The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘iris’

Chanel

Cuir de Russie

Cuir de Russie Would you smear yourself with diluted tar? That’s my first question. My second question: would you pay £150 or more to smear yourself with diluted tar? If your answer to either (or both) of these questions is ‘Not on your nelly’, then it’s possible that Cuir de Russie is not for you. If, on the other hand, you have an adventurous spirit and an interest in history, read on.

Chanel’s Cuir de Russie is widely regarded as one of the most luxurious perfumes you can buy, and there are good reasons for that. It’s one of the perfumes in Chanel’s Les Exclusifs range, all of which use the highest-quality raw materials. And it was concocted – at least in its original form – by Ernest Beaux, the perfumer whose name should really be on every bottle of Chanel No5, since it was Beaux, not Coco Chanel, who created it.

But back to tar. Tar comes in many forms, the best-known being bitumen or asphalt, the stuff that binds road surfaces together and sticks to your shoes in hot weather. You wouldn’t want to dab yourself with bitumen, not least because it smells revolting, but other kinds of tar are a different matter.

Burn wood in the absence of air and you get charcoal, but do the same to the papery sheets of bark that peel off silver birch trees, and out oozes a sticky black gloop with a rich smoky smell. This dense chemical mix of hydrocarbons and phenols is known as rectified birch tar, and it’s packed with delicious molecules such as guaiacol, cresole, catechol, pyrogallol and 5-methyl-pyrogallol dimethyl ether.

In Russia, which has no shortage of birch forests, birch tar became an important export product from the sixteenth century on. It had many uses, not least as an all-purpose glue, but the reason I’m writing about it now is because of the discovery that, if freshly tanned cowhide was impregnated with birch-tar oil, the resulting leather was not only waterproof and mould-resistant, but also developed an extremely pleasant smell.

Russian leather – or cuir de Russie, as it was known in France – gained an unrivalled reputation for quality, especially at the luxury end of the market. Ernest Beaux, who was born in Moscow and followed his brother into a job at the imperial perfumers, Rallet & Co, would have discovered the alluring smell of tar-impregnated leather early on, and it must have carried nostalgic memories for him when he left Russia for Paris in the wake of the Revolution.

The relentlessly social-climbing Gabrielle Chanel, for her part, had a Russian connection of her own: Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, one of Rasputin’s assassins, with whom she had a short affair in 1920-21. It was through Pavlovich that Beaux first met Chanel, but which one of them came up with the idea of a perfume called Cuir de Russie isn’t clear. It was launched in 1924, three years after No.5, and was worn, from the first, by both women and men.

Though the use of rectified birch tar in perfumery is now restricted in the EU, and Cuir de Russie was ‘reorchestrated’ (for which read ‘reformulated’) by Chanel’s in-house perfumer Jacques Polge in 1983, it is still, it’s said, a fair approximation of Ernest Beaux’s original scent, though perhaps a little less rough-edged than the original.

Whatever the truth – and truth is a vanishingly rare commodity in the perfume industry – it’s still a wonderful smell, smoky and leathery and smooth, with no single ingredient taking centre stage. Beaux added aldehydes (the chemicals that give No.5 its glittery zing) but Cuir de Russie also includes jasmine, iris, sandalwood and rose, among other luxurious things, and it’s this balance of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ scents that make it both immensely alluring and oddly difficult to place.

If ever a perfume was androgynous, then Cuir de Russie is it. Though I’m a great fan of ambiguity, and I certainly appreciate its sheer, unadulterated luxury, I have to admit that its mix of masculinity and femininity, powdery sweetness and smoky bitterness, does sometimes make it rather hard to wear. Still, it’s wonderfully long-lasting, without being overpowering, and for an expensive scent that’s surely a good thing (though as it comes in a stonking 200ml bottle, Cuir de Russie is actually better value than a lot of supposedly ‘cheaper’ perfumes). As for whether I’d wear diluted tar, I think the answer is yes.

Aramis

Aramis 900

Aramis 900

Aramis is one of those mid-market brands that seems to have been around for ever, and for that reason it’s often overlooked or, worse, looked down upon. Which is, I think, a shame, because there are some classic men’s perfumes in the range.

The all-men’s brand was launched in 1964 by Estée Lauder and her husband Joseph, with the eponymous Aramis (which I’ve reviewed here) as the first fragrance in the range. Though I’d always assumed the brand and the perfume were named after the character in The Three Musketeers, legend has it that it actually commemorates an obscure town in Armenia, which these days is transliterated as Yeremes. It sounds like a leg-pull, but then we’re also told that the Lauders were working with an Armenian designer at the time by the name of Arame Yeranyan, so you never know; I’ll let you know if I can get a definitive answer out of somebody.

