The heightened relevance of talking directly to the consumer has become obvious as a result of the pandemic. The value of having direct sales of some sort has been apparent as other retail outlets closed, many for good. Separately, the major shift to on-line purchasing has forced us to search for ways of getting consumers to appreciate the experiential values of leather. Leather plays well to the senses with the touch and feel, the look and the smell all part of the brand essence of leather – major indicators that leather is a material of hidden benefits as well as the obvious utilitarian qualities.

It was therefore good to see a notice on social media reminding us that “leather has more to offer than look and feel”. It was linked to an item on the Stay Different website which discusses the top 5 leather perfumes. The original ‘leather’ scent was apparently sold by Creed in 1780 and the company followed an old tradition and put it on a pair of gloves being made for the King George III in the United Kingdom. The King liked it so much, he had it developed as his personal perfume.

This is a great story to tell, but it is only a teaser to remind us of the 500-year history prior to 1780, during which perfumed gloves were being made in Europe. The first written records on the subject are in the statutes of the Glovers of Paris in 1190, which identify the makers and traders – ‘Glovers-Perfumers’ – as one body, although the most advanced technology seems to have been developed in Spain, before spreading to Italy and France. By the 16th and 17th centuries, perfumed gloves were being manufactured throughout Europe. The expertise lay primarily with the glove leather tanners – who often were glovemakers themselves – and in France the Crown commanded that the glovers and tanners should control the perfume business. In the UK, control over perfumes was controversially taken from the Glovers and handed to the Apothecaries in the grounds that perfumes were to be prioritised for face masks and other devices as a means of warding off the Black Death, which was thought to be carried in “bad” air.

Perfumed gloves became highly fashionable in the 16th century when Catherine de Medici of France and Queen Elizabeth I of England popularised them. The range of scents involved was large. In my research for the book Gloves and Glove-making (Shire Publications 2016) musk, aloe, clover, jasmine, cinnamon and rose were the most commonly found in a long list. Scented gloves “in the Spanish manner” became recognised as it was the Spanish who introduced the use of ambergris to hold the scent into the leather.

In the famous French town of Grasse, the foundation for the conversion from a tanning town to a perfume capital was in in part aided by a member of the aristocratic Roman Renaissance Frangipani family who showed how the fragrance from the huge variety of flowers grown there could be captured in alcohol and made more permanent in the leather. Frangipani perfume itself was a mix of orris (iris root), spices, civet and musk (neither of the latter two are used in perfume today).

Gradually Grasse lost its fame as a leather and leather products town and changed its focus to perfume alone, with a superior position in that key French industry that it has retained for the last 200 years.

Sadly, we rarely see perfumed gloves today, although the smell of leather remains important for the consumer, often remarked upon when they enter a leather-goods store. Most notable is the smell of leather in a new car, and I must admit that I retain a small phial of LTT Leather Essence to keep reinforcing the odour. Each car brand has its own carefully designed leather fragrance, from pure leather in some form or other through to a mix to reflect burning engine oil. There has been a lot of change, as once this was achieved by spraying not very healthy volatile organic compounds (VOC)s into the cockpit.

At the essence of all the new car smells – with or without petrol, oil or other elements – should always be an attempt to get close to that powerful odour that we remember when vegetable tanned dressing hides – lime split to automotive substance – are hung to dry in the tannery sheds.

As we rush our leather out of the warehouse, we should remember that this is one unique aspect of leather that the consumer does notice.

Mike Redwood
August 5, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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