For the fourth and final installment of in my Iris Quest (see Parts I, II, and III here), I’m focusing on all the iris fragrances that I (a) either forgot to include the first time round, (b) features iris not as the main player but as one important element in a larger whole – iris as part of an incense, woody, or oriental composition, and/or (c) features iris in the role of cosmetic or lipstick-style scents.
Let’s begin with an absolute heart-breaker….the amazing and utterly unaffordable Irisss by Xerjoff.
17/17 Irisss by Xerjoff
A very kind friend sent me a sample of Irisss to test when she found out that I still hadn’t been able to track down a sample. She felt that no iris quest would be complete without smelling it, and having smelled it, I agree completely. For an iris lover, this is compulsory sniffing. The price, however, means that it is outside the realms of the possible for most of us mortals, so smelling it might just be a recipe for self-inflicted heartbreak.
Irisss is by far the best pure iris fragrance I have ever smelled, and I feel depressed even writing that, not because it isn’t true but because I’d hate to admit that price might actually correlate to quality when it comes to matters of pure iris root. It matches the iris in Iris Silver Mist for its stunning, crystal-cut purity, but paces well ahead of the Serge Lutens in terms of sheer naturalness and beauty. Irisss is like ISM with all the sinister, synthetic elements removed, and is therefore both less of an artistic statement and much, much easier to wear on a regular basis.
It is very difficult to describe the progression of Irisss, so I won’t try apart from saying that it reads very much like what I’d imagine a tincture of dried iris roots might smell like in isolation – cold, rooty, creamy, buttery – a distillation of the color of freshly-fallen snow or a pail of cream from a cow in an alpine meadow.
I care not a jot for the other notes – don’t care, won’t care – and it seems like they are merely window dressing for that incredible iris butter anyway. There is a bright snap of bergamot up top and a vaguely musky, powdery, almost vanillic dry down that feels luxurious but not intrusive. The very definition of “liquid good taste” as Chandler Burr once referred to iris.
Misia by Chanel (Les Exclusifs)
Misia had established its lipstick credentials early on, so by the time I got around to smelling it – I was in no particular hurry – I was fully expecting the pretty. And I did get the pretty. But I hadn’t been expecting the rather serious, somber orris root that tumbled out with the sweet, fruity violets and powdery rose. In truth, the iris note in Misia owes more to the sinister, root-vegetable iris in Iris Silver Mist than to the powdery face-powder of Lipstick Rose.
It was a surprise at first, but then I came to realize that Chanel would never put out a scent in the Les Exclusifs range that was all fluff and no brains – the grey-toned, rooty iris was put here to bestow gravitas. I mean, if you wanted all pink, girly fun, well, you can go to Frederic Malle (Lipstick Rose) or L’Artisan Parfumeur (Drole de Rose). This is Chanel, darling. Severe good taste must always win out over fun and fripperies.
Technically, Misia is beautiful. But it leaves me cold. I think it’s because in trying to breach the gap between the kitchy, self-indulgent fun of a proper lipstick scent and the grown-up, impeccable good taste of the Chanel iris, Misia kind of forgets to establish a clear identity of its own.
For me, it makes up part of that 10ml club I’ve got going in a box in my study – basically a box full of decants that will never make it to full bottle status. I spray Misia on, I like it, and then I completely forget about it. This is strange because I experience an emotional reaction to many of the Les Exclusifs, and I love both iris and violet. But I have to go with my gut here: Misia is good but not great. And in the pool of existing Les Exclusifs, this one is swimming in the shallow end.
Mon Parfum Cheri Par Camille by Annick Goutal
Mon Parfum Cheri Par Camille is a throwback chypre, all sharp elbows and no curves. The
plum note here is tart and sour, the iris starchy and masculine, and the patchouli dry as a bone. It manages to be rich and dark without being earthy, and light and powdery without being sweet.
For me, it immediately forms a memory bridge between the mossy plum of Guerlain’s discontinued chypre, Parure, the woody violets of Bois de Violette, and the dirty patchouli drydowns of grungy drugstore rose chypre classics such as La Perla Classic and Aromatics Elixir. It has a bitter, dusty grandeur to it that suggests a perfume with a long and storied past, like Mitsouko, although this is a relatively new release.
