Cuir de Russie Perfumes

Cuir de Russie Perfumes


Igor Stravinksy’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) is without question one of the  most powerful and groundbreaking pieces of music the world has ever known. Its debut performance caused a near-riot among Parisian theater-goers and indeed it sounds as modern and profound today as ever. With the 100 year anniversary of Le Sacre du Printemps having been yesterday, May 29, 2013, I felt it was an opportune time to explore a unique class of perfumes influenced by the romance and folklore of pre-WWI Russia: Cuir de Russie.

Cuir de Russie or “Russian Leather” perfumes as they are sometimes known, gained considerable popularity in the late 1800s, and even more so in the early 1900s, coinciding with the influx of numerous Russian emigres to Paris. Often referred to as the “White Russians”, many of these individuals came from well-educated and often aristocratic backgrounds, bringing with them a wealth of culture that would have an impact on French society, culture and even fashion. Indeed, Paris in the early part of the 1900s was buzzing from the impact of the Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky and the works of Igor Stravinsky. The introduction of this new and exotic culture was a provocation, one that is reflected in this class of perfumes.


Historically, different cultures had unique processes for treating animals skins in order to produce leather. While the process, known as tanning, could be carried out in a number of different ways, the goal was the same: to create a final byproduct (leather) which was more durable than the natural skin. A traditional Russian method, which may have been employed since as early as the 14th and 15th centuries, involved treating the skins with rectified birch tar which in addition to curing the skins, imparted disinfectant properties. The bark of the birch would undergo several processes to break down the material into a substance which could then be used to treat the leather. The process preserved the longevity of the material and rendered it water-resistent to a degree.  Birch tar oil has a distinctive scent – adding a smoky, spicy, sweet and woodsy aroma to the leather – and to the perfumes it would come to be used in.

Today, rectified birch tar oil is used in minute amounts in perfumery, as its use is restricted under IFRA guidelines. Isoquinoline, a material first isolated from coal tar in 1885, is also used to create leather notes and provides a synthetic alternative to birch tar oil. Several perfurmery houses developed their own unique interpretation of the Cuir de Russie theme, including Vonna, Biename and LT Piver. Over this week and next, I will be posting reviews of four different Cuir de Russie perfumes: Guerlain, Chanel, Lubin and LT Piver.



Maison Kitsune

Maison Kitsune








I have been away the past few days visiting NYC in order to recharge, meet up with old friends and gather inspiration (and samples of course). I love how New York has the ability to be supremely elegant and impossibly chic at the same time. I will be posting some of these discoveries over the next couple of weeks, but am devoting the next posts to a specific perfume genre.

Bergdorf Goodman

Bergdorf Goodman

Guerlain – Aqua Allegoria Rosa Magnifica

Guerlain – Aqua Allegoria Rosa Magnifica


I recently read somewhere that the fragrances produced by Guerlain should be experienced in reverse order if one is to make any sense of the progression of the perfumes released by this great house. One would start out with the simple and accessible post-LVMH La Petite Robe Noir and Aqua Allegoria series, move on to the more sophisticated yet youthful fragrances created by Jean-Paul Guerlain, graduate to the ground-breaking beauties composed by Jacques and Aime Guerlain, until finally experiencing the creations of Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain which won the house the honor of being royal supplier to the crown. While I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment (and have been wracking my brain to recall who the inspired genius who penned this was) there are a few newer fragrances released by the house which I have found captivating, in spite of their simplicity.

Some of these are from the Aqua Allegoria line first introduced by Guerlain in 1999 as a series of five scents, with the intention of releasing additional fragrances in the line annually. While there is little mention of Mathilde Laurent’s tenure at Guerlain, reportedly due to a falling out with management, it is no surprise to me that some of the best examples in this series were her creations. The original five releases, Herba Fresca, Lavande Velours, Pamplelune, Ylang & Vanille and Rosa Magnifica, are each inspired creations in their own right, and a wonderful introduction to the magic of Guerlain.

