Thursday, June 01, 2006

Today’s Sample: Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile...and Some Thoughts on Perfume in General

This morning I was thinking about yesterday’s sample. I said I knew nothing about black hemlock or its scent. The black hemlock, according Ormonde Jayne’s site, is the scent around which she built Ormonde Woman. I started to think, with all the information out there on the Internet, and with my own background in research, it’s inexcusable for me to not to look these things up. For today’s sample, I decided to look up anything I didn’t recognize.

LusciousCargo lists the notes for Iris Nobile as follows:
Top: Star anise, iris petals, Sicilian tangerine, bergamot from Calabria
Heart: Cedar flower, concrete d’iris, orange blossom water
Base: Ambrette crystal, iris rhizomes, and infusion of vanilla from Madagascar

Before I get to the little bit of research I did, let me just say that I’m starting to find it maddening when I apply a fragrance and it reminds me of something I’ve worn in the past. Nothing is ever exact (although I’d say the Je t’aime was awfully darn close to Victoria), but sometimes the similarities are unnerving. On the one hand, if our sense of smell is the sense that most affects the memory center of our brain, then I am tempted to think I cannot be wrong. When I apply and sniff and am catapulted back to another place and time so vividly, how can the fragrances not be similar? Whatever their singular compositions, on my skin they react the same way—or in my nose they react the same way. Could it be true?

Of course, memory is fallible, and our brains work hard to make the unfamiliar familiar. Who knows what sort of association game my head is playing? Synapses fire and are redirected based on what my brain thinks the scent is. Does it think hyacinth and iris are the same? Does it somehow confuse vanilla and raspberry together with rose? What on earth is going on up there?

I had a friend long ago who insisted that every person she met was just like someone else, either an actor or a friend. Everyone reminded her of someone. It was compulsive. Immediately after she met someone, she would begin speculating: “Who does she remind me of?” and she would not let go of the question until she had figured it out. Often, to other people, her associations were so far off the mark it was bewildering. How had she even come up with that? But she would insist it was true, whatever the association.

I don’t want every perfume to remind me of some other perfume. But I don’t think I could be a purist, never comparing one scent to another. Forgive me for using the term "postmodern,” but as Barthes declared the death of the author years ago, I think what he said was true for many of the creative arts: Once a person has created a thing, even if he intends it to be unique, singular, when it enters the world, inevitably it belongs to the public. As humans (as Westerners especially), we must compare and classify. The minute a “nose” creates a scent called, let’s say, “Osmanthus,” is that not an invitation to compare it (or better, to compare in order to differentiate it) to other scents called “Osmanthus?” Certainly the creator understands this and even welcomes it. I think of it as of certain types of poetry, both universal and singular.

Or if a perfumer creates a scent for a specific house, say Chanel or Guerlain: he or she is essentially agreeing to create a unique perfume in the style associated with said house, no? People interested in perfume may know the nose, may understand that person’s quirks and obsessions, but to the public, they are buying brands, brands that to each person evoke a certain something, something again individual and unique to the person who buys it. Perhaps we go from the unique to the general and back to the unique. At least this is how I like to think of it.

And so why all this? Surely by now you’ve realized that Iris Nobile reminds me of something I used to wear: Cacharel’s Anais Anais. I already listed the notes for Iris Nobile; here are the notes for Anais Anais:
Top: Orange blossom, hyacinth
Heart: Sweet rose, white lily, jasmine
Base: amber, sandalwood, frankincense

Take a look at each of these fragrance notes. They have only orange blossom in common, unless you can associate “ambrette crystal” with amber. I was unable to find any information about ambrette crystal other than the fact that it’s an ingredient in Iris Nobile.

This is turn leads me to another puzzling fact about the notes in Iris Nobile: notes are listed for iris petals (easy enough), iris rhizomes (hm?), and concrete d’iris (um, okay). According to Wikipedia, rhizomes are “underground, horizontal stems of a plant…also referred to as creeping rootstalks.” Potatoes and ginger root are both rhizomes. But interestingly, although rhizomes are listed as an ingredient, another Web site,, explains that fresh iris rhizomes have no odor. They are washed, dried, and aged for at least three years, and then steam distilled to create concrete d’iris, also known as beurre d’iris, which is used to make fragrances. So I ask: are they using the aged rhizomes, before they are distilled? I found no information on whether the aged rhizomes have a scent, or whether the only way the scent is released is through steam distilling.

Of course none of this explains why the two fragrances are similar to my nose. Iris Nobile is not as sweet or floral, but it has the same warmth as Anais Anais. I wonder, could it be the simple lovely orange blossom, mixed in one fragrance with vanilla, and in another with the heady spices of sandalwood and frankincense? Or do these compositions simply yield something that with my chemistry is surprisingly similar? No matter, I love the scent. It’s a dry, sweet, woody powder, with no green. I do not have Anais Anais and so cannot smell it to check my memory, but I remember it as more heavily floral, with the close feel of the heady scent of flowers in late summer.

Thegoodscentcompany site describes the scent of distilled rhizomes as “woody, fatty [I love that for a fragrance term], violet, fruity, sweet, floral, warm.” Iris Nobile is more woody than Anais Anais, a fresh and sweet presentation of iris. Where Hermes Hiris is fragile, only the simple note of the iris flower, Iris Nobile is substantial and rich…fatty!

I also learned that iris is the Greek word for rainbow. Wikipedia describes the rainbow as “an optical phenomenon whose apparent position depends on the observer’s location.” And so then I could describe Iris Nobile, perhaps, as an olfactory phenomenon whose apparent scent depends on the wearer’s memory and experience.

*photos from LusciousCargo,, and Wikipedia