Do you ever wonder why we seem to be drawn almost instinctively to certain perfume notes and not others? I favor leather notes in my perfumes, but not just any leather will do, as I have come to know. Leather can be one of the most debatable and subjective notes in perfumery, and I believe it is a learned, not a natural association with certain perfume ingredients. Leather perfumes can be plastic, animalic, smoky, powdery, gasolinic, rubbery, spicy, or even meaty. My iconic leather perfume might not smell like leather to you at all. In one of my earliest perfume-related memories, I am a teenager testing Estée Lauder’s Aramis in a department store in the late 1970’s. My motivation for this act has been lost to history, but I vividly remember thinking that Aramis smelled absolutely delicious and wishing that I could wear it (but of course I knew that I could not). Did I also think: ”Wow, Aramis smells just like leather!” I don’t believe I did.
A few decades later, I know a lot more about perfumes. I understand that Aramis is a great vintage masculine leather, designed by Bernard Chant, and I have also learned that the too-virile-for-me Aramis is in fact a flanker of a feminine perfume, the first launched by the house of Madame Gres, or Germaine Émilie Krebs (1903–1993), who was trained as a sculptor and became an uncompromising and independent designer. Aramis was developed by Chant in 1966, seven years after he made Cabochard (1959), and so I wear vintage Cabochard every chance that I get. I’ve also learned that the leather effect in Cabochard and Aramis relies on a big dose of isobutyl quinoline, a bitter, green, leathery ingredient that might be my personal favorite aromachemical of all. Isobutyl quinoline also leads us back to Germaine Cellier’s Bandit (1944) for Piguet, another wonderful leather that is my permanent rotation in both its vintage and current forms.
After laying down enough Cabochard and Bandit to keep me leathery for the rest of my days, I began to look for even more leather perfumes. As I searched and sampled, I realized that my conceptualization of leather perfume as just the bitter herbal leather created by isobutyl quinoline was much too narrow. There is the automobile chamois-dipped-in-petrol effect found in perfumes such as Knize Ten, which turns into the richest, warmest leather imaginable as the fuel note burns off, scented with herbs, sandalwood, iris, carnation, and toward the end of its evolution, cinnamon and vanilla. Vintage Shalimar’s gasoline-tinged vanillin evolves into a smoky incense that never becomes definitively leathery to my nose, although thousands of Shalimar lovers would dispute this point with me. Bulgari Black is pure rubber to me, not leather, but I know many get leather along with latex from its tire-shaped bottle, while Tabac Blond is a deliciously sweet tobacco to me with perhaps just the tiniest hint of the leather pouch that contained it.
We could go on and on debating what is a leather perfume and what is not, a very pleasant exercise, but let’s consider a recently launched leather perfume, Rhinoceros, designed by the independent perfumer Paul Kiler as part of Victor Wong’s line of Zoologist Perfumes. Launched in 2014, Rhinoceros promises a “leather stampede” and the “thick,rugged aroma of raw leather.” Sprayed from an atomizer onto my skin, Rhinoceros opens with a powerfully acrid aroma. I don’t believe I have smelled anything quite like these early top notes in a perfume before, although Rhinoceros’ opening is somewhat reminiscent of Les Liquides Imaginaires Peau de Bête. Thankfully, the piercingly astringent funk lasts only a minute or two, and I begin to perceive wormwood, sage, and conifer needles, the bitter and aromatic vegetation described in the perfumer’s notes. In about a half hour, the medicinal bitterness is still present, but it is now mixed with a potent vetiver, along with what I perceive to be frankincense, of a dry, smoky, and slightly sour variety. Does any of this smell like leather to me? Not really. Meanwhile some reviewers of Rhinoceros celebrate its opening notes of pure, raw leather. Perhaps the perfumers are suggesting a new idea of leather to me, the scent of a dusty rhinoceros washed with mentholated and volatile chemical spirits and rubbed down with herbs. I try to keep an open mind.
An hour later, Rhinoceros has changed dramatically and begins to evoke a specific dreamscape with almost cinematic clarity. In this phase, Rhinoceros is extremely beautiful, and I would wear it for this experience alone. I am visiting a very old house in New Orleans on a very hot day, as a thunderstorm impends.There is petrichor in the air. Inside, the cypress floorboards creak as I open a cedar-lined armoire containing old linens layered with bundles of vetiver roots. Everything is dry and scrupulously clean, with no mold or sourness, but I can smell old ashes in the grate, the dust of ages, and traces of cigars and pipes smoked long ago. I sniff the decanters of whiskey on a polished wood table, getting both the syrupy sweetness of bourbon and the peaty scent of an Islay single malt. And, yes, it is just possible that I am beginning to smell the crumbling leather bindings in the library.