Friday, July 27, 2012

the scent of leather

There are undeniable links in our brains between aroma and both mood and memory. There's no escaping the fact that certain fragrances can very strongly evoke memories of long past events, friends, family, and (of course) former lovers.

The smell of leather is one particular aroma that tends to elicit a strong emotional response. I'll never forget regularly walking the length of the local mall with my mother, trekking away from the stores where she usually shopped, on down to the chain leather goods store she loved to visit. It wasn't that mom bought anything at the store, neither black nor brown leather were her style, she just loved to visit for the smell.

Mom wasn't a particularly sexual creature, and the best I can remember her visits to the leather store to sniff were the closest I ever got to witnessing her take a hedonistic thrill from anything, she really was that much of a prude. For whatever reason, for whatever warm emotion it evoked, she did love that leather smell.

While I do remember the distinctive smell from shopping with mom, leather doesn't so much elicit memories of visits to the mall, as much as it makes me remember my visits to a dedicated leatherman's store on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, Male Hide Leathers. I learned recently that the store no longer exists, and it made me more than a little bit sad. The last time I had visited was 2001. I read that it closed in 2004 after the death of the store's co-owner.

Without a doubt, the special aroma of leather is one of the scents most strongly associated with BDSM. The connections are inescapable. The BDSM scene was once called the "Leather Culture" by some, and of course there are currently events like International Mister Leather and organizations like National Leather Association that continue the association.

I had all of that in the back of my mind this morning when I happened into a series of articles that, like an aroma, stirred memories and emotions. Of all places, the articles are to be found on a blog devoted to the art of perfumes, The Perfume Shrine. It's fascinating stuff that has occupied my attention for the last couple of hours, so I felt compelled to share links to the post that make up the series, as well as some brief excerpts.
Leather Series 1: Definition and ClassificationThe aroma of leather in scent is akin to smelling a forest of silver birches in the cold ringing air for the first time, inhaling the insides of a pallisander humidor full of “Cohiba” accompanied with a good malt in a tumbler. It's the razor strap of an old-fashioned barbershop and the smell of saddle and leather-bound old books or savouring a post-coital cigarette. Much like the latter it is often hard to resist and a habit difficult to curb.
Whether one is familiar with perfume lingo or not, fragrances rich in the tannic essence of leather are bound to make an impression, be it one of rapture or one of abjection. It is no coincidence that either of those two sentiments usually ensues on people smelling leathery scents: there is seems to be no middle ground.

Leather Series 2: Scented Leather and its OriginsThe real craze for leather goods in the mid-16th century and especially gloves was allegedly imposed by Marie de de Médicis (1575-1642), queen consort and part of the Medici family. Lured by perfumes from Cyprus, the famous chyprés, she sent for her Florentine perfumer Tombarelli to come to Grasse, where the flowers were renowned, instructing him to capture their ambience in perfumed essences. It was thus that Grasse knew a rebirth in economical terms. Tanneries profited from the trend producing the famous Gants à la Frangipane, from the name of the Roman family of the 12th century. Thus the name “frangipani” enters the scented vernacular. The gloves were made by odorizing the leather with fresh jasmine flowers (in lieu of plumeria fowers) for 8 days and fixating the scent with the use of civet and musk.

Leather Series 3: ProductionRendering a leather note in perfumery is a challenge for the perfumer who must coax this difficult and cult note into submission to make it sing with the rest of the composition. Production relies on two different courses: naturally derived and synthesized in a lab. Both account for a potent aroma of smoky and alteratively drier or sweeter notes, characteristic of the cuir family.

Leather Series 4: A touch of Regal StenchFor centuries, leather and scent have gone hand in hand; and for centuries, that hand was sheathed in the finest of gloves… Like his predecessors on Western thrones from Catarina di Medici onwards, King George III (1738-1820) – the English monarch whose reign was interrupted by his descent into madness - shielded his regal nose from stench with a wave of a fragrant glove.

Leather Series 5: Cuir de Russie vs Peau d'EspagneSpanish leather (peau d'Espagne) has a fascinating background that goes back in history as well. In the 16th century, tanners used to scent chamois with essences of flowers, herbs and fruits and as a final step smear it with civet and musk. This was known as Peau d’Espagne (Spanish skin). Chamois is by itself a sensual material: silky, feeling wonderful in the hand, contributing its own leather undertone, providing depth and softness.

