“Angel leather,” inspired partially by Hermès’ iconic bag and luggage creations, lies at the heart of Cuir d’Ange. It is Jean-Claude Ellena‘s newest fragrance for Hermès’ luxury Hermessence Collection, an homage to the brand’s most famous products, and was ten years in the making. For me, Cuir d’Ange is the very best thing that I’ve tried from Jean-Claude Ellena thus far, though it’s not without the usual problems stemming from his minimalistic, wispy aesthetic. It’s a truly beautiful recreation of leather that oozes elegance and refinement. In essence, it bottles the very smell of the leather department in an Hermès boutique, capturing it to an astonishing degree.
On the Hermès website, Jean-Claude Ellena describes Cuir d’Ange and his inspiration for the scent as follows:
The softness of leather, a promise hovering over the skin. Engaging, bewitching, hazy.
“For a long time I’d wanted to reveal the importance I attach to literature, and where it meets perfume. More importantly, I wanted to evoke my connection with the work of Jean Giono. Two words from a passage in Jean le Bleu came back to me: ‘cuir d’ange’ – angel leather. Using the smells that are my words, I wanted to write a poem to rekindle the love duet between leather and the skin. Its softness and lightness, its tension and its caress. Heliotropes and hawthorn, leather and musk.”
The really important revelations about his inspiration for the scent comes from an interview that Monsieur Ellena gave to Boston Commons Magazine. There, he revealed that Cuir d’Ange had been 10 years in the making, and inspired by a visit to the Hermès leather vault at the headquarters when he was first made the company’s in-house nose:
When Jean-Claude Ellena became “the nose” of Hermès 10 years ago, his first port of call was the maison’s leather vault in Paris. Providing specialized storage for the skins that form the brand’s iconic luggage and handbags, “it was a marvelous treasure,” Ellena recalls, “an Ali Baba’s cave, where each piece of leather was arranged by characteristic and color.
“There I saw and touched the most beautiful leather, even some that weighed only a few grams in my hand, so soft that I hardly dared to touch it,” he says. “I realized that each leather, tanned naturally, had a different scent, and the most beautiful and expensive pieces smelled of flowers…. I was seized by happiness and decided right then that I wanted to create a perfume inspired by leather.”
This month, 67-year-old Ellena’s dream is realized in the form of Cuir d’Ange (angel leather), a fragrance that’s both gentle and assertive, shifting between delicate heliotropes and woody hawthorn, bashful violets and narcissi, and unrestrained musk.
The succinct note list for Cuir d’Ange is:
heliotrope, hawthorn, violet, narcissus, musk and leather.
Cuir d’Ange opens on my skin with a light sprinkling of aldehydes infused with floral sweetness that feels like wild, pressed flowers. It’s the hawthorn which Fragrantica describes as “sweetish, hazy note also called ‘aubepine’ recreated through the use of an aldehyde.” The aroma is followed immediately by a flood of airy leather that smells simultaneously refined, clean, new, and redolent of birch tar.
As many of you know, the aroma that we call “leather” is indirectly recreated through other elements, from birch to cade or isobutyl quinoline. Here, the leather smells clearly like birch, mixed in with a touch of quinoline, probably something like Pyrone which is described as having a woody and faintly tobacco-like aroma. There is none of the latter on my skin, but there is a definite nuance of woodiness, as if shavings of the birch’s silvery bark had been tossed in. There is also the faintest soupçon of something rubbery and blackened in feel, though not quite. The birch’s smokiness is more noticeable but, ultimately, all of it is subtle and muted, and lies in the background behind the primary bouquet of very refined, purified leather that has been cleansed with the sheerest dusting of hawthorn cleanness and aldehydes. If one ignores the small puffs of smokiness, Cuir d’Ange smells, for the most part, like brand new, really expensive, leather shoes, handbags, or jackets.
