IRIS GRIS: A History of Folly (Part I)

YOU’VE HEARD THE BUZZ. NOW READ THE STORY:
Iris Gris, the perfume, the legend, its history and dueling reincarnations.

By Ashraf Osman

If people have heard of one perfume, it’s probably Chanel No.5. It’s the one extant perfume that’s had a book written about it,[1] so far. It’s known as Le Monstre in the fragrance industry, partly because–nearly a century later–a perfume from 1921 still features prominently in bestselling lists around the world.[2] But if you ask me, and many scent art experts, what’s the one perfume people should have heard about, the answer will likely be Jacques Fath’s Iris Gris of 1946/7.

So it’s no wonder that the perfume world was abuzz recently about its purported relaunch at one of the world’s premiere perfume expos in Milan, especially after decades of it being no more than a museum piece, out of reach for most people. But like the best of stories, it’s not that simple…

You’ve probably heard the expressions, “She’s an author’s author” or “He’s an actor’s actor”? Well, iris tends to be a perfumer’s favorite note, and Fath’s Iris Gris was a perfumer’s perfume. But what is it about iris that is so bewitching, especially to perfume insiders? Let’s start with the basics; first, the glossary entry for iris by one of the unlikely characters of this story, Luca Turin, the preeminent “biophysicist and writer with a long-standing interest in the sense of smell, perfumery, and the fragrance industry”[3]:

IRIS: An extract of the rhizome of the iris plant. Among the most expensive natural materials in perfumery. Also known as iris butter, orris, or orris butter.[4]

Part of the fascination is, for sure, the price:

James Craven, a perfume archivist at Les Senteurs in London, named Orris one of the top three most expensive perfume ingredients in the world. Why? Because it’s a huge headache to make the stuff. One needs ONE TON of iris plant bulbs that have been aged 2 to 5 years to produce 2 kilos (4.4 pounds) of essential oil.[5]

Another part, I think, is that–even though the iris flower is absolutely beautiful (I think irises are the most beautiful flowers in the world)–the most precious part of the plant is actually hidden in the ground, the roots.

A third is probably that iris/orris is not an easy note to love. In a sense, it is not classically pretty: in some compositions, you could actually smell its origin, that rooty tuberous smell of carrots or potatoes. A couple of examples:

Pierre de Lune (Armani Privé) ★★ sad iris
. . . It undoubtedly contains lots of good iris but does what iris (e.g., Hiris) compositions will do when in an ornery mood, i.e., go all sour on you and smell like raw potatoes.[6]

Hiris (Hermès) ★ sad iris
. . . delicate florals with a pale, sour note reminiscent of clothes washed with unscented fabric softener. Sadly, Hiris is part of this contingent, with the rooty iris note adding a remote, pinched temperament to the overall effect. ’Orrible.[7]

Yes, there is a certain sadness to iris, and when it’s not handled well, that sadness can be rather off-putting. But in the right hands, that sadness can be simply transfixing–which brings us to what has been, in the absence of Iris Gris, the reigning monarch of the genre:

Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens) ★★★★★ iris root
Long before everybody started doing irises and (mostly) pseudo-irises, Lutens had commissioned an iris to end them all from Maurice Roucel. The story goes that Lutens pestered the perfumer to turn up the iris volume to the max, and Roucel in desperation decided to put in the formula every material on his database that had the iris descriptor attached to it, including a seldom-used, brutal iris nitrile called Irival. The result was the powderiest, rootiest, most sinister iris imaginable, a huge gray ostrich-feather boa to wear with purple dévoré velvet at a poet’s funeral.

2011: Less brutal, arguably more natural but oddly thinner, more bread-like (iris smells like yeast fumes at times). Something has been lost in translation. A slightly sour floral base creeps up in the drydown. A good iris, but no longer the monstre sacré of yore.[8]

Yes, despite the prices of natural iris, the beauty of iris perfumes is not entirely based on that. One of my favorite synthetic iris compositions, Nomenclature Iri-del, features an iris aldehyde (organic compound) which “comes as close as you can get to orris butter without tearing an iris field out by its roots and waiting six years for it to yield its fragrance.”

