Masculine yet feminine, wild yet refined, powerful yet delicate… In perfumery, leather puts us off the scent. Yet its animal smell has been linked to the history of perfumery for centuries. Even today, leather and fragrance continue their joyful cohabitation between tradition and modernity. Since 2001, leather perfumes have officially become an olfactory family in their own right. Small and a little apart, but with such a distinctive fragrance. So, what exactly is behind the leathery facets of your fragrances? How do perfumers manage to recreate those frank and atypical notes?
Birth and evolution of leathery notes
Historically, leather and perfume have been linked for a very long time. The beginning of this association dates back to about 2000 years before Christ. At that time, especially in Asia, leather was already rubbed with the bark of fragrant trees, such as kumquat, to perfume it. A few years later in Spain, the skins were treated with different scents such as musk, amber or camphor, while in Italy the leather was perfumed with a sweet scent of almond, iris or civet.
Put your gloves on…
From the Renaissance onwards, leather became the symbol of refinement and the wealthiest people spent astronomical sums of money to buy the most beautiful tanned items. The city of Grasse in France, famous for its tanners, soothes the invasive and nauseating scents of the skins with flower essences. Catherine de Medici brings the fashion of the perfumed glove to France and the corporation of glovers-perfumers was created until its dissolution in 1759. If you wish to know the whole history, enjoy our dedicated article. The origin of modern French perfumery is still very attached to leather work.
…and put on your boots!
After Grasse, it is in Russia that the history of leather and perfumery leads us. Russian cavalry and ballet dancers will inspire many noses with the smell of their waxed boots. Indeed, Russian soldiers and dancers of the time made their precious shoes shine and waterproof thanks to various essences. Birch and sytrax with smoky, tarred scents, and notes of tobacco and liquorice, perfumed the boots of these gentlemen.
This scent was particularly appealing to the house of Guerlain, which created the first perfume Cuir de Russie in 1875. This distinctive fragrance, so powerful and animalized at the same time, made heads turn, to the point that each major house developed its own version of Cuir de Russie. There have been about fifty compositions bearing that name since the Belle Époque. Considered as a men’s fragrance, Cuir de Russie was feminized by Gabrielle Chanel in 1927, in a boyish and androgynous style.
Some great leathery fragrances will then see the light of day. However, the craze for this kind of perfume has been in sharp decline for the past few decades. Since the 80s, these powerful notes have been less appealing to both men and women, who are looking for more freshness. Leather-inspired fragrances are declining while marine notes and “cleaner” fragrances are becoming very popular. But some compositions resist and leathery fragrances are becoming the prerogative of the most experienced noses.
With the rise of niche perfumery, leather is making a big comeback. Leather has become discreet in formulas, thanks to less dark notes; we are now talking about leathery facets. It reveals itself silkier and velvety and evokes the sensation of suede with floral and apricot shades. While vegetable leather is making its way into the world of textiles, it is a safe bet that new avenues will also open up in the world of fragrance.
What does leather smell like?
The leathery olfactory family is a bit on the fringe of the others, as these fragrances are rarer. They have an atypical scent that reproduces the notes of leather. These notes can take on different facets: smoky, tarry, burnt or even shades of tobacco. In the beginning, perfumers in Grasse infused and tanned scraps of leather with dried birch bark. The essence of this bark would later become one of the flagship raw materials for leather perfumes. Indeed, to create this leathery scent, the noses created compositions from dry notes from the fragrant woods, but also from tobacco-based accords or by assembling animal notes.
To bring a leather facet to a composition, the use of scented wood essence was the most common method. The best known is birch tar oil. Tar, or birch pitch, is a substance that is created by heating birch bark in a hermetic manner to obtain a pasty substance composed of tar and ashes from the bark. In perfumery, birch tar essence is obtained by a long dry steam distillation of this substance. This essence evokes the olfactory sensation of a wood fire, thanks to its warm and smoky notes. Cade essence can also be used. This tree, also called cade juniper, grows mainly in the coastal regions of the Mediterranean, from Morocco to Iran. Its wood and roots are distilled to deliver an essence with a very powerful smoky scent. The essence of agar, the main constituent of oud wood, can also be used to create leathery notes.
Other raw materials
In addition to fragrant woods, there are other raw materials, natural or synthetic, which can be used to create leathery accords. Among them are resins such as sytrax and labdanum. Their balmy, warm and animal notes are powerful and serve as a base for leather scents. Some flowers also have leathery facets, like immortal or cassia. Finally, synthetic chemistry can be used with isobutylquinoline, more commonly known as IBQ. This artificial compound, manufactured in the laboratory, is handled by perfumers with great care. Its smell is very raw and powerful. It is a “dry” leather that also reveals green notes and may evoke asparagus.
Do you like leathery notes in your fragrances?