Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Iris Perfumes

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Iris is probably one of the most fascinating perfume ingredients; variously described as mysterious, perfumey, starchy, rooty, chalky, mineral, metallic, scenty, nostalgic, elegant, classy, bread-like, funereal,  and any other number of descriptors. It's quite incredible that a simple floral root (orris as it's called by perfumers) can conjure so many moods and aspects.

Visiting a Chanel boutique one day, which had a desk containing basic perfume ingredients in little bottles, I was able to smell iris  in absolute.

Without additional factors to enhance its qualities, it does smell chalky and starchy - almost like sliced raw parsnip or potato; quite difficult to describe - the rooty, dusty/mineral perfumed scent of parsnip is somewhat similar.

For the last century, it's been an important note in high-end perfumes, lending the distinct 'perfumey' quality so difficult to describe. I'd also compare this scentiness to clean cat fur - a sort of subtle haze, though I hasten to add there's nothing cat-pee about it! Orris extract used to be one of the most expensive perfumery ingredients, but recent developments in extraction methods have made it more affordable

Almost all of the best Chanel perfumes feature distinct note of orris - Chanel No.19, Cuir de Russie and 31 Rue Cambon to name a few

But there are quite a few perfumes which feature orris almost as a solo note subtly enhanced with other notes, and if, like me, you love iris, you'll enjoy testing and comparing these different versions.

Iris isn't an obviously seductive scent, at least not in the sense of hot and spicy, or creamy, sweet and gourmand. But it does have its own seductive appeal in the sense of elegance, mystery and a sort of coolness. It's perhaps most suited to moody, rainy afternoons, twilight and autumn evenings - something about its evocative earthy coolness lends itself to these times and seasons

Until I'd sniffed it in absolute and compared the way it's handled in perfumes which prominently feature orris, I wasn't able to easily identify it, since it's not a note like, say, lemon, or woods, which you encounter in everyday life.

I haven't tested iris perfumes comprehensively, but the following perfumes do cover quite a few of the most interesting, popular or respected in this group...

Hiris, by Hermes
Composed by the talented perfumer Olivia Giacobetti, Hiris opens with cool, elegant, slightly crisp notes and a touch of citrus. Its elegant scentiness is immediately apparent but at this stage it can feel a little too cool and haughty. The powdery make-up compact note also feels quite distinct at first, and some may be put off by the initial vintage or classic feel.

If so, then give it a chance to develop because after half an hour on skin it develops beautifully, with subtly warm, woody/nutty notes, chiffon-veiled in a lightly metallic/mineral iris.

It does change personality somewhat - from fur-coated and slightly posh, to natural - dressed in simple raw silk. It's a bit like Diptyque does iris (if you've tried Diptyque perfumes you know what I mean - contemporary, easy to wear, simple in feel). I detect a note similar to nutmeg, and in this sense it has something in common with the dry-down of Giacobetti's Passage d'Enfer by L'Artisan.

A light, yet contemporary perfume which, though a little 'clean' and proper in feel, is nonetheless the perfect perfume if you wish to smell 'together'. Wear it when you're on the verge of a nervous breakdown and no-one will suspect a thing! It would probably make a good impression for formal or work-related meetings.

28 La Pausa by Les Exclusifs de Chanel
This mysteriously complex scent is a veritable Catherine Deneuve of a perfume - elegant yet animal! It reminds me of rain-drenched trench coats and city streets.

If it was a film I'd imagine it starring Deneuve and featuring an erotic affair with a handsome author or journalist caught up in political scandal.

There's something about 28 La Pausa that lends it a touch of adrenaline - in a good way; a hint of anticipation, nothing like the 'safe' feel of Hiris. I think this is quite a seductive perfume, for certain moods. It's harder edged than Hiris, with more projection and perhaps a slightly androgynous aura.

It's also serious, elegantly minimal and it might scare off the intellectually challenged, you probably wouldn't attract a macho footballer in this (no offense to football fans!). It reminds me of the scent of someone arriving indoors after being in the rain, a touch of ozone, verging on salty, then as they shake out wet hair, scent emanates into the room

This was by 'nose' Jacques Polge for Chanel, which was a surprise to me as I'm not usually a fan of his perfumes (Chance, Coco Mademoiselle, Allure).  28 La Pausa is an outstanding perfume, enhancing (rather than clothing) iris with subtle musk, leather, florals and, I think, vetiver

Iris Poudre by Frederic Malle
Powdery with a capital 'P', this lavishly powdered iris is by talented nose Pierre Bourdon, who was responsible (alongside Christopher Sheldrake) for the iconic Feminite du Bois. Also Kouros and French Lover.

