Perfume Review – Puredistance M: “M” for Molten Marvel

Molten lava, gold and red, coursing richly over dark rocks. An aristocratic cavalry officer’s perfectly oiled, brown leather boots, gleaming with scented oils of honey and rose. The richest amber and the darkest honey, intertwined in a kiss.

Source: Warren Photographic at WarrenPhotographic.co.uk

Source: Warren Photographic at WarrenPhotographic.co.uk

Those are the images which come to mind when I try “M” from Puredistance, a niche luxury house whose exclusive (and very costly) perfumes are made by Master Perfumers in London and New York. Puredistance M, as it is known, has an added cache: it’s made by the great Roja Dove himself.

Roja Dove. Source: The Glass Magazine.

Roja Dove. Source: The Glass Magazine.

Roja Dove is the only man in the world who bears the title, Professeur du Parfum. His legendary nose is said to be able to detect over 800 perfumes from a mere sniff. After working for almost twenty years for Guerlain, he left to pursue his own ventures which include the speciality boutique within a boutique at Harrod’s called Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie.

Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie.

Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie.

He also creates his own perfumes — some of the most highly acclaimed and admired in the world. A few years ago, he collaborated with Puredistance , a company whose perfumes typify the luxury and richness associated with his own fragrances. Each Puredistance perfume is an extrait de parfum blended at a whopping 25-32% concentration and filled with the finest perfume oils. Puredistance M for Men and Women (sometimes written as PuredistanceM) is no exception.

Puredistance-Packshot-M-01-HRReleased in 2010, Puredistance M is technically categorized on Fragrantica and elsewhere as a unisex leather perfume. All the talk about leather led me to expect a hardcore leather scent — which I’m very wary of —  so I was surprised to find “M” to be a glorious lovechild of an oakmoss chypre and an oriental that merely happened to have leather undertones. I was also relieved to see Puredistance’s own description for the perfume state pretty much the same thing:

M is inspired by the stylish comforts of the interior of a grey Aston Martin. M is a leather
chypre of classic proportions… with an unexpected oriental twist, which lends the perfume an original and modern feel.Puredistance-Metal-Perfume-Spray-Cap-01-HR

The warm smoothness of the blend is incomparable. The composition purrs softly along, weaving the leather accord into the road-map of spices, woods and resins. The chic, sensual and comforting trip takes the wearer from the leathery start to the softly-smoldering woody, balsamic base via the delicately earthy heart.

Enveloping and comforting as it is, M, with its elegantly smoky leather, has a hint of excitement and danger, which is just how it should be, in a fragrance inspired by Bond’s car.

Ingredients: Bergamot, Lemon, Rose, Jasmine, Cinnamon, Patchouli, Mosses, Cistus [Labdanum], Vetiver, Vanilla, Leather, Musk.

Puredistance M opens on my skin with a rich, unctuous, baroque mix of dark rose, labdanum, leather, jasmine, musk and a subtle dash of citrus. There is the swirling aura of leather all around, but it’s almost ephemeral at this point and nothing distinct. And, yet, there is also the faint impression of a barnyard that pops up, only to flit away after two minutes.

Rose Petal Honey. Source: Gardenista.com. (Click on photo for the website which has a DIY recipe for rose-infused honey.)

Rose Petal Honey. Source: Gardenista.com. (Click on photo for the website which has a DIY recipe for rose-infused honey.)

The rose is rich, dark, beefy and meaty; it is also slathered with the darkest honey you can imagine. The sweetness tames any zestiness of the citrus note, rendering it sweet, not sharp. There is a noticeable backdrop of oakmoss but, unlike many chypres, it is never fusty, musty or dusty. Instead of being pungently dry, the mosses are sweetened by the honey notes from the labdanum resin — it’s absolutely glorious.

Interestingly, the second time I tested Puredistance M, the oakmoss was even less noticeable in the start. Same with the citrus notes. Instead, the predominant impression was a panoply of honeyed beeswax, rich roses, dark honey and cinnamon. In fact, honeyed beeswax is such a persistent part of this perfume on both occasions that I wore it that I am convinced it is one of the hidden ingredients, along with cloves and a smidgen of cumin. I am also convinced that Puredistance is one of those perfectly blended perfumes which will reveal different facets each time you wear it.

Source: FilterForge.com

Molten Lava. Source: FilterForge.com

The combination of notes — on both occasions — lead to an overwhelming impression of molten lava: a fiery river of honeyed labdanum turned burnished red from spices and roses. The labdanum is so rich that, at times, it has a faintly burnt quality to it. In fact, during my first test, there was an impression almost of burnt wax. The predominant note, however, is of a very balsam-like resin that is as dark as possible; it’s unctuous, opaque and thick. It’s hard to describe what labdanum smells like to someone who has never smelled it but, at its core, it is far more than just an amber-y smell. It takes honey to a depth that is almost unimaginably medieval in its complex, burnished richness. At the same time, it has a subtle, almost dirty, nutty, slightly leathered edge that is never animalic but which definitely turns the whole thing into something more masculine and musky than actual honey. I love labdanum and it is the fiercely beating heart to Puredistance M, evident from start to finish, in the richest way possible.

About fifteen minutes in, the leather starts to appear. It has the feel of darkly brown, softly caramelized aged leather. There is a subtle, earthy feel to it that I suspect comes from the underpinnings of the vetiver which is never a really detectable note, in and of itself, but which is a quiet thread in the overall tapestry. I know the perfume is meant to evoke the leather seats of a luxury car and, for most people, Puredistance M does exactly that. For me, however, I imagine an aristocratic cavalry officer’s well-worn riding boots, tended to lovingly with a mix of beeswax and oils tinged with rose, honey and jasmine.

Royal Household Cavalry - HouseandCountry dot tv

This is really the smell that I expected from Chanel‘s legendary Cuir de Russie which was inspired by Tsarist imperial officers and the Russian treatment of birch leather. Instead, on my skin, Cuir de Russie was all horse feces under a heavy pile of soap. I’m in a very distinct minority on that point, but the disappointment remains the same. No Cossacks, no Imperial Grand Dukes, no passionate sensuality evoking Coco Chanel’s love affair and, most of all, no smooth, aristocratic leather.

Young Winston Churchill in uniform. Source: Imgur.com

Young Winston Churchill in uniform. Source: Imgur.com

With Puredistance M, however, the leather is pure elegance. It feels screamingly rich, covered with cognac, warmed by honey, and reddened by quiet spices. The latter start to become more evident  about thirty minutes in. Cinnamon is the most obvious note, but there is also the merest touch of cumin. It’s not the sort of sweaty-smelling cumin; it’s simply dry and a little bit earthy. I’m convinced there are also big dollops of cloves in Puredistance M, adding a little bit of fiery heat to the sweet honey and resinous labdanum.

The floral and musk accord also become more noticeable around this time. The musk is not skanky, sour, or redolent of personal intimacies. Nor is it even remotely animalic. Instead, it is quietly intertwined with the rose and the increasingly evident jasmine notes for a combination that is narcotically heady and extremely rich.

An hour in, to my surprise, Puredistance M changes quite drastically. First, it becomes significantly less opaque and thick, though it is still very strong and heady. Second, it turns from a floral oakmoss chypre with oriental elements into something that, to me, is purely orientalist in nature. The oakmoss was always a subtly blended accord in the opening, intertwined perfectly with the other notes but never dominating. Now, however, it is completely overshadowed by the growing impression of honeyed beeswax with spices and cinnamon-tinged vanilla. The floral notes are still there, however, including the increasingly noticeable jasmine note mixed with a slightly sweet dose of patchouli. Lastly, the sillage has dropped quite substantially. Where Puredistance M was evident from a few feet away in the first hour (at least, when you put on a decent-sized amount), it is now hovering just a foot above the skin.

Vintage bottle and box of Bel Ami.

Vintage bottle and box of Bel Ami.

In this first ninety minutes and during the opening stage, Puredistance M strongly reminded me of Hermès‘ classic Bel Ami in its vintage form. Bel Ami is a scent I grew up with and loved, so while I haven’t smelled it in years, it was the first thing on my mind in the opening hour of Puredistance M. In fact, I’ve read that Bel Ami is one of Roja Dove’s favorite fragrances.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, vintage Bel Ami is the scent to which most people compare Puredistance M, suggesting that you save your money on the latter and buy the Hermès instead. I don’t necessarily agree. Even if we consider the much stronger, more potent vintage version of Bel Ami (as compared to its current reformulated self), Puredistance M is still significantly richer, darker and denser, with much more labdanum and far less citrus influences. Plus, based on my memories of Bel Ami, it only explains the first ninety minutes of Puredistance and certainly doesn’t fit with its remaining development. Because, you see, at the start of the second hour, the perfume changes again and now, it is almost a dead ringer for Serge LutensCuir Mauresque!

