Iris is one of my favourite notes. Its presence can add a touch of class and interest to just about any perfume. I’m obviously not alone in this view because The New Cavendish Club was packed out for the latest meeting of Perfume Lovers London, focusing on iris perfumes.
The group’s organizer, Lila, was our host for the evening and she confided that at first she was unsure about doing a whole event about iris perfumes, because the differences between them can often be slight. However, the aim of the event was to learn those subtle differences and to be able to broaden our range of descriptors for the iris note and for perfume in general.
Lila told us that she feels irises span a spectrum, with powdery, delicate irises at one end and rooty, earthy irises at the other. Traditionally used as a fixative to make perfumes last longer, iris has become more popular as a prominent note since the rise of niche perfumery. Lila likened the use of small amounts of iris in a perfume to adding cream to a sauce in order to give it a velvety quality. It has performed this function in iconic perfumes such as Chanel No.5 and Patou’s Joy.
The process of turning iris roots – or rhizomes – into orris butter takes time and results in a very small yield. The root is left in the ground for at least 3 years and then dried for a further three years before being ground up, diluted in water and steam distilled. One ton of iris root produces two kilos of orris butter, which costs in the region of 100,000€ per kilo.
Interestingly, Lila had two iris absolutes for us to try. Firstly Iris Pallida which was dry and powdery, almost musty, and a bit doughy. Then a blend of Iris Florentina and Iris Germanica which was decidedly deeper and much more rooty, with a resemblance to carrots. Of the two, Iris Pallida came across as more refined. Experiencing these materials would inform our appreciation of the following iris perfumes:
Irisss features iris butter, carrot seed, rose, jasmine, ylang ylang absolute, violet leaves, vetiver and cedarwood. Available for a whopping 600 euros a bottle, Irisss is a sophisticated, straight-up iris that is on the rooty side but still very wearable. However, for that price-tag I’d want it to knock my socks off and make me dinner. It didn’t do either.
Le Labo only list 10 of the 39 notes; iris, lime, patchouli, rose, ylang ylang, musk, violet, ginger, cardamom and civet. This is a slightly spicy, earthy iris with noticeable patchouli and musk. It sounds interesting on paper but somehow it failed to move me, probably because it has a cold, herbal aspect.
At this point a box of iris roots was passed around the room. They looked similar to root ginger and smelled a lot milder than I would have imagined. Orris is also apparently used as a fixative in gin, so shot glasses of the spirit were passed around for us to inhale and taste. Much chatter ensued, as you can imagine. Some detected a scent akin to iris but just as many did not.
Lila played us some classical music which had just happened to come on the radio while she was organising this event. She felt it chimed perfectly with the romantic and diaphanous quality that iris can sometimes have and I completely agree. The piece is called “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt.
No.19 is a green iris thanks to lots of galbanum. A piece of galbanum gum resin was circulated for us to sniff and it really does smell like the very essence of plant-life. Just wonderful.
Lila seemed to be alone in viewing No.19 as a comfort scent. Most agreed it was much more of a “mean bitch” perfume. It may be perceived as austere but it was also described as elegant and classic. I really hope to grow into No.19 one day.
ISM is iris to the nth degree. While it may not be easy to wear, it does smell amazing. Opinions in the room were split owing to the strong earthy, carroty nature of the iris. It smells like turnips and carrots being dug up on a cold, murky morning. Lila read a much more romantic description of it by Luca Turin from Perfumes: The A-Z Guide “…the powderiest, rootiest, most sinister iris imaginable, a large gray ostrich-feather boa to wear with purple devoré velvet at poet’s funeral”.
This Hermessence created by Jean Claude Ellena features notes of water iris, green shoots, orange blossom and mandarin. JCE was seeking to capture the fragrance of the iris flower, rather than the iris root. It was a lot nicer than I remember on previous testing. It was much more fresh and floral than any of the other irises we tried and had a kind of sparkling quality.
The final iris perfume we tested together was –
Pierre Guillaume of Parfumerie Generale is the man behind Huitieme Art. The line uses the minimum of ingredients to create plant-inspired fragrances. Naiviris is a rather powdery iris with a peppery opening and a clean woody backdrop. I can’t say this made much of an impression on me but someone did say it reminded her of the smell of “soft leather hand-bags” which is no bad thing if that‘s what you get from it. It combines Red African Iris and Zebra Wood Essence.
In rounding up, Lila mentioned some irises she enjoys wearing herself including Chanel’s 28 La Pausa (minimalist iris), In Peace by Space NK (fresh and feminine iris) and Infusion d’Iris Absolue by Prada (everyday iris). Lila also pointed to Hiris by Hermes as an iris that she would place in the middle of the spectrum, being neither too powdery nor too rooty.
My current iris of choice is Equistrius by Parfums d’Empire which is a warm iris with a lovely suede-like feel to it and touches of vanilla and chocolate. The colder, slightly metallic irises are not really me. Another great iris gourmand is the now sadly discontinued Iris Ganache by Guerlain.
Happily, there were lots of iris perfumes for us to try once the discussion was over. These included L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Dzongkha (vegetal iris) Frederic Malle’s Iris Poudre (chic iris) and Iris Nobile by Acqua di Parma (creamy iris). There was also the leathery, rather masculine Cuir d’Iris by Parfumerie Generale.
It was great to be able to try such a wide range of iris perfumes from so many different brands, all in the one place. No one could have left without a clear idea of what the many facets of iris smell like and the vocabulary to describe them.
Apart from the perfume, the event was a great opportunity to meet up with fellow fragrance enthusiasts. It was lovely to catch up with The Candy Perfume Boy, Nick from Les Senteurs and regular OT commenter and guest poster, Alexandra. It was also a chance to meet the wonderful Lady Jane Grey and perfume blogger Freddie from Smelly Thoughts.
Many thanks to Lila for an enlightening evening and to Basenotes for sponsoring the event.
Have you tried any of the iris perfumes mentioned above? What are your thoughts? What are your favorites?