Leather perfume notes are an amorphous family. They can be harder to pin down than notes present in florals, hesperidic (citrus), fruity-florals, fougeres and chypres. Although the last two fragrance families in this list might seem obtuse, they do have clearly defined notes within.
Fougères traditionally are bergamot, lavender and coumarin/tonka structures; and Chypres are bergamot, usually something floral in the heart, then oakmoss or cistus labdanum in the base. I have simplified their notes, and their original structures have morphed as tastes change. But these two families’ perfume notes echo down the decades to make an appearance in today’s perfumes.
But what exactly constitutes leather in a leather perfume? Leather isn’t botanical and isn’t distilled and while aromachemicals can conjure up leather, which leather and in what form: bag, car seat, saddle, book binding? Old leather or new leather, wet or brittle-dry leather? Worn sweaty leather?
What are leather notes?
Leather perfume notes and accords evoke a real or imaginary scent of leather, playing on our memories, connotations and perhaps adding in a dash of sexual fantasy as well (bondage and leather!).
Leather perfume notes vary widely from soft, musky suedes often created with saffron notes to bracing birch tar evoking the polish daubed on Russian military boots and every leather possibility in between. Leather perfumes can veer towards smokiness too, perhaps recalling the fires of 18th century military encampments.
Think of leather, and you will have your own scent profile. Leather to one person will be the worn strap of an old-fashioned barber’s shop; to another, the scent of a saddle at a riding school; and to others, the smell of musty leather-bound books in an old library or antiquarian bookshop. To others still, leather might recall sports’ car interiors or mum’s handbag permeated with her signature scent. None of us has the same idea, memory or fantasy of what to expect in a leather scent.
There are also animalic leather perfumes that hark back to those tanneries of old and use musks, civet, hyraceum and other animalic notes (now synthetic recreations) to link leather to those raw hides of centuries past.
This is why I love leather. Its history is fascinating and the mere whiff of any of those leather profiles I mentioned above, transport me through time, and allow me to feel a deep connection with the very origins of perfumery.
Let’s now drill down to some specifics and the actual notes you can expect to find in the melange of leather perfumes.
Key notes you’ll find in leather perfumes
Just to show how diverse leather perfume notes can be, just glance at the list in the eponymous Cuir de Russie, Chanel, 1924. Here, we find Chanel’s favoured floral heart trio of rose, jasmine and ylang-ylang paired with a base of dark, sultry materials including styrax, vetiver, amber, vanilla and cedarwood. Amber is often made up of labdanum/cistus, vanilla, patchouli and benzoin. It also includes that heady, heavy waxy floral orange blossom which has animalic aspects.
As you can see, there’s a bit of everything going on in Cuir de Russie by Chanel which in its day was a watershed fragrance that defined the more liberated woman of the 1920s.
I’ve attempted to categorise leather notes to make sense of a long list, but there is inevitably overlap among them. A wood will be also a smokey note; a floral like orange blossom can be fecal, indolic and animalic yet still floral in hue.
The list might give you a hint of what notes are deployed and also help you spot leather perfume tendencies in fragrances not defined as leather per se.
Woods & Smoke Notes
Labdanum, cistus, birch tar, cade, styrax, cassie, black tea, cedarwood, sandalwood, guaiac wood, tobacco, nagarmotha, vetiver and a host of wood like Ho wood, Clearwood and of course Oud.
Peru balsam, vanilla, benzoin, cassie, patchouli, styrax, labdanum.
Civet, castoreum, hyraceum, jasmine, orange blossom, musks, indol.
Sweet and Gourmand Notes
Vanilla, tonka, coumarin, benzoin, styrax
Frankincense, myrrh, opoponax.
Favoured floral notes
Jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, tuberose, orange blossom, mimosa, cassie, osmanthus (which is gorgeous in leathers).
These mainly base notes of leather will find themselves alongside citrus and herbal top notes such as lemon peel, bergamot and clary sage, and any combination of heart notes from florals to fruits. You will also find saffron to evoke suede, and spices to play off against the smokiness. Nothing is off limits in a leather once a sufficient dose of smoke, tar and/or lighter leather notes of a suede are present.
Classic & Modern Leather Perfumes
It’s as if every fragrance house needs a leather perfume to create a link to the past, anchoring the perfume itself and the brand name behind it to those first, great fragrances of old and how perfume came to be via the tanning industry.
Comb a major perfumery like Liberty London and seek out various brands’ so-called leather fragrances. Compare blotters and you’ll discover an enormity of fragrance styles all describing themselves as ‘leather’ perfumes. There are no hard and fast note combinations and you might feel some are just riding on the magic and mystery of leather while only giving a nod to ingredients that warrant the leather nomenclature.