I recently reviewed and loved Cuir Mauresque, so I was quite stunned to find its middle notes replicated here in Puredistance’s similar stage. There are differences in the notes in each perfume and Puredistance significantly lacks the animalic civet of the Lutens but, on my skin, the middle stages for both perfumes was musky jasmine, honey, and resined amber. The burnt styrax in the Lutens is mimicked here by the occasionally burnt aspect to the different sort of resinous amber, the labdanum, and both scents share a subtle, sometimes imperceptible hint of cumin and cloves — all supported on the subtle base of leather. It helps that the Lutens was never very animalic or dirty on my skin because the civet was never strong. Here, however, the real link between the two fragrances is the jasmine, musk and dark amber combination. With the oakmoss having vanished in the second hour, Puredistance has turned into a seductive floral oriental.

Bees on beeswax. Source: McDanielHoneyFarm.com

Bees on beeswax. Source: McDanielHoneyFarm.com

The final stage of Puredistance M is very simple and is no longer anything close to Cuir Mauresque. The dry-down consists almost entirely of dark, dirty labdanum amber; rich honey and beeswax; and a hint of musky vanilla hovering underneath. The amber accord is tinged by the merest breath of something earthy, but it’s as light as a feather. In its very final hour, Puredistance M evoked pure honey and nothing more. At no time in its development were some of Puredistance’s more earthy notes dominant players; both the vetiver and patchouli added some underlying support but they were barely noticeable in their own right. There was no dirtiness or rooty darkness to the scent, and never anything animalic to the leather.

Interestingly, for a perfume with such strong notes, the sillage on Puredistance was not enormous. It was evident from a few feet away for the first hour, then dropped dramatically. By the second hour, the scent hovered half a foot away from the skin. Thereafter, it became very close and you’d have to be nuzzling someone’s neck to detect it.

The sweetness and spices make Puredistance the least “butch” leather that I have ever encountered. When you throw in the prominant florals, it also becomes one of the most unisex leathers. This is nothing like the stony, cold, black leather that I experienced with Montale‘s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie or the barnyard leather of Chanel‘s Cuir de Russie. It’s also far from the bitter, green, harshness of the butch legend, Bandit by Robert Piguet, which I admired and found most intriguing but which, in hindsight, is simply too brutal for me. It certainly is not remotely close to Tom of Finland by Etat Libre d’Orange which wasn’t even leather on my skin but, rather, powdered, vanilla suede.

Puredistance M is an absolutely marvelous scent, but its steep price is enough to give one the vapors. A miniscule 17.5 ml/ 0.59 fl. oz sized spray (essentially, a travel-sized mini) is a whopping $198. The full 100 ml/ 3.4 fl oz. bottle? A stunning $590! On Luckyscent (where, to my astonishment, that $600 bottle is sold out), one reviewer makes this observation about the scent and the price:

When people say that M makes everything else obsolete, I am afraid that is very close to the truth. From the very first whiff till it fades away (up to 24 hours later), this is an experience of constant astonishment. And just as much – constant, giddy delight. Of course, I will still wear other favorites. But M inhabits that rarified air of very few others – Gobin Daude Nuit Desert and Guerlain Derby come to mind (in terms of quality, not scent). The price is initially off-putting, but the 18ml bottle is easily the equivalent of many 100ml edp’s. The very tiniest little drop last all day, into the night, and into the next morning. Like I said, constant astonishment. This is the real deal.

I don’t agree. I used far more than the tiniest little drop to test the perfume the first time around. When, on the second test, I used the smallest possible amount, the perfume faded away in sillage quite quickly, demonstrated far less complexity, and also lasted far time. On neither occasion did Puredistance M last 24 hours. That said, when I used the equivalent of one large spray, the scent lasted about 11 hours — and I should bloody well hope so for something that is concentrated extrait de parfum! But, again, it was hardly a drop, so I hardly think that the 17.5 ml bottle is “the equivalent” of many 100 ml full bottles of eau de parfum. Nonetheless, on skin which is less voracious than mine, I think the $198 travel mini might be a good compromise if you really love the scent.

[UPDATE – 3/26/13: The perfume, along with all the other fragrances in the Puredistance line is now available in a much more affordable pricing scheme. All four scents now come in a 60 ml bottle of pure parfum extract that costs $330 or €275. For the concentration and size, that is a much, much more accessible deal. You can find the new bottles on the company’s website at the link listed below in the “Details.”]

On Fragrantica, one commentator says simply to buy Bel Ami and to save your money, but I don’t fully agree with that either. Even if you buy vintage Bel Ami on eBay (where I recently saw a bottle starting at around $65), Puredistance M is a much richer affair. Though I can’t remember Bel Ami’s dry-down after all these years, what I do remember is a much more citrus-aromatic chypre which turns into leather that is nothing as sweetly resinous or honeyed as Puredistance M. A review of Bel Ami’s notes on Fragrantica supports that impression: there is no labdanum, not a lot of resin, and those amber notes which are present do not seem to be the driving heart of the perfume according to people’s votes of the main notes. Still, if that is the only financially practical alternative, then Bel Ami may be worth pursuing. (So long as you avoid the current reformulation and stick with vintage.)

My belief is that price is a very subjective thing and, if the quality is there, an outrageous price may well be worth it to a particular individual. For me, a full bottle of Puredistance M is well outside my means. To my cheapskate mind, it translates to five full bottles of Serge Lutens or Chanel. And the 0.5 oz/ 17.5 ml mini is similarly too expensive, given the microscopic size and what else I could buy. If, however, price were no object, I would absolutely buy Puredistance M. The “M” really stands for magnificent, molten masterpiece.

DETAILS:

Sample or Gift Set of four Puredistance parfums.

Sample or Gift Set of four Puredistance parfums.

Cost & Availability: Puredistance M is available in a variety of different sizes and forms on the Puredistance website. You can buy a 17.5 ml travel size spray for $198 or €168. The full bottle is 3.4 oz/ 100 ml and costs $590. [UPDATE: The perfume is now also available in a 60 ml bottle for $330 or €275.] However, you can also buy Puredistance M as part of a sample Gift Set of four Puredistance perfumes (I, Antonia, M and Opardu) with each sample being 2 ml. The whole set costs $59 and includes free shipping. Puredistance M is also available at Luckyscent in both the $198 travel size and the $590 full size, though the latter is sold out until the end of March (2013). Luckyscent also sells a 0.7 ml sample vial for $6. I obtained my sample from Surrender to Chance, where prices start at $3.99 for a miniscule 1/4 of ml vial, $7.98 for a 1/2 vial and $15.96 for 1 ml.

Advertisements

Perfume Review- Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque: Classic Sex Appeal

Serge Lutens perfumes tend be polarizing. Leather perfumes are also polarizing. Throw the two together and…. Whoa, mama! Yet, I find myself entranced by Cuir Mauresque (“moorish leather”) from The Master. And I don’t even particularly like leather perfumes! This one, though, has just shot up the list to equal Chergui, my previous favorite Lutens, and may even surpass it by a faint whisker. Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque

One reason may be the fact that Lutens puts Cuir Mauresque in the “Sudden Sweetness” category, alongside Chergui and Musc Koublai Khan. In fact, it does represent a line between those two scents: more spiced, ambered and floral than Chergui, but less musky than Musc Koublai Khan. Yet, in terms of descriptions, Lutens essentially settles for “Moorish” and “leather” as the basic gist for the perfume. It was created in 1996 with Lutens’ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and is a unisex scent for both men and women. Originally, it was released only as a bell-jar fragrance exclusive to Lutens’ Paris Palais Royal salon and was not available for export. In 2010, however, it was made available in the US and worldwide.

I think the reason why I enjoyed Cuir Mauresque so much is because it is not really a leather scent on my skin. Instead, it’s a swirling, seductive jasmine, amber, animalic civet, and spice perfume which just merely happens to have leather undertones. It is a gloriously classique scent that strongly evokes Jean Desprez‘ legendary Bal à Versailles to my nose, though others seem to place it between the equally legendary Tabac Blond from Caron and Knize Ten from Knize.

Fragrantica classifies Cuir Mauresque as a “Leather” and says:

It represents a blend of leather wrapped up in jasmine and sweet spices to make a true Arabian aroma.

Notes: [Egyptian Jasmine] amber, myrrh, burnt styrax [resin], incense, cinnamon, aloe wood, cedar, civet, nutmeg, clove, cumin, musk, mandarin peel and orange blossom.

