• Decoding Obscure Notes Part VI: Leather Notes
  • CastoreumDecoding Obscure NotesLeather

Decoding Obscure Notes Part VI: Leather Notes

When trying to understand leather perfumes, one cannot ignore the connection of the perfume industry to some of the foulest-smelling man-made creations (or by-products): death and feces.
I am not being sarcastic, though obviously I have just used one of the most alarming yet well-tested demagogue techniques: shock the audience to get attention.

Now that I have captured your attention, I am going to skin it, and use it to create a brief map of the history of leather scents and draw the connection between perfume and scents that are much less fine.

Let us start from the beginning: Death.
Leather is animals’ skin, pulled off their dead bodies after they have been hunted or slaughtered (usually for food), and than processed in various ways. Leather has been an important material for mankind for thousands of years. It helped our forefathers to survive the cold winters (clothes and shelters) and create and build many different tools that were crucial for their survival. I won’t bore you with the details, as I am sure we all learned something about the pre-historic men in elementary school or sometimes afterwards. Now that we have invented the wheel, and along the way also the ability to create many useful man-made materials for protecting our bodies from the climate etc., leather has become more of a luxury good than a necessity. But whatever the purpose of the leather used –from horse-saddles, to warm boots, to leather outfits for our fetishes and fantasies – at certain point early in its process the skin had to be cleaned and treated in a way to ensure that it does not smell like a rotting dead animal as well as softened to enable it to be useful and workable. The scent of death is not enjoyable and it is not even an acquired taste. I think this is one of the few scents that triggered a consensus amongst humans. And so, the leather hides from the animals have to go through an elaborate process of curing and tanning in order chase away any bacteria. For more details on the traditional curing process visit this website, and to read about the modern process, visit here:

Barks from trees were used to preserve the leather, colour it, enhance its texture and also, as a side effect, give it a more agreeable scent. Most of the barks and materials used contain a high concentration of tannin.

Here are a few of the oils that are known for their use in the tanning process and that are also used in perfumery:

Birch TarSmells intensely of wintergreen and is used frequently in tanning Russian leather.

Cassie flower and bark
Cassie is a type of mimosa, only far more intense, woody, and deeply scented, as it is a base note. The bark and the flower absolute are used in the curing process due to their high tannin content.

Cade Oil
This dark oil has an intense smoky odour of forest fires. This is the destructive distillation of a species of juniper (the plant material is actually burnt during the distillation and therefore the intense smoky aroma). Also used in Russian leather, and provides durability for leather. Books bound with Russian leather will not get mouldy, according to this site.

The oil of myrtle is used mosly in Turkish leather tanning. This is not used in lperfumery very often for creating leather accords, as this is a very green, clean, fresh, camphor-like scent and it’s not associated with leather as much as the other notes.

To read more about plants used for tanning Visit this website .
We are now going to move to the mundane and familiar odour of feces, especially those which filled the metropolis of ancient times, before the sophisticated sanitary systems that we enjoy today in our air-polluted cities. The open sewers were an inevitable part of the daily lives of all the people who lived in the cities, rich or poor. But the rich and the noble ones could afford to suffer just a bit less of it, as they were able to afford coaches and horses which provided some distance from the stench; and also the nobelty had certain privileges such as walking in the middle of the street and away from the sides where potties could be emptied on their heads…The stench of the streets lead to the creative collaboration between glove makers and perfumers:

The first thing that one wants to do is to cover their noses from the stench… And the hand was usually covered with a glove… Which was, indeed, covered with scent strong enough to mask the terrible odour of the old urban jungles.

With the improvement of the sanitary systems in the cities the gloves fashion gradually faded out. But it left behind it an elaborate legacy of European perfumery. Later on, the leather as a scent made a come back with Chanel’s Cuir de Russie – this time romanticizing the exoticism of furs of wild animals caught in the woods of cold, far away Russia (or, perhaps, Canada). It employed an impressive amount of castoreum, a by-product of the fur industry. Castoreum is a secretion from a gland of both the male and the female beavers that live in Russia and Canada. It can only be found after killing the animal, thus making capturing beavers a double-shot of wealth for the hunter. On its own, castoreum smells like death. It really does. As repulsive as death could possibly be, combined with the guilt of smelling the remains a wild animal hunted for its fur and sexual smell. When highly diluted, castoreum smells just like leather. Like old leather bound books. Dry, leathery, exquisite.

So now that we have pretty much exhausted the topics of dead animals and poop, perhaps we can move on to the two main questions that you have in mind are (in hopes that your appetite for that fragrance family isn’t ruined yet):

The answer is simple: they smell like leather!
Step in to the nearest shoe store, and get your nose close to a pair of leather boots.
Go to your nearest horse-barn and get acquainted with the saddles and tacks.
Bury your nose in an old leather book…
That’s what leather perfumes smell like, at least in part.

To this may be added spices, resins and balsams for sweetness and warmth; flowers for a sophisticated perfume-y impression; Tobacco that accentuates the tannin scent of cured leather; aldehydes for softness and warm roundness or an oily skin like residue; citrus for clean freshness and to add balance to the heaviness and darkness of leather; and more often than ever – there will be smoky notes.

By now you probably guessed that there is no leather essential oil, and perfumers don't soak and tincture leather to make leather perfumes... The only animal material that has any importance in leather perfumes is castoreum.
Although castoerum is a key ingredient in many leather perfumes, it is not essential to kill animals to enjoy a leather aroma. When well crafted, other “vegan” notes, such as tobacco, black tea, labdanum, cade, patchouli and birch tar can create the impression of leather without drawing as much as a drop of blood from an innocent animal. I am proud to say that such an example lies in my line in the form of Espionage – the formidable leathery concoction that dries down into a musky-vanilla skin scent.

Leathery perfumes can be taken to all kinds of directions – aromatic, woody, floral, even gourmand (if, like Charlie Chaplin, you find leather appetizing). Technically, leather is considered a member of the Chypre family, which is where it originally branched out from. Many leathery perfumes have oakmoss in at least minute quantities, and are considered a sub-category of the chypre family. However, there are some leathers that have very little in common with Chypre, and are more of an oriental. I personally think that even though it may be convenient to add more and more sub-categories to the Chypre family, that perhaps the Leathery scents truly deserve a category of their own. Scents such as Tabac Blond, Cuir de Russie, Bandit, Feuilles de Tabac, truly deserve their own family.
  • CastoreumDecoding Obscure NotesLeather
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