Perfumer Ernest Beaux was inspired by antique leather when he created one of the most intriguing Chanel classics, Cuir de Russie (£155 for 75ml EDP). But what stands out for me in this smoky, spicy concoction is the scent of birch tar, produced by dry distillation of the tree bark (animal hides can also be soaked in it to create cuir de Russie leather, which has a beautiful lustre).
My first experience of birch tar, however, came not from a perfume but from a soap I bought as a curio from Tallinn. I enjoyed its smoky aroma so much that I’ve since sourced a similar pine-tar version (€4.95 for 100g) by an Estonian brand called Nurme, and learnt that tar derived from different trees has been used for skincare in Baltic countries for centuries due to its antibacterial and soothing properties.
But my fascination with birch tar is mostly due to its scent. While Chanel’s Cuir de Russie offers a classical interpretation, set into an elegant framework of iris, Santa Maria Novella’s Nostalgia (€100 for 100ml EDC) treats it boldly. The fragrance doubles down on smokiness, with patchouli and cedar adding warmer layers, and evokes a visit to an Estonian sauna — hot stones splashed with birch-tar oil, blond wood and fir-tree needles.
Unusually for such a dark material, birch tar also feels cool. It’s all about smoke and smoulder, but it retains a refreshing accent. One such example is Comme des Garçon’s Tar (£70 for 50ml EDT). Its self-described mix of earthy notes, hot bitumen and burnt cigarettes may not sound like something one would wear as a perfume, but the clever arrangement of balsams, soft woods and peppery bergamot makes Tar an unconventional yet still approachable scent. It smells of a summer day in the city – warm asphalt, green leaves and an evocative hint of cool smoke in the air.
Juliette has a Gun’s Midnight Oud (€120 for 100ml EDP), meanwhile, offers birch tar in a more familiar context – that of the so-called oriental floral. This fragrance style includes spices, sandalwood, incense and sweet florals, and at the heart of Midnight Oud is red rose and honeyed, dark agarwood. The smoke of birch tar adds radiance and drama, proving the old adage “There is no smoke without fire”. Midnight Oud is pure seduction.
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. @boisdejasmin.