Leather Series 6: Kinky whiffsCan it possibly be a coincidence, then, that leather scents and leather fetishism are strictly contemporary, born in the same decade of the late 19th century?
Check the dates: quinolines, which lend their characteristic smoky-tarry notes to most leather perfumes, were synthesized around 1880. The first recorded Cuir de Russie was composed by Aimé Guerlain in 1875; Eugène Rimmel launched his the following year.

Leather Series 7: The Garçonne Leathers of the 1920sIt’s hard to realize nowadays the utter shock it must’ve been, for men who grew up alongside women in corsets and bustles, with huge flowered hats teetering on their long upswept tresses, to see them mutating into the cocktail-swigging, cigarette-smoking, car-driving, bob-haired, short-skirted breed Americans called “flappers” and the French, “garçonnes”. This second, much more telling designation (a feminization of the word for “boy” in French, “garcon”), was popularized by the eponymous 1922 best-seller (700 000 copies) by the French author Victor Margueritte. With its liberated heroine’s sexual escapades (including a lesbian affair), La Garçonne was deemed so scandalous that Margueritte was stripped of his Légion d’Honneur…

Leather Series 8: The Garçonne Leathers of the 1920s (part 2)Tabac Blond was the opening salve of the garçonnes’ raid on gentlemen’s dressing tables. Its name evokes the “blonde” tobacco women had just started smoking in public (interestingly, Marlboros were launched as a women’s brand in 1924 with a red filter to mask lipstick traces). The fragrance was purportedly meant to blend with, and cover up, the still-shocking smell of cigarettes: smoking was still thought to be a sign of loose morals.
Despite its name, Tabac Blond is predominantly a leather scent, the first of its family to be composed for women and as such, a small but significant revolution.

Leather Series 9: Leather scents of the 50sPerfumes consequently moved into the realm of demure floral, feminine floral chyprés and elegant cool aldehydics. Leather as a material had lost its emancipated allure of the Garconnes of the 20s and the toughness of the Nazi uniform of WWII, relegated into items of luxury denoting prestige: expensive, smooth handbags of stiff shape made from endangered species (ecoconsiousness had not entered people’s vernacular yet), heels in elongated impractical shapes, Chesterfield couches in gentlemen’s clubs. With a rebelious sideline of leather boots worn by Teddy Boys and youths copying Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”.

Leather Series 10: Les GaminesAs far as leather scents are concerned, the image prevailing in the first half of the 20th century was either one of emancipation and amazonesque flair or of luxurious leather goods and upholstery of posh venues catering to the tastes of the upper classes. Little by little something emerged from the fashion and cinematic world: a new frame of mind that distanced itself from the more traditionally sexualised images of the 50s a la Marilyn, but also patently different from the emancipated flappers of the 20s. Talking this over with my friend Denyse, she suggested the Gamine term and we pondered on it in order to describe the evolving cultural sensibilities in relation to fashion, olfaction and art in general.

Leather Series 11: the Big BruisersPerfume directions often go the way of fashion trends and lifestyle choices, which sometimes translates as going the way of the dodo, and this is nowhere more obvious than in the leather scents that emerged in the late 70s and during the 80s. After the brief optimism of the mid-60s, the world entered a grim period of oil crisis, economic downfall and the threat of the planet suffering nuclear annihilation. So what emerged from this situation? Consumerism, the cult of the ego, striving for quick wealth and excessive partying all rolled into one big cigar! Bret Easton Ellis wasn’t far off in his American Psycho: there was some degree of paranoia running through the course of that era and the leathery scents that graced it partook of it in some degree.

Leather Series 12: the Modern LeathersAfter the Big Bruisers of the 80s, so ingrained into the decade of decadence and carnality, leather scents took a back seat until the modern fragrance niche phenomenon erupted like a well-oiled explosive mechanism, issuing forgotten ripples into the stagnant pond of ozonic-marines of the early 90s. Suddenly those “weird” smells were cool again!
Modern leather scents are divided in so many categories it was a Herculean feat trying to sort them out. There is a leather fragrance for every mood these days.
So this little list is meant to help you navigate your way through the plethora on offer, but it's by no means a definitive guide: that would implicate your own nose.

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