Perfume names carry weight. They bear certain promises, or hint at things to come. “Tabac Tabou” is a name that portends a hedonistic, sensual, or illicit exploration of tobacco. That last part turned out not to be the case for me. In fact, judging by what appeared on my skin, I wouldn’t consider Parfum d’Empire‘s latest fragrance to be any sort of tobacco soliflore whatsoever. Now, hay and narcissus…. that’s a different matter.
Corsica Furiosa is the latest fragrance from Parfum d’Empire, the always refined, interesting French niche brand founded and run by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato. It is an eau de parfum that seeks to capture the essence of Mr. Corticchiato’s native home, Corsica, and one that I was extremely excited to try.
I was in Corsica about 5 years ago, and went around the island, but my friends and I stayed mostly at a place called Domaine de Murtoli. It is a large 2,500 hectare estate with luxury villas near Figari, Corsica, which has everything from private beaches and forests, to shrub-covered “maquis” (small mountains), a farm, horse-back riding, and more. I very much enjoyed the island’s wild, untamed nature, whether it was Corsica’s mountainous plains of herbaceous greenness with a floral touch, its dusty paths, its pristine (slightly rocky) beaches, and its sunny warmth. From fragrant immortelle growing on high cliff-tops over azure waters, to an ancient wood that the Druids would have loved, beachside lunches of oursin (sea urchin) and langoustine (small lobsters) that had been caught just hours before, and a superlative restaurant located in a series of large, prehistoric caves inside a mountain, Corsica was a magical experience for me. Continue reading
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.
Cost, Availability & Sample Sets: Cuir Ottoman is an eau de parfum and costs $75 (or €66) for a small 1.7 oz/50 ml bottle, while the large 3.4 oz/100 ml bottle costs
$110, €92, or £84.50. Parfum d’Empire’s website carries only the large 100 ml bottle at the European price of €92. If you want to try out Cuir Ottoman and some other fragrances from the line, Parfum d’Empire offers two different sample sets directly from its own website. The first Mini Sample Set is for 3 fragrances of your choice in 2 ml vials for €6 or €10 (depending on your location) with free shipping, while the Full Sample Set of all 13 Parfum d’Empire fragrances also is for 2 ml vials with free shipping and costs €14 or €22 (for the EU or the rest of the world). In the U.S.: You can buy Cuir Ottoman at Luckyscent which sells the smaller bottle in a 1.7 oz/50 ml size for $75, along with the larger 3.4 oz/100 ml bottle for $110 and a sample for $3. MinNewYork sells that same 50 ml bottle for $100. Elsewhere, The Perfume Shoppe which has a Canadian branch in Vancouver is currently out of stock of Cuir Ottoman. Outside the U.S.: In the UK, you can find Cuir Ottoman at Les Senteurs which sells the large 100 ml bottle for £84.50, along with a sample. In Paris, you can find Cuir Ottoman in both sizes at Jovoy Paris which sells the smaller 50 ml/1.7 oz bottle for €66. I believe the Parfum d’Empire line is also sold at Les Galleries Lafayette. For the rest of Europe, Germany’s First in Fragrance sells the large 3.4 oz bottle for €115, along with samples, while France’s Premiere Avenue sells it for the retail price of €92. Both sites ship internationally. In Australia, Libertine sells Cuir Ottoman for AUD$150 for the 50 ml/1.7 oz size. In the UAE, you can find Parfum d’Empire fragrances at Les Galleries Lafayette in Dubai. For all other countries from Oman to Italy and Russia, you can find Cuir Ottoman at a retailer near you using the Store Locator on Parfum d’Empire’s website. Samples: To test Cuir Ottoman for yourself, Surrender to Chance sells samples starting at $3.49 for a 1 ml vial. Many of the sites listed above sell samples of it as well.
