Thierry Wasser and his assistant perfumer Frédéric Sacone have invited a group of perfume bloggers to explore and share a collection of 25 vintage Guerlains, re-created with the exact same ingredients as when they saw the light for the first time.
The name Cuir de Russie, meaning “Russian leather”, was by all accounts inspired by the historical fact that the Russian army used highly fragrant birch tar to tan and treat its military boots, giving the leather a very characteristic odour. Several perfume houses have produced a perfume called Cuir de Russie of which Chanel’s from 1924 is perhaps the most famous. The invention of what has become known as leather perfumes is often ascribed to Caron’s Tabac Blond of 1919, with its innovative scent of tobacco, and smoky, dry chypre notes. However, the Guerlain annals reveal that Aimé Guerlain used the name Cuir de Russie as far back as 1872, but since his original fragrance was reformulated by Jacques Guerlain in 1935, we don’t know what it smelled like.
Thierry Wasser’s re-created Cuir de Russie is the Jacques Guerlain version, and it strikes us as living up to its name. We have learned that Jacques Guerlain launched several perfumes that were remarkably less rounded, sweet and sensual than what we know from his surviving classics, and Cuir de Russie was by far the smokiest and most leathery perfume he ever composed. It’s difficult to believe it came from the same man who created Vol de Nuit’s comfortable cocoon of amber and spices just two years earlier.
The scent diagram of Cuir de Russie suggests an extremely complex formula with myriad herbal, floral, spicy, woody and animal materials. The effect, however, is fairly straightforward. Right from the start, we’re hit by the poignant smoky-black scent of birch tar, smelling like the commingled odours of a fireplace, a tannery, and fence paint. Hidden underneath is a very feminine flower bouquet of gardenia, lilac and ylang-ylang, but the smoky top note almost overpowers it. The most interesting part of the perfume is perhaps when the smoke fades and we surprisingly find the scent of Mitsouko, actually its whole roster of bergamot, peach, rose, jasmine, oakmoss, orris, patchouli and musk. Frédéric Sacone reveals that Jacques Guerlain’s formula for Cuir de Russie indeed does list Mitsouko, and also Chypre de Paris, as an ingredient. It wasn’t uncommon for Jacques Guerlain to recycle a formula inside a new formula, something which perfumers call “formule à tiroir”, that is, to work with a formula that you already have in your drawer.
Cuir de Russie is a curiosity in the world of Guerlain, a perfume whose bitter smokiness very few of today’s women would find pleasant, possibly attracting only a discerning minority. Perfume aficionados tend to be fascinated with historic leather scents.
The early version of Cuir de Russie came in the so-called square bottle, a standard bottle inspired by medicine jars. For Jacques Guerlain’s 1935 remake, the quadrilobe bottle was used. Today, the quadrilobe bottle is known mainly as the Jicky bottle.