Nobody was more excited than I when Hermes announced the release of Iris Ukiyoé in the Hermessence series, with the scent allegedly based on the iris blossom rather than orris. Orris butter – the source of “iris” in many iris scents – is made from the iris rhizome, which is akin, sort of, to making “rose” scents by macerating the roots of a rosebush rather than its flowers.
Fragrances that purport to be rose-scented are all over the place in terms of quality (and smell) but there’s a general concept of “rose-iness” that most reasonable people could likely agree on, be it spicy or more powdery or with animalic accents. Orris fragrances are lovely; my personal favorite is probably Chanel 28 La Pausa. Lovely as they are, however, they don’t really smell like the blooming flower of an iris. It’s one of my great unfulfilled desires in the perfume world.
Many people are unaware that some (but not all) iris blossoms even have a scent, or that irises might be cultivated for their aroma. My own introduction to the smell of iris took place in New Mexico in the early 1990s, when I was invited along by a curmudgeonly neighbor – who had a fantastic garden – to visit an “iris ranch” half an hour outside of town. For a few short weeks a year during their bloom, you could come to look, sniff, and purchase the rhizomes, which would then be dug up and delivered later. I didn’t know a thing about irises, but it sounded like fun, so I shrugged and said, sure.
It was a typical high desert day, sunny and dry. We bumped down an unpaved road, parked in the dusty lot and trooped toward the uneven plots carved out of the countryside, surrounded by chamisa and cactus.
And then the smell of those acres of iris blooms hit me.
Irises don’t all look or smell the same, any more than roses do. Some iris varieties are short and dainty; some are tall and bearded and almost obscenely lush. But the intense low hum of bees and the perfume of thousands of blooms in that hot, still August air will stay with me forever. The generalized iris smell is, to my nose, a unique combination of the spiciness of carnation, the sweetness of honeysuckle, and the deep, rooty richness of magnolia and dirt, with a hint of silver spoon. There is simply nothing else like it. I was transfixed. These things … they smell like that? How did I not know this?
I bought a bunch of them to plant. They grow like the dickens in Santa Fe, thrive on sun and neglect, and they are one of the few things I am sorry I left behind, although where I live now the deer eat the blossoms so aggressively it’s probably for the best.
So, Iris Ukiyoé, with the scent of the iris blossom. How could I resist? Fingers crossed, I bought one of the small 15ml travel bottles that have popped up on eBay, figuring I was overdue for an unsniffed purchase.
This scent doesn’t draw any immediate comparisons to any existing iris scents I’m aware of. It has a deep, rose-y sweet-sourness and a watery lushness right from the get-go, without smelling like a rose. It seems both “warm” (floral) and “cool” (vegetal), and there’s something about it that makes me think of going out barefoot onto the wet grass right at dawn. It is lightly spicy, and like Vanille Galante it has quite a bit of a dewy, watery freshness.
And this is, unfortunately, where things sit for me. I’m going to quote from Octavian’s extensive, enthusiastic review here:
“But this time, Jean Claude Ellena did not consider the particular scent of a specific orris flower, nor did he invent a new ‘orris flower’ type. It was his olfactory research, the emotion and the surprise of a warm scent set in a cold majestic blue flower. It is about those ephemeral moments of emotion captured on the petal with a drop of dew.”
To me (and I am very much in the minority on this one so far), it is mostly about that water-color impressionism, and not so much iris – or any particular flower at all, really. I was told by a perfumer once to avoid fresh notes and aquatics. Iris Ukiyoé seems to confirm that advice. But if you’re looking for a different take on iris, and not expecting to be beaten over the head with it (this is a Hermessence after all) Iris Ukiyoé is a new direction that doesn’t conjure the clichés of violets or damp earth. In the meantime, for those of you who’ve never smelled an iris and wonder what I’m obsessed with — next time you pass a tall stand of iris in bloom, on the street or in a neighbor’s garden, bend down and stick your nose in there. If they’re scented, you may develop an obsession of your own.
Sample source: 15ml travel bottle which (full disclosure) has already gone to a more deserving home.
Image: Iris Flowers and Grasshopper, woodblock, Hokusai (1760 – 1849), source: wikimedia