It was a cold Spring, that April in 1986, when I went behind the Iron Curtain and visited the Soviet Union. Snow still lingered in parts of Moscow and the rural countryside that my group visited. I remember the grimness of Moscow, and have crazy stories about my time there: from our Russian minders; to the bugs in the telephone at the vast hotel where we stayed (either the Hotel Ukraina or the Cosmos) in Moscow; to stomping through birch forests to use a medieval, wooden out-house; and how I was interviewed on camera in the lobby for a news piece about the recent U.S.-Russian ballistic nuclear arms treaty. They quickly yanked and cut that interview when the journalist discovered I wasn’t just some mindless, young tourist who would babble about the glories of peaceful Mother Russia. To his unmitigated horror, I answered his question by giving a concise, Cold War breakdown of the history of nuclear arms talks and treaties between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. going back to the 1960s. His dirty looks followed me all across the giant lobby as I left….
My group ended up being kicked out of the Soviet Union after someone on it was caught engaging in black market dealings and a few other transgressions. (Not me!) It was probably just as well since we were in Kiev at the time and, as I mentioned, it was April 1986. Kiev, for those of you who don’t know, is in the Ukraine, and less than an hour’s drive from Chernobyl where the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history occurred only a few days later. We would have been there, but, instead, I was back in Paris when news of the disaster hit. The prevailing winds drew most of the radioactive fall-out away from the city, but my mother was still relieved that we left earlier than planned, even if it was under less than glorious circumstances.
Though I went to the Soviet Union, I saw enough of old Russia during my time there, from the magnificent old churches to the palaces. It is always Vladimir, however, which comes instantly to mind when I think of that trip. It was one of the ancient capitals of medieval Russia, and two of its cathedrals are now World Heritage sites. The solemn grandeur of those enormous, dark, often candle-lit churches — and Dormition Cathedral, in particular — with their huge walls covered in icons, painted figures and gold is something I will never forget. It instantly took me back in time to the Russia of Rasputin and Catherine the Great.
In a way, so too does Ambre Russe by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, the founder and nose behind Parfum d’Empire. Well, it takes me back to Russia, though it’s more to a tea room filled with large samovars and smoke as people lounge on velvet or leather sofas and knock back drinks over plates of sweetened fruits. But it’s certainly more than I expected. Unfortunately, the perfume was also significantly less than I expected. It didn’t live up to its wonderful opening and that trip back in time; it was too sheer, light and airy to be the true molten, luxurious, opaque marvel of Rasputin’s boozy, intense, dark, opulent Russia. However, those who prefer more lightweight, airy approaches to their booze and amber Orientals, may enjoy Ambre Russe very much indeed.
I don’t think any perfume house has better stories or descriptions to accompany their fragrances than Parfum d’Empire, and Ambre Russe is no exception:
An opulent elixir, as passionate as the Slavic soul. In this intense elixir, the opulence of the Russian Empire is conjured by the golden warmth of ambergris, intensified by vibrant spices, the smoky aroma of Russian tea and the spirituality of incense. Ambre Russe, a fragrance for impassioned souls. […]
In the flamboyant world of Ambre Russe, nothing is done in half-measures: parties are as intoxicating and sparkling as the champagne that flowed in Imperial Russia but they can end in the white brutality of an icy shot of vodka.
Ambre Russe also conjures the warmth and comfort of dachas where Russian tea, laced with cinnamon and coriander, is brewed all day long in samovars. It’s slightly smoky aroma melds with those of the birch and juniper tar rubbed into the legendary Russian leather. At last the golden facets of Ambre Russe are burnished by the incense of the Orthodox Church, before melting into a cloud of musk. And the celebration ends in mystic ecstasy. Ambre Russe: as impassioned and uncompromising as the Slavic soul..
I don’t know who writes Parfum d’Empire’s descriptions, but I want to meet him or her, and bow down in awe. As for the perfume notes, Luckyscent offers the following:
tea, incense, vodka, champagne, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ambergris, vanilla, leather.