I love FdB and quite enjoy the sweaty/soapy skank of Kouros for men (though it's inextricably related to the 80s for me, the female equivalent I suppose being Coco Chanel).

So I was somewhat surprised by this abundance of cleanliness and talcum powder - reminiscent of a long bathing session followed by a thorough dusting with large, fluffy blue satin-ribboned powder puff before reclining on a chaise longue in silk robe and indulging in a crystal bowl of strawberry bob bons, coated in pink vanilla icing sugar.

If that sounds like a pleasant way to spend your afternoon, then this is for you! I find it distinctly sexless (you'd never find me wearing pink fluffy mules around the house). In a sense it reminds me of Malle's Lipstick Rose - it could be experienced as old fashioned, or wittily retro. Either way, my style doesn't match up with this tweedy-handed yet undeniably clever and evocative perfume. Iris has powdery elements, in as much as iris/orris was often used to scent face powder and talcum powder, so it's very much about association and in the appropriately named Iris Poudre this aspect is enhanced. Into dry down it loses some of its flounce by becoming a little more woody. On clothes it retains its powderiness to eternity, and beyond.

Strangely, it also reminds me of a posh Edinburgh lady from Morningside (Morningside is where 'sex' is what the coal arrives in - sacks - it's the accent!). Behind closed doors those ladies probably did, or do, indulge in elaborate powdery rituals before their banker husbands return from the office!
Notes: Tonka bean, vanilla, vetiver, sandalwood, musk, iris

Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens
As mentioned, orris is a rhizome, so its perfume has rooty qualities, and where Iris Poudre enhances iris's powdery associations, Iris Silver Mist is all about earth and the vegetal aspects of iris.

It's no doubt this earthy/mineral and rooty quality of iris that leads many to experience it as funereal or sad. But while I find iris quite nostalgic, 'sad' and 'funereal' associations don't enter my mind.

Instead I find Iris Silver Mist grounded, delicious, like roast parsnips, with the sweetness of carrot juice. I absolutely love carrot juice, and I seem to detect carrot seed in this perfume. Or perhaps the rooty aspect of orris simply smells carrot-like.

I like the idea of a savoury gourmand; this perfume makes me feel quite peckish - I feel like roasting root vegetables in the oven! The elegant, mysterious air conjured up by many iris perfumes is present in Iris Silver Mist but less refined, more earthy in feel. What I do notice is that, of all the iris perfumes I've tried, this smells the most alike to the pure orris extract I smelled in the Chanel boutique. It feels authentic, and since Lutens always aims to include high quality naturals in his compositions it comes as no surprise to hear the story of its making. Lutens apparently wanted the iris mood heightened, so perfumer Maurice Roucelle added every natural iris absolute and iris synthetic available, to create this ultra enhanced irisy-ness.

While it lacks the elegant mystery perhaps of 28 La Pausa, or the delicacy or Iris de Nuit (see below) it does enhance the chalky, starchy/sweet and rooty facets of iris so the overall effect is grounded, somehow suggesting strength and depth of character. It's darker and wilder in feel than the groomed urbane aesthetic of 28 La Pausa, or the healthily clean Hiris and in this sense it has an appealing mood of earthy intrigue

Infusion d'Iris by Prada
Earlier review Here (scroll down to review)
Infusion d'Iris is, despite its name, is more about citrus, florals and vetiver than iris. But the idea of iris is here in the subtle make-up and powder notes. It's what made this a surprising launch from a mainstream company such as Prada, going against the tide of sweet, fruity gourmands. It's one of my all-time favourites - very easy to wear, drying down to soft, earthy vetiver.

Iris de Nuit by James Heeley

The inky quality of iris is enhanced here. I use ink as an artist fairly regularly so I'm familiar with its earthy smell. Iris de Nuit balances this with violet and cedar to create a gentle, romantic mood. I always think of this as a perfume for poets
Earlier review Here (scroll down to review)

Other iris/orris perfumes worth trying..

Iris Nobile by Aqua de Parma
Iris Ganache by Guerlain
Iris d'Argent by Keiko Meicheri
Iris Gris by Legendary Perfumes 
Bois d'Iris by The Different Company
Hermessence Iris Ukiyoe by Hermes
Iris by Yardley
Heure Exquise by Annick Goutal