Russian Leather/Cuir de Russie Recipes

The Palace of Tsar Berendey,
Russian Leather/Cuir de Russie Recipes

"The odor description , 'like Russian leather' is conventional, but somewhat incorrect. Russian leather smells of birch tar because the leather is tanned with the tar products which also preserve this special type of leather. This circle of association is similar to the well-known: vanillin smells like chocolate."
Steffen Arctander-Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin

In the very early years of the evolution of perfumery in the Western World, perfumed leather came into vogue. Unscented and tanned leather which was used in a great variety of clothes items, did not, of itself, have an appealing aroma so those who were involved in this industry sought to find some way to mask the unpleasant aroma, soften the leather and add natural color to it.
The secrets of perfuming leather first came into being in the city of Grasse. Prior to Grasse's becoming the center for perfumery, it was a town devoted to the tanning industry. It was discovered by the tanners there that, myrtle(Myrtus communis) imparted both a nice color and odor to the leather. From this initial discovery, others were soon made and a thriving industry of perfumed leather quickly evolved, the secrets of which were closely guarded.
But with all its attempts to guard the secrets of the trade, knowledge of how to perfume leather spread to other countries , the most prominent being Spain, England and Russia. Each country developed its own unique methods and techniques for tanning and perfuming leather-the one we will explore here concerns Russian leather.

In the case of Russian leather and the perfumes and colognes associated with it-one must realize this category of "leather scents" has little to with the smell of leather itself(as has been mentioned before-leather displays a rather unpleasant odor when being cured and tanned) but rather with the aromatics used in improving the color, quality or odor of the final product. In the case of Russian leather the one essence that most gives it the distinctive odor is birch tar which is a product produced by destructive distillation.

It is thought that sometime early in the 17th century Russian leather came into vogue was highly appreciated by the aristocratic families of Europe. The tanners of Russia, like in other countries, had to seek means of improving the leather products they were creating utilizing materials to be gathered in their natural environment. No one knows quite how they discovered the process of destructive distillation of birch bark for scenting leather(and all providing it with a natural insecticide and fungicide) but discover it they did and with an environment abounding in this beautiful tree which thrives in the cold northern climates they had ample supplies for their craft. All the processes involved in curing, tanning and scenting leather were closely guarded guild secrets and so for many years Russia had a virtual monopoly of this type of leather which was prized for its beauty, durability, suppleness and scent. It was used not only for making boots and shoes but also for items of furniture, coats, boxes and perhaps most important of all, book binding.

When birch tar is obtained by destructive distillation it produces an oil which is "distinctively phenolic, very penetrating, and diffusive, obviously reminiscent of tar, charred wood and smoke(all of which have their odor components from the birch tar oil) However the most characteristic feature in the odor pattern of birch tar oil the sweet-oily undertone which appears distinctly on the smelling blotter when the first empyreumatic notes have faded away. These notes caught the immediate interest of perfumers long ago, and the chemists tried to isolate these particular fractions of the oil...."
Steffen Arctander-Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin

The extraction of Birch tar is an industry of some importance in Russia: the process is said to be conducted in the following manner:—An iron vessel is filled with bark and covered with a close-fitting lid, through which is inserted an iron pipe. On this is inverted a smaller iron vessel ; the rims are carefully fitted together and well-luted with clay. The two vessels are then turned upside down, so that the one with the bark in it is uppermost. The apparatus is half sunk in the ground, well-banked with a mixture of sand and clay, and a wood fire is kindled around it. When the distillation has continued long enough, the luting is removed and the two iron vessels separated; the lower one is found to contain the tar and pyroligneous acid, the yield of tar being about one-third by weight of the bark used. In some districts the retorts are made of clay and the connecting pipes are of wood, but the receivers are always placed in the earth. The crude tar is a thick, black, empyreumatie fluid, which, when caused to cover in a thin layer the side of a bottle in which it is contained, has a dark brownish tinge. After a mere trace of it has been rubbed on the hand, an odour like Russia leather is perceptible.
Odorographia: Volume 2
By John Charles Sawer

After reading through the early history of Russian leather and its scent, I thought to create a perfume which might capture something of its beauty as well as the spirit of the times when it was in vogue. The purpose of this Cuir de Russie recipe is not to copy any existing perfume, bouquet or cologne of that type but simply the feeling I got from reading about the subject

There is then a simple version of Russian leather which does not have any of the floral notes that later came to be associated with this category of perfumes. This is my idea of what a book bound in scented Russian Leather might smell like

Cuir de Russie-Simple

2 ounces Labdanum absolute
2 ounce Choya Loban(cedarwood based)
1/4th ounce Birch Tar Essential oil
1 ounce Virgina cedarwood
1/2 ounce Tonka Bean Absolute

It is thought that by 1830's, the French perfumers had discovered the secret of Russia's scented leather and had commenced distilling it themselves. A lot of effort was devoted to producing it as this particular aroma some how captured something of the spirit of the times as one encountered it in many different forms(books, clothes, furniture etc) At this point though the perfumers created a whole new branch of perfumery, the so-called "leather notes". Drawing on their already extensive knowledge of natural perfume materials such as tuberose, violet, jasmine, orange blossom, rose etc, they incorporated birch tar, and related materials into them to create their version of Cuir de Russie.

During the ensuing years several Cuir de Russie type perfumes came into being which gained more less popularity. It wasn't until the 1920's when the House of Chanel introduced their Cuir de Russie that a sophisticated perfume with a leather base became truly popular.