Ambre Russe opens on my skin with so much depth, complexity and nuance that I couldn’t stop sniffing my arm. The very first thing you detect is citrus note like that in really good champagne. It is light, fresh, fruity-sweet, and absolutely sparkling. It is followed by a “chaser” of vodka and spices. The alcoholic blast is accompanied by: treacly cardamom; slightly woody-citrusy coriander; endlessly spiced, rich honey, the slightly tarry aspects of the birch tree; browned, aged leather; and, finally, rich ambergris. The amber, honey and boozy sweet notes combine with the tarry, leathery undertones of the birch to create a note of tobacco. Rich, warm and just like that in fruited pipe tobacco.
Despite those many notes, it is truly the intense booziness of the scent, combined with the plethora of spices, which dominates those opening minutes. It feels a lot like the opening to my beloved Alahine, though the latter lacks some of the leather and tobacco undertones that are here. Ambre Russe also has a significantly drier feel to it, along with a faintly bitter, smoky edge and black tea notes that truly conjure up a Russian samovar. And, as the clock ticks by, Ambre Russe becomes even drier, woodier, dustier, and smokier. Hints of cumin appear, though they never evoke curry, stale sweat, or body odour. Instead, the cumin feels much like the dry, dusty powder. Unless you are a truly extreme cumin-phobe, I wouldn’t worry; the cumin is so minute and fleeting a note in Ambre Russe that I don’t think most people would detect it, especially given the extreme booziness of the scent.
Speaking of which, the champagne note slowly turns more into that of spiced rum, accompanied by the vast amounts of dried, stewed fruit that are a large part of the perfume’s base. The fruits feel like rum-raisin and stewed prunes, but there is also a surprising amount of stewed oranges to the note, thanks to the champagne. At times, the combination feels closer to fruity champagne, while, at other times, its more like simple, rich, spiced fruit. It flickers back and forth, but the truly odd thing about it is just how damn light, airy and sheer it feels. For a perfume with such strong notes, especially in the beginning, Ambre Russe is surprisingly lightweight in feel.
The swirl of dusty spices and fruit sit atop a subtle leather note. It feels honeyed, aged, and rich — much like the old, burnished, and oiled leather riding saddle that I once had. There is a faint powderiness that also appears, but it is generally well hidden under the warm smoke from the incense, the equally smoky black tea, and the strong hints of pipe tobacco.
You almost feel as if you’re in an old Russian tea-room in Kiev. The ceilings are a little black from decades of smoke, old icons cover the wall, birch trees logs are tossed into the fireplace, and the bells from a medieval cathedral chime in the background. As you collapse into the comfortable, soft leather banquets, a server puts champagne flutes on the table, next to strong black tea from the Samovar that is infused with massive dollops of cinnamon-honey. Stewed fruit are the only thing to save your stomach, as you ponder the baffling question of why a tea room is filled with sacks of dry, slightly dusty spices.
About 90 minutes in, Ambre Russe turns into a cinnamon-flecked amber perfume with incense smoke. Yes, there are undertones of honey, leather, tobacco, birch, and stewed fruit but they are light and grow increasingly subtle. To be honest, after that glorious opening and particularly after the second hour, Ambre Russe settles into little more than a light, cinnamon, boozy amber on my skin, and remains that way until the very end.
It is also incredibly — and, for my personal tastes, disappointingly — sheer. As early as the thirty minute mark, Ambre Russe starts to get sheerer and softer until, midway in the fourth hour, it feels as gauzily transparent as a thin, ambered kleenex. On my skin, the overall development of Ambre Russe was fully in the mold of a Jean-Claude Ellena fragrance — and I do not mean that as a compliment. In fact, there are quite a few tonal similarities between Ambre Russe and Ambre Narguilé, especially given the boozy rum, smoke, pipe tobacco, and stewed fruit notes. But, ultimately, Ambre Russe is significantly drier, woodier, and more dustily spiced. It also does not tip-toe up to the edges of the gourmand category in the way that Ambre Narguilé does.
