The first time I smelled iris essence, I stood for a few minutes with a perfume blotter under my nose before I regained my senses. In an instant it conjured up frozen petals and snow-covered trees, and while this image of a winter garden was vivid, I couldn’t easily describe the fragrance. It was like nothing I had encountered before, and pinning down its radiant but surprisingly potent scent proved difficult.
When perfumers talk about the materials in their palettes, they distinguish between those that create effects and those that provide character. Vanilla, for instance, bestows a touch of sweetness onto anything that brushes past it, from fruit to leather. Patchouli, on the other hand, is all about character; it will change the whole impression of a composition to the point of drowning out other, more subtle, notes. In the same vein, even a small dose of iris can change a perfume and lend it polish and elegance.
Iris essence is derived from the rhizomes of Iris pallida, which must first undergo a lengthy and complex treatment before they can be distilled. For this reason, it is one of the most expensive aromatics used in perfumery. In concentrated form its smell is reminiscent of carrots, which incidentally share several aroma-compounds with iris roots. Diluted, however, iris acquires a haunting, protean character, oscillating between a petal and a sliver of wood.
To experience iris in its full splendour, I turn to Serge Lutens’ Iris Silver Mist (€175 for 75ml EDP). Created by perfumer Maurice Roucel when he became frustrated with Lutens’ requests for more iris in his new formula, it contains every iris aromatic Roucel could find on his shelves, both natural and synthetic. Or so he says when he tells the story. The complexity of Iris Silver Mist and its suave character in reality speak of many hours of painstaking work to balance different facets.
Another iconic iris perfume is Chanel No 19, in which the floral is wrapped in leather, moss and salty woods. The brilliant green top note gives a vibrant and assertive character to the iris. The perfume exists in three different concentrations: the eau de toilette (£62 for 50ml) is a zesty and green version; the eau de parfum (£105 for 100ml) is warm and tender; and the extrait de parfum (£95 for 7.5ml) is velvety, with its iris notes particularly pronounced.
While this and Iris Silver Mist are saturated and rich, Hermès’ Hiris (£105 for 100ml EDT) is a watercolour étude of iris. Everything about this perfume is sheer and tender: the luminous top notes, the green heart, the pale cedarwood base. It wears like layers of soft tulle, but has a surprisingly distinctive and memorable character that makes Hiris one of my most complimented perfumes. Delicate can be dazzling, after all.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog Boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher. To read more of her columns, click here.