IRIS CONCRETE, AN UNDERGROUND HIDDEN TREASURE
Brought to the French court directly from Italy by queen Catherine de Medici’ in the sixteenth century, Iris has been used in women and men’s fragrances, as well as cosmetics since the Renaissance!
From the Greek word “iris” translated into “rainbow” and referring to the abundance of colors the Iris flower offers in nature, its rhizomes (outer root) are actually used to obtain one of niche perfumery’s fanciest ingredient!
The mystery behind Iris lies under the ground, as three years are needed for its bulbs to properly grow below our feet, and another three gift it with a glamorous powdery-woody scent…Patience is key!
Widely known for its extravagant price, Iris concrete is the central raw material in Olfactive Studio’s Iris Shot, a floral-oriental perfume. Its fresh spicy start, and soothing almond heart combined to a woody-ambery sillage, give a contemporary and sophisticated approach to this classical flower.
Used since ancient Egypt in medicine and even viticulture, Iris florentina from Florence was long considered the finest specie and has been the symbol of its native city since the eleventh century.
From the eighteenth century and on, only two species of Iris have been cultivated for their precious rhizomes: Iris pallida and Iris germanica, both originally from central Europe. It’s no wonder these are later grinded into powder to extract their powdery floral scent for the greatest joy of perfumers!
A SECRETFULL INGREDIENT
Unlike the majority of natural raw materials, Iris is not a harvested but a stocked product. Indeed, neither its stems, leaves, nor petals are exploited, but its funny looking potato-like outer roots called rhizomes!
After the bulb has been planted, it is mandatory to wait two or three years before collecting them, after which the rhizomes are let to dry for another two to four years, and finally grinded into thin powder. It is necessary to protect the bulbs from heat, humidity and insects during their drying time to avoid degrading or even losing the harvest.
Iris’ treasure doesn’t stop underground as the drying years have a specific purpose… This imparted time allows the initially odorless bulbs to reveal their olfactive added value, and especially a group of molecules called “irones” to develop within the chemical composition of the resting rhizomes.
The percentage of irone in the final product (Iris concrete) determines its quality, the more the better, and can range from 8 to 15-20%.
The Iris’ outer root or rhizome is also referred to as “Orris”. You can find this raw material under both appellations in fragrances nowadays explaining why you might come across “Iris butter” or “Orris butter”.
PALLIDA AND GERMANICA: FRAGRANCES’ IRIDACEAE OF CHOICE
Out of the two thousand different types of species among the Iridaceae family, no more than two varieties of Iris (mentioned above) are used in the perfume industry.
The first one Iris pallida, also the most famous species because of its Tuscan cultivation origin, is still grown is Florence, and possesses pale blue, almost mauve flowers. Did you know that the Latin word for pale is no other than pallidus, from which comes the species’ name as you might have guessed it!
The second one Iris germanica, recognizable by its darker purple or white flowers, is endemic to the Balkans in central Europe (just like Iris pallida), despite also being a symbol of Italian perfumery.
Iris germanica is of lesser quality due to its lower irone percentage, and both species are nowadays mainly produced in France (in the southern city of Grasse), Morocco (south of Marrakech), China (Yunnan province), and Turkey (Isparta region). They are also cultivated in smaller proportions in India and Tunisia.
Historically, the Iris Florentina (actually a variety of Iris germanica) from Florence was the most exploited Iris, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Recognizable by its white, lightly blue tinted flowers, it was highly appreciated throughout Europe. In Simon Barbe 1699’s treaty “The royal perfumer” he writes “We must only select the whitest and less spotted roots; the ones from Florence are the most beautiful”.
Starting from 1850, the Iris florentina is left aside, in favor of the Iris pallida whose yield is higher and whose scent is closer to that of violet.
To obtain Iris concrete (or butter), which corresponds to a solid essence (as opposed to a liquid essential oil), the hydrodistillation method is employed (steam-distillation), whereas for the Iris resinoid, a volatile solvent extraction process is used. If cleaned with alcohol, Iris absolute can be obtained from Iris concrete using a fractionated distillation method.