Cuir Mauresque opens on my skin with a richly heady mix of orange blossom, mandarins, musk, amber, resinous myrrh, nutmeg, cloves and a dry, earthy, (but not skanky) dash of cumin. There is the merest whisper of smoke and incense. Even fainter is the subtle impression of something flowery dancing at the very furthest edge of the notes. There is also, however, that slightly camphorous, chilled note which seems to be Christopher Sheldrake’s signature in many of his perfumes. It is subtle and evanescent on my skin — absolutely nothing like the mentholated, almost rubbery, slightly burnt, camphor note in Tubereuse Criminelle or, to a much lesser degree, in Borneo 1834.

Clove Studded Orange. Source: DwellWellNW blog at DowntoEarthNW.com

Clove Studded Orange. Source: DwellWellNW blog at DowntoEarthNW.com

The predominant notes, however, are musky orange, nutmeg and cloves. It’s surprisingly sweet, but there is nothing cloyingly about them. It’s also definitely not gourmand. I think the fruit, the dryness of the spices, and the woody elements cuts through the sweetness, as does the floral note. As the minutes pass, that last note becomes stronger and stronger. It’s jasmine — sweet, heady, and musky but not indolic, sour or over-ripe.

CognacAt first whiff, I did not detect any strong leather note except, perhaps, as just a vague, subtle, ghostly sense. Even then, I wouldn’t bet on it. Ten minutes in, however, there is a definite impression of uber-expensive, luxury car interiors, though interiors doused in very aged cognac. Yes, cognac. There is a definite sense of the dryer, almost woody, nutty aspect of really expensive cognac, as opposed to something sweet, boozy rum. It adds great warmth to the leather which takes on a very creamy, dark, rich feel. It’s more akin to a really old, dark brown, leather jacket than to the scent of a new Chanel purse. There is no impression of coldness nor of soft suede, and most definitely nothing evoking dead animals, barnyard manure or raw animal pelts as some leather fragrances are wont to do.Bal à Versailles

Twenty minutes in, lovely jasmine is the predominant note. It is sweetly spiced and slightly musky, underpinned by that very subtle leather note that has a faintly dirty, animalic, musky element to it, thanks to the civet. I have a definite impression of vintage Bal à Versailles with its heady florals wrapped in amber, musk, civet and resins. I’m not the only one; on Fragrantica, a large number of people seem to think the same way on the Bal à Versailles page. That said, Cuir Mauresque is nowhere near as animalic as Bal à Versailles and not one millionth as skanky. It’s softer, lighter, more spiced, less powdery and without any sweat, fecal or “piss” undertones.

Jasmine

Jasmine

It’s a lovely scent and narcotically heady in that first hour but, also, somewhat indolic. That’s where I fear it will trip up a few people, since indoles can be very tricky depending on skin chemistry. (See, “Indoles” and “Indolic” in the Glossary linked at the very top of the page for more details.) On me, the jasmine is never sour, verging on rotting fruit, or urinous. Instead, the jasmine, orange blossoms and spices are warmed in a lovely way by the styrax resin, the subtle smokiness of the incense, the amber and the musk. But it is the added touch of that animalic civet which is the perfect, crowning touch. It’s not skanky like unwashed panties or unsettling. Instead, it just evokes old-school glamour and seduction.

An hour in, the leather is much more noticeable, as is the animalic civet. However, they both share the stage with the jasmine. To the side, as supporting players, are: honey; very light, subtle incense; and a touch of earthy cumin and dry cloves, with musk and amber undertones.

There is a very classique aspect to the perfume, one which even my mother noted when she smelled my arm. She absolutely adored it, couldn’t smell any leather, thought it had “depth” (her highest compliment), and called it “seductive and mysterious.” I was very taken aback, especially as my mother doesn’t like most of what I give her to smell — Neela Vermeire’s Trayee and Téo Cabanel’s Alahine excepted. Generally, her tastes range from hardcore orientals like vintage Opium, Shalimar and Cartier’s Le Baiser du Dragon, to the classique scents of things like Femme, Jolie Madame, Joy, 1000, Fracas and Bal à Versailles. I suspect that it is Bal à Versailles which led to my mother’s admiration for Cuir Mauresque….

Marlene Dietrich in her later years.

Marlene Dietrich in her later years.

The perfume’s very classique profile led to an interesting discussion when I asked what movie star she would associate with the scent. I kept imagining Marlene Dietrich in her older, less edgy, less hard and androgynous days.

Ava Gardner.

Ava Gardner.

My mother said, flatly and point-blank, “Ava Gardner.” Hardcore glamour, oozing sex appeal, a forceful personality to be reckoned with, and mystery. I countered with the mysterious, seductive, exquisite Princess Fawzia of Egypt. My mother still said Ava Gardner. We both finally settled on agreeing that there was nothing about this scent that could evoke someone cool like Grace Kelly, obvious like Bridget Bardot, or the girl-next-door like Doris Day.

In modern day terms, I thought of Halle Berry in her Bond girl role but that’s not quite the right fit. I can’t really think of someone who does represent the scent for me, not in today’s movie world. Cuir Mauresque isn’t symbolized by a Gwyneth Paltrow type, nor a Jennifer Aniston or Anne Hathaway. This is a perfume for a very strong woman (or man) with a slight edge, a bit of toughness, who radiates seductiveness and mystery, and who entrances as much by the enigmatic gaze as by her long legs or his broad shoulders.

Sometime at the second hour, the leather note does become more apparent but it soon vanishes with the return of the fruity-floral, musky civet, and amber notes of Bal à Versailles. Cuir Mauresque is significantly lighter and less animalic, while also being more tinged by smoke, but the resemblance is noticeable to my nose. The appearance of some sweet powder doesn’t change things as that, too, was in Bal à Versailles. Here, it’s not like baby powder or even like hardcore Guerlainade. It’s hard to describe, but there is a balmy, sweet aspect it.

By the end of the third hour, the perfume is all fruity-florals with honey, resins, musk and faintly powdered vanilla. The leather notes — to the extent that they are there — are very subtle and more like soft suede. Creamy, light and beige. Eight hours later, almost by the end of its duration, Cuir Mauresque turns into nothing more than lovely honey and dried fruit. The dry-down in all those last hours is warm, sweet, and truly cozy. Interestingly, the sillage on Cuir Mauresque was not particularly high. It was noticeable in the first hour, then dropped significantly and became close to the skin by the third hour. Others, like Angela at Now Smell This, have also found the perfume to have persistent longevity but to be “quiet” with moderate to low, sillage. I very much agree.

As you might tell from some of this review, I didn’t find Cuir Mauresque to be a very leather fragrance. I did, however, to be extremely approachable and versatile, not to mention seductive, mysterious and, in the final hours, as cozily delicious as a cashmere  blanket. I’m not surprised at all that, according to Luckyscent:

the master himself [Serge Lutens] has gone on record saying he doused himself in [it] on the rare occasions when he goes out. And considering the choice he’s got, that’s saying quite a lot.

He’s not the only one. The Non-Blonde wrote in 2009 that Cuir Mauresque was her “favorite” leather perfume, though the “less easily defined (and probably most controversial)” out of all the many leather scents that she has tried. She added: “I can’t get enough of Cuir Mauresque and tend to murmur sweet nothings at my bell jar[.]”

Angela at Now Smell This found it ” special — warm and cozy, intimate and spicy, different from my other leathers.” On her, the perfume “kicks off with a surprising note that offers a freaky insight into the rest of the fragrance.” It’s a sweet plastic note “that mingles with the fragrance’s leather to remind me of a 1970s faux patent leather purse.” That soon changes, however:

Lest you suspect Cuir Mauresque is headed down a path of discos, bondage, and Tupperware, think again. Cuir Mauresque warms into one of the snuggliest, most welcoming leather fragrances I’ve worn. Its mandarin peel and orange blossom work the way citrus does in baking rather. They keep the composition from cloying but definitely aren’t tart or bracing. The spices — and I’d include cardamom with the listed cinnamon and nutmeg — feel so obviously right with the medium-weight leather. Cumin and musk are just barely noticeable, but they push Cuir Mauresque away from bundt cake toward skin. Warm, luxurious, grandpa-cardigan-wearing skin — that is, if your grandpa has worn his shape into his Bugatti’s leather seats and has publishers clamoring for his memoir.

And Perfume-Smellin’ Things just went weak at the knees for Cuir Mauresque:

Along with Muscs Koublai Khan, I consider this to be one of Lutens’s most sensual, most seductive scents. Cuir Mauresque makes my mouth dry and my knees week. From the slap of pure unadulterated leather in the beginning to the warm, gentle caress of cinnamon and orange blossom at the middle stage, to the wonderful dark, ambery, leathery embrace of the drydown, Cuir Mauresque charmed, enamoured and enslaved me. This being a Lutens scent, it goes almost without mention that the woody accord of cedar and aloe wood (agarwood, the source of ouds) is executed in the most exquisite way; the wood here serves only as a background, but what a luscious, almost sweet background it is! I also adore the way a musk note is woven into the rich tapestry of the composition; even though never too evident, it is there at every stage of the development, adding the raw, animalistic accord that makes the blend all the more irresistible to me.