Whatever the truth of the matter (and the perfume industry’s relationship with historical fact can sometimes be rather shaky), Aramis was a big success, and in 1973 it begat Aramis 900. Like the original Aramis it was created by Bernard Chant, a brilliant French perfumer who loved spicy, leathery fragrances, and it’s very much along those lines.

In fact, as it’s often been pointed out, if Aramis 900 hadn’t been marketed for men, it would have worked just as well as a woman’s scent – a good example of the obvious but too rarely grasped fact that in itself perfume has no gender. Just smell Clinique’s classic woman’s perfume, Aromatics Elixir, and you’ll see what I mean: it was also created by Bernard Chant and to many people smells identical to Aramis 900.

Aramis 900 is a deep, spicy, complicated scent, which makes most contemporary offerings smell weedy and washed-out by comparison. Today you’d only expect to find a men’s fragrance smelling this rich and complex in an expensive ‘exclusive’ range like Tom Ford or Armani Privée, but when it was launched it was aimed squarely at the middle market: these were not expensive perfumes.

Like the majority of other men’s perfumes, Aramis 900 includes lemon and bergamot, but among its more persistent and powerful ingredients are carnation, orris (iris) root, geranium, oakmoss, patchouli and vetiver, as well as rosewood oil, the natural form of which comes from an increasingly threatened rainforest tree, Dalbergia nigra.

Unlike most modern men’s perfumes, though, Aramis 900 has a predominantly floral scent, which to me smells like a mix of clove-scented carnation and old-fashioned rose. Though floral fragrances were popular with Victorian men, in 20th-century western culture they came to be thought of as ‘girly’, though for no particularly logical reason as far as I can see.

Luckily that didn’t stop perfumers from using floral ingredients in men’s perfumes, but in the case of Aramis 900 those flowery scents are brilliantly disguised by all sorts of other things, including a faintly ‘dirty’ smell that adds an oddly sexy extra to the mix. The forest-floor oakmoss and vetiver also stop it smelling sweet, while the carnation (despite being a flower) gives it the same kind of peppery spiciness that you can smell in Chanel’s Egoïste.

The amazing thing, to me, is that perfumes like Aramis 900 have been so cheap for so long, but in 2009 it seems to have dawned on Estée Lauder Inc what they had on their hands, and six perfumes in the Aramis range – including Aramis 900 – were relaunched and repackaged in matching bottles. Now priced at a less mass-market £60 and titled a ‘Gentleman’s Collection’, presumably the hope is that men who liked one fragrance might go on to collect the rest. Given the quality of most men’s fragrances today I’d say that wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Christian Dior

Dior Homme

rsz_guerlainWe all have blind spots, and Dior Homme has definitely been one of mine. I was, very kindly, given a bottle some time ago, and I admired its clear glass-and-lucite design, but as for the perfume inside – I just didn’t get it. It had excellent reviews, and it obviously sells well, so I thought I’d better give it another try.

Still no luck, I’m afraid. It’s not horrible (which is a rarer attribute than you might expect), but neither does it make me go ‘WOW!’, which is the response I’m always hoping for. There’s a hint of something in it that I really don’t like, which it shares with a lot of other men’s fragrances today – a slightly metallic, chemical smell, which might come from dihydromyrcenol or perhaps from ISO E Super, both (ab)used with gay abandon by contemporary perfumers.

So why the brilliant reviews? Am I just completely missing something? Actually, I suspect not. Although it was only launched in 2005, it seems that the original scent might well have been tinkered with and reformulated (quite possibly more than once), meaning that the bottle I have probably smells very little like the much-admired original. Which is a shame, as it did sound very appealing, not least because it was created by the talented Olivier Polge, son of Chanel’s legendary in-house perfumer Jacques Polge.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the version I have and the original do seem to share at least one interesting quality. I’ve pointed out before that in itself perfume is genderless – how can a liquid be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’? But there are definitely some ingredients and effects that, at least historically, have been more closely associated with women or men. Vetiver, for example, is considered a classic ‘male’ smell, while iris is widely regarded as and ‘feminine’ and ‘floral’ (even though the scent is extracted not from iris flowers but from its roots).

As its name far from subtly suggests, Dior Homme is aimed squarely at men, yet its main smell, even in my rather synthetic-smelling version, derives from iris; compare it with Chanel’s superlative 1932 and you’ll see what I mean. Either this shows that contemporary men are more sophisticated than some might say, or they’re dumb enough to believe anything they’re sold. I like to think the former, but maybe I’m deluding myself; what do you think?

 

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