The Ballerina, The Maharaja and The Tailor – Reviews: Iris Prima, Vaara and Sartorial By Penhaligon’s

By Tara

Established in 1870, Penhaligon’s is a quintessentially English fragrance house. I am fond of their witty, English eccentric style and they have made some interesting choices regarding their perfumes in the last few years. Admirably, they have managed to avoid becoming staid without losing their identity. Here are my thoughts on three of their more recent releases.

Iris Prima, Eau de Parfum

penhaligons iris prima

Head: Bergamot, Green Amber, Pink Pepper
Heart: Iris Absolute, Jasmine Sambac, Hedione, Paradisone
Base: Leather, Vanilla, Sandalwood, Vetiver, Benzoin

Penhaligon’s most recent release was inspired by the English Royal Ballet and what better perfume material to represent this rarefied world than iris? The opening of Iris Prima is a pleasant coupling of raspy iris and happy-go-lucky bergamot, followed by a dusting of powder and clean jasmine.

While iris tends to come across as rather cold and aloof, the other heart notes combine to give it brightness and sparkle. The iris is cheered up by a big bouquet of flowers in full bloom. Longevity is reasonable on me, eventually drying down to a base of very soft vanilla suede.

Iris Prima might be worth checking out if you are still looking for a pretty, easy to wear iris for your collection.

Vaara, Eau de Parfum

penhaligons vaara

Head: Quince, Rosewater, Carrot Seed, Coriander Seed, Saffron
Heart: Moroccan Rose Absolute, Bulgarian Rose Oil, Freesia, Indian Magnolia, Peony, Iris
Base: Honey, White Musk, Cedarwood, Sandalwood, Benzoin Resin, Tonka Bean

Although inspired by an Indian prince, I’d describe Vaara as rather more feminine than masculine. The opening is a gorgeous melange of tart quince, sweet rosewater, vegetal carrot seed and creamy saffron. I adore it for all these delicious, contrasting accords. It develops into a transparent rose with a mist of powder which manages to add to its beauty without making it feel dated. I just wish the base was more distinctive and it had a bit more sillage.

Vaara would appeal to those like me who prefer their spices mild. Those looking for something spicier or more evocative of India might be disappointed, but I think the composition makes sense considering it’s representing such a classic English brand.

My mother is Anglo-Indian and to me Vaara is an Anglo-Indian perfume. This association is partly why I feel a great affection for it despite its imperfections.

Sartorial, Eau de Toilette


Head: Aldehydes, Ozonic Effect, Metallic Effect, Violet Leaf, Neroli, Cardamom, Black Pepper, Fresh Ginger
Heart: Beeswax, Cyclamen, Linden Blossom, Lavender, Leather
Base: Gurgum Wood, Patchouli, Myrrh, Cedarwood, Tonka Bean, Oakmoss, White Musk, Honey Effect, Old Wood Effect, Vanilla, Amber

While Vaara reminds me of my mother, Sartorial reminds me of my father – or rather his wardrobe. I recognise the familiar wooden interior along with its contents of well worn clothes, aftershaves, leather belts, shoes, nail clippers and stacks of paperwork. This association isn’t too far-fetched considering the inspiration was actually a Savile Row tailor’s workroom.

Sartorial starts off like a very traditional aromatic fougere in the mould of so many macho aftershaves from the 70s and 80s. However, it settles down into something a lot more modern and interesting. It becomes worn in and musty with mineral and herbal facets. I get a strong case of synaesthesia with Sartorial because I see a grainy grey colour each time I wear it. It’s a fragrance with a lot of character and texture.

It’s so distinctive I could imagine it becoming quite addictive for some. It’s too masculine for me but it might work really well on a dapper younger man or a woman who likes to wear something unexpected.

The perfumer behind Vaara and Sartorial is Bertrand Duchaufour, while
Alberto Morillas created Iris Prima. They are currently available in 50ml and 100ml from £65 to £120.


Have you tried any of these fragrances? Do you have a favourite from Penhaligon’s?

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This entry was posted in By Tara, Floral, Fougère, Fragrance Reviews, Iris, Penhaligon's, Spicy, Vetiver, Woods and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to The Ballerina, The Maharaja and The Tailor – Reviews: Iris Prima, Vaara and Sartorial By Penhaligon’s

  1. Undina says:

    Penhaligon’s isn’t represented well where I live so I have an extremely limited exposure to the line. Lily of the Valley is a perfume I enjoyed the most so far but I look forward to testing Iris Prima.