But, like many Lutens, the love is almost equaled by hate. For all the positive raves on places like Fragrantica or Basenotes, there are a number of negatives that evince pure loathing. Basenotes, to be specific, has 22 Positive reviews, 10 Neutral and 10 Negative. But the most searing, most scathing, and most amusingly repulsed review has to come from the blogger, Nathan Branch, who wrote:

in what seems to be a desire to be willfully obtuse, it contains a compound that smells strongly of piss — which, I suppose, if you’re into gay faux-biker bars and fetishistic watersports, you’d quickly associate with the scent of leather, but is this really the Lutens target audience?  […]

In Cuir Mauresque’s defense, the sour aroma of piss does fade as time passes, but it doesn’t fully go away, and I have to admit to not being particularly certain why anyone would reach into their perfume collection and think, “A-ha! Today I want to smell kind of like the windowless back room of a gay leather bar!”

Ouch! Clearly, the indoles in the jasmine turned extremely sour on his skin. But the degree of revulsion in that review and in a few comments on Basenotes led me to wonder.

So, I tried Cuir Mauresque a second time. I strained and strained to find something akin to the notes described but, no, I didn’t. Perhaps, during the second hour, there was a slightly sour note — but I’m pretty sure I found it only by the power of suggestion. Whatever it was, and if it was even there, it was extremely fleeting.

The funny thing is, on both occasions, Cuir Mauresque was not a very leathery scent for me. It was always a seductively jasmine, fruity scent with civet, spices, resin and subtle smoke. It just merely to have a leather undertone — and only on occasion at that! But, as the other reviews up above demonstrate, the perfume can take on a wide variety of aspects, from much more leathery, to notes resembling oud, and, alas, occasionally, also something urinous in nature. Clearly, this is one perfume that needs to be tried first and not purchased blindly, particularly if you have issues with indoles or leather. In fact, I’d say flat-out that those who don’t like either note — but who especially don’t like very heady florals or musky, animalic civet scents — won’t like Cuir Mauresque one bit.   

Those who do like leather scents, however, may be interested to know that Cuir Mauresque is repeatedly said to fall somewhere between the old leather greats: Caron‘s Tabac Blond and Knize‘s Knize Ten. Some people also bring up Chanel‘s Cuir de Russie, especially in the dry-down, but I see absolutely no similarity to the latter. On me, Cuir de Russie was pure horse feces cloaked in soap. (I was not a fan, but I recognize that I’m in a distinct minority on that one.)

In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez, Ms. Sanchez classifies Cuir Mauresque as a “Sweet Leather” and gives it a three-star rating, writing succinctly:

The great leathery classic, Caron’s Tabac Blond, receives the Lutens treatment — more transparent, sweetened with jasmine and dried fruit. Lovely, but somehow less, and no match for, say, Knize Ten.

I’ve never tried either, though I do have a sample of Knize Ten that I will get around to eventually. While I can’t compare Cuir Mauresque to the great leather classics of the past, I think that Ms. Sanchez’s 3-star rating is extremely unfair. My perspective is closer to that of PereDePierre who writes that it is “[a]rguably the best of the modern leather fragrances” and who considers it to be much more of an amber than a leather, one whose “most distinguishing feature is its combination of cinnamon and orange blossom.” I’d toss in jasmine and civet into that mix, but yes, I quite agree.

I also think Cuir Mauresque is a very approachable “leather” that is perfect for people like myself who have some difficulty with the category. But, most of all, I think it’s sexy as hell.

Details:
Cost & Availability: Cuir Mauresque is available on the Serge Lutens website for $140 for a 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle. It is also available in the famous Bell Jar for $290 for 75 ml/ 2.5 fl. oz. Barney’s, Luckyscent and Beautyhabit all carry the 1.7 oz/50 bottle for $140. I also found it on sale at FragranceX for $106.99 and I believe they ship all over the world. However, at this time, they only have 6 bottles left. In the UK, I couldn’t see it listed at either Harrods, Selfridges or Les Senteurs. In Australia, I found it on the Hot Cosmetics website where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle seems to be on sale for AUD $130 instead of AUD $196. For other countries, you can use the Store Locator on the Lutens website.
Sample vials to test it out can be purchased at Surrender to Chance and start at $3.99. Surrender to Chance also has a special Lutens sample pack of 3 non-export perfumes which includes Cuir Mauresques (Musc Koublai Khan and Ambre Sultan) and which starts at $11.99 for the smallest sized vials. Surrender to Chance has the best shipping rates, in my opinion: $2.95 for orders of any size within the U.S.. Unfortunately, with the US Postal Service’s recent price increase, international shipping has now jumped from $5.95 to $12.95 for all international orders under $150. However, price increases for international shipping have occurred across the board at most other sites, too. 

Perfume Review- Serge Lutens Chergui: The Desert Wind

africanduststorm

A fire fanned by the wind, a desert in flames.

As if bursting from the earth, Chergui, a desert wind, creates an effect that involves suction more than blowing, carrying plants, insects and twigs along in an inescapable ascent. Its full, persistent gusts crystallize shrubs, bushes and berries, which proceed to scorch, shrivel up and pay a final ransom in saps, resins and juices. Night falls on a still-smoldering memory, making way for the fragrant, ambery and candied aromas by the alchemist that is Chergui.

That is how Serge Lutens describes Chergui, a perfume for men and women created Cherguiwith Lutens’ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake. It was released in 2001 as a fragrance exclusive to Lutens’ Paris Palais Royal salon and was not available for export. In 2005, however, it was made available worldwide and became a monster hit.

In fact, in 2007, MakeupAlley apparently voted Chergui its #1 favorite perfume. It took that place above: Frederic Malle’s Musc Ravageur (#2), Hermès’ Ambre Narguilé (#3), Guerlain‘s Mitsouko (#8), Andy Tauer‘s L’Air du Desert Marocain (#10), Chanel No. 19 (#11), Chanel Bois de Iles (#12), Guerlain‘s Shalimar (#14), Chanel‘s Coco (#15), Guerlain‘s L’Heure Bleue (#19) and many other, much-loved fragrances. I don’t think I would vote Chergui my favorite scent, let alone of all time (vintage Opium will always have that spot), but I adore Chergui. It is absolutely lovely, and my favorite out of the seven Lutens perfumes that I’ve tried thus far. Until Chergui, I found myself admiring a Lutens fragrance more on an intellectual or theoretical basis, rather than an emotional one. I couldn’t find one that I would actually want to wear. Until now.

Fragrantica classifies Chergui as an “oriental spicy” and lists its notes as:

tobacco leaf, honey, iris, sandalwood, amber, musk, incense, rose and hay.

Dried tobacco leaves

Tobacco leaves drying in Virginia.

Chergui opens on me slightly differently than on others. There is an initial citric and lemon note that I haven’t read of others experiencing. The citrus accompanies a strong rose note along with smoky tobacco leaves over a leather base. The combination of notes reminds me a tiny bit of my much-loved vintage Montana by Claude Montana (now renamed Montana Parfum de Peau) as well as the opening of some chypre fragrances — so much so that, for a minute or two, I wonder if perhaps I received a different sample as part of my Lutens set. But, no, this is definitely Chergui. The tobacco leaves are unmistakable. This is not the tobacco of a cigarette or dirty ashtray, nor is it the fruity tobacco of a pipe. These leaves recall images I’ve seen of tobacco drying under the hot sun of the American South. They have a rich amberous, almost nutty element to them with smoke that goes far beyond the sort in mere incense; it verges into the more extreme, black, tarry aspects of frankincense.

Source: etshoneysupliers.

Source: etshoneysupliers.

At the same time, the opening exudes honey. It is not as strong on me, at this time, as it seems to be on others. In fact, I seem to have the reverse experience of a number of commentators who start out with honey, hay and tobacco, only to find a heart of spicy rose later on. On me, the pyramid triangle is reversed. The rose is upfront and on top, with smoke and woody notes following on its heels.

There is also a note of camphor which intertwines itself with the smoke. It’s almost a medicinal note which leads me to wonder if camphor is Christopher Sheldrake’s favorite ingredient for perfumes. The slightly chilled, cold, cool note it provides is interesting, particularly when combined with the rose notes, because it creates a strong similarity to the many rose oud fragrances currently on the market. In fact, I can definitely smell a woody, medicinal, floral oud note in Chergui, though no oud or agarwood is listed. (Then again, I continuously read that Serge Lutens doesn’t list all the ingredients in his perfumes, so who knows.) The note is subtle and not very strong, but it dances around the rose and honey opening, adding dryness and wood to the perfume’s richness.