Regardless, for anyone remotely in the know, the holy grail of all iris perfume lovers remained Jacques Fath’s 1946/7 Iris Gris:

The ability possessed by certain fragrances to briefly turn the most arid mind into a fairy garden, to make us lament the passing of loves and losses we know full well we never had, is a miracle specific to perfumery. Alas! Nostalgia, as Simone Signoret said, is not what it used to be, and poetic perfumes are rare, getting rarer. Though never easy to get hold of, Après l’Ondée was at least available and until recently could be relied upon to elicit silent, inward tears on demand. But the mother of all fées was always Iris Gris. It was composed, supposedly in a tearing hurry, by Vincent Roubert. I have heard him described as lazy by industrious perfumers who knew him, with unconcealed irritation at the fact that the gods entrusted a breezy carrier with their most poignant message. Iris Gris is that impossible thing, a hopeful iris, obtained by overlaying the velvet gloom of top-notch iris root with a pearlescent sheen of fresh, transparent red fruit. Sunset dressed as dawn.[9]

iris-gris_originalperfume
From “violet femme :: making iris gris {part 1}” 05/23/2014 by DSH

Iris Gris was a postwar folly, pure and simple, by a man known for his follies.[10] Jacques Fath was a French fashion designer “considered one of the three dominant influences on postwar haute couture, the others being Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain”. A year or two after the worst war in the memory of humankind, in one of the countries at the heart of it, he puts out a perfume with an outrageously expensive formula, selling it for a not-so-outrageous sum. (More about that later.) In any case, that couldn’t have made for great business. Around seven years after the launch of Iris Gris, Fath died; and three years later, the Fath design house closed.[11]

The perfume went out of production, but it was not “lost to historic amnesia, however, thanks in part to perfumer Guy Robert, who in the now out-of-print book Les Sens du Parfum counts it as one of the masterpieces of perfumery . . . Needless to say it is now considered a museum piece. The sheer fact that the fragrance is nearly extinct in its original state has of course not lessened the levels of admiration for it but rather increased them. As it has become by historical accident even more exclusive and rare, we get the last ingredient needed for a perfume to become the stuff of legend: extreme exclusivity.”[12]

Thus, in the half a century since the Jacques Fath’s death, Iris Gris entered the books as only the most splendid of human follies could: a legend. And befitting an artistic legend, by the end of the century, the only place where it was possible to experience it was at a museum: L’Osmothèque in Versailles. “The Osmothèque is the perfume museum, that is to say the only place in the world where discontinued fragrances of artistic significance are stored and displayed.”[13]Meanwhile, the Fath brand “changed a lot of owners, from his wife (1957-1958), to Star Alliance, L’Oreal, etc.”[14] And the perfume formulas were lost along the way. But apparently, the rights to a perfume name are not attached to the rights of the brand that created it; and that is the crux of this story. At its heart, this is a story about that greatest of human follies: ownership. Who owns a name? Who owns an idea? Who owns a story, a history? And what does that mean, anyhow?

Towards the end of the century, the name Iris Gris belonged to Hermès in France, who supposedly acquired it in order to protect the release of their aforementioned “sad… ’orrible” Hiris and “prevent any possible competition”.[15]In 2008, Paris-based fragrance-house Panouge bought the Jacques Fath Parfums brand, adding it to its roaster of four other brands. The following year, with the Iris Gris name still held by Hermès, Panouge release Irissime, created by Marie Salamagne of Firmenich, as “”homage paid to a mythical perfume”, Iris Gris, rather than a faithful historical reconstitution of it.”[16]Irissime sold for 88 Euros for a 100 ml,[17] and was followed by White Irissime and Irissime Noir in 2014. But these were no Iris Gris. “The problem is, again, the orris concrète which makes up a great part of the formulation and whose skyrocketing prices make it impossible to market Iris Gris on a less than very exclusive commercial scale today. The original formulation contained an inordinate amount of iris concrete, one of the most expensive ingredients of perfumery.”[18]

