The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘“Cuir de Russie”’

You must remember this

Do men and women smell perfumes differently? Of course they don’t. But the other day it struck me that many – and maybe most – men have a different relationship to perfume than women do, which affects the way they approach the whole subject.

One of the many clichés about perfume is the story, which gets recycled again and again, of how the (inevitably female) writer’s earliest scent memories were of the perfume that her mother wore. It’s a plausible enough story, I suppose, but after I’d read it a few times alarm bells started to ring.

I don’t think I’m a particularly unusual kind of chap, yet though I love perfume I don’t have any of those kinds of memories. My mum probably did wear perfume when I was growing up, just as she does now (and she smells very nice), but I don’t remember it making any kind of impression on me. And as for my dad, like the vast majority of dads when I was growing up (and I suspect still today), if he smelled of anything it was Imperial Leather, not Jicky or Cuir de Russie.

In fact the first perfumes I remember trying were when I was in my later years at school, and my introduction to them was through friends of my own age. In other words I don’t have that long, intimate familial relationship with fragrance that many women seem to have, and I suspect that’s fairly typical among men. Yet when I mentioned this to a female acquaintance it came as a complete surprise to her, and you’d certainly never realise it from what you read in the press.

My guess is that this may be one of the reasons why so many men find choosing and buying perfume so mystifying: they haven’t had the practise women have, or anyone to guide them or compare notes with from an early age. But maybe it’s my own upbringing that was unusual. It’d be interesting to hear what your own experience was.

Knize

Knize Ten

Knize Ten

The year 1924 was a great one for perfume, if only because it saw the launch of both Chanel’s sumptuous Cuir de Russie and this, the wonderful Knize Ten. That both have survived into the present day is a bit of a miracle, but though they’re both usually placed in the ‘leather’ category of fragrances, they could hardly be less similar.

Cuir de Russie is a wonderfully rich and complex perfume, but its oddly androgynous combination of smoke and leather with a heavy floral note can make it rather difficult to wear. Knize Ten is a much more immediately appealing, fresher-smelling scent, and its leatheriness is tempered with the kind of zesty and herbal ingredients you’d expect to find in a classic eau-de-cologne – things like bergamot, lemon and geranium.

These gradually fade away on the skin, leaving a lovely, long-lasting but not overpowering leathery scent, less smoky than it is sweet. To me it also has a strong whiff of heliotrope – those electric-blue park bedding plants whose cherry-pie scent can be so intoxicating on a hot still high-summer’s day – but others may detect more than a hint (if I remember it right) of Plasticine; not unpleasant in itself, but enough to add a touch of childhood to the mix.

If Cuir de Russie is a testament to the genius of Ernest Beaux (whose greatest triumph was Chanel No 5), then Knize Ten is a fitting monument to François Coty (the mass-market perfume pioneer) and his brilliant technical director, Vincent Roubert (who had previously worked with Ernest Beaux in Grasse, then the perfume capital of France). It was commissioned, rather unusually, by a bespoke men’s tailoring company from Vienna, Knize, whose boutique is still going strong today. I’d wondered whether Knize Ten was the sole survivor of nine other fragrances, but it turns out that the name was dreamed up by their advertising director of the time, who beat Ralph Lauren by at least 50 years by seeking to associate the company with the aristocratic imagery of polo: the name ‘Ten’ was chosen to reflect the highest handicap in the game.

I love everything about Knize Ten: not just its instantly appealing smell but the smart glass bottle, with its crisply bevelled corners and chunky black cube of a cap. I’ve read somewhere that, like the company’s Viennese store, it was designed by the legendary Austrian architect Adolf Loos, and although that seems like wishful thinking it could be true; Loos designed further shops for Knize in Paris and Berlin, so their association was obviously close, and the dates look perfectly plausible too.

Even the typography of the label – a bold slab serif in a Victorian playbill style – is punchy and confident, just like the perfume inside. And while it’s far less widely available than it deserves to be, it’s not even that expensive by contemporary standards: what’s not to like?

Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails

A while back I attended a perfume training day with Roja Dove, perfumer extraordinaire in several senses of the word. A small group of us smelled something like a hundred different perfume ingredients, from bergamot to tuberose (the pure extract of which smells far more refined than any of the so-called ‘tuberose’ perfumes I’ve sampled).

Lots of surprises: extract of daffodil smells like hay; galbanum like freshly-podded peas. Fine lavender oil has an oddly sweaty side to it, which I think is one of the things I smell in Guerlain’s legendary Jicky. Roja brings in beaver glands, which gave us the wonderful leathery smell of castoreum (used in Chanel’s Cuir de Russie), and the greasy scrapings from the Ethiopian civet cat, which has the farmyard reek of fresh cow-pats but – in minute quantities – adds a disquieting hint of sex to any perfume in which it (or its synthetic equivalent) is used.

It was a fascinating and really useful day, though it must take daily practise to memorise so many ingredients. What surprised me, though, was the imprecision of perfume terminology. Particularly extracts come from very specific sources: galbanum, for example, derives from the roots of particular species of Iranian fennel (Ferrula gummosa and Ferrula rubricaulis), yet in our training day it was vaguely described as coming from ‘an umbellifer root’. Given that there are over 3,700 individual species in the umbellifer family (now renamed the Apiaceae), that wasn’t much help – cow-parsley is an umbellifer too, but I bet its roots don’t smell like fresh peas.

And as for daffodil smelling like hay, I wanted to know which daffodil: there are between 30 and 70 species of narcissus (the Latin term for daffodil) and hundreds and hundreds of varieties, many of which smell very different from each other.

It struck me as an odd contrast between how incredibly precise perfume chemists have to be, describing specific fragrances down to the molecular level, and yet how imprecise so much perfume terminology seems to be at the same time. If perfumers themselves use such vague descriptions, is it any wonder that we, the perfume-buying public, find the subject so confusing and so hard to understand?

Acqua di Parma

Colonia Leather

rsz_adp (1)The smell of leather is one of the staples of men’s fragrances. It has an interesting history, too, since at least one of the roots of modern perfumery can be followed back to the perfumed-leather gloves that became fashionable from the sixteenth century on.

Some ‘leather’ fragrances are more successful than others, Chanel’s powerful and historic Cuir de Russie being one of the best. But until the launch of Colonia Leather in May 2014 I’d never come across a perfume that really captured clean new leather’s comfortingly aromatic smell.

I have to admit that this came as something of a surprise, as I’m not a great fan of the other perfumes in the Acqua di Parma range. I can recognise their quality, and I love their packaging, but their combination of lemon and rose just doesn’t do it for me – the rose seems just too feminine a counterpart to the freshness of the classic citrusy eau-de-cologne.

So I could hardly believe my nose when I first sprayed Colonia Leather on. Yes, it contains a definite hint of the Acqua di Colonia signature rose-cologne smell, but that’s quickly overlaid by a beautifully smooth, refined leather smell, like the finest fresh kidskin gloves, or an unjustifiably expensive suede jacket from Hermès. Though it’s not especially strong, its gentle scent stays on the skin for a good half day or more, even if I find it hard to smell on myself after an hour or so.

How such an authentically leathery fragrance is done is beyond me, though it does contain at least one of the classic ingredients of ‘leather’ perfumes, rectified birch tar, which is also used in Cuir de Russie. I’ve pointed out before that a list of ingredients is about as useful in describing a perfume as a list of words in describing a Shakespeare sonnet, but for those who would like to know here are some of the other things in the formula: Sicilian lemon, Brazilian orange oil, raspberry, rose, honeysuckle, Paraguayan petitgrain (made from the twigs of orange trees), ‘red’ thyme, cedarwood, cistus, guaic wood and olibanum.

So who was behind this marvellous scent? As usual there’s no mention anywhere on the Acqua di Parma website or in its marketing material, but I think Colonia Leather’s creator deserves more credit than that. So please take a bow François Demachy, the French perfumer, formerly at Chanel, who has been the ‘director of olfactory development’ at Christian Dior since 2006.