"The perfumes known as leathers were also a modern innovation in perfume making when Coco Chanel was visiting perfumers and their laboratories. The scents in fact have no leather in them, they depend on the late nineteenth century discovery of the scent materials known as quinolines. These molecules were first synthesized in the 1880's, and their smoky notes of tobacco and charcoal help these perfumes call forth the aromatic essence of soft, tanned leather. The most exclusive perfumes in this family-named after the premium birch-tar leathers of Europe's eastern empire-were scents known as cuir de Russie, or "Russian leather". It was the smell of rare leathers used at the imperial courts to wrap precious jewels. ..."
An imperial fragrance

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...
Chanel Web Site

Many other perfume houses followed with their own versions of Cuir de Russie and the fragrance remains popular to this day.

I decided to make an attempt at this sophisticated type of perfume as well drawing upon the light citrus notes topnotes, sweet floral heartnotes, and deep leathery, smoky, amber notes that give this essence its character.

Cuir de Russie Supreme

1 ounce Petitgrain Combava essential oil
2 ounces Lime essential oil
1 ounce Neroli essential Oil
1/4 ounce Rose Otto
1/2 ounce Jasmin grandiflorum absolute
1/2 ounce Ylang Extra
1/2 ounce Labdanum Absolute
1/2 ounce Amber essential oil
1/8 ounce Birch Tar essential oil

Please note that those who are interested in creating the above two perfume concentrates need to allow them to age for 6 months after they are blended. Then they can be further diluted in an appropriate base(alcohol or carrier oil) for making cologne, perfume, toilet water, etc

* Perfume extract, or simply perfume (Extrait): 15-40% (IFRA: typical 20%) aromatic compounds
* Esprit de Parfum (ESdP): 15-30% aromatic compounds, a seldom used strength concentration in between EdP and perfume
* Eau de Parfum (EdP), Parfum de Toilette (PdT): 10-20% (typical ~15%) aromatic compounds, sometimes listed as "eau de perfume" or "millésime"
* Eau de toilette (EdT): 5-15% (typical ~10%) aromatic compounds
* Eau de Cologne (EdC): Chypre citrus type perfumes with 3-8% (typical ~5%) aromatic compounds. "Original Eau de Cologne" is a registered trademark.
* Perfume mist: 3-8% aromatic compounds (typical non-alcohol solvent)
* Splash (EdS) and After shave: 1-3% aromatic compounds. "EdS" is a registered trademark.

Interesting Article on Russian Leather

In the 18th century, Russian leather was widely considered to be the finest in the world. It was known for being incredibly rich in color, supple, and water resistant. There was also something about its aroma that allowed it to repel insects. It was truly unique.

Tanneries in Western Europe tried to duplicate Russia’s distinctive, beautiful, and hardwearing leather. They even sent spies to try to uncover trade secrets. Unfortunately, very little became known. What they did find out, however, was that the pre-tanning stages alone took up to six months. During the tanning stage, the hides, soaking in previously-used tanning fluid, were more or less continuously turned by hand for about four months. Then they were transferred to pits where they soaked in water mixed with bark from willows, poplar, oak, and larch trees for about eighteen months. After that, they were cured, dried, beaten with mallets, pared with shaving knives, and then pulled over sharp-edged rings, which cut them with the fine cross-hatched scores they were known for.

Though the process was vaguely known, Western tanneries couldn’t reproduce it because they could never identify the formula for the mysterious dressing oils. By the time the Russian Revolution came in 1917, the new provisional government shut production down, and secrets of how it was made became lost for good.

Then, in 1973, a team of British deep-sea divers was exploring the waters of Plymouth Sound, where they found the broken timbers of a sunken ship. The ship’s bell identified it to be the Metta Catharina, a 100-ton Baltic ship that set sail from St. Petersburg and for Genoa in December 1786. She never made it, however, as she was sunk during a storm.

Littered around the seabed of the broken ship, the divers found bundles and bundles of hides. They brought the bundles up to surface, and when they untied them, the packages opened up like packs of vacuum-sealed coffee. Apparently, the hides’ immersion in black mud, combined with their mysterious oils, allowed them to go nearly 200 years with very little water penetrating.

At first, the divers didn’t even know what they found. They went to a bar the next night and casually talked about it. A young leather worker, Robin Snelson, overheard and asked if he could see the hides. They agreed.

Snelson developed a cleaning technique to help restore the hides to their original quality. Once cleaned, they beamed with rich colors, varying from deep claret to lighter sienna. They also revealed their cross-hatched surface, and began giving away their distinct sweet aroma. There was no other leather with this aroma, and it was clear these were the famed Russian leathers that was once only a historical legend.

Word spread, and in 1986, two bespoke shoemakers from Cleverly approached Snelson about using the hides for their shoes. Cleaverly is widely regarded as one of the best bespoke shoe making houses in the world, and everyone agreed that only they would do the hides justice.

I’m unsure how many shoes were made from the hides, but I think it was something around 200. Ready to wear pairs were sold for around $2,000, while bespoke pairs were around $5,000. The client list is private, but its been revealed that the first pair was made for Prince Charles.

Nobody knows how many hides are left buried in that wreck. Recovery has not been easy, and the job is incredibly dangerous. The bundles near the bows and stern have been cleared out, for the most part, but some believe there may be more in some of the unexplored areas. However, those areas are too dangerous to approach, and nobody has been willing to risk their lives for the additional hides. For now, it seems like the quantity above shore is all that there is.

The shoes have all been sold off by now, but some companies have enough scraps to make a few small accessories. For example, this company still makes wallets out of the 225 year-old Russian leather. The prices are expensive, but that’s the cost of owning a little bit of legendary menswear history.