Rosa Magnifica is at once a new fragrance and a recollection of other Guerlain masterpieces. As the name implies, Rosa Magnifica is fragrance built around a rose note, rendered in the softness of an Eau de Toilette. Guerlain has a long history of sourcing the best materials, both natural and synthetic, and while this reputation has suffered in post-LVMH years, the rose at the heart of Rosa Magnifica is a delicious, full-bodied bloom. While die-hard Guerlain lovers will have difficulty avoiding a comparison with Nahema, which is the undisputed champion of roses, Rosa Magnifica is a softer, subtler rendition but not without its own merits. The initial difference is apparent in the opening, which is spicy where Nahema is opulent. As the fragrance develops, I am reminded of another one of Guerlain’s masterpieces, Chamade. Rosa Magnifica features a beautiful hyacinth note, giving the rose a brightness and piquancy that give it a subtle lift. Similar to Chamade’s heavenly drydown, Rosa Magnifica is rendered delicate thanks to the introduction of iris and violet, which give it a soft and slightly powdery quality. coral-rose

While Nahema remains the ultimate rose and my number one choice in this category, I enjoyed Rosa Magnifica much more than I expected and I love having a softer, more delicate rose option for those occasions that calls for a bit of subtlety. Unfortunately, Rosa Magnifica was discontinued by Guerlain, along with others in the Aqua Allegoria line which did not fare well commercially. I find this to be a real shame, as there are other newer Aqua Allegorias which I could, quite frankly, do without. Thankfully Rosa Magnifica still pops up every now and then on Ebay and is available from various decant services.


Notes: Rose, hyacinth, iris and violet


Christian Dior – Dune

Christian Dior – Dune

christian-dior-dune-kristina-semenovskaya_thumb[3]An increasingly central focus of modern perfumery is advertising. While advertising in different forms has always been key to promoting perfume to consumers, budgets have increased exponentially in recent years, vastly surpassing the cost of producing the actual perfume. Fragrance houses also use advertising as a means of promoting (or creating) a perfume’s identity, the fantasy we consumers are lulled into buying.

After the impossibly extroverted perfumes of the 1980s, the 1990s shifted the focus to cleaner, lighter, marine-inspired scents. The advertising also seemed equally “sanitized” after the more provocative ads of the 1980s, perhaps in reaction to changing social mores after an era of decadence. Case in point, a comparison of the advertising for Christian Dior’s Dune, which features ethereal beauties and that of its 1985 release Poison, which often featured black-clad and heavily made-up dark beauties. And yet with Dune, despite the serene advertisements depicting blonde beauties lounging on a beach, I am reminded not of a seaside retreat, but of the rippled sand dunes on a distant planet in an imaginary universe created by Frank Herbert.

Dune, published in 1965 and hailed as the world’s best-selling science fiction novel, tells the story of an intergalactic struggle to dominate a single planet, Dune, in order to control the precious substance cultivated there: spice. The spice, ironically named “Melange”, is similar to a narcotic: highly addictive, becoming more so with prolonged use. Spice/Melange is valued above all else for its ability to expand consciousness, prolong life and allow for instantaneous interstellar travel. Paul Atreides and his mother, a member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood – a group of women with mystical and witchlike powers – relocate to the planet Dune with the mission of overseeing spice production, a difficult and dangerous process, due to the existence of giant sandworms which patrol the planet’s surface, protecting the spice which is formed deep within the planet’s core.

Paul Atreides and his mother, the Lady Jessica

Paul Atreides and his mother, the Lady Jessica

The planet’s local inhabitants, known as Fremen, are greatly impressed by the mystical powers which Paul and his mother possess and believe Paul to be their long-awaited messiah. Paul instinctively knows that the key to power in the universe is directly tied to the control of spice production and befriends the Fremen, learning their survival tactics and teaching them some of the magical powers he has inherited from his mother, the Lady Jessica. The movie, released in 1984, is replete with scenes of Paul leading the Fremen, wearing futuristic black leather suits which protect them from the harsh desert elements and allow them to preserve the water given off by their bodies, which is absolutely vital to life on this dry, arrid planet. The smell of Melange is said to be pervasive and according to one character, its scent “is “never twice the same… It’s like life – it presents a different face each time you take it”.