There is a studied formality here, a noli-me-tangere air that would make you hesitate to wear it in under anything less than very formal circumstances. It is forbidding. Not friendly or accessible. For all of that, I find it incredibly beautiful and touching in its sincere and odd lament to perfumery of the past.
Incarnata by Anatole Lebreton
Incarnata is like every lipsticky iris you’ve ever smelled but to the power of ten. It’s rather fun feeling like you’re being pressed up against a wall by a giant tube seething with violet ionones and iris rhizomes. It’s a lipstick on steroids. Review here.
Iris Oriental / Iris Taizo by Parfumerie Generale
More oriental than iris, Iris Oriental wraps a rooty, ammoniac iris up in a thick blanket of resins, woods, spices, and a syrupy, souk-like amber, making for an iris that, although built for comfort and not speed, is far from sophomoric.
The treatment of iris here is quite novel. It is only really evident as a note in and of itself in the first hour or so, when it displays a high-toned, almost acid yellow fruity brightness that sings in the same register as bergamot. So when the slightly metallic iris root note begins to bleed into the lower layers of honey, amber, smoky resins, and woods, it’s hardly any wonder that my mind flicks sideways to Shalimar. In fact, I credit Iris Oriental for making me understand, finally, just how important the iris note is in Shalimar. But Iris Oriental is not derivative or copycat; it references some of the building blocks of Shalimar but is its own creature. So much so that if you weren’t a devotee of Shalimar like me, the connections might not even enter your head.
In maintaining such a careful balance between dry woods, spicy cardamom, smoky resins, wet honey, and powdery-fruity iris, Iris Oriental tends towards fuzzy abstraction instead of clarity. On cloudy, windy days when the grey threatens to swallow me up, Iris Oriental is a soft, honeyed thing made of spun sugar and gold to wear upon my person, like a protective amulet.
1889 Moulin Rouge by Histoires de Parfums
When I want to smell like make-up, I want to go full on Priscilla Queen of the Desert, thank you very much, and Moulin Rouge is what gives me my Cecil B. DeMille moment. I was locked in with Moulin Rouge early on and I don’t think my need to smell like lipstick is so all-encompassing that I need to look further afield. This is perhaps the real reason why the classy, serious Misia and the fey Lipstick Rose never stood a chance with me.
1889 Moulin Rouge has the edge purely because it’s obviously a fine-boned actress with a large, camp gay man fighting to get out. The lipstick note at the beginning is almost putridly stale. Kind of like discovering a years-old Chanel lipstick at the arse end of some forgotten handbag and deciding, for old times’ sake, to give it a lash, only to spend the next four hours trying to wipe the stale, waxy, decaying stench off your lips with a face cloth.
This is almost as bad as eating that graying, whitish chocolate you find down the back of the couch one night when tidying away after the kids. But you know what I mean. I hope. It’s an almost attractive kind of staleness. I love it, because it’s so mega disgusting and mega delicious at the same time.
There is a boozy, overripe plum note, or pear, but some stone fruit anyway, collapsing and decaying unnoticed inside the leather bag along with the stale lipstick, and this gives off an interesting scent of booze as smelled on someone’s breath, a few hours after they’ve had a drink. It is almost sickly sweet, but in a good way. The iris continues throughout to be the defining element in the mix, though, casting its noble, rooty dust all over the stage and throwing lipstick shapes up on the spackled mirror in the dressing room.
Patchouli adds a shade of darkness and gloom in the basenotes, and I can completely see the vision of the dark dance theatre and the lonely Moulin Rouge dancers that Gerard Ghislain wanted us to see when wearing this fragrance. But this is far from a serious or dark scent. It’s very fun, retro, tongue-in-cheek fragrance, and one that calls for stockings with the line down the back of the legs, black patent Mary Janes, about an inch’s worth of Caron face powder, and Chanel’s Gabrielle red.
Oh, and if you have small children? Totally worth buying this fragrance just to hurry along those olfactory memories they’re already busy making in their tiny heads – kiss them goodnight while wearing this and they’ll remember that you smelled like perfume, face powder, and illicit booze just like any good mother does.
