Whenever I browse the accessories racks in vintage shops, I furtively sneak a whiff of the leather purses. They are always full of surprises, these old handbags, still bearing traces of melted lipstick and ink on their silk linings. Their worn leather can smell smoky or sweet, reminiscent of salty tobacco or spicy wood. I trace the cracks in the leather with my finger and imagine the places where the purses accompanied their owners. Did this beige minaudière decorated with pearls see many a cocktail party? Did the faux-crocodile-leather doctor’s bag conceal important documents – or love letters?
Leather-accented perfumes inspire similar daydreams for me. Though leather accords have the reputation of being dark and brooding, their versatility and range lend them to many styles, including romantic.
One of the leather classics, Chanel Cuir de Russie (£274 for 200ml EDP), is considered to be the gold standard for a smoky interpretation, although in comparison to modern perfumes like Comme des Garçons Black, it seems mild. Its leather accord is based around a birch tar note, a material that recalls sweet smoke and incense. Aggressive and sharp on its own, it nevertheless pairs so well with florals and musks that it can be made gentle. Indeed, in Cuir de Russie, the leather is merely the backdrop for an intricate composition centred around iris, a cool note that evokes both woods and flowers. A lingering accent of sweet tobacco finishes the composition, calling to mind the elegance of art deco and its sense of the unconventional.
Similarly unconventional is the leather collection of Serge Lutens. The line has a number of fragrances with leather accents, whether Sarrasins (£170 for 75ml EDP), with its interplay of leather, jasmine and musk or Fumerie Turque (£260 for 100ml EDP), which weaves leather into tobacco leaves and rose petals. Cuir Mauresque (£260 for 100ml EDP), however, makes this tanned note the star player. It is buttery and rich, oscillating between the darkness of amber and the spicy bite of clove. What makes its leather tender and luminous is the clever addition of orange blossom and mandarin. Inspired by the old tradition of perfuming gloves with fragrant pomades, Cuir Mauresque conjures up vintage handbags and well-worn armchairs in old libraries.
Another elegant leather is Parfum d’Empire Cuir Ottoman (€130 for 100ml EDP). The creator of the collection, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, seeks inspiration in history, from Ancient Greece to Japan. Cuir Ottoman tells a tale from the days of the Ottoman Empire, and while the story that accompanies the fragrance focuses too much on the orientalist tropes of “the mysterious East” to inspire this perfume lover, the perfume itself is anything but stereotypical. Cuir Ottoman blends the dryness of leather with honeyed amber and balsams redolent of vanilla liqueur and caramel. The juxtaposition makes for a dramatic and yet tender effect, as if the leather of a motorcycle jacket turned into suede.
Finally, if Cuir Ottoman seduces you, but you crave even more indulgence, I recommend Guerlain’s Cuir Beluga (€205 for 75ml EDP). Its leather is burnished to such softness that it feels silky. The leather at the heart of the composition is illuminated with citrus and immortelle, a flower of the dunes that smells of spice and maple syrup. The composition then falls onto a cloud of sweet vanilla and bitter patchouli, another delicious contrast. Leather remains present throughout, lending Cuir Beluga boldness and glamour.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.