IRIS CONCRETE IN OLFACTIVE STUDIO’S PERFUMES
The start possesses a bursting and metallic facet attributed to Iris aldehydes. We immediately perceive the Iris (Iris pallida), modern and powdery, as usual. Its woody-dry, earthy, almost dusty side radiates the fragrance from the heart. The top is also very spicy offering us the finesse of the essence of Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), both fresh by its zesty and aromatic side which does not escape us, and warm by its cinnamic and oriental facet.
The "queen of spices", marries its colder but equally delicious mate, the Pink berry of Madagascar (Schinus molle), which doubles the aromatic facet with its peppery side. It also merges the top and the heart of this unifloral through its floral aspect (uniflorals are perfumes built essentially around one flower and its olfactive aspects). Blackcurrant bud absolute (Ribes nigrum), a natural raw material of the green family with a distinctive sulfuric side, brings vitality and naturalness to the ensemble.
Iris Shot is a consistent and linear Iris, faithful to its precious rhizomes, whose scent can only be extracted after 6 years (three years of cultivation and three years of drying).
The Almond milk accord is gradually revealed by its soft and almondy facet, reminiscent of unctuous flavored desserts. This balsamic note rounds out the proud Iris to sweetly envelop it. The essence of Carrot Seed (Daucus carota), accentuates the beautiful Iris even more as both ingredients share a woody, earthy facet, truly rooted in the soil. Very "heart" fragrance by its star flower, the base still finds its place as Virginian Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana), brings a different woody dimension, more resinous, evoking the bark of the American tree.
The Haitian Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanoïde), brings a moist touch contrasting with the dry character of the other ingredients, as well as a smoky facet of its own! Ambroxan, which appropriately bears its name, brings a powerful ambery note to the base, contributing to the fragrance's substantivity.
An elegant and cocoon-like fragrance, Iris Shot explores genres by bringing back to life a beautiful flower, long associated with rice powders and lipsticks in cosmetics.
Lumière Blanche is a very soft and subtle fragrance. If the top of the perfume is certainly spicy, it has the particularity to be woody from the first notes. Despite their low volatility of heart/base notes, the woods already strike us! Our nose meets both "cold" and "hot" spices. We find among the cold spices the essence of Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) which is distinguished by its zesty facet (but not citrusy!), and the essence of Star Anise (Illicium verum), also called Badiane, bringing a small anis note combined with a slight touch of licorice, one of its characteristic facets.
As for the hot spices, they are embodied by their leader, the essence of Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) very cinnamic (a word sharing the same etymology that refers to the spicy scent of Cinnamon) but also remarkably woody, and slightly sweet thanks to the almondy notes that follow!
The heart is adorned with a beautiful Iris (Iris pallida) revealing its powdery-iris facet that reminds us of the vintage Rice powder accord providing a "cosmetic" effect. This accord was indeed very common among 19th century face powders and lipsticks. It is combined to a creamy Almond milk accord offering balsamic, and coumarin notes, (from the coumarin molecule which possesses an almond scent). This accord's sweet aspect is perfectly combined to the Tonka bean (Dipterix odorata), which is also has almondy and vanilla facets.
Note that Cinnamon is very interesting in compositions when it meets Sandalwood, just like in Lumière Blanche.
In this spicy-powdery-woody fragrance, the essence of Sandalwood (Santalum album) is omnipresent, we sense it from the top of the fragrance, and until the base. It even leaves a wonderful trail that lasts wonderfully on the skin! We meet the Sandalwood in all its splendor with its rich side reminiscent of yellow flowers, and its silky lactonic facet. The essence of Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana), both woody-dry and raw, underlines the warm and woody base of this contrasted perfume.
Musks, especially Cashmeran with its singular earthy aspect, stand out with their creamy facet, and thus join the lactonic facet of Sandalwood and Almond milk. Their combination accentuates the soft and milky effect of the fragrance.
Lumière Blanche gives us a warm-cold sensation from head to toe, while enveloping us in a soft, spicy-milky veil reminiscent of the comforting chai tea.
