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.