a wave of a fragrant glove.

But things had changed in the realm of perfumery, and the strong animalic aromas favoured by his forebears had fallen out of favour half a century before he was born. Many still believed that the putrid miasmas emanating from cadavers, cesspools and the very earth were responsible for plagues, and that bathing, by ridding the skin of its protective coat of grime and immersing the body in hot water would expose one to maladies by opening up the pores. However, a change in sensibilities was drawing the aristocracy and the rising bourgeois classes towards lighter floral scents conjuring images of nature. Perfumes were no longer though of only as invisible shields: their poetic essence spoke to the very soul. Animalics were reviled and thought harmful: musc, for instance, was associated to the smell of excrement.

It is thus quite surprising to find that the first documented leather scent, now known as Royal English Leather was composed in 1780 for King George III by James Henry Creed at the height of the fashion for delicately scented colognes and powders.

Was the King’s master perfumer inspired by the flower-treated leathers still in vogue at the time? If so, he may have been the first to think of introducing a note not found in nature into the vocabulary of perfumery, a full century before the invention of synthetic aromatic compounds. Creed also seems to have been the inventor of an association which would persist up to the present day, the citrus-leather blend. “Seems to have been”, because the scent was apparently reformulated in 1805, at a time when stronger, animalic perfumes were enjoying a revival: at the outset, it may simply have been a floral hesperidic blend used to treat the King’s gloves…

Royal English Leather has none of the astringent bitterness we have come to associate with later, birch-tar based scents. Indeed, the leather note might have originally been created with styrax and castoreum, although conclusive info is not divulged.

Royal English Leather opens with a solar-sweet trumpet blast of the juiciest mandarin studded with cloves, peeled open in a study lined with leather-bound books. The mouth-watering citrus yields to a slightly soapy jasmine that can nearly be tasted, as though sipping jasmine tea – the tannic oakmoss produces the tea-like effect. In the dry-down, the scent subsides into a skin-like, salty leather drizzled with violet powder fallen from the royal wig… The merest touch of aristocratic stench pervades Mad King George’s bespoke fragrance: like its brasher descendants, from Eau d’Hermès to Miller Harris Cuir d’Oranger, Royal English Leather displays a virile disdain for the niceties of the floral-loving bourgeoisie. Leather scents, from then on, would firmly claim their elitist stance.

Portrait of King George III by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1780 courtesy of


  1. Beautiful site, excellent photo illustration of your points. The writing and research is superb. Please tell us more about yourself!

    May I introduce you to my fragrance atelier through our two sites, although neither are complete at the moment. One antiquated, one new:

    My foto blog reflects more of the day to day life of a perfume designer.

    Would be pleased to have you participate in my next scent creation.

    Douglas Hopkins

    DouglasHopkins at

  2. Dear Douglas,

    thank you for your most kind words. Coming from someone who has shot such beautiful photos, I am flattered you deem I have a good eye. I will be mailing you shortly.

  3. You are welcome.

    You are a scholar and an artist, rare at all, but even more rare in the fragrance business.

    Our flagship fragrance is Prastara Royal, originating with Louis XIV, so I take an interest in the historical record of fragrancing. It looks likes you may have a potential book.

  4. Douglas, after seeing your website I'm not surprising this historical post has caught your attention. Russian perfumery is of course at the source of much of modern perfumery, via Caron's Ernest Daltroof and Chanel's Ernest Beaux.
    As for the research on this (and my next post), much of it is drawn from French historian Alain Corbin's fascination "The Foul and the Fragrant", which I can't recommend enough to all readers interested in the history of fragrance and smells in the Western world...

  5. I mean "it's not surprising", of course. Long day here in rainy Paris...

  6. And Ernest "Daltroff". Geez.

  7. Anonymous01:56

    exquisitely written, denyse. the research is quite comprehensive. for the sake of curiosity, please humor me with these questions: do i take it that bacteria active in decomposition digest raw hides to render them soft? what does the urine do then?

  8. gather that your question, EP, is directed at me (pertaining to a previous post about those aspects), so may I direct you to this article for the British Library (if the url fails, it comes up when Googling "tanning bacteria"):

    Hope it answers your questions.


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