The fluffiest, grey-white clouds flecked with gold, and the most expensive Italian leather shoes — that’s what comes to mind when I wear Cuir Ottoman by Parfum d’Empire, the always interesting French niche brand founded and run by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato. It is a house that seeks to embody history in a bottle, focusing on long-lost empires and the most ancient of ingredients that were “coveted for centuries for their refinement, aphrodisiac properties and use in sacred rituals. It is this age-old link between perfume, eroticism and spirituality that he has sought to revive with Parfum d’Empire.”
Cuir Ottoman is a unisex eau de parfum that is intended to explore the best of Turkish leather, done in a manner as indolent as a sultan’s Turkish bath, and wrapped with white flowers “as white-fleshed and opulent as the odalisques painted by Delacroix, Ingres and Matisse.” It’s a glorious thought and, as someone who once planned on becoming a historian, I’ve repeatedly said how much I love the historical inspirations for Parfum d’Empire’s fragrances. The descriptions are often dead on, too, and convey a real sense of the fragrance’s essence. This time, however, I just don’t see it.
Cuir Ottoman is the most civilized, refined, sophisticated, smooth, leather fragrance I’ve come across in a while. It starts out being the epitome of cool austerity before turning into an indulgently fluffy, soft cloud — two things I’d never associate with the hedonistic excesses, brutality, or carnal appetites of the Ottoman Empire. To me, this is more Queen Victoria’s leather: well-mannered, preternaturally proper, formal, and controlled in the most luxuriously sophisticated manner. If not Victorian leather, then perhaps Beau Brummell’s from the Regency Era with his focus on refinement that had a slightly dandyish quality about it. Make no mistake, this is not a “Wham, Bam, Thank You, Ma’am” leather that bulges with muscles or macho masculinity. If that’s what you’re expecting, you’ll be sorely disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for supple smoothness that skirts on the feminine and, later, just barely nods its head at the gourmand, then look no further.
The Parfum d’Empire website has a lovely story that explains the elements and inspiration for Cuir Ottoman, but perhaps the most relevant part for the purposes of this discussion concerns the treatment of leather:
Though the leather note is appreciated by connoisseurs, it is so assertive it is seldom featured in perfumery. [...][¶][So, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato] set off for the Ottoman Empire, inspired by the secular tradition of leatherwork in Anatolia — up to the 19th century Turkish leather was the most highly coveted in Europe. He added iris, which already presents leathery facets, after learning that its powdery notes were often used to soften the smell of the finest skins.
Soft leather, powdery leather, leather refined to preclude all animalistic savagery and brutishness — I think you see where we’re going. The full list of notes in Cuir Ottoman complete the rest of the picture. As provided by Luckyscent, they include:
jasmine, leather, iris, benzoin, balsams, resins, incense.
Cuir Ottoman opens on my skin as the most expensive of new, Italian leather shoes. Testoni, perhaps. Or perhaps a more accurate description would be the most expensive of leather handbags, right down to their calfskin, suede interior. The aroma of new leather, with its beautifully immaculate smoothness, wafts around my skin, followed by flurries of powder-soft iris that flit about as delicately as snowflakes. The iris flakes are just barely floral, just imperceptibly powdery, but completely velvety and buttery in feel. In the background lurks the merest hint of jasmine, but that’s about it. There is nothing even remotely animalistic, brutal, raw, or musky in its manifestation on my skin. No rough leather with an almost fecal edge the way some uncured leather can have; no phenolic, tarry, smoky or barnyard notes; and no animalic, urinous, intimately raunchy, or sour notes. Not one bit.
Cuir Ottoman shifts very slowly, and only in degrees. At the forty minute mark, it starts to become warmer and a smidgen sweeter. The iris slowly starts to recede from its cool heights and becomes lightly flecked by jasmine. It is still primarily, however, an iris leather fragrance that smells exactly like new leather shoes or a new handbag. The fragrance continues to soften and, at the one hour mark, the sillage drops substantially. The fresh leather feels completely warmed over now and so smooth, it’s almost creamy. About 90 minutes in, the tonka bean rises to the surface, adding a beautiful, delicate, and perfectly balanced sweetness to the other accords.
Cuir Ottoman is so well-blended that, at this point, the notes swirl together as soft as a cloud. It’s a nebulous, fluffy, absolutely creamy blend of iris, leather and vanilla, threaded with the lightest touch of jasmine and vanillic powder into one smooth, sum total. The individual elements are there, but they’re not as individually distinct as they once were. Instead, they simply create an overall feel and olfactory impress of highly refined softness that radiates delicate warmth, florals, and sweetness the way a cloud is shaded by light. It’s a masterful twist on leather that doesn’t evoke the remotest vision of the Sultanate or the Ottoman hordes.
