Chandler Burr writes that iris is “liquid good taste” and that description has stuck in my mind when thinking about, and wearing iris fragrances. I am not a natural lover of the note, but lately I’ve been charmed by the silvery elegance it brings to any fragrance, as well as by its ability to manifest itself in a myriad of ways ranging from violet, leather, vegetable roots, cosmetic powder, wet earth, metal, rising damp, and even (disturbingly) dirty, unwashed hair. Depending on what notes iris is matched to and what materials have been used to recreate the smell of either the iris root or petals, iris can mean a hundred different things.
I suspect that I lean towards the sweeter, cushier side of irises (iriii?) than the sinister, rooty side of things, but we’ll soon find out. In this series, I will be talking about iris fragrances that I’ve tried, own, or have owned in the past in an effort to hone in on around five examples I can live with, in the long term.
Want to join me?
Iris Nazarena by Aedes de Venustas
When Iris Nazarena was released, in 2013, the perfumer, Ralf Schweiger explained that he “had to find a point of difference with Chanel N°19,” presumably because N°19 is viewed as one of the key reference points in the iris genre.
That remark puzzles me because I don’t think any of the iris perfumes released since N°19 have had to struggle to distance themselves from it – no perfume really smells like it, either then or now. Furthermore, N°19 always struck me more as a green floral than an iris soliflore – the galbanum, to me, is as important a player as the iris (if not more). The vintage EDT had a wonderful, crisp leather in the dry down that is sadly missing in today’s version.
Iris Nazarena is definitely a modern iris, if that’s what the perfumer meant by finding a point of difference with the Chanel. It is, despite the plethora of notes, as sleek and as streamlined as a Barcelona chair. It is cool to the touch, like a piece of steel. Not bitchy, like N°19 – just completely controlled. If N°19 is Joan Crawford towering over you with a wire hanger, then Iris Nazarena is Claire Underwood lifting her chin coolly against a barrage of insults.
What I like most particularly about Iris Nazarena is the way that the perfumer slyly adjusts the color and texture wheel throughout the life of the fragrance, changing it from cold grey steel (iris roots, clean and ethereal) to dusty suede flushed with hot pink (juniper berries, the green apple peel of ambrette, rose) to white dust (incense, smoky woods) and finally to a crisp wintergreen glove (vetiver, camphor).
Iris is the significant driver behind the total smell – but the iris picks up something every other element it meets along the way. Apart from the opening, where it stands alone, cold, crisp, and slightly earthy, the iris is woven so tightly into the carpet of notes that it becomes part of the musky, sourish cedar that swells up behind the topnotes and merges its cool dryness completely with the ashy incense.
It is slightly smoky, dry, woodsy – reminding in some parts of the way Sycomore and Timbuktu wear on my skin. I admire its dry elegance but don’t connect emotionally to its beauty – it strikes me as overly mannered and remote.
At one point, though, I think that I could really get into this. This is the point at which the juniper berries and apple peel aromas of the ambrette-rose combination start to flush the cool grey of the iris with the warmth of fruit, alcohol, and bread. Suffused with this hot, rosy glow, the scent picks up the sensual muskiness of clean human skin and begins to feel a bit more unbuttoned. A cool, raspberry leaf-like note – or a touch of camphor from the juniper – sharpens the glow and brings it into high definition. Everything is pulling together at this point, and I am on board.
But the dial is soon turned back down again, draining the rosy warmth from the iris, and fusing it to a sourish leather base constructed with a salty, marshy vetiver. But don’t mind me – I have a particular sensitivity to both cedar and vetiver, and here we have both of them in full force. It’s not for me personally, but I bow down to its chilly, changeable beauty. I think this would be perfection on a man’s skin.
Speaking of N°19, by the way, I think that Ralf Schweiger has already produced something that could rival the complexity and sheer iris-rootiness of that Chanel classic, and that is the amazing Afternoon of a Faun (Etat Libre d’Orange), which I reviewed here. This smells (to me) like a turbo-charged version of a turned N°19 vintage pure parfum I once owned, but with a shot of coffee, syrup, and a damp clump of green-brown forest leaves added for richness. It’s rather butch, but so was N°19, after all. And better yet, it has a sense of humor, which is something I rather associate with Ralf Schweiger, he who did both Lipstick Rose and Fils de Dieu.
