Olfactory Deconstruction: Iris

Splices of Iris

Iris, or orris, is many things. It is famously known as the most expensive natural ingredient in the perfumer’s pallet, making it one of the most elusive and luxurious materials out there. It’s also one of the most beautiful and complex ingredients in the perfumer’s magic bag of tricks, allowing itself to be utilised in a vast variety of ways, which gives it this strange shape-shifting ability, whilst also allowing it to remain instantly and undeniably recognisable as ‘iris’ at all times. Iris is also a divisive material – some will dive readily into its often cold and aloof arms, whilst others will simply say it smells like carrots and they wish for it to be moved very far away from them. Both view points are valid of course, but the striking character of iris cannot be denied.

In perfumery it is not the iris flowers that are used, instead it is the root. The roots are dried over a number of years (hence the hefty cost – orris is an exercise in patience) and then ground before being distilled to create orris butter (beurre d’iris). Reportedly, one ton of iris root produces two kilos of iris butter, making for a painstaking process that drives the cost of the material skyrocketing up to the roof and beyond. But is the beauty of the material matched by the price? Well, the answer to that question will certainly depend on your opinion however, the complexity of the odour profile of orris certainly lives up to its value, more so in fact.

The scent of orris is a tricky one to pin down. It is most known for its earthy character, which in extreme can smell vegetal, like carrots and turnips. The scent is mineral but it can also have sweetness, sharing a similar character to violets. If we’re talking texture, orris can be suede-like or powdery, but in some instances it can also appear as doughy and thick. There’s also a woody character to the material and in terms of colour, orris can present hues that range from blue to purple to grey to beige. If you hadn’t guessed already, orris is one of the most fascinating and flexible fragrant materials out there and it has been put to use in thousands of intriguing ways throughout the history of perfumery.

Inside Iris - An Olfactory Deconstruction

Perfume is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each fragrance is made up of specifically shaped pieces that lock together. Perfumers match up the pieces, locking them together facet-to-facet, tessellating each nuance to either enhance or contrast them, or in some cases, to create something entirely new. The great thing is that, unlike jigsaw puzzles, where there is one way of piecing things together, perfumery is open-ended and the perfumer can tie things together in whichever way they see fit. This means that the picture at the end can be whatever they dream up. There are endless possibilities and to me, that’s pretty damn exciting.

In this post I intend to deconstruct the iris into its many facets, guiding you through a compilation of fragrances that showcase each of these nuances in an intriguing way. This is not a guide to the best iris fragrances out there, simply because there are too many to list, instead this is an olfactory dissection that aims to showcase the versatile odour profile of a material that is simply legendary. We will splice out each facet of iris, inhale its smell and shine a spotlight on those fragrances that let these specific elements of iris shine. So don your lab coats and safety googles, and get those scented scalpels out (also known as your noses) because it’s time to make the first incision.

Iris All-Rounders: Iris de Nuit by Heeley & Après L'Ondée by Guerlain

Facet: Iris All-Rounders
Scents: Iris de Nuit by Heeley & Après L’Ondée by Guerlain

Before we start to dissect the elusive note of iris, it’s important to shine a spotlight on the fragrances out there that celebrate and portray each of the many facets of orris. These iris all-rounders are beautiful kaleidoscopes that boast all the shards of pattern and colour exuded by iris, creating fascinating olfactory graphics that display the note in every single shade and shape. They are spherical compositions that demonstrate the interplay of iris’ many complex facets, all at once.

Perhaps the best example of iris in full is Heeley’s Iris de Nuit, which seems to display each and every facet of iris at one time in its development or another. Initially, Iris de Nuit is earthy and vegetal, boasting the distinct odour of carrots. Soon enough violet comes through to add sweetness, whilst an undercurrent of powder carries the blend through to a woody finish of cedar and white musk. All of this takes place on a breeze and a wisp, with its sheer complexity matched only by its remarkable transparency. Iris de Nuit is truly one of the greatest iris fragrances out there, which is not a bad place to start really now, is it?