Bois d’Argent by Dior Privee
Aptly named, Bois d’Argent is a creamy, smoky woods scent with a streak of silvery iris running through it. The iris is here only to cut through the heaviness of the other notes – a piece of levain mixed into a heavy bread dough – so most of its lovely grey rootiness or butter tones are lost in the fray. However, without the soulful lift of the iris note, I think this composition would be a heavy, sodden mess – a dense genoise rather than angel food.
Bois d’Argent is primarily a sticky myrrh scent to my nose. Myrrh is a tricky material to work with in a perfume. Myrrh oil can be very bitter, mushroomy, and “black” in its favor profile, although I suspect that the perfumers went more for the myrrh resin smell here, which is smokier, woodier, and sweeter. Here, as in other similar fragrances such as Bois d’Iris (The Different Company) and Myrrhe Ardente (Annick Goutal), the myrrh is paired with a sweet honey and vanilla to tone down the bitterness of the oil, and a smoky, resinous woods base to play up the resinous, smoky notes of the resin itself. There is also a faintly licorice-like note here, a note that is frequently matched to the anisic qualities of myrrh oil.
There is a sticky, “crunchy” texture to this fragrance that I also note in Myrrhe Ardente, like crunching on honey candies, the small ones you sometimes get with coffee in Italian bars – they look and taste sweetly creamy, but shatter into shards when you crush them in your teeth. And as with the candies in question, there is a tendency to cloy.
For this reason, I find Bois d’Argent striking but eventually exhausting to wear. The silvery iris and woods opening is beautiful, but the sweet vanilla in the base is far too syrupy, and the myrrh just continues droning on in its monologue for hours and hours. I can say practically the same thing for Bois d’Iris and Myrrhe Ardente. There are times when these fragrances work on me, but something in them eventually cloys and wears down not only my nose but my spirits too.
Bois d’Ombrie by Eau d’Italie
True story: this was one of the first niche fragrances I ever tested. I fell in love with it, but I just wasn’t sure enough of my own taste to take a chance on it. So I left it in the shop and took Borneo home with me instead. Two years later, and I ordered a sample of it to see if my tastes have changed. Well, clearly, since I bought Borneo and liked this one, my tastes run to the more masculine accords. Booze, cigars, tobacco, incense, musk, heavy patchouli – those notes just do it for me. And this is really good stuff.
This one is a bit of a wild ride, though. It’s quite unhinged and unbalanced. If you put too much on, it does smell like vinegar (as reported by other reviewers). The trick is to apply it in dabs, transferring it from the sprayer to your fingertips to your skin, if need be.
The opening is boozy to the nth degree – and can be head-spinning if you sniff too deeply. It is a glass of Scottish whiskey, complete with a realistic peat smoke note. All I get is this smokey whiskey for the first hour, and it is fabulous. Although not as sugared as the rum note in Idole EDP or as sparkling as the champagne and vodka notes in Ambre Russe, there is something connecting all three – perhaps that leathery quality underpinning the booze, or the dark woods.
The scent moves past the booze and arrives at the main point, which is a wonderful leather-vetiver-tobacco accord that is rich and very satisfying. At this stage, it is all very men’s’ club and Paisley slippers, which I enjoy very much.
It’s about this time, when the booze has burned off, that I begin to notice the very carroty iris pushing through. It has an almost cheap, vegetal quality that seems at odds with the pipe-and-slippers mens’ club balance of notes in the first half, but what I think the iris does is to float a balloon up through the heaviness of the main accord, flooding it with light and air. The scent burns out on this weird note, this odd combination of carroty iris and dark leather or tobacco, and reminds me quite intensely of Heeley’s Iris de Nuit (or perhaps even Heeley’s Cuir Pleine Fleur).
I find the progression of this scent from smoky whiskey to leather and dry tobacco leaves and finally to a cool, carroty iris to be endlessly fascinating. It is kind of weird, and one or two of the notes smell a bit chemical (the pungent smoke at the start, the cheap little iris at the end), but I surprise myself by enjoying it all the same. I think that I walked away with the right scent two years ago, and would probably make the same decision today. But Bois d’Ombrie is wonderfully original and an exciting scent to wear.