At the time, Panouge was reportedly negotiating with Hermès and, after four years, reached an agreement to buy the Iris Gris name back in March 2017.[19] Panouge filed for the transfer of registration in May 2017, only to find out that somebody registered the name in France in April 2017.[20]

That person was Mike Mihaly Bragmayer who–along with Thierry Bellet, who owned the rights to the Iris Gris name in the US since 2010–released two versions of Iris Gris under the label of Legendary Fragrances: an Extrait (1947 edition) which retails for $550 for 30ml and $725 for 60ml, and an X.O. which retails for $545 for 15ml, $725 for 30ml and $975 for 60ml. More on those hopefully in the next installment, once I receive my sample(s), along with another reconstruction of Iris Gris, DSH Perfumes’ Scent of Hope by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Scent of Hope retails for $110 for 5ml and $298 for 15ml ($27 for a sample), with 30% of sales going to a cancer charity. In the meantime, if interested in further reading about Iris Gris, I would highly recommend Dawn’s two blog entries detailing her process:

So, as it stands, Panouge owns the Jacques Fath Parfums brand everywhere since 2008. Panouge also owns the Iris Gris name in the EU and internationally[21] since 2017. Legendary Fragrances owns the Iris Gris name in the US since 2010. But the name’s ownership is currently in dispute in France as of 2017 (it appears in the French brands database, INPI, as belonging to both Bragmayer and Hermes, with a transfer to Panouge).

Undeterred, Panouge resumed working on the reconstruction of Iris Gris, initially considering the name Iris volé de Jacques Fath [or Jacques Fath’s Stolen Iris, in reference to the name debacle],[22] before settling on the more neutral (and dignified) L’Iris de Fath. Why reconstruction? Remember, after Fath’s death and his fashion house’s closure, the perfume formulas were gone. And so Fath/Panouge launched a process of perfume reconstruction that is almost textbook material, not only in its approach to perfume reconstruction, but also in its public relations management and approach to building consensus–or at least buy-in from the fragrance “community” or “industry”.

Seeking expert advice, Fath/Panouge got Turin involved from the beginning and throughout the process. They started by collecting samples of the original Iris Gris, and invited a group of perfumers (five in total, some in teams) from different companies to participate in a competition. Fath/Panouge organized a panel of judges, which included perfume critics (including Turin), collectors, and retired perfumers. The deadline was January 2018. The submissions were anonymized before being shared with the judges, who could not discuss them amongst each other. According to Fath/Panouge, the selection was unanimous and unequivocal. And according to Turin, “every step of the recreation process was filmed by the Institute of Art and Olfaction,[23] and Saskia Wilson-Brown and I are co-producing the resulting documentary which, with luck and money, will be released in due course.”[24]

One problem with the apparent transparency of this process, however, is the anonymity of this panel of judges (with the exception of Turin and Ermano Pico). Rania Barakat Naim, Jacques Fath Parfums Creative Director, told Fragrantica, “I am sorry but I am not allowed to drop names here.” A truly transparent model of judging, like the Art & Olfaction Awards (AOA), which both Turin and I have served on as judges, declares publicly not only the process, but also the names of the judges.[25] In both cases, it is an unremunerated labor of love (both Turin and Panouge/Fath have stated that Turin “was not remunerated in any way by Fath”[26]). It is a privilege and an honor, but also a responsibility. Even though, as I’ve stated publicly before, the winner hasn’t always been my top choice, I stand fully behind that choice and process. Despite the chagrin it may sometimes cause me on a social and professional level, I–like Turin–have absolutely no reason to hide my name or association with the process.

But back to L’Iris de Fath. “The winning re-creation was made by Patrice Revillard, a young perfumer who is just 25 years old. He founded his own independent company Maelstrom with his partners, Marie Schnirer and Yohan Cervi, just last year.”[27] Initially, it will only be available in 30ml parfum bottles which will retail for 1,470 euros each (or about $1,780). The plan is to produce only 150 bottles a year, to be available at about 10 of the most prestigious boutiques worldwide as of this month.