In fact, it doesn’t really evoke leather much at all after the first two hours, especially when the note turns more into a muted version of suede. The reason stems, in part, from the iris powder but, increasingly, it’s because of the tonka bean which turns Cuir Ottoman into something just barely hinting at the gourmand. As the vanilla becomes more and more prominent, even the iris accord feels more indistinct. Around 2.5 hours in, Cuir Ottoman is a powdered vanilla and suede fragrance that feels creamy, soft and smooth, and which hovers just above the skin. The fragrance remains that way for hours and hours, almost yummy in its vanilla essence and lightly evoking Guerlainade, Guerlain’s signature of powdery but creamy tonka bean.
All in all, Cuir Ottoman lasted 12.75 hours on my voracious, perfume consuming skin which is quite astonishing given the airy, light, sheer quality of the fragrance. I’ve noted the same thing with all the fragrances from the line which, indubitably, I find too sheer for my personal tastes but which have incredible longevity. Yet, despite my preference for significantly heavier fragrances (I’m still hoping for the spectacular Ambre Russe in triple-strength concentration!), the light, airiness of Cuir Ottoman is really ideal and well-suited to the nature of the scent. It is perfectly modulated in every way, right down to its weight. Cuir Ottoman isn’t supposed to be something brutish, opaque, or heavy, and the texture wouldn’t work with the delicacy of its notes.
There is a lot of love out there for Cuir Ottoman, except from Luca Turin. (Naturally!) In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, “His Majesty” sniffs out a disdainful Three Star review which reads, in part, as follows:
This leather is in fact barely a leather at all, more a sweet-woody-tea-like composition. It is solid and beautifully crafted, but feels a little like the compulsory figures at skating: solid, precise, impressive, and unsurprising.
I agree with parts of his assessment, especially about how little Cuir Ottoman feels like a true or hardcore leather fragrance. I also agree that it is solid, beautifully crafted and impressive, but I mean it all in a much more positive way. Is it unimpressive because it’s so refined? In my opinion, that is actually part of what makes Cuir Ottoman stand out. After all, people (especially Luca Turin) lavish praise on Chanel‘s Cuir de Russie for its smoothness and luxurious take on leather, so why fault Cuir Ottoman for those same attributes? I think the latter is infinitely more wearable than Cuir de Russie which, on my skin, was piles of horse manure under a heavy veil of soap. No, thank you.
On Fragrantica, the majority of the reviews are overwhelmingly positive for Cuir Ottoman. People’s experiences seem to verge into three camps: those who find the opening to be harsh, sharply animalistic or raw; those who spend paragraphs raving about the fragrance’s refinement and luxurious nature; and those who think it’s a distinctly feminine fragrance, either because of the limited nature of the leather or because of the powder. A large number of those who fall into the first camp still adore the fragrance, finding it to be softened and balanced by the subsequent accords, and concluding that Cuir Ottoman is a “mesmerizing… masterpiece.” (Other adjectives from both men and women include: sensational, classy, rich, virile, luxurious, refined, and erotic.) The handful who have posted negative reviews have had the leather turn on them, finding it to be either: a “shoe polish note,” faintly urinous, reminiscent of burning plastic, or rubbery and smoky like a garage. Interestingly, some have experienced far more smoky incense than any leather at all, so, as you can see, it all depends on your skin chemistry.
For me, personally, Cuir Ottoman veers far from my style and taste in perfumery, but I find something incredibly appealing, fascinating, and compulsively sniffable about the fragrance. It oozes refinement from start to finish, but the cozy, creamy, gauzy, just barely, minutely gourmand drydown phase is especially addictive. I doubt I’d ever be tempted to buy a full bottle, but the perfume has my heartiest admiration. It is a scent that I’d strongly recommend for those who are a bit terrified of leather in perfumery, though I wonder if the drydown might not turn into something evoking “baby powder” on some skins. Nonetheless, I think Cuir Ottoman is extremely versatile, wearable, and also, well-suited for an office environment given its soft sillage but superb longevity. It is also incredibly affordable, especially for such a high-quality, superbly well-crafted niche fragrance. Cuir Ottoman may lean a little feminine for some men, however, so if you prefer a more macho, tough, obvious leather fragrance, then I’d suggest something more along the lines of Montale‘s very masculine Aoud Cuir d’Arabie. But, if you’re looking for an ultra sophisticated, suave, leather-suede that reeks of refinement and elegance, then Cuir Ottoman is definitely one to try.