When it comes to the scents of summer most of us think of beaches, fruits, and green growing things. I was reminded of another less referenced scent of summer with some road construction in front of my house; tar. Birch tar has been one of the key components of leather accords. Even though the overall effect is that of tanned cowhide when I wear these perfumes there is also a hint of country blacktop, too. Here are five of my favorite tar perfumes.
In 1927 Chanel perfumer Ernest Beaux would use birch tar as the key ingredient in his “Russian leather” accord. It would be the beginning of its widespread use for nearly the next 100 years. Cuir de Russie has been a part of the Les Exclusifs collection and it shows off a raw tanned leather as the name promises. M. Beaux tempers it with the use of aldehydes, jasmine, and sandalwood. Don’t kid yourself though this is all about the leather; gloriously so.
Two years before Cuir de Russie perfumers Francois Coty and Vincent Roubert produced an unabashedly straightforward leather fragrance, Knize Ten. The perfumers make one of the most full-bodied leather perfumes ever. Their accord reminds me of not only birch tar but the motor oil scent of a garage. It might sound unpleasant, but it is mesmerizing to me. A musky patchouli sandalwood base accord is the main complement to the uber-leather accord.
I leave it to Comme des Garcons to give me the exact scent of overheated asphalt. In 2004’s Series 6 Synthetic: Tar perfumer Nathalie Feisthauer accomplishes it. She uses birch tar as the nucleus but expertly weaves in styrax, castoreum, and opoponax. It is exactly what the road in front of my house smells like this month. It is this aesthetic which has elevated Comme des Garcons above so many of their contemporaries.
Just as Tar is emblematic of the creativity at Comme des Garcons the existence of Le Labo Patchouli 24 does the same for that brand. Perfumer Annick Menardo finds the intersection of birch tar and patchouli to create a fascinating pungency. That she adds in a bit of sweet vanilla as contrast to it only serves to delineate it all. Another great perfume from one of the true innovators of niche perfumery.
Even though it was the smell of summer road work which got me in to this column; Sonoma Scent Studio Winter Woods is how you use tar along with cade wood to create that winter haze of woodsmoke. Those two ingredients form one of the most intense woodsmoke accords I have. Independent perfumer Laurie Erickson spends the rest of the development taming the smoke with warm amber, clean cedar, green vetiver, and sweet sandalwood. It is among the best that this talented artisanal perfumer has produced.
As I look back over this list it might be the most imaginative list I’ve produced for this series. Every one of these perfumes are among the best of the brands and styles described. If you love perfume this is something to get on the road to try.
Disclosure: this review is based on bottles I purchased.
There is no single perfume which is ingrained in popular culture more than Chanel No. 5. It has come to represent luxury, style, aldehydes, heck even perfume itself. I’ve left giving Chanel the 101 treatment for so long because of that elephant in the perfumed parlor. The question I kept asking myself was would I introduce someone just beginning to explore perfume to Chanel No. 5 as the first Chanel to try. After almost two years of thinking about this I think the answer is Chanel No. 5 is best appreciated if you come to it after having tried many other perfumes. Below are the five Chanel fragrances I think are the best place to start learning about the perfumed side of Chanel.
Ernest Beaux was a genius and that is borne out because he followed up Chanel No. 5 with a string of successful fragrance one after the other. Bois des Iles was M. Beaux’s ode to sandalwood. Before you get to the sandalwood in the base you go through a phase of coriander and petitgrain followed by a floral mix of jasmine, rose, and ylang-ylang. When you get to the sandalwood it is strengthened with ambrette seed along with other musks. A judicious use of vanilla brings out the creaminess of sandalwood. If you own Bois des Iles you pretty much don’t need another sandalwood perfume in your collection.
Cuir de Russie was M. Beaux’s entry into the leather perfume category. He would create one of the most redolent leather accords using birch, styrax, and cade wood. If this was all there was to Cuir de Russie it would still be good. What makes it a classic is the opening of orange blossom which transforms into jasmine before the leather gallops through the garden. One of the earliest leather perfumes and to this day still one of the greatest.
In 1981 perfumer Jacques Polge would begin his time as in-house perfumer at Chanel. He would bring the perfumed side of Chanel back to life in a big way with Coco. M. Polge worked in a diametrically opposite way from M. Beaux. Coco is a perfume so filled with concepts and flourishes it is like trying to follow a Fourth of July fireworks show on your skin. M. Polge refines the concept of fruity floral by adding in peach to the lightly floral frangipani and mimosa. This top accord is what every fruity floral since has tried, and mostly failed, to achieve. M. Polge mixes clove with a beautiful Rose Otto with jasmine also present. It provides a sultry floral heart. The base is mainly patchouli but with a number of grace notes surrounding it with musk being the most prominent. Coco comes in both Eau de Toilette and Eau de Parfum. It is the Eau de Parfum you should seek out.
If I was going to pick one perfume to introduce someone to Chanel it would be Coco Mademoiselle. Seventeen years after the creation of Coco M. Polge collaborated with Francois Demachy with whom he co-authored many of the best Chanels during this time period. Coco Mademoiselle as the name portends is the younger fresher cousin to Coco. It is a marriage of orange followed by rose and jasmine before heading to a base which is a bit like a faux chypre. Patchouli and vetiver create a chypre-ish vibe as a cocktail of white musks keep it on the clean side. Coco Mademoiselle is the most accessible of the entire brand.
M. Polge would create a contemporary chypre with 31 Rue Cambon. When Chanel launched the Les Exclusifs M. Polge showed he could make a classical perfume with the best of them. 31 Rue Cambon is a chypre which seduces with softer lines than usual in this style of perfume. It still carries the strong green nucleus but M. Polge blurs the edgy qualities and turns it into something more meditative. It is M. Polge’s modern interpretation which makes it something amazing.
Chanel has become such an iconic perfume brand because it has never rested on its reputation generated by Chanel No. 5. For almost 100 years it has stood for some of the best perfume you can experience. The five above are good places to begin.
Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.