L'iris de fath picture

So, for most, this will remain a museum piece, out of reach. The median annual household income worldwide per-capita is $2,920; so a bottle is more than half a year’s income. But this is a luxury, after all. And even though according to Fath/Panouge it is “the most expensive formula in perfume history”, it is far from being the most expensive perfume in the world. In fact, according to this list, it will be the fifth most expensive. But why am I even talking about money? Because as much as we may want to pretend that this is a story about aesthetics, heritage, and history, any story about the rarified things in life is ultimately about money. Or to borrow Turin’s words again:

I honestly have no idea whether the industry has changed and now gives a s**t about its heritage, and/or is prepared to have its history studied seriously. What I can tell you is that the Osmothèque stand was mobbed at Esxence, which at some point must translate into money, and that’s a language everybody understands.[28]

Perfume aficionados did not hold back from expressing doubt online, publicly and in private. A typical response is exemplified by a user on a Basenotes “Iris Gris” thread started by Turin:

Doubt the formula is $1700/ounce. I blame Roger Dove for this trend:

  1. Take a great discontinued classic
  2. Clone it using what is available currently
  3. Mark it up a million percent
  4. Profit

Nothing wrong with it but a wise man once said (and I am paraphrasing) – A perfume should be priced around a nice dinner for two with a bottle of wine.[29]

I very much agree with the sentiment of the last statement in bold type. But we live in a very unequal world, and for some people “a nice dinner for two with a bottle of wine” would run to about $1700 (granted it’s a small minority that I, and most people reading this, would not belong to). It’s true that an advert for the original Iris Gris from c.1949 shows that prices “ranged from CAD $3 to $28. According to the Bank of Canada’s Inflation Calculator, $28 is roughly equivalent to CAD $306 today”, or less that 200 euros.[30] (And Fath/Panouge did state to Scent Art News that they are working on a more affordable eau de parfum version, with less absolu d’iris.)

oIG

However, let’s not pretend that we ever pay $100 for an ounce of perfume with a formula that costs $100/ounce. It has been tacitly accepted for years that for a $100 bottle of (celebrity) perfume, one normally pays only about $2 for the formula (or the “juice”).[31] I could very easily believe that the juice for LIdF costs at least ten times as much (or around $350 per ounce). Besides, I didn’t see any such outcry when Hermès released their Hermessence Musc Pallida last month, which retails for $375 for 20ml. Granted that’s still about a third of the price of L’Iris de Fath (LIdF), but I don’t think it’s even worth a third of what Hermès is asking for.

That finally brings us to the question: how does LIdF smell? In one word, sublime! It simply exudes opulence. But as befits the returning monarch of irises, this is not an easy one to love. Iris/orris is an acquired taste; it could be raw, it could be brutal. And LIdF pushes that edge, without crossing it as Lutens’ Iris Silver Mist does. LIdF is not sinister, nor does it possess the pale melancholy of Après l’Ondée; it is somewhere in the middle. And it is this tenuous tension between beauty and savagery that put it beyond the pretty to that rarefied realm of the sublime. (I must say, that balances veers more towards the pretty on paper and towards the savage on skin; so as always, test first–if you can.)

But how does it compare to the original Iris Gris? I’ve had the opportunity to smell the Osmothèque version twice: once in Versailles and once at their stand at Esxence two years ago. So allowing for the haziness of memory / recollection, I think I may dare say LIdF might be even better. The Osmothèque version veered more towards the pretty and feminine, thanks to more pronounced peachy lactones; and I prefer my irises closer to the edge of raw brutality. When Naim asked me what I thought, I told her: painfully beautiful. Why painfully? Because simply, I am not the kind of person for whom “a nice dinner for two with a bottle of wine” would run to about $1,700. So for me, every spritz would be an uncomfortable calculation. But is it worth it? Well, the realistic answer depends on how much money you have. If you are the kind of person for whom “a nice dinner for two with a bottle of wine” could run to about $1,700, and you can get your hands on a bottle, then, yes, absolutely.