(If you’re wondering, incidentally, what Dior’s head perfumer is doing moonlighting for Acqua di Parma, the answer is that both companies are owned by the luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, and Demachy also has oversight of its other perfume brands. And as it happens Colonia Leather isn’t his first perfume for Acqua di Parma; he also created Colonia Intensa, which was launched back in 2007.)

At £150 for 100ml Colonia Leather is a lot more expensive than the other fragrances in the Acqua di Parma range, and for now (2014) it’s only available from Harrods, but it’s really worth going to smell, even if you can’t justify spending quite so much on a single bottle of perfume.

Sex and scentsibility

Are you man enough to wear Chanel No. 5? Or woman enough to splash on Azzaro Pour Homme? I have to admit that I’ve never been a great fan of cross-dressing, but it makes about as much sense to talk about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ fragrances as it does to talk about ‘male’ or ‘female’ art, music or food. The fact that we divide perfumes into men’s or women’s fragrances has less to do with logic than it has to do with marketing, packaging and conventional thinking – and if you look back it’s not even that old a distinction.

Once upon a time, perfumes were perfumes, and there appears to have been little in terms of a gender divide until the early twentieth century. Men wore fragrances which today we’d regard as outrageously effete: both Napoleon and Wagner were famous for drenching themselves in scent, and Victorian gentlemen favoured sweetly scented floral perfumes alongside the ubiquitous eau de cologne. Even the words themselves – fragrance, perfume, scent – are genderless: the daft male-only term ‘after-shave’ appears only to have been dreamed up in the 1920s as a marketing wheeze. Though the expression may have made perfume sound a bit more butch and manly, all too often (in the days before male moisturiser became acceptable) it also left the more literal-minded chap with a burning face and peeling skin.

I’m not suggesting that male readers should rush out and purchase the olfactory equivalent of a pair of pink frilly knickers. Some scents (naming no names) are so insanely sweet and girly that it would be hard for even the most rugged male to get away with wearing them, but then they also tend to be the kind of perfume that smell as terrible on a grown woman as they would on any self-respecting man.

Beyond those parodies of perfume, there are remarkably few fragrances that, if you trust your nose and can brace yourself to ignore everything you’ve been told by breathless adverts and terrifyingly made-up sales assistants, are so incontrovertibly feminine or masculine as to be completely unwearable by either sex. Take one famous example. Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage was launched in 1966 and quickly established itself as a hugely popular men’s fragrance. It’s stayed on the best-seller lists ever since, and I think most men would agree that there are few more bracing, fresh and (above all) masculine fragrances around.

I couldn’t agree more, but if you’re a fan of Eau Sauvage, next time you’re in a well-stocked perfume store, wander over to the women’s-perfume counter and have a smell of Diorella, launched just six years later and designed by the same perfumer, the legendary Edmond Roudnitska. The first time I smelled it I thought, ‘But this is Eau Sauvage!’ And it is, give or take some extra fruitiness which, you could say, gives it a slightly more girly character – though perfume guru Luca Turin regards it as ‘a perfected Eau Sauvage and one of the best masculines money can buy’.

In many ways it’s even easier the other way around, and women seem always to have been less inhibited about adopting fragrances that were originally intended to be for the opposite sex. Eau Sauvage is a classic example: whether they smelled it on their boyfriends or discovered it for themselves, women quickly recognised it as the masterpiece it is, and those in the know have been wearing it ever since. Guerlain’s superb Vetiver is, to my mind, one of the most archetypically masculine perfumes in existence, yet it, too, has long been a female favourite – the olfactory equivalent of an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo.

More striking still are those fragrances that have crossed the gender divide more or less entirely. When Aimé Guerlain launched Jicky in 1889, it was initially bought by men; at the time its sharp, slightly catty smell was considered too overtly sexual in character for respectable women to risk wearing it. By the 1920s, though, liberated by the rise of female emancipation, women started using Jicky too, and gradually it became a ‘female’ fragrance – though a few self-confident men (Sean Connery being the most often-cited example) continue to wear it today. Chanel’s super-plush Cuir de Russie followed a similar trajectory, though it would be hard, even now, to define it as either masculine or feminine in character.