Paul leading the Fremen

Paul leading the Fremen

Nothing could more aptly describe Christian Dior’s Dune. While certain fragrances are changeable during the stages of wear, Dune appears to be in a constant state of flux, throwing off different impressions by the second. Created in 1993 by a group of perfumers led by Jean-Louis Sieuzac, Dune is positively otherworldly. It possesses the heat of the desert under the daylight’s scorching sun and the dry quality of its unrelenting winds.  And yet it is completely devoid of warmth at the same time, feeling as black and cold as the leather suits worn by the Fremen. Dune’s ability to hover between fragrant realities is nothing short of magic.

Dune opens with a bitter, slightly anisic herbal punch that borders on the masculine, yet quickly fades to reveal a strange floral heart. The fragrance notes are deceptive, as Dune’s flowers have a dry, arrid quality which renders them largely unrecognizable. While peony and jasmine appear to dominate, the slightly green quality of the fragrance at times give me a carrot note. The marine aspect makes its presence felt in a subtle salty quality – the whisper of the winds across the fragrant sands – which kick up individual notes onto the wind. Similar to the Spice Melange, Dune is never the same twice – sometimes bitter and mossy, sometimes musky and floral – and yet always lovely.

While the entire fragrance is discernible from the opening, Dune mellows over time, revealing a hint of vanillic amber rounded by moss and woods. There is a softness to Dune, however, the fragrance is not light – it is like hearing a very powerful and complex orchestra piece played at a very low volume. Like shifting sands, the inconstant nature of Dune makes it a pleasure for some and uncomfortable for others. I personally adore this subtle, changeable aspect of Dune and am always thrilled when someone remembers this lesser known beauty, winner of a 1993 FiFi award.

*As an aside, the one attribute of Dune I find puzzling is its color which is soft and flesh-like, gorgeously displayed in its beautiful winged bottle. When I imagine Dune, in all its complexity, in its searing heat and biting coldness, it is as black as the Fremen’s leather suits.

Marine Oriental

Notes: bergamot, mandarin, palisander, aldehyde, peony, broom, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, lily, wallflower, lichen, vanilla, patchouli, benzoin, sandalwood, amber, oakmoss, and musk.


Kate Spade – Live Colorfully

Kate Spade – Live Colorfully

kate spade 2

While there are certain releases which I dream about for months, there are others which barely register on my interest radar. When I heard of the latest release from the Kate Spade fashion empire, Live Colorfully, a collaboration between consultants Fabrice Penot, Edouard Roche with input by Poppy King (and execution by Firmenich), I did not know what to expect. I grabbed a sample on a recent trip to Nordstrom and must admit that I was immediately put off by the psychedelic packaging.

Perhaps the problem lies with me, as I tend not to be overly “colorful”, with the exception of some Hermes scarves, but the sample card seemed to scream “plastic, harsh synthetic, fruity floral”. And therein lay the surprise. Live Colorfully opens with a burst of citrus and floral, with a touch of anise. The opening feels quite thin, far from my expectation of a syrupy sweetness. Despite the name and packaging, Live Colorfully is not very colorful. It morphs into a decent white floral, with gardenia accented by a light coconut that manages not to scream “suntan lotion”.

At this point I was intrigued and attempted to hunt down some perfume notes (listed below) and there are certainly a lot of them. Despite the impression that Live Colorfully has a lot going on, a lot of notes, a lot of creators, it is fairly simple at its heart and quite pretty, if a touch unbalanced. I detected a hint of narcissus, which appears to be the only flower not included in the fragrance, but the gardenia/tiare combination dominates.

The drydown has a very subtle combination of vanilla, amber and musk, which in my opinion could have been a little richer. While I don’t see myself running out to buy a bottle given the number of white florals I have in my collection, Live Colorfully is a pretty fragrance that is perfect for someone venturing into this genre.

