I have a problem with many leather fragrances. It’s really not with leather itself, but overuse of the aromachemical isobutylquinoline, usually shortened to IBQ. A few years ago I got a bit of it in an introductory perfume notes kit, and soon realized that, even in a 4% dilution, it was the schoolyard bully; no matter how little I used in a mix, it knocked everything else out of the way. After that, I could instantly recognize its brass-knuckles presence in just about every “leather” fragrance out there. (When I made my series “Scents of Place” for my January art exhibit, one was called “New Leather Jacket.” It contained — you guessed it — IBQ and a bit of dirty musk.) Anyway, the smell we call “leather” is nearly always IBQ.
My Peau d’Espagne doesn’t smell as though there is one bit of IBQ in it. So quite a few of the Basenotes reviews I’ve read say something like “where’s the leather in this?” or “the leather fragrance without any leather.” Our noses get so numbed by these synthetics, in perfumery and in functional household products like detergent, that subtlety is sometimes lost. But to me, anyway, this is a gorgeous leather; softened by years and care, nothing like the simulacrum IBQ.
“Peau d’Espagne” means “skin of Spain.” Spanish skins, sometimes known as Cordovan leather, came into common use in the 9th century, as the Andalusian city Cordoba was becoming a great center of learning and art. The skins, usually goat, were tanned and then embossed and gilded for use as wall hangings, like the tapestries hung on castle walls in northern Europe. These leather hangings kept out drafts and had the additional benefit of being resistant to insects. The art of making them was North African, or Moorish — the Moors ruled Andalucia for eight centuries, and Cordoba was their capital.
The version I have is from Santa Maria Novella, the Italian house that remains the oldest perfumery still in operation; this fragrance dates to 1901. (There have been other fragrances with the same name.) I got it in a split, and it’s marked “vintage,” and although I don’t know exactly what vintage it is, it smells fresh and unspoiled.
The opening notes of Peau d’Espagne are not for the faint-hearted. Anise jumps out with its licorice smell, like a first sip of Pernod or the dry version of “Chinchon,” an anise liqueur which I’ve never seen anywhere outside Spain. There is a slight medicinal bitterness, a volatility that gives a bitter taste on my lips as I sniff it, and then a gentle morph into essences of herbs and florals. I’ve read that the Spanish tanners used rose and orange woods, with lavender, and spices like cloves and cinnamon, and civet, and musk. So this leather is more about the substances once used to produce it than what we now call “leather.” That must have been the smell of tanning chemicals the leather absorbed, to be later synthesized as IBQ.
The fragrance continues in this way for quite awhile, with the herbs and florals flowing across the skin, back and forth and back again, while the bottom notes arrange themselves and gradually rise. (There is a supposed quote from Havelock Ellis that peau d’espagne is “often the favorite scent of sensuous persons.” I can see this.) These base notes are skinlike, with subtle musk and dust — possibly a bit of myrrh -- and a slight — very slight — civet, just an echo, really, appearing and disappearing in rhythm with all the other notes. If I had to characterize this fragrance succinctly, I’d call it elusive. On the back of my hand, it has dried down after about an hour to a subtle and delicious skin scent — idealized skin.
The skin I wish I had.
The photo was taken at the Seville Fair and is titled “Young Aristocrat, Seville, Spain, April 2004.” Sounds a little silly, but it’s accurate. Members of the old families of Seville, in traditional dress, parade grandly on their Andalusian horses through the Feria de Sevilla grounds. The children are taught to ride almost as soon as they can walk.
“Peau d’Espagne,” from Santa Maria Novella, is available in Europe and here and there in the U.S. at a reasonable price — around $125 for 100 mls.