The camphorous smoke accords strongly call to mind campfires, except you’re not in a forest as you are with oud perfumes. Here, the campfire is in a field of roses sandwiched between a Turkish tobacco bazaar and an ancient Greek Orthodox churchGreek Orthodox Censer that is billowing out incense and frankincense. Unlike so many others, I don’t get impressions of Morocco or the desert from Chergui. I definitely did from Andy Tauer’s L’Air du Desert Marocain, but not from this. On me, it was not spiced enough for Morocco. Instead, for some strange reason, I get persistent images of Istanbul. But all that is mere quibbling because, frankly, I cannot stop sniffing my arm!

As time passes in the opening hour, the leather starts to bloom, alongside subtle hints of sandalwood. This is not the cold, black leather of scents like Robert Piguet’s Bandit or Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie; nor is it the pale suede of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie or Etat Libre d’Orange’s Tom of Finland. This is warm, soft leather that is caramel, nutty and smooth. The accompanying sandalwood is faint, but never synthetic. And the whole thing is cocooned in a backdrop of rich honey. There is great sweetness, but it is never cloying or like the sugar bomb perfumes that are currently saturating the commercial market. This is not diabetes in a bottle; there are no cupcake or dessert similarities here.

Thirty minutes in, the camphorous notes have receded a little, as have the woody oud-like notes. The sandalwood increases its presence, as does the element of sweet hay from what is said to be a healthy dollop of coumarin. (See the Glossary for further details on coumarin and its notes.) To be honest, I really don’t get a hell of a lot of sweet hay at this point but, then again, my perfume triangle seems to be reversed. The strong coumarin accord comes later, about four hours into the fragrance, and its straw-like sweetness is a perfect counterbalance to the different, richer kind of sweetness coming from the honey.

The smoke, sandalwood and florals call to mind several different perfumes. Again, L’Air du Desert Marocain is not one of them. There is, however, a surprising and peculiar impression of YSL‘s Opium made light — a comparison also noted by the blog, That Smell. To some extent, that’s not surprising as Opium is the ultimate benchmark for all spicy orientals with incense and frankincense. But Chergui is much lighter and sweeter than (vintage) Opium with its powerful eugenol cloves, its opening blast of citrus and orange, and its muscular sandalwood, opoponax and balsams. I haven’t tried (yet) Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille which some say is similar to Chergui, but what I think it sometimes resembles is Molinard‘s Habanitaamazing Habanita, one of the original sweet tobacco and leather fragrances which dates back to 1921. Chergui lacks its very strong citric opening and its constant, very powdered vanilla character, but there are similarities especially with the rose, leather and sweet tobacco accords of the opening hours. Chergui is more honeyed tobacco leaves, while Habanita is more powdered tobacco paper, but there are similarities.

As time passes, Chergui continues to develop. At the two hour note, the tobacco has become softer, the incense milder, the sandalwood smoother and the whole thing takes on a creamy aura. I have a definite impression of creamy tea due to a milky note that is lovely and cozy. And the honey accord is getting stronger now that the powerful incense and wood accords have retreated. The leather is very faint, if it’s there at all. Interestingly, I’ve read a surprisingly large number of comments that say the leather seems stronger on men than on women, with these reports coming from women whose husbands or boyfriends also wear Chergui.

Source: Visual Photos

Source: Visual Photos

After 4.5 hours, Chergui is all honey with some soft tobacco and loads of sweet, dry coumarin. It really smells like bales of hay in a barn, only coated with honey! Those notes constitute the essence of the dry-down phase for me and they remained for several more hours to come.

In terms of sillage and longevity, Chergui became close to the skin after about four hours, but its longevity is impressive. I could smell faint, minute traces of it on my skin after 8 hours and, again, my body consumes perfume voraciously. On others, I’ve read it lasts forever and ever. Also, as a side note, I’ve read a lot of people say that this is a perfume that can actually improve in the heat and in summer, so it should not be considered solely as a winter perfume.

Chergui has many admirers, but some detractors as well. On Basenotes, it has 102 positive reviews, 13 negative ones and 28 neutrals. The 13 negative comments focus on how it is either cloyingly sweet or uninteresting. On Fragrantica, the negative reviews are greater in number with the primary complaints being: 1) it smells too powdery; 2) it’s too sweet or too “old man”-ish; and 3) it opens like “bug spray.” I don’t smell any powder in Chergui and, given how I’m not a huge fan of the note, I would mention it if I did. I can see, however, why some may get the impression of “bug spray.” I think it’s the camphorous element in the opening. According to Luca Turin, in the old days, camphor notes (like that in patchouli) were used as bug repellent. The more common criticism of Chergui — that of its sweetness — is something I don’t personally agree with given the extent of the very dry smoke, incense and coumarin, but I can see how this would be far too much for someone who isn’t into honey perfumes or who generally prefers light, floral, or less heady scents. This is definitely not the scent for them!

Among the many rave reviews for Chergui, a few stood out to me. One was the absolutely beautiful review by Victoria from Bois de Jasmin who wrote:

it is an Arabian Nights vignette in a liquid form.

The candied quality melts in the smoke whispers that fill the arrangement, like incense smoke seeping through the carved screens. The floral accord folded into the smoky layers of Chergui lightens density and sweetness, lending a voluptuous silky quality. The fine cured Virginia tobacco notes overlaid on the smoky leathery base give the composition a slightly masculine character, counterbalancing the sweet notes….

If Chergui is an oasis, it encompasses not only the romantic elements of such a vision—dark black tea served with sugar cubes on the side, narghileh smoked inside leather tents, heavy silks carried by the caravans. The camels resting in the shade are suggested by the animalic sweetness underpinning the honeyed base. Like in an intricate Persian miniature, Chergui is a tale that spills from one story into another.

It maintains the suspense despite the fact that the development of the composition from the top accord to the bottom is not particularly dramatic. Instead, the hints of what is to come—whiff of tobacco, curl of rose petal, creaminess of sandalwood—are suggested in the preceding stages, resulting in the harmony of the narrative. At the same time, the intrinsic romanticism of Chergui fits with the philosophy of Serge Lutens’s work. Like Delacroix, a French painter, was fascinated with the Moroccan scenes, Serge Lutens’s fragrances allow a glimpse into another world through the eyes of an outsider.

I think that may be one of the most beautiful reviews I’ve read for any fragrance! But an equally noteworthy one — albeit less romantic and much more amusing — came from a commentator on MakeupAlley. There, “ThreeJane” gave a wonderful, very down-to-earth review of how Chergui can make one average, harried, stressed-out woman feel:

Chergui is a WOMAN’S scent. You’d better be a mature woman…all curves, breasts, buttocks, and satiny toffee-colored skin to wear this. You can pin a man from across the room with your smoky eyes, beckon him with a narcotic-laced toss of your hair, bend his will to your whim, and break his heart with an indifferent glance. Your clothes meld to your curves, and men can’t say why you are so intoxicating… […]. Women want to be you, men want to possess you.

That’s how this scent makes me feel, anyway. Not like a harried housewife with four homechooled kids and a messy (not dirty! Just cluttered!) house that has dogs bouncing off the walls and a perennial dish or three in the sink. Some days I just drag around in yoga pants and a t-shirt (it’s really a pajama tee from Target, don’t tell) with my hair haphazardly twisted up in a bun. I’m 41, with some wrinkles and sagging skin, standard mom issue.

But when I wear Chergui, I magically transform into Catherine Zeta-Jones in “The Legend of Zorro”, Angelina Jolie in “Original Sin”. Lush, luscious, sensual, unforgettable. After you get past the first almost acrid, medicinal blast of herby incense (about 10 minutes)…almost eyewatering, really…the scent melds into a spicy, honeyed, slightly sugary amber that’s saved from cloying-ness by a fresh bite of tobacco, iris, and I guess it’s hay. There’s supposed to be rose notes in this, which unfortunately, rose never shows up on me. But it’s not needed or missed.

Hours, and I mean HOURS, later, the drydown maintains the amber and slowly includes a woody edge…I guess that’s the sandalwood. I can see the guy from “The Most Interesting Man in the World” beer commercials wearing this. But it’s not manly, oh no. If my florid, overblown prose didn’t spell it out above, it’s verrrry feminine (all dependent on chemistry…always).

[…] There aren’t a lot of things that can elevate me from my rather humdrum hausfrau existence, so when I find something that lifts me up, I’ll take it and exploit it every chance I get. Just lovely.

The two reviews could not be more different and, yet, I think they both manage to capture the gist of Chergui. Try it for yourself, and see where the red desert wind takes you….

