Chanel Cuir de Russie (1927) was hot on the heels of Bois des Îles (1926), and a perfume released to capture the essence of Gabrielle’s love affair with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, cousin of Tsar Nicholas II. It was through Pavlovich that Chanel met perfumer Ernest Beaux, who was trained in Moscow before coming to work as house perfumer for the courtier. As expected by the name, Cuir de Russie is a leather-focused chypre, and among the first to be widely-released, beaten to the punch only by Knize Ten (1924). Some online sources overly partial to Chanel try to place Cuir de Russie’s launch year at 1924 so they can falsely claim it the first commercial leather perfume, but Chanel gives a year of release much later than that, even if the perfume itself may have been in development for some time. It’s no secret that many perfumes going back to the late 19th century were much heavier and more “butch” than what most women in the 21st century would wear on virtue of the fact that they had to cover cigarette smoke, and as leather came into vogue to cover that smell, scents like the aforementioned Knize Ten and Cuir de Russie would give birth to a genre which continued to run clear into the mid 20th century. Anyone seeking this scent in the modern day is likely a vintage perfume fan or particularly looking for a bold left-of-center statement, which may be why Chanel removed it from their standard line and made it a “niche” scent, even with virtually no changes to the scent profile. There’s certainly the typical Chanel effortless quality here, but the placement is a stretch.
Cuir de Russie is a rather mild scent compared to later leather behemoths like Piguet Bandit (1944) and Cabochard de Grés (1959), or even older “smoker’s perfumes” like Caron Tabac Blonde (1919) and Molinard Habanita (1921), which both were just a complete swirl of things. Ernest Beaux took a similar kitchen sink approach to the base as did many perfumers during this time, a la Jacques Guerlain and François Coty, so don’t really expect to pick out many notes. Aldehydes, bergamot, and some sour isobutyl quinoline leather notes open up Cuir de Russie, leading into a dry trifecta of slightly indolic florals. Rose, jasmine, and ylang-ylang do a predictable dance atop that stuffed air-tight base, while iris and sage clean things up enough to keep this from being an old-time brothel perfume. Animalics like styrax and musk dwell in an otherwise period-typical aromatic leather chypre base, featuring cedar, vetiver, oakmoss, amber, and a tiny smidge of vanilla to pull this away from being too masculine for its then-intended market. Sillage is good but wear time is somewhat fleeting for its tone, although Cuir de Russie is not something you want as an all-day office scent, so consider it a blessing. I’d use this in fall through early spring, but cool summer nights might also work well – and yes, this is quite unisex. Vintage is definitely better in every regard concerning performance, since IFRA regulations really handicap what Chanel can do with Cuir de Russie in the modern age.
Cuir de Russie has a similar problem to Houbigant Fougère Royale (1882) and Guerlain Apres L’Ondée (1906) in that a lot of things have come about since its inception that do what it does but in some cases better or with more distinction, even if nothing else smelled like it did when it first hit shelves. Just like the fougère, the floral, and the leather chypre genres that came into being after all three of the above launched, the sheer proliferation of variations manfesting make the core values of the originating examples desirable only to perfume lovers with a thirst for history, which is why Cuir de Russie would never be my go-to example for folks wanting to jump into this genre’s finest. Removal of Cuir de Russie (outside the pure parfum) from the main Chanel line into the expensive Les Exclusifs range further compounds this problem, because the original Eau de Cologne and EdT column spray bottles were about as accessible as an equivalent bottle of No. 5 (1921), but the current EdP spray (which is barely stronger) is sitting at high prices that make this an investment for collectors only. Still, this grand old gal is a fine genre-defining example regardless, so I can’t help but like it. If you trot into a boutique or order a sample of this online, just know that if you are a seasoned leather perfume fan, this may feel more fundamental than things you’ve already smelled, and is no dominatrix like some of its sister creations. Thumbs up!