Visit the standard-issue perfume store and you’d be forgiven for thinking that we were still stuck in a world where men were men and women were women and never the twain should meet, as if history – in the world of perfume at least – had got stuck around 1955 and all the social and sexual revolutions since then had never actually happened. But society, of course, has changed, and there are encouraging signs that at least parts of the perfume industry have begun to realise that dividing fragrance along crude gender lines is a weirdly outdated thing to do. A handful of future-looking perfume brands, such as Byredo, Comme des Garçons and Escentric Molecule, already offer ‘genderless’ fragrances, and there is a growing trend for imaginative retailers to follow their lead, stocking perfumes by brand instead of dividing them into men’s and women’s scents.

Perfume customers are changing too. The majority of people may continue (for the moment at least) to accept the status quo, but for the small but growing band of perfume-lovers who are happy to think for themselves, choosing perfume on the basis of its supposed masculinity or femininity has come to seem increasingly outmoded. The trick is simply to follow your nose: to choose the perfumes you love, like the people you love, regardless of what other people might say.

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.

Different Company

Osmanthus

OsmanthusMuch excitement in Weymouth, as the old Woolworth’s site has been transformed into a branch of T.K.Maxx. Even more excitement when, on our first visit, what should I pluck from the trashy mass-market scents you’d expect to find in a discount outlet but a brand-new bottle of Osmanthus by The Different Company.

What a highly collectible perfume by a fairly obscure, high-end brand was doing in the Weymouth branch of T.K.Maxx I have no idea, but there it was, ours for the princely sum of £16.99 (recommended retail price €142).

Created by the much-admired perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena (now the in-house perfumer for Hermès) for the company he founded in 2000, Osmanthus gets an admiring review in the even more widely admired Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, and you can see why.

It’s a gentle, sweet but subtle scent, whose plush peachy centre is reminiscent of Guerlain’s timeless Mitsouko, though it seems to lack either Mitsouko’s strength of character or its mysterious staying-power. Yet Osmanthus has magic of its own, and its apparent evanescence on the skin proves something of a disappearing trick – for after putting a little on the back of my hand and noting that it didn’t seem to last very long, what should happen but that an hour or two later, as if from nowhere, its fresh, fruity scent would suddenly snap into focus again, almost as strong as when I first sprayed it on.

I’ve no idea how it’s done, or even whether the effect was intentional, but my guess is that it’s got something to do with the way Osmanthus’ peachiness bonds with the perfume’s other elements, some of which are a little surprising, like castoreum, a resinous compound extracted from beavers that has a leathery, animalic smell and is also found in Chanel’s wonderful Cuir de Russie.

Natural osmanthus, incidentally, is an attractive evergreen shrub which, in sheltered conditions, will grow to the size of a small tree. It grows wild in the Himalayas, China and Japan and was first introduced to European gardens in 1771, where it became known as Sweet Tea or Fragrant Olive. In the autumn it bears thousands of small but intensely fragrant white flowers, whose intoxicatingly sweet scent gives the plant its botanical name, Osmanthus fragrans.

Its fragrance, indeed, is remarkably powerful, as we discovered on an autumn visit to the enchanted garden of Brécy, near Bayeux. From the massively stepped levels of the formal gardens, which form a kind of vast single staircase up towards the Normandy sky, we recognised osmanthus’ heady scent a long time before we finally located its source, from a couple of dark columnar trees planted close against the south wall of the church, outside the gardens themselves.

Despite the sheer intensity of its fragrance, this is one of the only powerfully sweet scents I know that one can never smell enough (unlike, say, Madonna lilies, whose scent becomes overwhelming after a while): there’s a fresh lemony edge to osmanthus that makes it refreshing and intoxicating all at once. Enjoy Jean-Claude Ellena’s perfume by all means, but plant the tree wherever you can.

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