    • Tara says:

      I had a quick look on the Penhaligon’s website and they are available at Saks San Franciso, if you’ll be making a trip there at any point.

      Hope you like Iris Prima when you get to try it.

  2. lucasai says:

    Really great mini reviews of three Penhaligon’s. Bravo Tara!
    My casual iris-to-go is Prada Infusion d’Homme but I will definitely give Iris Prima a try. It’s still not available in Poland.
    Vaara – I remember that Victoria of BdJ said it doesn’t have much to do with India, just like Etro Rajasthan. If I happen to come across it, I will sample! Like you, I prefer my spices mild.

  3. Vanessa says:

    I enjoyed this trio of reviews very much – your description of Iris Prima was as delicately drawn as an elfin ballet dancer, and I am glad the longevity was okay on you.

    Vaara I am now dead keen to try – the ‘Indian-lite’ connection appeals to me too, for I also prefer my spices on the mild side. Funnily enough, I never connected with Malabar, though I don’t remember why.

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, V.

      When I get some more Vaara I’ll send you a sample. I think you’ll like it. It’s just a pity the base is rather “meh” – to use a technical term 🙂

  4. Lady Jane Grey says:

    I’m a fan of Penhaligon’s, they’re so quintessentially British for me. And although I own and wear two of their parfums only (Blenheim B, and Juniper Sling) I’m always awating their new releases with excited curiosity. Back in September I sampled Iris Prima – and found it ballerina-like pretty, and probably exactly therefore so fleeting on my robust skin. I rarely use parfum when going to bed for the night, but this one could be the right sleep-scent for me.
    I planned to sample Vaara when back in London tomorrow… So now you can read my thoughts too, Tara ?! 😉

    • Tara says:

      Iris Prima is very ballerina- pretty. I don’t think your skin is to blame this time though. V and others have found it fleeting. I think a base layer of La Roche-Posay Lipikar Balm helped in my case. I agree it could make a good sleep scent.

      Ha ha re Vaara! Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  5. Sandra says:

    I enjoyed reading your impressions on these three perfumes. Iris Prima will certainly be on my to try list now. If I muster up some courage (spices usually scare me) I will also try Vaara.

    • Tara says:

      Sandra, no need at all to work up courage for trying Vaara. I didn’t even get the coriander. Nothing to fear for those who are spice averse.

  6. Sabine says:

    I have tried both Vaara and Iris Prima and but found them, like Lady Jane Grey said, may be a bit too pretty. But thanks to your review I’m now rather intrigued by the grainy grey Sartorial and will give that a go when I’m next in town.

    • Tara says:

      Sabine, Iris Prima is rather too pretty for me too.

      I really hope you like Sartorial. I think it could very attractive and intriguing on a woman.

  7. janeykate says:

    I love Penhaligon’s, and have one of their collections of small bottles of perfumes on my dressing table at the moment. My mum wears Penhaligon’s Gardenia, and just opening the bottle reminds me of her. She used to wear this perfume when I younger, I’m not sure if they stopped making it and re released it not so long ago.
    Jane x

    • Tara says:

      I bet that collection looks great on your dressing table. I do like their bottles a lot.

      How lovely to have a perfume that reminds you so strongly of your mother.

  8. Olfactoria says:

    You make them sound lovely, Tara!
    I find Iris Prima especially enticing, but Vaara also seems worth a try. The Husband might enjoy Sartorial…
    Thank you for these reviews!

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, B!

      I wonder if there’s enough iris in Iris Prima for you. It’s good for those who like their iris light and pretty with lots of flowers. But give it a try along with Vaara.

      I’d love to hear what The Husband thinks of Sartorial.

  9. annemariec says:

    I’m like Undina – I don’t live near a Penhaligon’s supplier. I would have to purchase samples (same with Jo Malone) and there are so many of them. They mostly sound only average-good, so I’ve never really got around to it. Hard to know where to start. Amaranthine is the only one I know well, having bought a FB in Melbourne a few years ago. That is a Duchafour and from reviews I’ve read, it sounds like the only really distinctive, innovative fragrance in the whole line-up. I’d like to try Orange Blossom and Juniper Sling, though.

    Thanks for the mini-reviews. It’s interesting that you like Vaara despite its flaws. Goes to show that a perfume does not have to be perfect.

