A rocky mountain road with long, winding curves lies ahead of you, the wind blows through your fingers as you rev the throttles on the motorcycle, and all around you wafts the birch, pine and herbs of a nearby forest. They mingle with the scent of a leather jacket that is at once raw and refined, dark black and aged brown. The leather changes from the hard edge of tarry birch, to the quiet rumble of animalic, feline muskiness, the sweet glow of amber, and the refinement of the most expensive Italian suede. The bouquet contrasts with the clean freshness of skin that still carries traces of the soap you used in your early morning shower. It tames and softens the leather’s edges, creating the illusion of polite refinement over the lion’s quiet rumbling.
Contradictions and paradoxes lie at the heart of Grand Cuir, a fragrance from Parfums Rétro that explores leather from one end of the spectrum to the other under the most civilized and sophisticated of veneers. It starts as raw leather coated with birch tar and pungent herbs before turning into the expensive, new black leather of a biker’s jacket, then burnished, softly aged leather with amber, before ending up as the most refined of Italian suedes infused with lavender. It’s a journey that is at once animalic and clean with a fragrance that starts almost as an aromatic fougère with leather, before it transforms into something very different. And the whole thing is done sotto voce, with the quiet firmness of a confident man who doesn’t believe he has to be flashy and loud to draw attention to himself.
Grand Cuir is an eau de parfum that was released in June 2013 from a new company created by a veteran of the business. Parfums Rétro is the creative venture of Jeffrey Dame, a man who has more than 30 years in the perfume business in all its aspects: extensive involvement with Caron, Estée Lauder, Tuvaché and Neiman Marcus; actual perfume development for a number of houses; the creation of Perfume of Life (one of the very earliest online perfume forums) in 1999; his role as the President of Hypoluxe, a distributor of such well-regarded niche perfume brands as M. Micallef and Andy Tauer; and, now, his own perfume house with Parfums Rétro.
I should say at the outset that I know Mr. Dame (though we’ve never met in person), and I find him to be utterly charming, funny, direct, down-to-earth, and kind. He’s also a wealth of knowledge about the perfume industry as a whole, as he’s had a front row seat to observe its changes over the last 33 years. And he has definite ideas about how a perfume should progress, how it needs to have body and “movement,” and how many mass-market, commercial fragrances lack a distinctive character.
As a result, I was excited to see what his own creation would be like. Grand Cuir was developed in collaboration with the perfumer, Hugh Spencer, who has had a similarly long career in the business. At the same time, though, I rather dreaded what would happen if I hated the fragrance; I’m always honest, even if it doesn’t serve me well. So, it’s a huge relief to say that I think Grand Cuir is a genuinely good fragrance that has both the refinement of Chanel‘s legendary Cuir de Russie, but also, a sexy animalic growl. For me, Grand Cuir conjures up a good guy, with a slightly wild streak, clean cut sexiness, and sophistication under his leather. The fragrance straddles a variety of genres, and I found parts to be a mesmerizing balance of contrasts. I think men will love it, and that leather-wearing women would enjoy it as well.
In an interview with Ida Meister of Fragrantica, Jeffrey Dame described Grand Cuir as:
A fragrant composition in four parts:
- A leather soul from start to finish.
- Spicy and herbaceous accents.
- A multi-dimensional floral heart.
- A comfortable, relaxed base.”
orange blossom, labdanum, birch tar, clary sage, lavender, carnation, rose, violet leaf, geranium, cinnamon, tarragon, pine moss, sandalwood, rosewood, patchouli and musk.
Grand Cuir opens on my skin with an aromatic, herbal, citric, fresh start. It may not be in the notes, but I smell bergamot, though it is quickly overwhelmed by a blast of dark, tarry, phenolic birch. It is followed by piquant, peppery, spicy notes from the geranium, carnation, and sharp lavender. Moments later, there is the sudden appearance of fresh, clean soap which contrasts with the dark tar of the birch. Running like a vein through it all is a dark-grey, mineralized, slightly fusty oakmoss.
It’s a start that very much straddles different perfume genres. Grand Cuir opens like a traditional aromatic fougère with lavender and citrus, but also like a crisp, clean, soapy cologne with aldehydes. Yet, Grand Cuir is also most definitely a leather fragrance with smoky, rubbery, tarry, and, at times, slightly raw undertones. The bundle of contrasts is soon complemented by other notes, stirring in the depths. There are hints of warmth and sweetness from the amber, then the merest whisper of patchouli, all lurking deep down. In the middle level, the rose and cinnamon flicker quietly, as does a suggestion of violets.
The leather rumbles through it all. For the most part, it never feels like purely raw, untreated leather, and it certainly never has the fecal aspects of some leather fragrances. On occasion, though, the birch tar does create a faint tinge of rubberiness and a dark smokiness. In essence, Grand Cuir smells like a very expensive, new, black leather jacket that still has something of an unbroken feel to it. It’s masculine and hard, but also soft and refined at the same time.
