Olfactory treasure of perfumery, iris is a plant that contains many mysteries. Behind its crumpled look and its blue-violet hues, iris is also known for its roots, known as rhizomes. It is these roots that allow perfumers to create exquisite fragrances with powdery and buttery notes. As elegant as it is light, iris only reveals its charms to the most patient, which makes it one of the most expensive and precious raw materials in perfumery. From its culture to its scent, discover all the secrets of the blue gold of perfumery in a journey that will take you to Italy and Morocco.
The origins of the iris
The iris is a rhizome plant native to the Far East which is nowadays cultivated in Italy, Morocco but also in France and China. In Egypt, the iris is a sacred flower. Some paintings of irises dating back to 1500 B.C. can be found in the heart of some pyramids. In Greek mythology, the iris is the messenger of the gods, and its etymology means rainbow. The flower then forms a bridge between heaven and earth to deliver divine messages to humans. Also known as the fleur de lys, it became the symbol of French royalty and later decorated the coat of Louis XVIII arms, who saw it as a sign to protect himself from death. Its blue silk petals often served as models for the painter Vincent Van Gogh and since 1999, the blue and purple iris has been the emblem of Quebec.
The use of the iris as a scented material dates back to the Renaissance with Catherine de Medici. At the time, the rhizomes were crushed, then sieved and mixed with rice powder, which then gave off a sweet violet scent. This is also why iris notes are generally described as powdery notes. Rice powder was used to perfume wigs, the face and also clothes. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the big names in perfumery integrated the precious material into their elegant fragrances.
Iris cultivation: years of patience
Obtaining iris absolute requires a real know-how and a certain amount of patience! Indeed, this olfactory treasure is not so easily revealed. The iris requires long-term care after planting. It takes no less than 3 years for the plant’s fragrant compounds to develop in its rhizome, the underground stem on which small roots form. It is only after these long years that the rhizome, then odorless, can be pulled out, cleaned, trimmed and finally cut into slices. This first cleaning job is long and tedious. It is only done by hand to protect the precious roots.
But patience will still be needed as the iris treatment is far from over. Now it is necessary to dry the rhizomes to get rid of more than half of their water and prevent them from getting moldy. After 3 days in a ventilation chamber, the tubers are stored in jute bags for another 3 years. This is all the time they need to secrete the famous irones, the molecules that make up the plant’s scent principle.
… to the absolute
Finally dehydrated, the then stone-hard rhizomes are pulverized, and steam distilled. The powder becomes essence and takes on a creamy consistency. This iris butter is extracted with organic solvents to give the iris absolute, the quintessence of elegance and refinement! It will take at least 13 tons of fresh rhizomes and up to 6 years of patience to obtain a single kilo of this elixir sold for high prices, which can reach 100,000 euros per kilo.
One flower for two perfumed species
There are a multitude of species of irises, but not all of them have the same odorous properties. From gardens to bottles, the varieties used are however not the same. In perfumery, two species of the plant are grown: the Pallida and the Germanica.
The iris Pallida is the most “luxurious”. It grows on hillsides, on the rocky and steep lands of Tuscany, between Siena and Florence. It is impossible to mechanize the cultivation of the plant and everything is still done by hand. For several years now, the iris Pallida has also been cultivated in France, where some Italian bulbs were exported by Chanel to its fields in Grasse.
In Morocco, another species is cultivated: the iris Germanica. This one is less noble than its Italian cousin. This variety is simpler to cultivate because it is more robust and requires less attention. Its scent remains elegant and refined but it is less sophisticated than the Pallida because the rate of irone is lower. Why? Because the drying time of the rhizomes is less important, going from 3 years to 2 years or even less.
Olfactory masterpiece: the notes of the iris
But then what does that blue gold smell like that makes perfumers go crazy? To understand the olfactory interest of this plant, you have to study it with a magnifying glass. The iris is made up of two fragrant principles: irone (the most expensive molecule, which is the main indicator of the quality of absolute) and myristic acid. In perfumery, irone can be used alone, it is the ultimate luxury. The nose can also add myristic acid, which also contains irone in smaller quantities.
The plant reveals powdery notes, which are often confused with vanilla shades that are much more gourmand. Its scent is delicate, complex and accentuates over time to become very persistent. In perfumery, iris is both floral and woody, with buttery accents and evocative notes of violet. Some even find it has a dry and strawy aspect.
In 555, the iris note delivers its bewitchingly feminine essence… Contrasting with the virility of a peppery touch and a citrusy top note.
Did you know the origin of the iris and its different fragrant species?
Discover the fragrances mentioned in the article