The unworn, clean leather is wrapped up in abstract flowers, tinged with the most microscopic dusting of their sweet pollen. For a brief minute in the opening, there is a whiff of greenness, crystal clean floralcy, and violet leaves. The latter are not crunchy, peppered, or metallic, but much more redolent of flower stems in water that have been crushed to release a floral greenness that is cool and watery. The liquidity vanishes within seconds, and the aldehydes follow a few minutes later. Both of them are replaced by a clean-ish musk that I think probably includes a drop of vegetal ambrette to give it some warmth. It certainly isn’t a hairspray, soapy, or truly white musk at all but, rather, one that is faintly reminiscent of warm, clean skin.
With the exception of the opening minute, the floral notes are consistently very conceptual on my skin. The heliotrope is truly invisible in any individually delineated, concrete way, but it exerts an indirect influence, creating an impression of floral sweetness. There is very little pollen, no powder at this point, and definitely no almonds, fluffiness, or sweetish vanilla meringue tonalities. The really significant floral influence comes from the hawthorn with its bouquet of clean, sweet, slightly dried wildflowers, but even that feels very hazy and abstract.
All of these things are mere glossing on the real star of the show: the leather. I have to admit, it’s darker and rawer than I had expected from Jean-Claude Ellena and less powerfully clean, particularly up close, but it’s a wholly relative thing. I had expected a positive tsunami of aldehydes and gushing soap lather, with all impurities and vestiges of phenolic tarriness to be stripped away. That is not the case, and the scent is better for it. Plus, I think you do have to sniff close to detect the streaks of smoky blackness in the base because, from afar, it’s almost entirely clean, new, unworn, natural leather that skews a soft, caramel brown.
It takes me back in time in a really powerful way. As a child, I used to go to the Hermès Mothership in Paris with my family quite a lot, and my sister and I usually dashed right off to the riding department where we would “oooh” and “aaah” over the saddles. We both had horses, but I don’t think you had to be an equestrian to be awed at the flawless magnificence, beauty, and luxuriousness of Hermès’ riding creations. There wasn’t (and probably still isn’t) anything like them, but I think there is no leather smell as amazingly chic or elegant as the smell of Hermès’ leather department in general. Cuir d’Ange bottles that aroma to a T. It’s astonishing, wholly riveting, and effortlessly elegant.
There is little else to Cuir d’Ange’s primary bouquet beyond this, and very few changes in the hours which follow, either. Cuir d’Ange is a simplistic, linear scent which doesn’t morph in any substantial fashion, but there are fluctuations to the prominence of the nuances or secondary undertones. Near the end of the first hour, there is a subtle streak of creaminess which stirs in the base. It only lasts about 30 minutes, but it diffuses and blankets the subtle smokiness. It’s not powdery or vanilla-ish, but it feels as if tonka had been used. Actually, to be precise, I think it’s the coumarin from tonka beans, because the creaminess has a dry nuance that is vaguely similar to sweet hay on occasion. The overall effect, though, is to impart a supple, buttery smoothness to the leather that turns it into a dual mix of clean, thick, new leather and the softer, more delicate, baby calfskin variety, both infused with the faintest, most translucent veil of clean flowers and a hint of warmth.
Then, the nuances shift. The smokiness returns at the end of the 2nd hour and the start of the 3rd. They’re stronger than ever, blanket the creamy calfskin and, for a short while, seem to wipe out the abstract floralcy as well. Cuir d’Ange is now more obviously centered on birch leather than ever before, with almost a whisper of black rubberiness underneath. However, at the 3.5 hour mark, like a magician’s waving his hand over a crystal ball, it all changes again. The puffs of smoke retreat to the distant sidelines, as both the florals and the calfskin creaminess return. There is now a powdery texture that is most definitely due to tonka and, with every passing hour, it infuses the brown leather more and more. Eventually, it turns Cuir d’Ange into soft suede covered with a veil of abstract, delicate wildflowers, a light sprinkling of powder, and only the quietest, tiniest glimmer of birch smoke. In its final moments, Cuir d’Ange is merely a blur of creamy softness that is only vaguely suede-like.