Details:
Cost & Availability: Chergui is currently on sale as the “Deal of the Week” at Beauty Encounter where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle is priced at $85.65 and free shipping is available. I don’t know how long that special will last. At all other times, you can find Chergui on the Serge Lutens Chergui Bell Jarwebsite. In the famous bell-jar shape, it costs $280 for 2.5 fl oz/75 ml. However, in the smaller size and regular bottle, it costs $120 for 1.7 fl oz/50 ml. Serge Lutens is sometimes available at fine retailers like Barney’s, but I don’t see Chergui listed on a number of department store sites. Chergui is also available on Penny Lane and Lucky Scent for $140 for the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle — which is $20 more than it costs on the Lutens website. In the UK, you can find Chergui at Harrods where it costs £69.00 for a 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle. You can also find it at Les Senteurs (or perhaps just at their Elizabeth Street shop) where that same bottle costs £79.00. The site sells samples of Chergui for £3.50. In Australia, I found it on the Grays website where the 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle retails for AUD $124.50. For other countries, you can use the Store Locator on the Lutens website. Sample vials to test it out can be bought at Surrender to Chance (but not Lucky Scent) starting at $3.99. Surrender to Chance also has a special Lutens sample pack of 3 non-export perfumes which includes Chergui (and Borneo 1834) and which starts at $11.50 for the smallest sized vials. Surrender to Chance has the best shipping rates, in my opinion: $2.95 for orders of any size within the U.S., and $5.95 for all international orders under $75 (otherwise, it’s just a tiny bit more).

Perfume Review – État Libre d’Orange Tom of Finland: “Beyond Sexuality”

tom4

Source: Etat Libre d’Orange’s website.

Appearances can be deceiving. The impact of the unexpected, of a surprise twist, is one of the reasons why the thematic device of “appearance versus reality” has been such a great constant in literature. From the classical comedies of Rome’s Plautus to such Shakespearean tragedies as Othello, and all the way up to today’s Harry Potter, the unexpected, ironic twist has had power.

What works so well in literature is not, however, always so effective in perfume. Here, appearances can lead to certain expectations and a crushing, critical sense of disappointment as a result. To wit, Chanel‘s recent Coco Noir which has been panned as neither a real relative of Coco nor anything noir. (It isn’t.) Similarly vaunted expectations must have come with Tom of Finland (ToF), a

Some of the marketing for Tom of Finland.

Some of the marketing for Tom of Finland.

unisex scent by the avant-garde, perfume house, État Libre d’Orange (hereinafter ELdO). And there is similar disappointment. This is not a terrible, ghastly scent. In fact, it is extremely whimsical. You might even say that it is intentionally fun, deliberately misleading for artistic reasons, and performance art. To that extent — and on an intellectual, artistic level — I admire its philosophy and whimsy. But I cannot consider it as more than a novelty act, and I certainly would never wear it.

The perfume is inspired by the life, art and philosophy of an actual person, Tom of Finland, the pseudonym of a Finnish artist called Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991). Wikipedia tells me that Tom (as I shall call him to avoid confusion with his fragrance) was an artist

notable for his stylized androerotic and fetish art and his influence on late twentieth century gay culture. He has been called the “most influential creator of gay pornographic images” by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade. Over the course of four decades he produced some TF13500 illustrations, mostly featuring men with exaggerated primary and secondary sex traits with tight or partially removed clothing. [… He published] explicit drawings and stylized his figures’ fantastical aspects with exaggerated physical aspects, particularly their genitals and muscles. He is best known for works that focused on homomasculine archetypes such as lumberjacks, motorcycle policemen, sailors, bikers, and leathermen.

… There is considerable argument over whether his to-1depiction of ‘supermen’ (male characters with huge sexual organs and muscles) is facile and distasteful, or whether there is a deeper complexity in the work which plays with and subverts those stereotypes. For example, some critics have noted examples of apparent tenderness between traditionally tough, masculine characters, or playful smiles in sado-masochistic scenes. [Others, however, call his work] …’masturbation pieces.’

Tom died in 1991 and the Tom of Finland Foundation was established, “dedicated to protecting and preserving erotic art and erotic arts education.” In that vein, they commissioned ELdO to make a perfum representing the artist’s work. The result was released in 2008.

According to ELdO’s website, there is a story and mood that goes with the perfume:

The water slips over him as if sliding down a marble rock, sinking into the grooves of his muscles, vanishing into his pores. This is fresh, pure water, with top notes of aldehydes and lemon, a water that washes away the sins of the night and leaves the skin luminous. Tom of Finland feels clean, like a shaving from a cake of soap. It is an ode to the beauty of the male body and to the radiance of the natural self. For this man, clothing becomes a jewel-case that serves to reveal the true erotic power of the flesh. Tom of Finland is a breath of fresh air, offering unrestricted access to the immense outdoors, the depths of the forest, with notes of birch leaves, cypress, galbanum and pine at its heart. Straight, gay… these words are irrelevant here. Tom of Finland is beyond sexuality – he is sex, in all its fullness and magnitude, open and erect. Fantasy clings to him like his leather jacket, with suede, musk, and ambergray in the base notes. His belt is fastened with an accord of pepper and spicy-fresh saffron, tangled with a blond suede sensuality on a vanilla bed of tonka bean and iris. This is a man who wants to play, to love, to die and be reborn, again and again.Tom of Finland is a tribute to tomorrow’s glorious possibilities.

This is a fresh, pure water that can wash away the sins of the night. Clothing becomes merely ornamental, an insignificant wrapping paper that only serves to cloak the true erotic power of the flesh. This is a man who wants to play, to love, to ravish, and to be free of all inhibitions. Tom is sex. [Emphasis in the original.]

What a story! I have to say, on a purely artistic, theoretical and intellectual level, I’m rather impressed. Alas, if only the result matched the story. One should not judge a perfume by its rather lyrical, romantic story or by its marketing…

Tom of Finland - the safe bottle.

Tom of Finland – the safe bottle.

The notes in the perfume are listed as:

Aldehydes, lemon, birch leaves, pine, safraleine, pepper, cypress, galbanum, geranium, vanilla, tonka bean, orris, vetiver, pyrogened styrax, suede, musk, ambergray.

As the extremely amusing, snarky and snide review in Now Smell This (NST) underscored: “Men, as you spray on Tom of Finland don’t be afraid; keep in mind it ‘has no sexual orientation’. ”

I think women need to heed the same lesson. In fact, they should ignore all references to this as a men’s fragrance because it is most definitely the most feminine “leather” I have ever smelled! I put “leather” in quotes because, on me, this is cherry-vanilla soda with a massive dose of white confectioner’s sugar and a faint hint of suede. But we should start at the beginning.

ToF opens on me with a strong burst of citrus and soap. It’s mostly lemon with some orange and a hefty dose of soap from the aldehydes. (You can read more about aldehydes along with many of the other notes in ToF in my Glossary.) A minute in, I smell the leather. It is just like the leather in a new leather jacket, except that it turns into lemon-leather within seconds. And, seconds after that, it turns into vanilla-lemon-leather with a hint of some sweet fruit that — to my utterly disbelieving nose — really smells like cherry. I take a second, then a third look at the notes. Nope, no cherry listed. No fruit at all, in fact.

So, I turn to Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez because I know that they’ve given this 4-stars. (Something which, by the way, underscores my daily reminder about how often and intensely I disagree with the honourable Luca Turin!) In the book, Ms. Sanchez classifies ToF as a “saffron cologne” and writes predominantly about how the use of a new saffron synthetic from Givaudan has been playing “understudy” to sandalwood. The latter is now so scarce that its cost is essentially outside the reach of most commercial perfumers. As a result, they have essentially turned to the “dusty-milky” scent of saffron, via Safraleine, to replicate some of the notes. Ms. Sanchez concludes by saying: “[t]his saffron-lemon cologne has the unerring crisp dryness of the old Monsieur Balmain and brings to mind clear mountain weather with visibility to China or the feeling of cool hands on a fevered forehead.”

I think it’s Ms. Sanchez who is fevered. And what about my bloody cherry-vanilla-leather cola?  How does one explain that? I peer back through the perfume notes and continue to sniff my arm. The soapy musk and styrax reminds me faintly of the dry-down in Narcisco Rodriguez For Her, but that’s no help. Yes, I smell geranium, but surely that’s not responsible? I also smell the saffron about 5 minutes in. It’s a sweet woodiness that is charming, but it is overwhelmed by the cherry-cola with its somewhat nauseating vanilla that is banging me over the head. Forty minutes in, that unfortunate concoction is joined by notes of strong anise and licorice. And I feel extraordinarily queasy.

Then, suddenly, an hour and a half in, the whole shrieking kit-and-caboodle has shrunken to a wilting, shrinking violet — all faint vanilla, suede, faintly woody saffron simpering and fluttering its eyelashes in the corner. Not too long after that, it fades to its dry-down: a simple — but excessive — powder note. Powdered vanilla, powdered iris — it ultimately matters not one whit. It’s too much damn powder!