At the top of Leather Shot we immediately feel the citrus, acidic facet of the Orange Bigarade! Also known as Sweet Orange (Citrus aurantium), this one matches perfectly the zesty, lemon-like facet of Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum). This spice so appreciated by fine fragrance also has a peppery side that gives an aromatic dimension to the perfume top notes.
In the heart of the fragrance, another spice is found, none other than Cumin (Cuminum cyminum), more discreet but distinguishable by the Femme de Rochas effect it provides and its sensual facet, with leathery accents. The mythical spicy-fruity fragrance created in 1944 by Edmond Roudnitska was born from an overdose of cumin!
No need to wait for the base of Leather Shot to perceive the leathery notes, reminiscent of a smooth leather. The majestuous Iris (Iris pallida) with its peculiar woody-dry facet is felt in the heart and persists in the base. Black Tea absolute (Camellia sinensis) evoking the characteristic Ceylon tea offers a natural effect and compliments the leathery facet. The base of the fragrance nicely holds the leathery heart, a modern and reinvented leather.
Sandalwood (Santalum album) and Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) intermingle in a strong woody base with Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanoide). If the first is lactonic and rich, with a facet reminiscent of yellow flowers and orientals, the second stands out for its naturalness recalling the great cedar forests of Virginia. The Driftwood accord goes hand in hand with its woody peers and Vetiver does not go unnoticed with its nutty and smoky facet, which blends very well with the leathery notes. The combination is very harmonious, offering a persistent freshness throughout the evaporation of the different raw materials.
Leather Shot is a leathery fragrance, both spicy and woody, with a touch of citrus and powdery notes, that confer a very elegant allure to it.
IRIS, PERFUMERY’S LUXURY INGREDIENT
Wild Iris of the Pyrenees (Iris latifolia) ©m_arneti
Just like many floral raw materials, Iris is a heart note, but its peculiar powdery and woody scent makes it a heart-base note for some perfumers. Its fragrance is complex and delicate.
Its concrete’s astounding price can range from 10 000 to 12 000€ per kilogram, depending on the year. As for Iris absolute, it costs around 70 000€ per kilogram, making it more expensive than gold!
Alpha Irone (along with beta and gamma), whose percentage is written on the Iris concrete’s flask, is a proof of quality as a higher percentage is synonym of better olfactive properties.
In terms of regulations, Iris concrete is auto-limited by its expensive price. What does this mean? Simply that given its exorbitant price, fragrances never contain enough Iris concrete for regulations to apply to them, in terms of allergens and IFRA (the International Fragrance Association which promote the safe use of fragrances).
A SIGNIFICANT PRICE CALLS FOR CREATIVE SOLUTIONS
Many “Iris bases” have been formulated by fragrance houses (Givaudan, Robertet, etc.) due to its colossal price. These are made of synthetic molecules present in Iris concrete naturally, and also ones offering powdery-woody facets reminiscent of Iris. Often called “Synthetic Iris concrete” they can hold captive molecules (odorant or aroma chemical retained by the originating manufacturer for exclusive use in their own perfumes/bases to protect them from imitation).
WHITE VS BLACK IRIS
Two methods have been employed to treat the priceless rhizomes since the beginning of the twentieth century. The first one, also the oldest one was born in Florence and Verona and is unique worldwide because the bulbs are carefully peeled to obtain “white iris”. Only qualified workers who have been in the Iris business for a long time can conduct this long process, making it very expensive.
Then comes the “black iris” method, which consists in cutting the unpeeled rhizomes into slices. This was done because the bulbs being collected five years after they were planted, these had become too hard to be peeled! Offering a woodier scent unqualifying them for distillation, they were extracted with a volatile solvent to obtain a low-quality Iris resinoid.
A SCENT LIKE NO OTHER…
Olfactively speaking, Iris concrete belongs to the floral powdery olfactive family, and offers facets reminiscent of violet, woody, green notes and even has some leathery suede-like, earthy carrot aspects!
This floral powdery note has been used extensively with woody notes thanks to its woody-dry facet, and with violet accords due to the powdery aspect both flowers share. Iris is also interesting when combined to green and leathery notes.