Of course I would be remiss to start a round-up of iris fragrances without making a reference to the house of Guerlain. Now, I’ll admit that in terms of iris, Guerlain leaves us spoiled for choice. So many of their scents utilise the note in one way or another and a few push it front and centre, so there certainly wasn’t slim pickings when it came to selecting a Guerlain iris for this olfactory dissection (I’m annoyed at myself for not including Insolence TBH, but I’ll live with the guilt I’m sure). For me Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée is possibly the most notable of all iris all-rounders. It’s a bready, rooty, carroty, spicy, violety, iris wonder and it needs to be smelled to be believed. Go and smell it now, I’ll wait until you’ve done so before moving on…

Violet: Angelique by Papillon Artisan Perfumes

Facet: Violet
Scent: Angelique by Papillon Artisan Perfumes

Right, have you sniffed some Après L’Ondée? You have? Good! You wouldn’t lie to me now, would you? Of course not. Excellent, let’s move on. Iris is packed full of irones, which means that it can often take on the sweet earthy character of violets. In fact, iris and violet fragrances feel very much like kissing cousins, with the violets showcasing a more vibrant and excessive take on many of the grey facets of orris. Many iris fragrances have a violet nuance, whether that be from the orris itself or the addition of a violet note, which of course merges into the composition very well! In short: violet and iris are BFFs (squad sisters, if you will) and they aren’t breaking up any time soon.

One notable violetty iris is Angelique by Papillon Artisan Perfumes. In stark contrast to perfumer Liz Moores’ other creations, which are all gigantic beastly things (gorgeous gigantic beastly things I must add) with sillage that can only accurately be described as ‘transcontinental’, Angelique is intimate and cosy. In Angelique, iris is blended with violet, osmanthus and mimosa to create a sweet vegetal composition that is wonderfully innocent. Angelique is the perfect example of the notes of violet and iris in embrace and it shows not only the range of the materials, but also the range of an incredibly talented perfumer.

Suede: Dior Homme and Infusion d'Iris by Prada

Facet: Suede
Scents: Dior Homme & Infusion d’Iris by Prada

Iris and leather seem pretty far apart on the big wheel of fragrance but in fact, the former has a soft, suede-like quality to it that easily provides a strong link to the latter. This idea of suede as a texture in iris perfumes has been explored most famously in Dior Homme, which is undeniably one of the very best masculine fragrances of all time (come at me if you think otherwise, I’m ready for you). In Dior Homme, the iris comes out smelling just like a makeup bag made out of suede, with a soft, tactile character that is earthy but also ever so slightly human. The addition of lavender and chocolate are the orgasmic finishing touches that make one close their eyes, grit their teeth and thank the Lord that they’ve found something so darn lovely. All this in a modern day masculine – who’d have thought?

My favourite of all of the irises, let alone the suede-centric ones is Prada’s Infusion d’Iris. What I find so stunning about this scent is just how it manages to be so diffusive yet so light and airy. It is literally sprayable suede and it permeates the air with a delightful iris fragrance that is fizzy, supple, sparkling and earthy. You can smell Infusion d’Iris a mile away but it is just so luxurious and lavish you wouldn’t dare complain. The suede aspect gives the impression of an expensive handbag or pair of leather gloves, harking back to the early traditions of modern perfumery where fragrance was added to gloves to hide the horrible smells left over from the tanning process and adds an auburn depth to Infusion d’Iris, giving it just the right amount of weight to stop it from disappearing off into the stratosphere. Gosh, it’s endlessly gorgeous this one.

