You don’t know Iris (pt. 1)

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Until fairly recently iris was one of the most expensive raw materials in a perfumer’s palette. As soon as someone made a decent synthetic iris, however, the note began cropping up everywhere, from Olivier Polge‘s fantastic Dior Homme to Prada’s rather dull Infusion d’Iris. Still, most of us have never smelled the real thing, partly because it’s so expensive and partly because good iris always smells so melancholy. Teary eyes don’t sell perfume.

Many perfumers take that melancholy quality as a challenge. The immortal Iris Gris, which is considered one of the very best perfumes of all time, included a peach note, supposedly–I have not smelled it–making it warm and cheery. Violet, too, pairs well with iris, adding a carefree bouyance that nonetheless obscures some of the iris’s natural gifts. The braver perfume houses have put out irises paired with materials like patchouli (Le Labo’s Iris 39), which emphasize rooty, earthy notes. The bravest of all have dared to pair it with banana, an odd but utterly winning combination.

Enter Chanel’s 28 La Pausa (apparently named for one of Coco Chanel’s homes, blah blah blah…), which packs a hefty dollop of top quality iris. 28 La Pausa blows straight past melancholy and arrives instead in pure bliss. Harnessing that peculiar magic that seems readily on hand at Chanel, the dreariness and isolation are transformed into a secret little holiday. In typical Chanel fashion, 28 La Pausa is more abstract than it is representational. It’s as if the prodigously gifted Chanel braintrust managed to make that most finicky of flowers do their bidding. I actually felt my eyes roll back in my head with pleasure as I smelled it for the first time. You’ll never wear anything like it.

Of course, pure luxury isn’t everyone’s thing. And that kind of demure beauty easily falls into preciousness in the wrong hands. So many niche firms have churned out faithful, expensive irises, that nonetheless fail to break any new ground. Like vetiver, in all but the most skilled hands, iris is just iris.

But if you hanker for a wholly different breed of iris, you’re in luck. Part Two digs into Serge Luten’s Iris Silver Mist, which turns every tricky facet of the iris root (the breadiness, the carrotiness, the metalicness) up to an ear-splitting 11, with miraculous results. Stay tuned…

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