I am dazed by the contrasts and the speed with which they occurred. Thankfully, I am not the only one. As that deliciously snarky NST review commented:

Tom of Finland is a smooth, sleek and sheer leather scent that softens considerably as it ages on the skin; it becomes a bit powdery and sweet and wears down to wan saffron, tonka bean/vanilla/benzoin and iris notes — imagine a brand new black leather trench coat morphing into a pastel purple and pale yellow cashmere sweater. Tom would be appalled (he didn’t care much for ‘girly-men’)[.]  […] I realized its leather notes were fleeting and I didn’t like its gauzy, perfume-y, vanillic phase of development.

Etat Libre d'Orange Tom of Finland cologneMany people have complained that État Libre d’Orange Tom of Finland lacks roughness, toughness and any hint of male “body aromas” one would imagine emanating from a Tom of Finland-type man, but to me, the Tom of Finland man, like the fragrance, is clean (almost wholesome), wrinkle-free/smooth, and pale. For those who bemoan the lack of funk in this version, perhaps a Tom of Finland “rough seXXX” flanker will be forthcoming. [Emphasis added.]

I honestly can’t put it better than they did, so I won’t even try. NST absolutely nailed the review, right down to the gauzy vanilla dry-down. The only point on which I differ is the longevity — but that’s my issue. ToF lasted under 4.5 hours on me, though the NST reviewer (and others) had a very different experience. Given how my body consumes perfume, it would be safe to say that ToF is a probably extremely long-lasting scent in its dry-down notes, though the opening sillage seems to fade rapidly on everyone.

This is obviously a problematic perfume for a number of people, and yet, it is met with much love on Fragrantica. One Fragrantica commentator, d-d-d-drew, astutely noted that it was a perfume with a sense of humour, an intentional, inside joke:

I think it’s kind of an inside joke. First, the balls to make a fragrance out of something that is so taboo, so iconic in gay, leather subculture, and to put it all out there for the public to whiff, experience, judge, love, or hate. It’s deliciously outrageous. […]

If you’re familiar with Tom of Finland art, it’s hyper-masculine, often exaggerated, but there’s still a “pretty” side to it. It’s both hard and soft at the same time; together the muscle, leather, and boots are juxtaposed often with a knowing embrace, a mischievous smirk, or a flirtatious wink.

I very much agree, though I still don’t like the perfume very much. Tom’s art was hyper-stylized, hyper-sexualized and over-the-top — perhaps as a symbolic statement towards the (at that time, in the 1950s) very underground, hidden, quiet gay world. It was about being larger than life in a free, open way and confounding expectations. Perhaps, ultimately, he was making a point about how there should be “no sexual orientation,” no categories and little boxes to which people are confined. Hence, the over-the-top masculinity of his art (which is perfectly paralleled in the marketing for the perfume) is really, as the ELdO story put it, about going beyond all expectations and all appearance. “Straight, gay… these words are irrelevant here. Tom of Finland is beyond sexuality.” Or, to put it in perfume terms, “masculine, feminine, hard leather or soft vanilla powder…. it doesn’t matter. It’s beyond any one category and all encompassing.”

I fully applaud the theory, and I admire the clever twist by ELdO that concretely carries out Tom’s goal of subverting stereotypes and categorization. They pulled the carpet out from under everyone. It’s rather clever, if you think about it. But when one puts aside intellectual and theoretical admiration, one is left with a perfume that is fun as a one-time experiment, but not (for me) to actually buy and wear. All in all, I think it is nothing special and, I’d even argue, not particularly good.

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Tom of Finland can be purchased directly from ELdO’s website. The prices listed there are in Euros: 69.00 € for a 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle and 119.00 € for a 100 ml/3.4 oz bottle. Samples are also available for 3.00 €.  In the U.S., ToF can be purchased from Lucky Scent for $90 for a 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle. It sells samples for $3. You can also purchase it from Parfum1 where it costs $90 but shipping is free. (I don’t know what Lucky Scent’s policy or prices are on shipping.) Samples can also be purchased from Surrender to Chance, the site where I obtained my decant.

Perfume Review – Chanel Les Exclusifs Cuir de Russie: The Legend & The Myth

Some legends are perhaps better left untouched. Or unsniffed, as the case may be. Because, sometimes, the legend is closer to a myth. That was, unfortunately, my experience with Cuir de Russie, the legendary Chanel fragrance that is now part of its Les Exclusif line of perfumes. Cuir de R

Cuir de Russie (or “Russian leather”) is one of those scents that perfume junkies would talk about in hushed tones of reverence and awe. The vintage, original Cuir de Russie always seemed to me to be some sort of mythical animal, the perfume equivalent of a unicorn. Its name would shine in haloed light above distant snowy mountain tops and I almost expected a choir of angels to burst into rhapsodic song at its very mention.

Coco Chanel & her imperial Grand Duke.

Coco Chanel & her imperial Grand Duke.

Cuir de Russie was inspired by Coco Chanel’s passionate affair with a Russian Grand Duke, His Imperial Highness Dimitri Pavlovich Romanov, a cousin to the last Tsar. According to Wikipedia, Chanel’s biographer considered Cuir de Russie to be the “bottled … essence of her romance with the Grand Duke.” It was created by Ernst Beaux, Chanel’s then perfumer, sometime in the 1920s when Paris was flooded with Russian emigrés, both royal and common, who had escaped the Bolshevik revolution. (Chanel’s website gives the date of the perfume’s release as 1927, but I’ve always read it was in 1924.)

The Chanel website majestically declares Cuir de Russie to be an “imperial fragrance” and a “leather oriental” before adding:

The Grand Duke in his uniform.

The Grand Duke in his uniform.

The Russian influence at the heart of Mademoiselle’s creations was born from her encounter with the Grand Duke Dimitri, cousin of Tsar Nicholas II. Cuir de Russie, launched in 1927, is the fragrance of wild cavalcades, wafts of blond tobacco and the smell of boots tanned by birch bark, which the Russian soldiers would wear.
This sensual fragrance reveals the dark and musky scents of balms, Frankincense and Juniper Wood. Fruity zests of Mandarin Orange and Bergamot add a touch of insolence before giving way to the grace and fragility of eternal flowers: Rose, Jasmine and Ylang-Ylang. A ‘thoroughbred’ fragrance with a strong character, it holds within it the ambiguous secrets of femininity…

Somewhere in the decades following its release, Cuir de Russie seems to have faded into the mists of legend. I can’t determine when it was discontinued or why, but it just became that mythical perfume unicorn. Then, in 1983, Chanel brought it back. Trumpets blared, perfumistas fainted, and all wept with joy as the heavens burst forth in song. Chanel’s in-house perfumer, Jacques Polge, re-worked it slightly, toning down its legendary leather notes and increasing the iris for a more powdery note, but it was back and that is all anyone cared about.

The return of Cuir de Russie was hailed as a massive triumph by even that most ascerbic and disdainful of critics, Luca Turin. In his book, Perfumes The A-Z Guide, his five-star review states:

There have been many other fragrances called Cuir de Russie, every one either too sweet or too smoky. This one is the real deal, an undamaged monument of classical perfumery, and the purest emanation of luxury ever captured in a bottle.

[All] sumptuous leather, light and balsamic, forgoing any sugary compromise, Cuir de Russie regains its place at the top of this [Leather] category, right next to the rather more jovial Tabac Blond. […]Cuir de Russie is a striking hologram of luxury bygone: its scent like running the hand over the pearl grey banquette of an Isotta Frashini while forests of birch silently pass by”.

(First quote taken from Perfume Niche, and the second from the Perfume Shrine.)

Luca Turin is not alone in genuflecting before the shrine to the most holy of leather perfume holies. If I were to provide mere snippets of the adoring praise for Cuir de Russie — even a minute fraction of them! — I suspect I would writing this review until sometime in the year 2018. There are reviews on Fragrantica which expound for paragraph after paragraph about:

Coco at her Ritz apartment.

Coco at her Ritz apartment.

Cossacks on horseback on the steppes of Russia; semi-erotic imaginings involving the seduction of a languid Coco by her sweaty, horse-riding royal lover amidst the plush decadence of her Paris apartment at the Ritz; and about olfactory masterpieces involving the very scent of Coco Chanel’s sex and sweat-infused bedsheets. There was one from a fellow perfume blogger whom I deeply respect and admire which made me want to go take a cold shower, or find some ermine and jewels in which to roll around naked.

All of which makes me feel completely insane for not loving it. But I don’t. On me, it is none of the things described above, and I am crushingly disappointed by a scent that is, at best, average and occasionally pleasant. At worst, it is a barnyard filled with horse manure under a layer of soap. In short, I am one of the very few freaks in this world who   finds the legend of Cuir de Russie to be a mere myth.