If not, read on…

figurestudy1985
IMAGE: Mark Morrisroe, Figure Study, 1985, Chromogenic print (negative sandwich) retouched with ink, 20 x 16 inches. ©The Estate of Mark Morrisroe (Ringier Collection) at Fotomuseum Winterthur

Pierre Guillaume (PG) is a young independent French perfumer who, at 25, composed his first fragrance, Cozé, which was the start of his first line, Parfumerie Generale (PG). PG was one of the earliest niche perfume lines of the new millenium that heralded the mad niche boom we are in now. He followed that line by two more, Black Collection and Cruise Collection. But he’s long had little projects of fleeting limited editions and private collections that often caused buzz on online fragrance forums. (In fact, the most precious bottle in my collection to date is a PG “mystery” fragrance called Cuir Santalion.) Fans of those ephemeral PG scents would be happy to know (as I’m sure a few already do) that some, like Marilyn & John and Mio Bjao, have been re-released under a more exclusive collection called Rhapsodie.

In 2016, Guillaume opened his first parisian store, which I visited soon after. The store was managed at the time by Simon Barrand, a true perfume enthusiast who ran his own perfume blog called Notes de Coeur (and is currently at IFF). According to Guillaume, the first time Barrand arrived in his studio for training, he asked to explore PG’s collection of prototypes: 300 unreleased fragrances in the fridges. Guillaume then let Simon choose 12 fragrances for an exclusive collection, of which only 5 liters of eau de parfum are to be produced annually. The scents can only be experienced and purchased at PG’s two boutiques in France (Paris and Clermont). And they retail for 240€ for the 50ml bottle and 310€ for the 100ml. The collection does not retail in PG’s network, nor on their website. And there’s barely anything about it on the Internet.

During my visit to PG’s Paris boutique, Barrand asked me about my favorite note(s), and when I mentioned iris and said that I already own bottles of PG’s irises–Private Collection Cuir d’Iris, PG14 Iris Taizo (Iris Oriental) and PG21 Felanilla–he immediately suggested I try Sous Une Pluie d’Iris (SUPDI), a “reinterpretation of Iris Gris”. I couldn’t afford to purchase a bottle at the time, but it stayed in my mind. So when I started writing this article, I contacted PG to inquire about it. And much to my surprise, Guillaume wrote back saying, “Honestly, SUPDI is not for me a re-interpretation of Iris Gris… because I confess I never smelled the original one. SUPDI is an original creation of my own built on an accord of orris and a fruity peach note. It’s not enough to become a re-interpretation of a fragrance.”

And he’s right, of course. But if he’s never smelled the original Iris Gris, this is even more remarkable. Granted, even if s/he’s never smelled it, I’m sure any French perfumer today would know of it, have heard of it. That is the power of legend: even when it’s disputed, even when not experienced first hand, it hangs in the air, strangely familiar, like the smell of Iris Gris. Is SUPDI the same as the original Iris Gris (oIG), or L’Iris de Fath (LIdF)? Of course not; but it’s very much in its spirit, enough to warrant a comparison. LIdF is breathtaking, but it’s not easy-to-love, which is more reason to celebrate its existence. I’d even dare say SUPDI is prettier and easier to love: the peach aldehyde in it is more pronounced than oIG, and definitely LIdF, which makes it veer more towards the feminine. Sure, SUPDI is not as long-lived as oIG or LIdF; it’s an eau de parfum, not a parfum. But it is a lot more affordable by comparison: 240€ is a lot closer to what I’d pay for “a nice dinner for two with a bottle of wine”. (And that’d better be a very nice dinner for two with a nice bottle of wine… for a very special occasion!)