Iris by Santa Maria Novella
A very pretty violet fragrance.
Dzongkha by L’Artisan Parfumeur
In Dzongkha, the iris drives all elements of the fragrance but manifests as a set of completely weird and unsettling aromas, such as soup, celery, paper, boot polish, and dry, cold earth. There is a vinegary, vegetal touch to it that links it, in my mind, with Bois d’Ombrie, another Bertrand Duchaufour work. Read my review here.
Equistrius by Parfums d’Empire
Equistrius is a soft, musky delight – an iris perfume that allows its normally recalcitrant, aloof self to be cajoled into a supine position on a chaise longue and be fed chocolate bon bons all day. The violet note is dewy and sweet and oh my God, right there, up top, with the rice powder note, ready to force the pleasure receptors in your brain wide open. Time and time again, I’m reminded why Marc-Antoine Corticchiato is one of the best perfumers around. Equistrius is iris made into supple pleasure.
Almost immediately, the violet and the iris and the rice powder become wrapped up in a baby blanket of rich, perfumey musk from the ambrette seed, with tiny hints of bread-cumin, hay, and apple peel flitting around the edges.
But mostly, the ambrette musk is a textural thing, causing a fuzzy wool-like aura to grow around the iris and violet. The individual notes become less and less distinct in the heart as they get subsumed completely by the musk, and if there’s one complaint I have about this fragrance, it’s that the “perfumey” character it assumes has a tendency to obscure the beauty and brilliance of the iris and the violet. This dwindling away into abstraction makes me want to re-spray over and over again just to relive that beautiful, bold beginning.
In theory, I’d love a big bottle of this. But the attenuation of character and definition over the course of the scent’s life gives me serious pause for thought.
No. 18 by Chanel (Les Exclusifs)
Talking about ambrette-iris combinations, I should really mention Chanel No. 18, because it is one of my favorite iris perfumes and is very ambrette-driven. My review is here. My love for No. 18 only grows with time, as I’ve come to fully understand and appreciate its offbeat beauty. It has a silvery, vermouth cocktail slinkiness that makes me shiver with pleasure, as does its green olive-dipped rose.
Cuir Ottoman by Parfums d’Empire
When I first smelled Cuir Ottoman, I was just beginning my exploration of fragrance and I found something in it hard to take. Looking back, I think it was the dichotomy between the very realistic leather note (a rubbery, new shoes type of smell) and the powdery iris, rose, and jasmine bouquet in the heart – the two halves seemed completely separate to me and didn’t seem to gel or merge until well into the oriental dry down. Now, of course, I love Cuir Ottoman because of this contrast. Go figure.
The leather note in Cuir Ottoman is a confidently realistic one. It is not smoked, not tempered with flowers, not liquored up with hay or amber – just a true, beefy leather smell. In particular, the rubbery smell of new leather is accurately represented here. The rubber note is very similar to that found in Bvlgari’s Black. I may be wrong about this, but to me, this rubbery aspect of leather is created by using a black tea accord, such as Lapsong Souchang. I drink this tea myself, and it tastes exactly like the top notes of this scent, minus the heavy black smoke notes that this tea also carries.
The florals come in soon enough, and work to soften up the leather note. The florals to my nose used to read indistinctly to my nose – rose, jasmine, iris? I couldn’t isolate one particular accord. It just smelled to me like a dusty, powdery, vaguely flowery mix.
Now, several years on, I can confidently say that the florals are clearly dominated by a huge, dusty iris note that gains in sweetness and plushness when it hits the hay and amber in the base. When jostled up against the leather note, though, the iris nudges the leather in a comfortable, powdery suede direction that I like very much, causing the leather to lose much of its rubbery, tea-like, tannic sharpness. The iris lends powder also, a rosy, lipsticky-type of powder. Combined with the suede or leather, this brings about a comfortable, classic accord that recalls cosmetic powder from a makeup compact that has spilled into the lining of a leather purse.