I’m walking along Via dei Condotti in Rome. I can see the Spanish steps and la Fontana della Baraccia ahead of me in the distance and from the exclusive stores around me comes an evocative scent I initially can’t put my finger on. It’s at the same time sexy, luxurious, expensive and evocative; it’s the unmistakable scent of leather. Why is the fragrance of leather so nostalgic, evocative and visceral? In my opinion it’s because it is such a universal scent, worn by such a wide variety of people for an even wider variety of reasons. It can evoke images of a deep-buttoned chesterfield sofa in a smoky gentleman’s club, a chic Parisienne with a Hermes handbag and a pair of red-soled Louboutin’s, of the well-worn biker jacket your bad-boy boyfriend used to wear, or even of a leather clad dominatrix wielding a black riding crop.
The history of the scent of leather is intimately tied to the tanning process, one which can only be described as odoriferous. To cure the animal skins, tanners would use an array of very noxious ingredients such as urine, cyanide and even dog and pigeon excrement, so it’s no wonder herbs, flowers and fragrant oils were used to mask this. Bark tanning was a particularly fragrant method with its use of the bark of certain trees like oak, chestnut and wattle. However, perhaps the most iconic wood scent associated with leather is that of birch tar oil, which was used in the production of Russia leather. The oil was rubbed into the back of the leather to waterproof it, leaving it delicately perfumed with tarry, smoky, wintergreen notes.
The fragrance of leather is so redolent that it is quite understandable that many perfumers throughout history have wanted to bottle it. In fact, the dynastic house of Creed’s first ever scent, commissioned By King George the III in 1781, was a beautiful leather based fragrance called Royal English Leather. Almost 150 years later it was Russia Leather that inspired Coco Chanel to create Cuir de Russie. This was a distinguished, provocative perfume inspired by her affair with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia as well as the distinctive aroma of the boots that Russian soldiers used to wear.
Today the gorgeous nuances of leather are interpreted in many different ways, from scents that are animalic and sharp to others that are quite floral and powdery. This has led to a magnificent array of gorgeous fragrances, three of my favourites being Ombré Leather 16 by Tom Ford, Cuir Amethyste by Giorgio Armani and Noble Leather by YSL. Russia Leather seems to be the inspiration for Cuir Amethyste as one of its main notes is birch. The other notes include rose, bergamot, coriander, Patchouli, labdanum and benzoin. For me this is a complex, if linear scent; a beguiling mix of powdery, balsamic and slightly smoky notes that smell like the pure luxury of expensive handbags and red-soled shoes. It is marketed as unisex, however, as the image it invokes implies, I feel it leans more toward the feminine. YSL’s Noble Leather is completely different to Cuir Amethyste, it’s showier, bolder and certainly has more of that distinctive “leather smell”. Here the leather is partnered with dried fruit, patchouli, saffron and vanilla, bringing to mind that chesterfield couch and a snifter of the finest brandy. Finally there is Ombré Leather 16 by Tom Ford. This is the black leather jacket; a rather more masculine scent then the other two and one that smells even more of natural leather. This fragrance takes me back to those streets in Rome, with the smell of expensive leather goods wafting from the stores around me. Ombré Leather 16 is a sleek, refined scent, where the leather is beautifully balanced with violet leaf, oak moss, cardamom and patchouli. For me, these three scents perfectly represent leather in all its guises and I love them equally.