Fragrance: why everyone likes a lick of leather

"When you say 'leather' there is a buzz of sexiness," muses Clara Molloy, who runs Paris-based Memo Fragrances with her husband John. "In fashion as in fragrance, leather can be very versatile. The new thin soft leathers punched full of little holes look very feminine, but leather can also be a symbol of power and virility."

Leathery fragrances used to be heavy and masculine, dosed up with tobacco and spice, but all that has changed in the past decade, and leather notes now lead perfumes that are lighter, fresher and altogether more intriguing. The Molloys have made leather one of the cornerstones of their fragrance business. Clara is Spanish, John is Irish; Memo's "nose", Alienor Massenet, is Hungarian.

The idea of travel is central to the brand and there's a strong sense of the global nomad in the company's DNA. This translates into fragrances that take their wearer on a journey and evoke a particular place: Memo's first collection of fragrances was called Les Echapées. Thinking of the leather suitcases that an old-fashioned traveller might carry led to their new collection, which is all about the diversity of fragrance that can be found within the landscape of leather.

There's Irish leather (strong, with refreshing "green" notes that are a nod to John's heritage); Italian leather, which is interestingly leavened with tomato leaf; French leather (more delicate, rose and suede sparkled up with pink pepper) and now African leather, which is spicy but also flowery thanks to the inclusion of geranium. "It's totally unusual but it really does work," says Clara. "It's very modern."

The association between perfume and leather is centuries old. As perfume used to be a necessity to mask the appalling smell of leather, it's something of a paradox that leathery fragrances should be so enduringly popular.

James Craven, perfume archivist at niche fragrance specialists Les Senteurs, explains. "Scented leather had a huge vogue right through from the Renaissance, though the scent was added because the traditional way of tanning leather involved urine and faeces, which gave lovely soft leather but a dreadful smell."

King George III, for his part, so liked the smell of scented gloves that he commissioned Creed, the royal glovemaker, to create the scent in liquid form.

When modern perfumery began to take shape in the late 19th century, fragrances inspired by leather came roaring back. One peak was in the 1920s – those naughty flapper girls, showing their legs and scandalising polite society with their heavy make-up, loved the shocking masculinity of a leather scent.

Craven sees two strands behind the new popularity of leather fragrance. "It's partly because we have reached another non-gender-specific era, and partly because women have become unafraid to ask for fragrances that aren't typically feminine. There's also a sense now, as there was when leather fragrances were so popular in the 1920s, of women conquering something traditionally male."

His particular favourite leathers include Bandit by Robert Piguet, "a blond leather, very animalistic, extraordinarily sophisticated and very... ambisexual" and Cuir Ottoman from Parfums d'Empire: "It's perverse, a soft almost chamois leather combined with the scent of human skin and flesh. It's playing with the idea of the seraglio of Constantinople, the odalisque in the steam bath ..."

As Molloy points out, there's that buzz of sex again: these fragrances should come with a wear-with-care warning.

A smell that sells

When Tom Ford launched Tuscan Leather in 2007, it was an immediate hit; it sold out repeatedly, Harrods and Selfridges had waiting lists hundreds of names long for each consignment, and bottles swapped hands on ebay for four times the £100+ price tag. Why all the fuss? To its fans, it is simply intoxicating, all warm and woody and smoky. Yet fragrance supremo Luca Turin, in his excellent book Perfumes: The Guide, summarises its essence in two words, "new car", and gives it only a two-out-of-five star rating. Which proves? Only that beauty in scent is very much in the nose of the beholder.