I think it’s Grand Cuir’s soapy, aldehydic undertone that helps create that impression because there is a certain fizzy cleanness that makes the leather feel “new.” In many ways, Grand Cuir feels like a much smoother, softer version of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie. On my skin, that legendary fragrance manifested itself as mounds of fecal horse manure under a thick blanket of soap suds. Thankfully, Grand Cuir completely avoids those unpleasant extremes with a much defter, smoother handling of the birch tar, leather, and soap. That said, as most regular readers know, I have a slight phobia about soapiness, and I would generally prefer none of it in any fragrance. The same goes double for aldehydes. Despite that, however, I admit that the amount in Grand Cuir’s opening phase was generally manageable, even for me.
Plus, the soapiness serves a very useful, positive purpose: it smooths out the leather’s distinctly animalic edge. While the leather note is never purely raw or untamed like in Montale‘s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie, it does have a very subtle undertone that verges on something urinous. It is much like civet, to be frank, but it’s not extreme, and certainly nothing like a men’s urinal. If you can handle a slightly feline whiff of civet in vintage fragrances, this will be child’s play to you. The note here is much more like the subtle touch in Dior‘s Leather Oud, or perhaps fainter. I like it, and find that it adds a bit of an animalic growl to Grand Cuir’s underbelly.
Aldehydes and leather are not Grand Cuir’s sole focus at this stage. The herbal accords are equally significant. Tarragon provides an anise-like freshness, while the clary sage adds a spicy, herbal, creamy touch. It has a nuance of both lavender and leather that works well to complement those other notes, while its aromatic freshness also helps undercut some of the darkness of the birch tar. My favorite part, however, may be the piquant, biting, peppery nuances to Grand Cuir’s top bouquet which consistently evokes the dark, green, fuzzy greenness of geranium leaves. The green visuals are underscored by a very subtle note of pine trees that lurks about Grand Cuir’s edges.
Thirty minutes in, Grand Cuir slowly shifts. A more orange-y element begins to stir. The notes start to merge into each other to create a well-blended aromatic, herbal, green, leather fragrance with tarry bits and aldehydes. The leather is incredibly smooth and refined for something so full-bodied. At the end of the first hour, the labdanum appears, adding a slightly animalic, musky, sexy touch to Grand Cuir. Its ambered warmth with its faintly nutty side counters the masculine, faintly raw edges of the leather, creating a smooth balance.
At the 1.5 hour mark, Grand Cuir settles into its next stage. It has lost much of the herbal, pungently green, somewhat tarry elements of its opening, and is now sleekly stalking out of the gates as a plush, smooth, deep leather with just a faintly animalic, musky growl and a lingering patina of soapy aldehydes. It’s as though that dark, new, black leather jacket has turned into a broken-in, burnished, soft leather that is warm, and rich. Grand Cuir is now flecked with amber, lightly dusted with sweet cinnamon, and is firmly ensconced in a woody embrace. It has the sensuous aspect of Serge Lutens‘ Cuir Mauresque but with much more animalic touches, no jasmine florals, aldehydes instead of powder, and a much more woody base. Grand Cuir’s sillage also changes, dropping quite a bit to make the perfume hover just an inch above the skin.
The fragrance continues to soften and to transform on the leather spectrum. Grand Cuir feels masculine, but soft, clean, and musky at the same time. It’s leather that is turning to suede, but with still a bit of a sexy edge. In some ways, it evokes a clean-shaven man, more than one sporting stubble, if that makes sense. In fact, I have the perfect mental image in my head of the man who symbolizes Grand Cuir, but I couldn’t find an image to fit. (Apparently, men who wear leather don’t shave for fashion shoots!) It’s not James Dean in Mendocino, no matter what Luckyscent’s ad copy for Grand Cuir might say; James Dean is far too pretty. It’s also not Humphrey Bogart (too leathery, old, and rough), Robert Redford (too pretty again), or Leonardo di Caprio (too boyish and soft). George Clooney is very close, but I don’t associate him with leather or with a devil-may-care edge. It might be a dark-haired version of Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” with the charm of Ewan McGregor and a dash of George Clooney, perhaps.
Whoever the perfect masculine representation may be, Grand Cuir turns utterly addictive at the start of the 4th hour. It’s the most fascinating mix of musky and clean, animalic and refined. Something about the leather is as soft as the most expensive Italian suede, while still maintaining the feel of really well-polished, expensive leather shoes, and the confident swagger of a guy in a biker jacket. None of it is too much, either in terms of brashness, refinement, elegance or sexiness. And, believe it or not, I think that oddly clean, soapy patina may be the reason why. It keeps all the competing elements in check, balancing them out, taming the hint of civet-like sourness to the leather, and adding a sophisticated smoothness. For my tastes, this amount of aldehydes or soap is perfect — and perfectly chic. I wish it had been that way initially, but, again, I’m phobic about soapiness.
Grand Cuir continues to soften further, turning into the palest, creamiest suede. It sits over a base of amber that is warm, but not heavy or thick. It is also supported by a faintly woody undertone, though it’s too nebulous to be easily distinguishable as rosewood or something else. Finishing things up is a fluctuating degree of animalic edge, and a lingering muskiness that feels clean. At the start of the 8th hour, Grand Cuir is suede with a sweet-sour edge over sheer, woody amber, but with the surprising return of the lavender and clary sage. I tested the perfume twice and it was the same situation on both occasions: Grand Cuir turns into a beautifully soft, refined suede infused by the perfect touch of creamy lavender and slightly floral clary sage. I loved it, and was very happy that the fragrance remained that way largely until its very end. In its final moments, Grand Cuir was just a faint blur of lavender with some abstract suede-y sweetness.