Dough: Bois Farine by L'Artisan Parfumeur and Vanille d'Iris by Ormonde Jayne

Facet: Dough
Scents: Bois Farine by L’Artisan Parfumeur & Vanille d’Iris by Ormonde Jayne

Oooh, I do love a doughy iris, there’s no denying it! Thanks to the buttery texture of orris, the note can often bring a chewy, yeasty softness to proceedings that is undeniably bread-like. Of course perfumers have used this facet in many ways, adding sweet and savoury notes to create accords that range from cinnamon pastry to freshly ground bread flour, allowing for some of the most subversive and unexpected gourmands out there – and I do mean ‘out there’ because these ones are a little bit weird, I’ll admit, but wonderfully so.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about bread and iris in perfume (which I often do, surprisingly) I think of Bois Farine by L’Artisan Parfumeur. This odd little Jean-Claude Ellena creation really does smell like flour – that’s right, flour, like the kind you use to bake your bread with – and it has a wonderfully grainy and grey texture that is fascinating. But if it’s grainy, why’s it not in the powder section, I hear you ask? Well, that’s because Bois Farine also has a wonderfully nutty, doughy quality underneath that makes one think of fresh baklava ready to be cooked. It is by far the most unconventional iris on the list and you owe it to yourself to sniff it.

Sitting pretty on the opposite side of the doughy spectrum we have Ormonde Jayne’s delectable Vanille d’Iris, and it’s a decadent, sweet affair made with some top notch vanilla and iris. At first, Vanille d’Iris smells like dark vanilla seeds scraped freshly from the pod and left in a sticky mess on one’s fingers. The vanilla smells as if it’s of the highest quality and is just about to be plonked into some gastronomical delight, but it is in fact, woven into the doughy embrace of heavenly iris. As the pungency of the top notes subsides, Vanille d’Iris becomes a beautiful vanilla pastry dusted with a light covering of earthy iris sugar. Man, I’m hungry just thinking about it.

Powder: Valentino Donna and Iris Poudre by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Facet: Powder
Scents: Donna by Valentino & Iris Poudre by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Iris is most often used to create a powder effect – just look at the vintage CHANEL or Guerlain fragrances, many of which have a wonderfully cloudy, powdery texture, all thanks to iris. This aspect can be grainy and stony, but can also create a finely-milled cosmetic effect that is super luxurious. The problem is that so many scents make use of this powder effect and often nowadays this impression isn’t down to iris (because of the cost) and can be the result of a number of other materials. With so many to choose from it was tricky to pick a couple that really represented the genre, so I went for one that was in a classic style and another that represented the tastes of today. With these two examples we go from the luxurious to the extravagant in just a few spritzes.

Let’s start with the classic and for that I like to go for Iris Poudre by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. Despite being released in the year 2000, this scent is a classic aldehydic floral with a touch of powder and whilst it may be iris in name, it certainly is more of an example of iris as a supporting act as opposed to iris as the main event. In Iris Poudre, a subtle and earthy face powder is blended with fizzy aldehydes (and tons of them too), a whole host of other classy florals (lily of the valley, ylang etc.), and a delightfully soft and intimate base of musk and sandalwood. It’s glamorous af, let’s face it, painting the picture of a Hollywood starlet prepping herself for The Oscars – an image we all wish to evoke when we’re sat at home in our PJs watching such a ceremony…

On the more modern side we have Valentino’s Donna, a scent that blends a ton of iris powder with candy-sweet fruits, creating a shockingly pink iris. For me, Donna typifies the industry’s current lust for sugar, piling a heap of fruity berries and candy floss into a violet-rose-iris composition that comes out smelling rather refined for something so edible. Donna is raucous, sensual and fluffy. She’s the life and soul of the iris party and is the answer to anyone who ever dare call the note dowdy and washed out. Others may be but Donna is vividly and unashamedly full of colour.

Paper: Iris de Syracuse by Boucheron

Facet: Paper
Scent: Iris de Syracuse by Boucheron

In some iterations, iris has the astounding ability to smell like fresh sheets of clean white paper. In fact, this was my initial thought when smelling a fragrance with iris for the first time. That scent was Guerlain’s Shalimar and my initial impression was of the art classrooms at school, thanks possibly to a combination of the petroleum facet of bergamot and the paper-like nature of the iris. To this day, my favourite kind of iris is one that can evoke the feeling of a blank piece of paper. To me, these scents are reminiscent of a spark of creativity ready to take form.