    • Tara says:

      Amaranthine has to be the most original of the lot.

      Their back catalogue is traditional but with perfumers like Duchaufour working for them in recent years they’re producing stuff well worth trying if you have access.

      I really want to try Juniper Sling too. I think I’d love it.

  10. Great reviews Tara! I very much like your descriptions of these with the personal touch about your mother and father.

    Vaara is my fave of the three but I do enjoy all of them. Sartorial is such a great take on the classic fougere and it really does have to be worn with a snappy suit!


  11. FeralJasmine says:

    I only have a few things from this line. I like a bit of Bluebell on (very) occasional sharp spring days, but Amaranthine is the one that gets serious skin time. Floral with a milky undertone is my idea of a great comfort scent, and it is interesting enough to satisfy me without activating any resistance from my perfume-averse colleagues.
    I may give Vaara a try. My current deep, serious, marriage-type perfume love is NV’s Trayee, but I don’t think I can get away with wearing it to work, so Vaara might be a compromise.

    • Tara says:

      Vaara is a long way from Trayee but nobody at work would bat an eye at it.

      I love the way you describe Amaranthine and I can see how it works perfectly for you.

  12. Lavanya says:

    After reading your review- Vaara is the one I really want to try..I like how you describe it as an Anglo-Indian perfume..:). I’ve seen comparisons between the top notes of Vaara and Mohur- do you get that resemblance at all?

    • Tara says:

      Hi Lavanya

      I didn’t know comparisons had been made between the opening of Vaara and Mohur. I’d have to re-test Mohur but I don’t remember finding the opening as luminous as I do with Vaara and I’m sure it had a lot more spice. I wouldn’t be surprising if there were similarities though considering Duchaufour did them both. I’d be interested in your thoughts when you do try it but suspect you’ll find it rather too tame for your tastes.

  13. Vanessa says:

    During my last holidays in London I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful store and wanted so much a scent, which should accompany me back home, but somehow I had no luck finding the right notes. Such a shame, because all the bottles are so beautiful and I will never forget my first christmas edition candle’ s scent, which gave our living room the perfect touch during winter time.

    • Tara says:

      The stores are beautiful and I love the bottles and packaging. Too bad you couldn’t find the perfect scent for you when you visited but I bet that candle was amazing.

      Maybe if you get the chance to come back one of the recent releases will be the one for you.

  14. Suzanne says:

    Tara, I’m pretty much unfamiliar with the Penhaligon’s line, even though I think there was a little shop in Paris where Ines, Asali and I tried some on very briefly. If I ever do get around to sampling them, I’ll be sure to try Vaara, as you make that one sound rather captivating and like my kind of thing.

    Btw, it’s rather nice to get the British perspective on a line that is so very British! 🙂

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, Suzanne!

      There must have been so much to do and see in Paris it’s no surprise that you didn’t get the chance to try the Penhaligon’s line properly. Hopefully you’ll make it to London one day and try them in situ, as it were.

  15. I love Prnhaligon’s fragrances. For a long time my top two were English Fern and Blenheim Bouquet. Then Sartorial came out and immediately went to the top of the list for me. Enjoyed you reviews, Tara.

    • Tara says:

      Thanks very much James. I’m glad you enjoyed the reviews considering you are a fan of Penhaligon’s.

      Blenheim Bouquet is such an absolute classic but it’s great to hear that you have taken to Sartorial so well. I bet it really suits you.

  16. Philipp says:

    I never paid Penhaligon’s much attention and have only tested Sartorial so far. It was nothing special, so I decided to give this house a pass for the time being. As far as newly-released iris fragrances are concerned, I am more interested in Silver Iris than Iris Prima. At least Atelier C. has never disappointed me so far.

  17. Natalie says:

    I am late commenting, but this is such a great review. My experience with these (excepting Iris Prima, which I haven’t tried) has mirrored yours, but I’ve never sat down to think about them in detail. You’ve articulated your thoughts on these so well that I can smell the fragrances coming back in my memory as I read.

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  19. Polly says:

    I’d been toying with buying Sartorial for a long time; initially I thought it was too masculine for women to wear, but, after many samples, I finally acquiesced and absolutely adore it! It really is an addictive intriguing fragrance. Thanks for the thoughtful reviews.

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, Polly.

      I can absolutely imagine it being addictively intriguing on the right woman and that woman is obviously you!

      Enjoy your bottle of Sartorial.

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