For more details on what went into the making of the perfume, the WSJ had this article.

kate spade1

White Floral

Notes: mandarin, pink water lily, star anise, tiare, gardenia, coconut water, amber, musk and tahitian vanilla

Chanel – Égoïste

Chanel – Égoïste


One of my all-time favorite fragrances from Chanel is not even a woman’s fragrance, though according to an interview with its creator Jacques Polge, Égoïste was inspired by one of Chanel’s most iconic women’s fragrances, Bois des Iles. Polge reportedly stumbled upon Ernest Beaux’s original formula for Bois des Iles, which was released in 1926 and adapted it to a male sensibility.  Égoïste, not to be confused with Égoïste Platinum which debuted in 1994, was released in 1990 and despite an almost cult-like following among its admirers, failed miserably outside of the European market. As a side note, Égoïste Platinum which was created in keeping with a more American olfactory aesthetic of clean, sporty fragrances flourished, in the travesty of what my friend at Chanel refers to as “the baby killing the father”.

Égoïste was originally released under the name Bois Noir, a nod at the source of Polge’s inpiration, and only available at Chanel boutiques similar to the way Les Exclusifs are marketed now. The fragrance was intended to accompany a line of men’s clothing, although this idea was later axed by Chanel, leaving Bois Noir orphaned. When the fragrance was finally made available for wider distribution, it was done so under the name Égoïste, perhaps another reason for its lack of popularity in the United States.  Égoïste roughly translates into “selfish person”, one who is self-centered and overly preoccupied with their individual needs. Without getting into a debate over why it is healthy for a person to be concerned with their own needs and desires, let’s just say that while this name was perfectly acceptable abroad, it was not well-received state-side.egoiste3

I will never forget the first time I saw the commercial for Égoïste, probably one of the most brilliant and bizarre marketing campaigns I had ever witnessed – beautiful women dressed in magnificent couture gowns, throwing open the doors of a French apartment building, shouting impassioned cries at the offending Égoïste, their lines loosely based on Pierre Corneille’s “Le Cid”, while Prokofiev’s dramatic “Dance of the Knights” plays in the background.

“Égoiste. Où es-tu ? Montre-toi misérable! Prends garde à mon courroux, je serai implacable. Ô rage ! Ô désespoir ! Ô pourquoi m’as-tu donc trahi ? N’ai-je donc tant vécu que pour cette infâmie ? Montre-toi égoiste ! Égoiste…!”.*

The only glimpse we get of the cause of such calamity is the masculine hand of the Égoïste himself as he sets a bottle of the fragrance on the balcony of the apartment building he shares with all of the women has apparently seduced and forgotten. In an instant, without being bombarded with images of virile male models, we understand at once that Égoïste is about seduction. And while it is evident that our invisible Don Juan and his fragrance have moved on from these various women, they have left their indelible mark on these women, a scented memory of seduction.


The fragrance itself is gorgeous, a hybrid of Bois des Iles and Chanel No 18, the latter created around the scent of ambrette seed, one of the components of Égoïste. From the first opening notes, one is immediately aware that Égoïste was a new creation in men’s fragrances, one that left the classical fougere and chypres behind. In the opening we are greeted with a spicy mix of flowers and fruit, that comes across as rich and slightly plummy.

As the fragrance warms on the skin, the seduction continues. Égoïste deepens into a beautiful, slightly creamy woods softened by vanilla and traces of ambrette. The effect is stunning, and equally delicious on a man or a woman.

Woody Oriental

Notes: Tangerine, lavender, rose, coriander, Bourbon vanilla, sandalwood, rosewood and ambrette seed.

*Where are you? Show yourself, you wretch! Beware my wrath. I will be implacable. O rage! O despair! O why have you betrayed me? Have I lived only for this insult? Reveal yourself, egotist!


Guerlain – Shalimar

Guerlain – Shalimar: Taking Risks


I have a photograph of my mother as a young woman in Italy on her honeymoon. She is sitting at a vanity in her hotel room, which overlooks the Spanish Steps. Her thick, long black hair is set up in hot rollers. She sits, dressed in a deep red cashmere turtleneck, applying makeup with the expertise of an artist. While most of us would protest at being photographed in this manner, just before the camera clicks, she gives my father a loving smile with all of the confidence of a beautiful young woman who knows she is loved.