Grand Cuir has enormous longevity on my skin, but very soft sillage. It lasted 12 hours on my perfume-consuming skin with three sprays, and 10.5 hours with two small ones. The sillage began at the moderate end, wafting about 3 inches above the skin, before dropping around the 1.5 hour mark to something much smaller. It was a skin scent on me by the end of the 2nd hour. All of this is intentional. Jeffrey Dame has explicitly said that he didn’t want a blustery, loud scent, but, rather, one that was discreet:
I realize that inobtrusive has ceased to be a positive attribute these days—but I intend it here as a great compliment. We aren’t howling patchouli here, or musk-monster, either.
My personal tastes actually do run towards “howling patchouli,” and I like perfumes with a sonic boom, but there is a time and place for refined, discreet elegance as well. If Grand Cuir didn’t have such a distinctive character and such movement across its stages, I would be less enthused, because who wants bland, boring discretion? But it does have those things on my skin. It has the refinement that I sought in Cuir de Russie before I came to a skidding, horrified stop at the enormous mounds of horsey manure and soap that emanated from my skin. (Yes, yes, I know that’s heresy. Stone me if you will. I fully recognize that I’m in a tiny minority on Cuir de Russie!) Grand Cuir also has the sex appeal of Cuir Mauresque, one of my favorite leathers and Serge Lutens fragrances. And then, it ends on the expensive suede softness of Parfum d’Empire‘s Cuir Ottoman, only without the gourmand vanilla touches but with woody notes or creamy lavender instead. For all that, I’ll put up with the discreet sillage.
I think the different aspects and facets to Grand Cuir make it something that women can wear as much as men, so long as they like leather. There are numerous women who worship at the altar of Cuir de Russie; they should certainly try Grand Cuir. However, women who don’t like perfumes with an animalic edge, or who prefer more purely suede affairs boosted by gourmand touches would probably struggle a little with Grand Cuir. I suspect that is why Luckyscent seems to have designated the fragrance as a “masculine” one.
That said, 40% of the sales of the perfume are by women, so don’t let the categorization put you off. If you can wear Etat Libre d’Orange‘s very intense leather Rien, if you like birch tar in various woody fragrances like Andy Tauer‘s Lonestar Memories, and if you enjoy herbal, aromatic notes, then Grand Cuir will be easy. The key is how smooth and seamless the fragrance is, how none of the notes are out-of-balance or bullying. From the leather to the birch tar, it’s all done in a manner that is intentionally less forceful or intense than in its compatriots. Grand Cuir wants to speak sotto voce, in everything, believing that refined subtlety is best.
Reaction to Grand Cuir is generally positive. On one early Basenotes thread, at the time of the perfume’s release, there are a number of appreciative comments. One example, from “Buzzlepuff” reads:
This is a fantastic leather fragrance – I think. I am smelling rawhide realism, aged lived-in character, depth of tone, highs and lows, cowboys, floral civilized character points, lots and lots of growl in here. Yes I am liking this leather sample. This is leather for big boys and girls! Don’t even try it if you aren’t ready for the real thing.
In the official Basenotes entry for Grand Cuir, reaction is more mixed, with some people struggling in particular with the perfume’s opening. They found it smelled like “muscle ache rub” or “cold cream.” Yet, even one of those commentators liked the fragrance as it developed, writing
It becomes a very excellent natural leather fragrance, if you let it. […] If you make a snap decision about this, you will hate it. If you give it some time you might love it. It is not as strong as Knize 10, or most of the Spanish leathers out there; nor as flowery as Cuir Pleine Fleur by Heeley. It is very subtle, natural and captivating. I don’t know how it is “retro” but it seems fairly modern to me, but not austere or sweet. This is very much worth a try, after a rather strange opening.
A poster called “TheBeck” responded on how the problematic “cold cream” note is the clary sage, then wrote a positive ode to the well-balanced, “unique” elegance of Grand Cuir. It’s too long to quote here, but, in essence, he finds that the soapy aspect “gives us that fresh juxtaposition against the leather and birch tar base which makes this so intoxicating. […] Grand Cuir is perfectly balanced. How the ‘nose’ got all those spicy herbs, florals and leather to blend so seamlessly was no small task. But the results are fantastic.”
On Fragrantica, the same dichotomy exists: a few people found the perfume too soapy, while others write lengthy raves about how it’s a highly refined leather with substantial depth, body, and transitions. I think the key is to get past the opening stage, especially the first 40-minutes, when the soapy element and the herbs are most distinct. The subsequent phases are worth it if you’re a fan of leather or suede fragrances. And the ending is really lovely.
DISCLOSURE: My sample of Grand Cuir was provided courtesy of Parfums Rétro. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, my opinions are my own, and my first obligation is to my readers.