Few fragrances marry butch and elegance as well as a good leather. For the most part, leather is easy to smell in perfume. Think of Caron Tabac Blond, for instance. It’s a snootful of sweet, oily leather. But sometimes leather weaves itself more cleverly into a fragrance and, if you’re expecting a true saddle leather, might not be obvious at first. Bottega Veneta is an example of a leather fragrance with less blatant, but still very present, leather note.
I thought it would be helpful to run through some of the different ways leather can star in a fragrance — a sort of “Leather 101.”
Birch tar-loaded “Russian” leather: This is what most people think of when they think “leather perfume.” Birch tar on its own is smoky, burnt, and leathery as a slab of oil-rubbed hide. It’s a powerful note. Sometimes it’s left seemingly untouched in a strong leather fragrance (Knize Ten), and sometimes it’s complemented by something equally assertive (the sharp galbanum in Bandit). Examples include Caron Tabac Blond, Knize Ten, Xerjoff Homme, Robert Piguet Bandit, Tauer Perfumes Lonestar Memories.
Warm, spicy leather: Spice smooths leather’s edges and lifts it from the auto mechanic’s shop. Cardamom, sweet liquor, tobacco, and sandalwood, for example, almost seem to lighten leather, making it more supple and warm on skin. This is a friendly but still truly “leathery” way to wear leather. Examples include Parfum d’Empire Cuir Ottoman, Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Cuir Fétiche, Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque, Armani Privé Cuir Amethyste, Hermès Bel Ami.
Elegant “purse” or “shoe” leather: Birch tar-inflected leather still stars in these fragrances, but it’s thinned with aldehydes, oak moss, aristocratic flowers like iris, and sometimes the curiously graceful funk of castoreum. Examples include Chanel Cuir de Russie, Christian Dior Diorling, Lanvin Scandal, Parfums Grès Cabochard.
Patent leather: Patent leather takes oily leather and adds a plastic sheen that makes the leather smell shiny and almost synthetic. I can’t think of any purely patent leather fragrances, but the note slices through a number of fragrances, intentionally or not. Often it’s a heart note that fades as the fragrance settles. Examples include Elizabeth Taylor Black Pearls, Prada Infusion d'Iris Absolue.
Suede: Suede can be tricky for some new perfume lovers to suss out. To me, suede smells of dry leather, apricots, and salt. Parfums DelRae Mythique is an almost naked, iris-washed suede. Bottega Veneta wets its suede with apricot and patchouli. (I love suede. If you have examples of more suede-laden fragrances, please note them in the comments!) Examples include Parfums DelRae Mythique, Serge Lutens Daim Blond, Bottega Veneta.
The oddballs: Some leather fragrances are more difficult to classify — and sometimes more difficult to identify leather notes because of it — but still wonderful. Examples: Vero Profumo Onda (the leather almost smells blended with marjoram and oily mud — delicious), Estée Lauder Azurée (crisp lemony leather), L’Artisan Parfumeur Dzing! (sawdust and dry leather), Miller Harris L’Air de Rien (dry, almost fecal leather).
Can leather be a challenging note for you to identify? What would you add to my list?