Iris is undoubtedly the most employed floral note in men’s fragrances, and it’s historically the most representative note of cosmetics and lipsticks. Its presence among the first rice powders actually gave birth to the appellation “powdery notes”.
It also acts as a very good fixative which “fixes” other raw materials present in the composition, gifting the perfume with more substantivity (long-lasting property).
…GIVEN BY CHEMISTRY’S WONDER
If Iris germanica concrete holds 60% of alpha-irone, and 40% of gamma-irone (out of the total percentage of irones which can range from 8 to 15-20%), it’s the opposite for its pallida cousin which contains 60% of the latter and 40% of alpha-irone.
In addition to these highly valuable components olfactive-wise, both species contain fatty acids (explaining the term butter) such as myristic acid, lauric acid and palmitic acid. Ionones, a group of molecules with a violet, woody scent (also chemically present in violets) are part of the rhizomes’ chemical composition as well, and are more used than irones because of their lower price.
Long seen as a symbol of majesty and power, Iris was already employed in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome as it has medicinal virtues. The Greek botanist and pharmacologist Dioscorides found it to be a good expectorant, and during the medieval era Iris pallida along with Iris germanica and a third specie Iris pseudocarus appeared in “The book of simple medecines”, a kind of therapeutic herbarium of that time. Back then, Iris was already used as a cosmetic component in face and hair powders!
In the sixteenth century, it was brought from Tuscany by Catherine de Medici’, to the French court. The queen made the ingredient popular by wearing Iris scented leather gloves, which were a trendy accessory among nobles and aristocrats.
Ever since, its notoriety kept growing and it became through the eighteenth century the star raw material in rice powders and later on lipsticks, then a prestigious ingredient in modern perfumery.
ICONIC IRIS THROUGH TIME
One of the first famous Iris perfumes of modern perfumery is the Iris Gris by Jacques Fath, composed by perfumer Vincent Roubert in 1947. This floral perfume had the audacity to feature a peach note given by the aldehyde C14, which combined to Iris concrete gave Iris Gris a real game of texture and depth! Sadly, this unequalled unisex fragrance disappeared from the market throughout the 1950’s.
In 1970 Chanel launched Chanel n°19 created by Henri Robert, Chanel’s signature perfumer at the time. This floral green women’s perfume combined Iris to emblematic flowers such as the rose and the ylang-ylang, dainty ones like the lily-of-the-valley, and to a woody-earthy base of Sandalwood and Vetiver.
Hiris from Hermès created in 1999 by perfumer Olivia Giacobetti, is another unifloral floral-green fragrance which interprets the Iris with charm.
More recently in 2005, Dior launched its famous perfume Dior Homme composed by Olivier Polge (IFF) a masculine Iris among today’s bestellers, and in 2007 Prada commercialized Infusion d’Iris, a floral-woody-musky fragrance composed by Daniela Andrier (Givaudan) winner of a FIFI award in 2008.
POETRY TO FEED THE SOUL
If you thought “rainbow” was the only etymologic secret behind the word iris, well…you’re mistaken! Iris is also the name of the she-messenger of the gods in Greek mythology (basically the female equivalent of Hermes). Just like Hermes she possesses wings, whose shape is recalled by the iris’ petals, explaining once again the name of the flower.
The Iris’ undeniable mystical aspect have made it a source of inspiration for many authors and poets. Homer writes about the goddess “Iris, as swift as the winds…rises and crosses the space in an instant”.
In the nineteenth century Chateaubriand cites the flower “My life, like a solitary iris grown on the banks of the river of time, gives its flower today”, and one century later the famous French writer Marcel Proust writes about the fragrance of this iconic ingredient “I went upstairs to sob at the top of the house next to the study room, under the roofs, in a small room smelling of iris”.
Did Proust enjoy the perfume of Iris as much as that of madeleines? The world may never know! But we can be sure that “what a powder of a flower” is the Iris flower! And Olfactive Studio’s Iris Shot most definitely revives this peculiar yet classical ingredient by embellishing its emblematic rhizomes in a contemporary fragrance.
Anna Grézaud-Tostain for Olfactive Studio