If you were to guess the most precious flower in a perfumer’s palette, you might say a rare rose, an obscure jungle gardenia, or perhaps a finicky, fast-blooming jasmine. In fact, it is Iris pallida, a magnificent, proud flower with a head like a lavender flame, or an exotic bird with a frilly pompadour. And the funny thing is, it has no scent. Though some iris species (there are nearly 300) offer up a spectrum of whiffs ranging from Welch’s grape jelly to candied violets to vanilla-tinged suede, the pallida’s bloom is, from the olfactory perspective, nothing special. The aroma so coveted by perfumers comes strictly from the part of the plant that grows beneath the earth.
Every May the fields of Chianti, just outside Florence, purple with irises cultivated for the fragrance industry. Though Iris pallida can survive elsewhere, there is some X factor in the rocky terroir of this region that makes its yield the best in the world. But the process requires patience. After the flower blooms, its rhizome (called orris root) must be left in the ground for three years. Then it is unearthed, meticulously hand-cleaned, and dried in the sun for another three years, in which time the root oxidizes, increasing the concentration of a violet-scented molecule called irone. Finally, it is pulverized into orris butter, a waxy substance that can be distilled into a fragrant liquid absolute. From start to finish, it takes about seven years and more than a ton of rhizomes to produce a pound of absolute, which is worth about $30,000. The transformation is like a fairy tale: From a gnarled, old, dirt-encrusted root comes something more costly than gold.
It is not known what enterprising horticulturist or curious fragrance fiend first puzzled out this laborious process, but it’s been practiced for millennia. Pliny the Elder wrote of orris root’s use in medicine and perfumery in the 1st century AD, commending the Florentine source for its superiority. The royal patrons of Renaissance Italy almost certainly smelled of the stuff. Catherine de Medici kick-started a craze for it in the French court of the 1500s when she arrived from Florence with orris-scented gloves, and by the 17th century the finely milled root was being used to freshen up laundry and powdered wigs, a proto–dry shampoo. The flower itself is flush with symbolism, taking its name from the Greek messenger of the gods, who traveled between Olympus and the earth on a rainbow. Stylized as the fleur-de-lis, the iris has appeared as an emblem of French royalty since at least the 12th century, and in Christianity it represents resurrection. Even the ancient Egyptians considered it significant; the Great Sphinx of Giza, in suitably enigmatic fashion, has traces of an iris carved into its forehead.
Due to its prohibitive cost, orris has customarily been used only sparingly in perfumes, like a dollop of caviar or a sliver of gold leaf. “Orris is one of the most precious products we have, but it is also one of the most difficult to use,” says Olivier Gillotin, vice president of perfumery at fragrance house Givaudan. A perfumer needs to use enough so that it can cast its spell, but not so much that it makes the perfume too expensive to be worth producing. Historically, the great iris fragrances have come from brands for which money is no object: Chanel No. 19, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle Iris Poudre, Prada Infusion d’Iris, Bulgari Splendida Iris d’Or, and, most recently, Shalini Iris Lumière, which sells for more than $3,000 in a limited edition Lalique bottle.
The ingredient is so multidimensional that it is almost undefinable—at once earthy, flowery, peppery, musky, fresh, and velvety. For Gillotin it evokes “the body of a woman just after a shower”; others describe it as smelling of soil, tea, and chocolate. “It adds a sense of well-being,” says Dior perfumer François Demachy. “It’s like smelling bread. It makes you feel good.” Shalini Kumar, who worked with renowned nose Maurice Roucel on Iris Lumière, says, “Iris is often considered powdery, and as a perfumery note it is classified as a floral. However, the scent of orris butter is closer to that of green woods and wet roots. This damp, swamplike quality is magical and haunting.” Orris is also unmistakably opulent; it will dress up anything it touches. Sophie Labbé, the perfumer behind Iris d’Or, compares orris’s kaleidoscopic qualities to the facets of a gemstone, specifically the 300-year-old, 6.16-carat, $6.7 million Farnese Blue Diamond, which Bulgari acquired in 2018. Consider it the anti-sweatpants fragrance note.
Maybe this explains why iris suddenly smells so right, so modern. It is totally genderless, totally timeless. And don’t we all feel as if we’ve been underground for a while? We want to dazzle every mask-free nose we encounter, and for those eager to experience enticing post-pandemic sniffs, there is something particularly wonderful about orris’s strangeness. It is the scent of metamorphosis, of moving from darkness to light. Both comforting and exotic, it possesses an elusive quality that makes people want to lean in close. If ever there were a spritz for dancing until dawn, this is it: indelible, glamorous, and dirty in all the right ways.
Thanks to the rise of deep-pocketed niche perfume brands, there are more iris-based fragrances to choose from than ever before, a multitude of olfactory riffs on the ingredient’s shape-shifting je ne sais quoi. “There are so many ways to reinvent such a malleable ingredient, and to be creative with it again and again,” says perfumer Mackenzie Reilly. “It feels airy, diaphanous, and encompassing. It makes its presence known, but softly. I find myself intrigued and inspired by these contradictions.” More than any other perfume note, orris is connected to the alchemy of time and the transcendence of nature, a reminder that beauty can emerge in unlikely ways. In the Victorian language of flowers, irises meant hope, wisdom, and rebirth. Could there be a more apt bouquet for today?
This story appears in the September 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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