If you could travel through time and step into the photograph, the scent that would pervade the room would be Shalimar, itself a long-standing symbol of romantic love. Shalimar was created by Jacques Guerlain in 1925, named for the beautiful gardens surrounding the Taj Majal built by the Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. While I always admired Shalimar intellectually as the paragon of oriental fragrances, I had difficulty getting past my emotional associations with the fragrance. For years, I would try the fragrance on when passing a Guerlain counter, and yet, something did not seem right. While I loved all of the component notes in theory – a bright bergamot opening, a floral heart of jasmine and rose and a warm enveloping radiance of vanilla and the smoky amber of tonka – I experienced these as a screechy and suffocating cloud. My mother and I have somewhat similar tastes in fragrance, so I was baffled. What had she found so alluring about this fragrance that inspired her to wear it for so many years? Why did it unfold so differently on me? After some time, I moved on, and found my own Guerlain loves, until…

I had decided to take part in a perfume auction which listed a vintage Guerlain in a rosebud bottle developed in the 1950s, which had housed several of their fragrances including L’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Ode and Vol de Nuit. Unfortunately, the bottle had no label and the seller was not a perfume collector, so the contents remained a mystery. Given that the bottle could have contained any number of beauties which I loved, I decided to take a risk and bid on the item. Based on the color of the fragrance, which was a deep, rich caramel, I reasoned that it must be Mitsouko. I only hoped that it wasn’t Shalimar. I bid, and I won and then I awaited the arrival of my mystery fragrance.

When the bottle arrived, I scarcely made it to the car before opening the box. I opened it and inhaled. It wasn’t Mitsouko. It wasn’t Vol de Nuit. It definitely wasn’t Ode or Jicky. What was this beauty? I dabbed on the perfume and stepped into an appointment.


Over the next couple of hours, I was treated to the most opulent, gentle, unfolding of a fragrance I had ever experienced. The notes were warm and distinct, each hovering about me before softly cascading into the next. I was reminded of Monet’s series of paintings of the Cathedral at Rouen. He would sit outside all day, with numerous easels before him. As the light changed, he would move on to the next easel and paint the same façade anew. The effect of the paintings when viewed together is a soft transition of light across the face of the Cathedral. I was similarly entranced and mystified until…

cropwm Hardly aware of its arrival, there it was: the lush, vanilla drydown of Shalimar, which is unmistakable. Jacques Guerlain was known to have employed two different vanilla components to render this complex and amber-like vanilla which is unique to Guerlain, and rendered especially opulent in Shalimar. I was humbled for presuming that one of history’s greatest noses had created something less than a masterpiece, and embarrassed for not having wanted it.


While I attribute much of my new-found love for Shalimar to the quality of the vintage version versus those currently in production, circumstances certainly played a role. My ignorance to the scent’s identity and my desire for it to be something “else” allowed me to experience the fragrance without my prior personal barriers or associations. Shalimar taught me that the pursuit of fragrance sometimes requires risks, the rewards of which are often love.


Notes: bergamot, lemon, jasmine, rose, iris, incense, opopanax, tonka bean, and vanilla.


Serge Lutens – De Profundis

Serge Lutens – De Profundis


De Profundis, released in 2011, is centered around the scent of chrysanthemums, a flower which is frequently associated with funerals, and which for many brings to mind somber associations. I made the point of seeking out chrysanthemum blooms to form an unbiased opinion, which I believe is consistent with what Monsieur Lutens was trying to achieve intellectually: to give this lovely flower new life through the power of fragrance. While De Profundis is a realistic impression of chrysanthemum with its spicy floral character, it is much more.

I am always astonished by the ability of the Lutens/Sheldrake team to create perfumes with so much character. Whether one enjoys the resulting creation or not is sometimes besides the point – there is no denying the complexity of Lutens’ fragrances, which always seem to evoke a certain sense of atmosphere. De Profundis goes beyond this point, conveying a sense of presence.

My first impression of the fragrance brought to mind a “paranormal” phenomena known as clairalience – a form of extra-sensory perception where one acquires information primarily through smell. People who experience clairalience will suddenly smell the scent of flowers, a familiar perfume, or some other scent with no visible or logical source, the explanation being that a deceased loved one is making their visitation or “haunting” clearly known by way of a scented manifestation.