Cuir d’Ange had very discreet projection on my skin, almost no sillage trail, and iffy longevity. Using 3 very large, wide smears equal to 2 good sprays from an actual bottle, the perfume initially opened with about 2.5 inches of projection, but that number dropped to 1 inch after 45 minutes, and Cuir d’Ange was became a skin scent on me shortly after 90 minutes. It lasted just a hair over 6.75 hours in total.
The numbers were much worse on my other arm with 2 good smears equal to 1 spray from a bottle. Then, Cuir d’Ange opened with 2 inches of projection, became a skin scent on me after 75 minutes, and died away a little after 3 hours. There was a moment many hours later when I thought I detected a few puffs of vaguely smoky, suede-ish leather on that arm, but it was so nebulous, tiny, and fleeting that I may well have imagined it. Possibly imaginary puffs don’t really count, so the simple fact is that using the equivalent of 1 spray gave me 3 hours of longevity. While I had better numbers with 2 sprays, I had to put my nose right on the skin after 90 minutes to detect Cuir d’Ange, and that’s really not my thing.
Bloggers have given Cuir d’Ange very positive reviews almost across the board. For Robin at Now Smell This, the first thought was Cuir d’Ange’s kinship to Jean-Claude Ellena’s L’Eau d’Hiver for Frederic Malle. The NST review reads, in relevant part, as follows:
the first thing I thought of on smelling Cuir d’Ange was not Kelly Calèche, but another, much older Jean-Claude Ellena fragrance, Frédéric Malle L’Eau d’Hiver — Cuir d’Ange could be its leather flanker or somesuch.
The opening is bright zesty citrus, already peeking towards the leather at the base. It’s not, for those of you who are serious leather fiends, your standard perfume leather with its rough edge of birch tar, that said, it does smell leathery, or perhaps in perfume-speak, something closer to suede. So a soft leather, yes, but more direct and focused than the leather in Kelly Calèche, and a leather gently perfumed with the cloudy-grey, velvety flowers of L’Eau d’Hiver: iris, hawthorn, heliotrope. […] It’s musky and lightly sweet, and a touch powdery. If you can imagine a leather comfort scent, this would be it.
One reason why I review L’Eau d’Hiver a few days ago was to see if there were similarities, but there are few on my skin beyond Ellena’s signature minimalism and a common, abstract, soft floralcy. Even that is very different on me, since it is not a cool, iris-driven scent in Cuir d’Ange as it is in L’Eau d’Hiver. As for Hermès‘ Kelly Caleche, I’ve never tried it and never will, given how badly the original Caleche traumatized me as a child, so I can’t speak to any possible overlap.
On Fragrantica and Basenotes, opinions are mixed. A handful of men find the scent to be too feminine and not leathered enough, while a handful of women find it to be too masculine. The exact opposite is true as well. Take, for example, this review from a woman on Fragrantica, “cumulnimbus,” who writes in relevant part:
Cuir d’Ange on me is a beautiful soft light creamy bittersweet still bright leather/suede scent. I really love leather note and here it appears with an original, elegant and I would even say happy tender twist. I really appreciate this aspect of it as my other favorite leather perfumes are a bit blue and gloomy as Jolie Madame or Gomma. Cuir d’ange is playfull in comparison but still holds their dusty classic feel.
Absolutely perfect and exquisitely blended perfume, which works as the softest and most alluring suede/leather layer over my skin. Delicate, genderless and attractive.
Contrast that with these two reviews from men:
- It is a soft and beautiful fragrance, a leather-musk-floral combo. In fact it is VERY soft and comes across as a kind of powdery though not real powdery, and I personally like my leathers a bit more rough. Thus, I’d rather smell this on a woman.
