The Root of Fragrance

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I am a sucker for a bit of luxury and indulgence. I’ve always had Champagne tastes and lemonade pockets, so apologies now to anyone who’s expecting to inherit large sums from me when I depart this earth. You’d better make the most of me whilst I’m alive. Perhaps this extravagant nature isn’t typical of a gardener, but it does explain something of my inability to stop buying plants whenever the opportunity arises.

Among my weaknesses are expensive scents. I find fragrance a fascinating subject, which is probably why I particularly enjoy the part of my job which involves developing and buying home fragrance.  I’ve never been one to invest in a “wardrobe” of different scents, but always seem to have one or two at a time that I really love.  It was only when I spotted an article in Elle Deco this month that I realised what links almost all my favourite scents, past and present, and that’s Orris, or iris root.

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Orris is one of the most expensive materials that a perfumer has at his or her disposal. The name applies to the dried roots of Iris germanica, Iris florentina, and Iris pallida.  A tonne of iris root makes just two kilos of precious Orris butter, which in today’s market is worth about £120,000.  Before you plough up your allotment and start planting irises, I should warn you that the roots need to be dried for at least three years before they can be processed.

In 1906, Jacques Guerlain created a fragrance called ‘Après L’Ondee’ (After the Rain Shower) after smelling iris flowers in the wake of an April shower.  It’s described as smelling like sunlight dancing on water.  Après L’Ondee was followed in 1928 by Chanel’s ’28 La Pausa’ concocted by Jacques Polge in tribute to Mademoiselle Chanel’s villa in the south of France, where I imagine irises must have flourished.  It’s still available to buy today.  Coming right up to the present day, Francis Kurkdjian’s new fragrance ‘Amyris’ combines iris with Jamaican tree resin, Oud and lemon to create a fresh scent.  He describes iris as having a ‘skin-like’ undertone – ‘It could be the smell of a white cloud – you can’t see it, but you can feel it’.

Below, a classic border of irises flowering in early June.

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The thing about iris as an ingredient for me is that it’s warm and comforting.  It lends fragrances a wonderfully powdery, soft and almost woody quality.  Yet until recently Orris has rarely been used in male fragrances.  For work, I wear ‘Iris Poudre’ by Pierre Bourdon, which is rather like putting on a cashmere sweater every day. I don’t think I could ever tire of it, although I try not to splash it on like Old Spice as it is pretty heady.  At the weekend, Dior Homme has been my favourite since it first launched in 2007.  After a bit of investigation, it turns out that Dior Homme was created by Olivier Polge, the son of Jacques, so clearly a love of iris runs in the Polge family.

I wondered too about Fahrenheit, which was my favourite as a younger man. It turns out this does not contain iris, but achieves a similar soft, dusty scent using nutmeg, cedar and violet, another unique and delicate floral fragrance.

Orris is also a common ingredient in gin, which might explain why I like this drink so much.  Here it imparts the scent of sweet violets and binds the aromas of other botanical ingredients together.  I think I might just have to check that out for good measure.  Cheers!

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