Sillage and longevity also differ. In the first 20 minutes, Ambre Russe had good to average sillage, but after that, it projects little and its insubstantial weight turns the perfume into a skin scent surprisingly quickly. I tried it twice and, on both occasions, Ambre Russe turned into amber kleenex on my skin before the end of 2nd hour. (Far before Ambre Narguilé did on my skin.) Thereafter, Ambre Russe remained as dry, dusty spices and smoke over the lightest possible boozy amber base. That’s truly about it. However, Amber Russe has surprisingly longevity and lasted approximately 11 hours on both occasions on my perfume-consuming skin. At the end of the day, though, I found it to be an anorexic scent with little body and overall depth in the long haul.
I realise that not everyone shares my love for opaque, thick, molten perfumes, but that isn’t the real issue here, in my opinion. It’s that Ambre Russe’s beautiful, skeletal structure is there, but without the depth, complexity and nuance of its early start. It feels like a Lite or Diet version of a true, boozy, spiced amber. That said, those who prefer lighter, sheerer ambers may find Ambre Russe to be a perfect compromise, especially in light of some of the spices. Its lack of sillage, but serious longevity, may also make it perfect for those who worry about wearing serious orientals to a conservative office-environment.
I should note that I seem to be in the minority on the issue of Ambre Russe being far too thin. Take, for example, Luca Turin‘s admiring, four-star review in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide in which he writes:
Ambre Russe is quite simply the biggest, most over-the-top, most expansive, most nutritious amber in existence. If there was a cross between pipe tobacco and pain d’épices, this would be it. To call this an oriental is like saying that Nicholas II was no genius.
Notwithstanding that incredibly amusing last line, I couldn’t disagree more on the “nutritious,” expansive nature of Ambre Russe. But then, I rarely seem to agree with His Majesty….
There is a lot of love for Ambre Russe out there, along with a few polar opposite reactions. Perhaps the funniest (and my favorite) description for the perfume comes from Patty at The Perfume Posse who writes:
This amber rolls in fueled by vodka and lust after a handful of Exstasy and Coke hit the pleasure palace center of the brain, and you settle in for the long night partying in Kiev. As the morning light reveals the detritus of the night’s Pan-like revelry, you find yourself deep in conversation with a beautiful/handsome poet who talks about life and love as an art form, and the amber turns to beautiful glowing warmth, glad for human comfort and conversation. If only you could find your clothes, car and dignity, this would have been a great night.
Absolutely fantastic! Another favorite comes from Fragrantica where “Espi” writes:
Wearing Ambre Russe is like sitting next to a drunk but very attractive Russian sailor in a nice and comfortable pub. The only thing I don’t really get is why he’s got spiced honey smeared all over his body! 🙂 Quite the intoxicating smell [….]
Others talk about leather armchairs, expensive cognac, cigars, and old-world, sophisticated opulence. On Luckyscent, more than a few have given descriptions similar in spirit to this one from “yonderblues” who writes about “a room lit by candles filled with ladies in brocade dresses, surrounded by chavalier in their tall leather boots, sabers slapping their thighs and the scent of tobacco trailing after them.” I personally think these descriptions would be more apt if Ambre Russe were not quite so lightweight and gauzy since that completely destroys any sense of “opulence” in my mind, but, again, I have very different standards and personal tastes.
The main objection by those who hate Ambre Russe is the booziness. On both Fragrantica and Luckyscent, the negative reviews seem to center upon the opinion that there is just too much damn alcohol and vodka in the perfume. A handful of those commentators state that they don’t drink and don’t want to smell as though they do (“I hate vodka. I don’t drink.”) which is an extremely valid consideration. I honestly don’t think the vodka is that strong, especially after the first 15 minutes, and thought the fruity champagne note was much more pronounced, but, clearly, it’s all still too much alcohol for some people. As with everything in perfumery, interpretations are subjective and depend on your personal tastes, preferences, and history.
All in all, if the notes sound appealing to you, and if you love very dry, boozy, spiced amber Orientals, I would definitely give Ambre Russe a sniff. Those who are completely phobic about cumin — in even its mildest, most microscopic manifestions — may think that the perfume smells like “Rasputin’s armpit” (to quote one commentator at the Perfume Posse), but I don’t think most people will. It’s a very pretty spiced amber, and I think it’s extremely evocative of Old Mother Russia.