BEST IRIS FRAGRANCES (in Perfumes: The Guide)

MY FAVORITE IRIS FRAGRANCES (in addition to the above)

19_large__large
FEATURED IMAGE: Dried Arrangement, Mark Morrisroe, 1986, 20×16 C-print, negative sandwich, retouched with ink and inscribed with marker © The Estate of Mark Morrisroe (Ringier Collection) at Fotomuseum Winterthur

ENDNOTES:

[1] Mazzeo, Tilar J. The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfumehttps://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8518451-the-secret-of-chanel-no-5

[2]Kafkaesque. “The Global Fragrance Industry: World Markets, Popular Fragrances & Sales Figures”. Posted on February 20, 2014: http://www.kafkaesqueblog.com/2014/02/20/the-global-fragrance-industry-world-markets-popular-fragrances-sales-figures/

[3]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luca_Turin

[4] Turin, Luca. The Little Book of Perfumes: The Hundred Classics (Kindle Locations 1339-1340). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[5] Derrick, Julyne. “The 6 Most Expensive Perfume Ingredients in the World”: https://www.liveabout.com/the-6-most-expensive-perfume-ingredients-in-the-world-3981102

[6] Turin, Luca. Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (p. 287). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[7] Ibid. (p. 196)

[8] Turin, Luca. The Little Book of Perfumes: The Hundred Classics (Kindle Locations 647-649). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[9]Ibid. (Kindle Locations 1264-1271)

[10] Fath was the subject of a 1994 documentary film by Pascal Franck called Les Folies de Fath.

[11]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Fath

[12] Wagner, Chant. The Scented Salamander. “Jacques Fath: From Iris Gris to Irissime, a Contemporary Version of Iris Gris – Q & A with Fabrice Biré of Panouge”. 6 July 2009: http://www.mimifroufrou.com/scentedsalamander/2009/07/jacques_fath_irissime_2009_a_c.html#more

[13] Turin, Luca. The Little Book of Perfumes: The Hundred Classics (Kindle Locations 1179-1181). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[14] Borisov, Sergey. Fragrantica. “Green, Yellow, Blue, and Orange by Jacques Fath”. 05/07/2016: https://www.fragrantica.com/news/Green-Yellow-Blue-and-Orange-by-Jacques-Fath-7935.html

[15] Borisov, Sergey. Fragrantica. “ESXENCE 2018: Jacques Fath Iris Gris is back!” 04/06/2018: https://www.fragrantica.com/news/ESXENCE-2018-Jacques-Fath-Iris-Gris-is-back–10735.html

[16] Wagner, Chant. The Scented Salamander. “Jacques Fath: From Iris Gris to Irissime, a Contemporary Version – Q&A with Fabrice Biré of Panouge”. 6 July 2009: http://www.mimifroufrou.com/scentedsalamander/2009/07/jacques_fath_irissime_2009_a_c.html#more

[17]Basenotes. “Iris Gris by Jacques Fath returns… well, sort of”. 6 July 2009: http://www.basenotes.net/threads/231708-Iris-Gris-by-Jacques-Fath-returns-well-sort-of

[18] Wagner

[19] Borisov 2018

[20]Ibid.

[21] In Austria, Benelux, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Germany, Egypt, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Morocco, Monaco, Montenegro, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, San Marino, and Viet Nam.

[22]https://www.trademarkia.com/ctm/iris-vol-de-jacques-fath-017532136.htm

[23] DISCLAIMER: I am an “Informal Advisor” of the Institute of Art and Olfaction: http://artandolfaction.com/about/team-2/

[24]Basenotes. “Re: Iris Gris: calling all stations”. 9 April 2018: http://www.basenotes.net/threads/438065-Iris-Gris-calling-all-stations/page3

[25] In the case of the AOA, for instance, the Artisan and Independent categories that Turin is a judge on are anonymous; but the Sadakichi (Experimental) category, that I’m a judge on, is nearly impossible to make anonymous, despite the AOA’s best efforts, because it involves more than just juice in a vial.

[26]Basenotes 2018

[27] Borisov 2018

[28]Basenotes 2018

[29]Ibid.

[30]Ibid.

[31] Thau, Barbara. AOL.com. “Behind the Spritz: What Really Goes Into a Bottle of $100 Perfume”. May 22, 2012: https://www.aol.com/2012/05/22/celebrity-perfume-cost-breakdown/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s