Terre d’Iris by Miller Harris
Terre d’Iris is one of the more interesting iris perfumes I’ve ever smelled. Instead of going down the lipstick/cosmetic route, or the cool violet route, or the green-citrusy route, it plants the iris note down in a an Italian kitchen’s worth of bitter oranges, sage, rosemary, basil, moss, and God knows what else, and expects it to fight its way out. It does, eventually, and emerges as an earthy but also quite plasticky iris note that acts as a civilizing force on the rowdier members of the assembly. It is a mesmerizing and energizing first act.
There is something called African Orange Flower in this, which I’m assuming is plain old orange blossom. Interestingly enough, aside from producing a slight soapy note from contact with the iris, it also melds with the bitter orange and rose to form a milky peach note. The plasticky iris note combined with this big, lactonic peach-rose combo turns the whole thing into something that smells uncannily like Gucci Rush.
I kid you not. I wore this for days on end, trying to figure out why I was getting flashbacks to being drunk in dark, sweaty discotheques. When I finally figured out that the ghost of Rush had been resurrected in the most unlikely of guises (a naturalistic, kitchen-garden iris), I was able to put this perfume to one side and move on.
I am constantly surprised to find the ghosts of my old perfume loves in expensive niche perfumery – Joop! Woman in Teo Cabanel’s Alahine, Kenzo Pour Homme in Histoires de Parfums’ Rosam (it’s the aquatic feel), and now Gucci Rush in Terre d’Iris. These are not smellalikes, of course – it’s just an accident of nature, a freak occurrence in an art where it must be nigh on impossible to create something that does not reference, at least in part, an accord that has been used before. But the association is enough to make me want to put that perfume away. Because, as I’m sure Lyn Harris herself would understand, it’s one thing to be out strolling in a sunny Mediterranean kitchen garden, and another thing entirely to be reminded of all the bad decisions you made while armed with nothing but a bottle of peach vodka and your best Wonderbra.
In other words, while Terre d’Iris seems like it might smell like this:
Felanilla by Parfumerie Generale
I just love this, and have been wearing it a lot lately. Felanilla is wonderful, sensual surprise. Iris and vanilla – hardly natural bedfellows, but somehow it works. Sexy vanilla wanders over to the cool, rooty Iris, who is typing a letter for her boss, leans over, pulls out the pencil from her bun and takes off her glasses, murmuring, “Why, Miss Jones….you are beautiful.” The romance of the moment is caught up in opposites attracting.
The opening is a fiercely rooty iris, made into a cool, silky powder that kind of feels like cornstarch in texture – it’s light and aerated, but you also feel the back tug of something stiff and starchy, like rubbing your fingers the wrong way against a piece of silk. Although I don’t know what banana wood is, there is something of the woody end of a banana stalk to this – not in terms of smell, but texture, because this smells kind of like when you get a bit of banana skin in your mouth by mistake. If you’ve ever done that, then you know what I mean – it sucks all the moisture out of your mouth.
The vanilla immediately starts to warm the iris from below, rolling it around its tongue until it is a sensual, buttery thing purring with contentment. Watching this happen is like when the black and white of the Wizard of Oz bleed into super-saturated color. I don’t pick up any of the hay or saffron, which is disappointing because those are two of my favorite notes. In general, this is all about the vanilla and iris for me. The iris is warmed and made sensual by the vanilla, while the vanilla is given some intellectual backbone by the iris. It is both beautiful and unusual.
I’m not surprised that I love Felanilla so much, because when I think about it, it has elements in common with both Volutes EDT (Diptyque), which I reviewed here, and L’Ombre Fauve, here. Specifically, Felanilla shares a certain starchy, cool-warm thing with Volutes (iris-tobacco-honey) and exhibits a certain feline, musky, “fur” note that is also evident in L’Ombre Fauve. Three points of a triangle? Whatever – adore all three of them.