- Let me be blunt and merciful…I found Cuir d’Ange to be a big disappointment. Okay, it’s a decent fragrance (nothing bad) but it wasn’t what I was expecting nor do I feel that it lives up to the Hermessence high price-tag.[¶] Light-leather and light-floral is what I get out of this one. I also sensed a fresh marine vibe. Go figure! The leather in CdA has an elegant feel to it, however it was way too light for my taste. No doubt a number of folks will be asking, “Where’s the leather?” For this reason, it comes across being much more feminine to my nose. These buttery soft-leather frags are just not in my wheelhouse. [¶] If Cuir d’Ange were marketed as a women’s fragrance then I probably wouldn’t rate it. I would still sniff it, but I wouldn’t rate it. However, I found CdA to be way too soft and feminine for most men.
A number of commentators have issues with Cuir d’Ange’s sillage. One person said it was a skin scent on them before the first hour was up, another called it “disappointing.” I read one blog review where the chap said he applies 5 sprays to his body and a 6th to his clothes in order to have even a modicum of a scent “halo.” I suspect such quantities would be the norm (or the minimum) if you wanted to detect Cuir d’Ange in an actual scent cloud, or without bringing your nose right to your arm after the first hour.
Some people love Jean-Claude Ellena’s transparent aesthetic and minimalism, don’t mind the discreet intimacy of his scents, or appreciate their thin sheerness. I am most definitely not one of them. In fact, it drives me absolutely up the bloody wall. I’ve tried mere colognes with three times the power or longevity of his fragrances. I once read an article somewhere (which I can’t find now) where Hermès said that it made scents for breakfast and lunchtime, the implication being that they didn’t make dramatic, rich scents for evenings or opulent occasions. Okay, that’s not my style (or an aesthetic that I much appreciate), but it would be less exasperating if Hermès didn’t charge so much for those breakfast scents. Like others in the Hermessence Collection, Cuir d’Ange costs $245 or €200 for a 100 ml bottle, and doesn’t come as anything stronger than an eau de toilette concentration.
However, and this part is key, Hermès does sell a travel or gift set of four 15 ml bottles for $156 or €120. You can buy 4 mixed bottles of different scents in the Hermessence line, or all 4 can be the same one. In short, for $156, you would be getting 60 ml or 2 oz of perfume, which is more than the standard 50ml/1.7oz amount from other companies. As such, it is a more reasonable price.
The only problem with this deal is that Hermès rarely includes its entire Hermessence collection amongst the available choices for those 4 bottles on its website. There are usually has only a handful of scents listed, like the vetiver, rose, tonka, or whatever else they happen to have decided to include at that particular moment in time. I’ve rarely seen Ambre Narguilé included, and the new Cuir d’Ange has not been shown on any of the last 5 occasions that I’ve checked. Your solution is to call one of Hermès’ brick-and-mortar boutiques, and to order by phone. It seems to be a common response to get around the website’s limited availability.
Scent-wise, the bottom-line is that Cuir d’Ange is the ultimate, perfect manifestation of the smell of Hermès’ leather creations when brand-new, clean, and waiting to be worn. It’s incredibly refined, supple leather that has been stripped of all its impurities, and it oozes extremely expensive elegance. It’s not a true, hardcore leather scent — and it’s definitely not a dirty, dark, or masculine one, either — but then, it’s not trying to be. It wants to be the smell of Hermès’ leather, and it manages that in spades. I love it, and not only because it sends me back in time; I truly think it’s incomparably chic.
However, I would never buy Cuir d’Ange for myself, not even in the mini-travel form as part of the set. Jean-Claude Ellena’s headlong descent into ever greater wispy thinness, translucency, non-existent sillage, and poor longevity is simply too exasperating for me. Honestly, I’m waiting for him to bottle air any moment now, and to charge $200+ dollars for the fleeting privilege of wearing it. Cuir d’Ange may be the best thing he’s has done in years, but it also comes with too many issues for me, personally. Perhaps you’ll have better luck with it. It’s certainly elegant enough to seek out for a test sniff.