Boucheron’s brand new Iris de Syracuse (from their exclusive Boucheron collection) is one such iris. At first sniff, one spritz of Iris de Syracuse is akin to tearing open a ream of box fresh A4 (there are few pleasures in life that are greater, let’s be honest) but before one gets excited about restocking the office printer, some intriguing nuances come into play to ensure that this iris is more than just a fresh white sheet of paper. Quickly, dark twists of anise swirl on the page, creating liquorice art that takes the form of iris roots and flowers painted in watercolour tones of grey and blue. It’s as beautiful as it sounds.

Wood: Infusion Iris Cedre by Prada

Facet: Wood
Scent: Infusion d’Iris Cedre by Prada

The woodiness of iris is one of the material’s more subtle facets and one that doesn’t get so much airtime in fragrances, perhaps due to the fact that woodiness can be found in so many other places, many of which are cheaper and more accessible than the resplendent orris. But in iris there is this woody quality, one that is far from the spikiness of cedar or the plush, nutty quality of sandalwood. The woodiness of iris is grey and austere, like pale velvet.

My favourite woody take on iris is Infusion d’Iris Cedre by Prada. I was introduced to this scent last year when I judged the Best Unisex Fragrance category in the Stylist Best Beauty Awards. What struck me about this scent is how it appeared as a masculine take on the classic aldehydic floral, pairing the powdery, fizzy nature of something CHANEL Nº5-esque with something blocky, woody and masculine. The result is a refreshing and bubbly iris with hints of wood, earth and powder. I rocked it all of last summer and I very much intend to do the same this year.

Carrots: Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens

Facet: Carrots
Scent: Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens

Last but not least, we have the trickiest facet of the iris: the vegetal odour of carrots or turnips. This is by the far the most complained-about characteristic that appears in iris fragrances and this element is easily the toughest to get on with. That said, this rooty, earthy and mineral iris nuance can smell rather beautiful, creating a sense of melancholy, and of something aged and fragile. It is iris in its purest from – taken from the roots, it smells like them too. Of course, without a measured hand iris can go full turnip soup, which is never a good thing…

The most famous earthy/carroty/rooty iris is Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens. Lutens has a penchant for creating toxic, deadly and dangerous florals and Iris Silver Mist is no exception however, instead of appearing as a man-eating venus fly trap or a black mamba ready to strike, this iris is an alluring apparition that lures one in with a siren’s call. Iris Silver Mist smells of cold carrots and earthy roots. Incense adds to the grey, murky feel of cold water and vetiver gives tiny hints of something slightly green. As this iris slowly moves into the base it becomes less vegetal and slightly warmer with touches of powder and silky musks.

Iris Silver Mist is a fragrance that speaks of ghostly spectres and the cool earth of graves. It’s an ethereal veil worn by a funeral mourner and the silvery cobwebs found in an old, abandoned room. Never before has a more beguiling take on iris been made and much like the phantoms it is so evocative of, Iris Silver Mist feels bound to another world. That makes it the perfect iris to end on, don’t you think? The ghost of iris ascending as we finish our dissection.

Join the Discussion!

Whilst writing this article I have been constantly amazed by the complexity and multi-faceted nature of iris. It’s a material unlike any other, one that is rare and luxurious, yes, but also one that has a shapeshifting ability to share so many unique elements, yet always remain true to its character. There’s a reason it is one of the most prized materials out there and that has nothing to do with availability or cost, it all comes down to the fact that orris is heart-stoppingly beautiful in every way, shape and form.

What is your favourite facet of iris? What is your favourite iris fragrance? Let me know in the comments box below!


Samples via Heeley, Guerlain, Prada, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, Boucheron and Ormonde Jayne. Many thanks to Nick Gilbert for generously allowing me to borrow his beloved bottle of Iris Silver Mist for photography purposes. All other bottles not listed as samples are purchases of my own. Images are my own.