Leather perfumes are often considered male scents but that has never been the case. Chanel was an avant garde leader in genderless fragrances and its Cuir de Russie which came out in the swinging 1920s when women were taking to smoking and easing themselves into men’s domains, is a case in point.
7 Leather Perfumes to Try
Cuir de Russie – Chanel: I’ve mentioned this already so you’ll have gauged this perfume is the leitmotif of all leathers since the early 20th century. What makes it all the more special is that it is as loved today as it was ground-breaking back then. It is classy and classic, sexy and alluring, feminine and masculine in almost equal parts. The signature trio of florals is anchored throughout by a darker, leathery side. Expensive and one of Chanel’s ‘Les Exclusifs’, but in my book, the leather of all leathers and worth a splurge just to say it’s in your perfumery stable. Very wearable too.
Knize Ten – Knize: Appearing at the same time as Chanel’s leather, is Knize’s Ten which was born at the end of an empire, the Austrian one, and also is a birch tar love affair. With the air of empire lingering over it given its birthplace, Knize’s leather has equestrian sport leather as its muse: polo to be precise. Contemporaries of Klimt, as well as stars of silver screen like Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean were Knize Ten wearers. The very best write up of its history, scent and wearability is over on the Kafkaesque blog whose conclusion is that Knize does live up to its hype (and its impressive roll call of aficionados).
Tuscan Leather – Tom Ford: With this leather, we might think we move into incense territory as the declared list of notes includes olibanum, which was the myrrh of ancient times. However, this ‘in-your-face’ full-on leather scent is more fruity leather meets ashtray. Tobacco and raspberry come to mind. It is animalic and a strong contemporary no-holes-barred leather. Descriptions range from car seats and gasoline to suede and dried fruit, all tied up in an almighty leather scent. I have tried only the barest sprays of this when passing through my local airport’s duty free as the tester is always empty. I am trying to work out if that’s a good or bad sign. Do airlines wish to ensure passengers don’t board wearing a heavy dose of Tuscan Leather and ensure the retailer keeps the tester dry?!
Colonia Leather – Aqua di Parma: As you expect from AdiP, this opens with a brief, fresh citrus blast in true cologne style. This is followed by a very polished leather and some oud which remind one of the classy, smooth, smell of new Italian leather handbags in a high-class store. While I mentioned in the notes’ section that leathers often start with citrus, these top notes in leathers can be hard to pull off. Aqua di Parma manages it as the master of citrus colognes. It is to my nose and mind the scent of leather seats in an open-top Alfa Romeo hitting the winding, precipitous roads of the Amalfi coast.
Bronze Wood & Leather Cologne Intense – Jo Malone: A shift now to woods and vetiver to conjure up leather and another that bills itself as cologne intense. Scant info on the official Jo Malone website is beefed up on Fragrantica with fairly mixed reviews. I am including it here as a more recent leather (launched 2019) and for its use of juniper and grapefruit. Some feel it has a very ubiquitous aromachem leather drydown, and I have to say, I did come across that (during my flight, as Jo Malone’s are always duty-free sprays for me). However, I feel it has merit and is noteworthy if not able to last a century of greatness as our earlier leather perfumes did.
Leather Oud – Floris: Rare and blended on demand, this is a leather with a typical oud-rose at its heart. And as we will see, it leads up on nicely to the palette of the final leather perfume I selected. It has been called simplistic, probably for its routine rose-oud element, but also sophisticated. So you take your chance, but you’d best grab a tester or sample first given the price. It’s leather note components are high quality and the oud is more natural; a point Floris makes on its site. Sustainably sourced too, they say. Amber and patchouli make for a warming long-lasting base on this wearable leather. Floris says the inspiration for Leather Oud came from the leather carrying cases their raw materials would be transported in centuries ago. For nostalgic reasons and to own a piece of Floris’ heritage, this one might make an interesting addition to the perfumista’s collection.
Rose et Cuir – Editions Federic Malle (Jean-Claude Ellena): I include this last but not least as it’s pretty hot off the press as I write. It was launched in mid 2019 and I came across it at a very public outing at the Pitti Fragranze fair in Florence in September of that year. The nose behind Rose & Cuir, Jean-Claude Ellena, was the focus of a retrospective of his career at Pitti. His latest creation the last in a row of his eponymous perfumes of a lifetime. I later picked it up in Liberty London. I do find its notes hard to reconcile with rose and leather; to my nose it is pure geranium and a kind of aromachemical leather from the start. I get a green geranium scent lingering all through and the scent lasts a long time, defying two scrubs in the shower. You do need to love geranium and acridity to love Rose et Cuir. That said, it is billed as having no rose! And I have to buy most Ellena creations, if not always wear them.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like to see my part I post covering the History of Leather Perfumes and how and why they came to be.