Indeed, the character of De Profundis is so memorable as to be haunting. While there is no denying the more somber associations, I find the fragrance to be ethereal not corporeal, the scent of a spirit. The soaring, bright green opening gives way to an abstract spicy floral with a tinge of decay, like flowers past their prime. Despite the presence of indolic notes, the fragrance remains light.Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 10.40.35 PM

The crisp opening is tempered by a subtle incense which seems to hover over the spicy, sharp bouquet, giving it a depth unusual for a floral. It is this contradiction which helps to make De Profundis so memorable, as it seems to inhabit two distinct realms at once.


Notes: chrysanthemum, dahlia, lily, violet, earthy notes.

Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle – Dans Tes Bras

Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle – Dans Tes Bras


Violet and heliotrope are among my favorite floral notes, so the 2008 release by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle sounded like it would be right up my alley. What baffled me was how these light floral notes could be possibly be combined with incense and pine (other favorites) into a fragrance which would be coherent, let alone beautiful. Why I doubted the artistry of Maurice Roucel, prolific creator of perfumes such as 24, Faubourg and Iris Silver Mist, I am not certain, but it is something I will not do again.

This being said, Dans Tes Bras is far from being easily accessible. What starts out as a beautiful violet opening, tinged with a lovely anisic note and slight hint of green, quickly and unexpectedly darkens into a deep and stormy brew. Dans Tes Bras, translated as “in your arms” has all the warmth and depth of a lover’s embrace, the scented equivalent of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”. While the lightness of the floral accords recedes into the background, deep notes of pine, patchouli and incense seems to rise up like a dense vortex. The fragrance develops a creamy, warm character that lends a supple richness to the creation. Dans Tes Bras gives me the impression of being wrapped in a billowy cloud: I can see the light, yet I am enveloped within a heavy, charged atmosphere. It feels odd and safe, all at once. embrace_II_1

While Dans Tes Bras is a thoroughly modern composition, there is a soapy, powdery nuance to the fragrance that lends it a vintage character, reminiscent of Lucien Lelong’s Tailspin. My sense is that the cashmeran was responsible for this, an ambery musky note which is often described as cashmere woods in a fragrance. Perhaps my imaginary cloud is the strong, cashmere laden arms of a loved one: strong and warm, yet utterly human.

Floral Woodsy Musk

Notes: heliotrope, jasmine, woodsy notes, patchouli, pine tree, cashmeran, sandalwood, musk, incense and violet.

Hermes – Eau de Gentiane Blanche

Hermes – Eau de Gentiane Blanche

gentiane blanche

It’s hard to imagine that summer is just a few months away and that we will need to go digging into our fragrance wardrobe to pick out those warm-weather staples, beauties that are light enough not to become cloying when the temperature rises. I had read mixed reviews of Hermes Eau de Gentiane Blanc, which many had dismissed as a clean laundry scent. While I did not hold out great hope as I am not a lover of the “clean scent” genre, I was intrigued by the smoky blackness of the bottle, and felt I had to test for myself.

Eau de Gentiane Blanche exceeded my expectations. A prototypical Jean-Claude Ellena fragrance, Gentiane Blanche is both complex and diaphonous, audacious and delicate. Gentian root was traditionally cultivated gentia08a-lfor use in various tonics and medicinal concoctions and this was my first experience with it in perfume. The fragrance has a slightly green, herbal opening which has all the bitterness and milky unctuousness ofdandelion stems. While iris lends a powderiness to the fragrance, it is devoid of sweetness and could be carried off beautifully by a man.

The sillage is fairly light, true to its cologne composition, and yet Gentiane Blanche has suprising tenacity, escpecially with liberal application. The warmth of the musk is tempered by a light incense, which keeps the fragrance dry enough for even the most humid summer days. With the exception of vintage Guerlans flacons, I am not typically swayed by bottle design and yet the stately Hermes bottle rendered in smoky black crystal looks positively elegant and mysterious.

Green woods

Notes: gentian, white musk, iris and incense