The notes listed in Chanel’s description up above are the same ones listed on Fragrantica. Elsewhere, however, I’ve read a significantly larger and fuller list. I assume that the notes are essentially the same in both vintage and modern versions, with only the amount of certain ingredients differing. If so, then the full notes for Cuir de Russie are:

aldehydes, orange blossom, bergamot, mandarin, clary sage, iris, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, cedarwood, balsams, vetiver, styrax, incense, cade, leather, amber and vanilla.

Cuir de Russie opens on me with an explosion of aldehydes. (You can read more about aldehydes in the Glossary.) On me, it is a waxy, lemony, floral impression that is first and foremost soapy, and without any of the fizzy aspects that I often read about with aldehydes. As many of you know, I loathe soapy scents. And I suspect my dislike of the soap accord in aldehydes is why I dislike Chanel No. 5, and one of the reasons why I’m far from enraptured by Cuir de Russie. (Christ, I’m admitting that I don’t like the two most legendary Chanel perfumes ever. I may need to hide in witness protection. Mea Culpa.)

Initially, the burst of soap is like a thick lens, clouding and obscuring the citrus notes, but about five minutes later, I suddenly smell soapy leather. Specifically, I get a strong impression of a riding saddle and stirrups lathered with sweat. There is a strong smell of sour, sweaty horse. I shudder faintly, and wonder momentarily if the heinous soap smell was better. I should have enjoyed the sweaty saddle fragrance while it lasted because, suddenly, waves of horse manure (cow dung?) and soap are emanating off my arm.  I…. I… am stunned, and have no idea what to do. I quickly turn to Google and, there, on both Makeupalley and Basenotes, amidst the legions of gushing, cooing, almost delerious praise, I find a few rare nuggets of comfort. I am not completely alone or totally crazy.

Snippets of those rare (very rare!) criticisms of Cuir de Russie are as follows:

  • It was an overwhelming animalistic scent, like the smell of entering a barn and having the smells of animals and their droppings mixing with straw and leather.
  • This leather is more of the fecal farmhouse animal stench variety and is somewhat difficult to tolerate. […] Luckily, the barnyard aspects of the scent recede in the base notes. […] The opening of Cuir de Russie edt was difficult from the get-go and did not portend to good things to come. I tend to be quite sensitive to fecal aspects in scents (like my problem with Jicky, for example), and as such the heart notes with their fecal smelling leather and powdery iris were really not to my taste at all. If things stopped there this would be a definite thumbs down for me. What saves Cuir de Russie edt somewhat is it has a very nice dry-down that easily is the best part of the scent.

And, that’s basically it — because even those who can smell the fecal aspect of Cuir de Russie love it. As it is, that last quote came from someone who ended up giving Cuir de Russie a neutral rating due to the “nice” dry-down that she mentioned. Other than a few negative criticisms involving dirty ashtrays (not a frequent impression), almost no-one who smelled the barnyard scent or “cow patties” hated it. Seriously, they didn’t!

  • Cuir de Russie, however, was love at first sniff. It opens with a dirty animalic note that’s borderline fecal, but the soft, creamy, spicy florals seep in and smooth out this animal’s shaggy fur until Cuir de Russie becomes this heart-achingly beautiful blend with an undercurrent of barely-bridled danger; a lady in leather and lace, a sleek panther at repose in a meadow.
  • I really love the opening, when a true leather unfolds, bitter, dry, almost harsh, even a briefly passing “faecal” note, all in all, it smells like the inside of a fairly new, precious leather bag, that’s containing some scented cosmetics in its depths. But all too soon, this stage is fading away, moving over into a softer, creamier leather, which is still fine and very likeable.
  • All I can say is — poop. This stuff smells like poop. But in a really kind of good, fascinating way. Seriously, that’s the genius of Chanel. It’s like the poop of some delicate animal who’s only grazed upon a field of violets. I’m not sure I want to wear it, but I simply could not stop smelling the crook of my arm all day after my spritz! Pretty awesome.

There was even a review on MakeupAlley upbraiding Chanel’s perfumer, Jacques Polge, for toning down the original scent and demanding that they bring back more of the leather and barnyard!

Clearly, I am alone in disliking “the poop of some delicate animal who’s only grazed upon a field of violets.” (It is not a “delicate” animal, by the way, and I could only wish it had eaten bloody violets!) I certainly don’t want even more of this opening that so many adore and wish were as intense as it used to be.

As I try to figure out how I landed in a pile of horse manure, I come across a really interesting explanation on Perfume Niche. Apparently, it’s the birch wood that helps creates that leather tannery and barnyard scent:

Rectified birch tar is the smoky resinous note which makes Cuir de Russie, and most leather scents, smell like leather. It is, in fact, the dry-cooked resin from the bark of the birch tree and has been used for centuries to cure leather, and to “dress” it, as in polishes for military leather boots. […]  [Then] after the florals subside, Cuir de Russie conjures the uber-male, becoming a sexy masculine scent. That raw edge – the funky animalics, civet and castoreum – mix with the smoky leather, balsam and woods , giving Cuir de Russie an erotic, brutish quality.

I’m afraid I don’t see any “erotic, brutish” quality in Cuir de Russie. I would undoubtedly like it a lot more if it were half as interesting as all these descriptions would seem to convey. I keep wondering what the legendary vintage version must have been like if the current eau de toilette toned down the leather. Perhaps I should try to hunt down the concentrated extrait de parfum version which is supposed to be more intense, more “brutal,” heavier and thicker? I consider the downsides of a heavier version of soapy horse feces, and quickly change my mind.

About 30 minutes in, Cuir de Russie is already incredibly close to the skin. Apparently, it’s supposed to be. However, with the way my skin consumes perfume, it makes it difficult to assess its full range and development properly, so I start from scratch. I follow the advice of a Basenoter and put on triple the previous amount (on some clean skin). I have the same experience as the first time round, but this time, the perfume’s sillage is much better. (Apparently, I need to empty just over half the vial on me if I want to smell the dry-down properly.)

Unfortunately, I don’t get much of the lovely middle or bottom notes that others do. On me, it goes from: citric soap; to horse manure, sweaty saddles and soap; to a middle stage that is essentially a basic floral scent of strong jasmine, with bergamot, rose, powdery iris, and leather turned into soft suede. (The soap is still there too, though it’s a shadow of its former strength.) The jasmine part is lovely, and the rest of it is pleasant, but I shrug. Soon, the dry down begins: the suede impression is joined by a light touch of cedar, an even heavier dose of dusty powder from the iris, some definite musky notes, and a soft smoke and incense touch that is, I admit, lovely. There is also a note that strongly evokes hairspray. And, every CamillaPBnow and then, flitting back and forth, I smell something faintly horsey — though it is more leather saddles now than feces.

I feel like Camilla Parker-Bowles, Prince Charles’ horse-mad second wife, and recall the oft-repeated stories of her younger days. Rumour has it that, after a long day at the hunt, she would make a mad dash straight off her sweaty horse and into the house where she would tumble into a dress for a cocktail party, with nary a shower in-between.

I realise that my views are “sacrilegious,” to borrow the word of one fearful commentator on Basenotes who barely dared whisper the words “fecal” before rushing off to join in all the praise. If I could smell what Mick Jagger smells when he wears this (and he does); if I could see “The Ballet Russes, polished samovars and dangerous Cossacks with leather riding boots;” if I could conjure up Imperial Grand Dukes leaping off their black stallions to lasciviously and forcefully seduce me; if I could feel like a “virago” femme fatale or ultra-posh bombshell with hidden bondage tendencies– then I would probably genuflect at the alter of Cuir de Russie, too.

Until the time when all that magically occurs, I shall continue to think that Cuir de Russie is a perfectly pleasant, completely average floral musk with some suede notes under a strong head of horse manure. Literally.

DETAILS:
Target group: Unisex. Men love this as much as women.
Sillage & Longevity: As a rule, this is meant to be close to the skin, so the sillage is far from enormous. With regard to longevity, there seems to be a complete and total split in views, with some saying it lasts 10-12 hours, while others say it never surpasses the 4 hour mark. On me, it took 30 minutes or less before the perfume faded to the point where I had to forcefully inhale my arm to smell the notes. The whole thing lasted no more than 2.5 with my regular amount, but 4 hours with the triple dosage. Again, as always, my longevity issues are far from the norm as my skin rapidly consumes perfume.
Cost & Availability: Cuir de Russie is available exclusively in Chanel boutiques or on the Chanel website. The standard, basic Eau de Toilette in available in two sizes: the 2.5 oz./75 ml bottle is $110, while the 6.8 oz/200 ml. bottle is $220. It is also available in Extrait de Parfum form for $175 for 0.5 oz.