Brilliant, Brilliant! But Does Something Smell Fishy in Here?

When Guerlain came out with their l’Art et Matiere line some years ago, it was supposed to be, I guess, a dutiful effort by the venerable firm at edginess.  It’s been pointed out that the bottles are uncomfortably close to Serge Lutens’ in shape and size and the whole concept seemed to be an homage a Serge. Or possibly, homages had nothing to do with it and Guerlain merely had no intention of letting Serge eat their lunch.

Things did not go quite as planned.  The first three perfumes: Rose Barbare, Angelique Noire and Cuir Beluga, were a diverse crew, but none were great successes. The only real hit in the line so far has been Spiritueuse Double Vanille, which came in a later batch of perfumes added to the Matiere line.

Cuir Beluga, however, was a different story.   Patricia de Nicolai mentioned it in an interview as a scent she wished she had composed.  That statement made me excavate my sample bag and smell it again, as I know from experience the depth of sophistication and oddity you generally find in de Nicolai perfumes. Mme. De Nicolai has an appreciation for the offbeat in fragrance.

Now, as a bit of backstory since its release in 2006, I think I should point out that the critical reception of Cuir Beluga was lukewarm.  Nobody thought that it was particularly innovative, except perhaps Mme. De Nicolai.

It pays to remember though, that she is in charge of the Versailles Osmotheque, and can smell all sorts of olfactory treasures whenever she wants to, and was besides brought up and trained in the Guerlain tradition by the old firm.  When someone with that patrimony and those advantages picks something out as particularly wonderful, then maybe it deserves a second smell.

Cuir Beluga was composed by Olivier Polge who is the son of Chanel’s in house nose Jacques Polge, and he seems to have done work on any number of perfumes including Flowerbomb (a known sinus detonator) and also Midnight in Paris for Van Cleef and Arpels. Cuir itself has odd notes: mandarin, heliotrope, immortelle, amber assumedly, but notice-  no birch tar or anything else that would betray it as a leather perfume.  The nearly obligatory Guerlain vanilla makes its appearance at the very end of the coda.  It is sequentially…citric, slightly, very slightly, aqueous and it gives the impression of being sprayed on and then of drying off, rather like those spray powders that were trendy maybe a decade ago. If there is one aspect to it that is rather interesting it’s this wet/dry paradox it has going for it.

Then, if you want to get on to its second peculiarity, this is a leather note that doesn’t much smell of leather.  It’s supposed to smell of suede, but Serge Luten’s Daim Blond does that job rather better, frankly, even Lancôme’s obscure perfume Cuir does that better.  This Guerlain also has a very small fish note to it.  In fact Guts when consulted came up with the phrase “pet shop” to describe Cuir Beluga.  I puzzled over that briefly before coming to the conclusion that he meant that fish note, since most pet shops do have fish tanks in them.  Possibly this note represents the Beluga part of the perfume.

Still it is impressive in its way.  It has radiance and lift and lasting power and is kickily elegant.  It reminds me faintly of Chanel No 22, that is if the Chanel in question had gone berserk and drunk the fish tank dry at her local dentist’s office. Quite perfect in every way, but just the littlest bit off, that’s the final impression you have and perhaps the name is not right.  Shouldn’t it have been Cuir Galuchat?

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