Orris Butter: The Phantom

Orris butter is at the heart of my new fragrance, Feu Secret. It is one of those legendary perfume materials: extraordinarily beautiful and extraordinarily expensive—it takes one ton of iris root to produce one kilo of iris butter through a process that is very time consuming and technically demanding. The fact that perfumers continue to use it despite its cost speaks to how special this stuff is in perfume. It creates an effect that cannot be duplicated with another material. Orris is mysterious: subtle, delicate and complex. It’s not a “loud” scent, so it’s harder to point out than patchouli or jasmine. Even the name orris, seems magical and elusive. It has no etymological relation to the Egyptian god, Osiris, but it still always makes me think of esoteric ideas and secret societies.

The iris that is extracted for fragrance is not the slender florist’s iris, but the “bearded” iris, the ones famously painted by van Gogh. This decorative perennial has been cultivated for hundred of years. In the Middle Ages aromatic rhizomes of orris were exploited for their fragrance and flavor. Orris smells of violet, pepper and raspberry, and perfumers will sometimes describe it as lending a chocolate effect to a perfume. If it sounds good enough to eat, that’s because it is. Orris root is used as a flavor ingredient in the traditional Moroccan spice blend, Ras al Hanout, and is also one of several aromatics used to flavor finer gin.

One gram of Orris Butter on a sheet of glassine, it takes one ton of iris root to produce one kilo of orris butter.

One gram of Orris Butter on a sheet of glassine, it takes one ton of iris root to produce one kilo of orris butter.

Orris butter is steam distilled from the roots (not the flowers) of Iris pallida, but only after the roots have been aged for three years—freshly harvested, the roots don’t have the characteristic odor. Orris butter is actually a semi-solid essential oil, a translucent, creamy-waxy material with a delicate, sweet-floral and woody-earthy-rooty aroma. It smells fresh, vaguely medicinal and delicately floral . The scent is clean and often described as “cool” or “metallic,” even so, there's a warm peppery quality. Intrigued? You're not alone.

Orris is a bit of a phantom. It haunts the history of perfumery with its legend. It also haunts individual perfumes with an aroma that is at once powerful and subtle. Even so, I would guess that most fragrance fans might be surprised by the smell of plain orris butter and powdered orris root. Reading perfume reviews, it's easy to become confused about what real orris butter smells like. There's a good reason for this, the material has many facets: floral and woody; earthy and fresh; sweet and also slightly bitter. It’s odor strength is both wimpy and strong (sounds contradictory, but stay tuned). To make things even more confusing, iris is a perfume "note," which means that it gets interpreted. A perfumer can develop an accord that highlights any of its many facets: floral, rooty, woody, violet, sweet, etc. So when someone says they love an iris or orris perfume—what that really means is that they love the way iris has been interpreted.

Iris butter is very high in myristic acid but the key molecule that lends the characteristic violet-iris note is irone alpha, which can make up 15% of high quality iris butter. While perfumers have access to irone that is either synthetically produced or naturally refined (and which smells pretty great), it still can’t substitute for real iris butter—which lends complexity with chocolate notes and richness.

Smelled straight, orris butter doesn't seem particularly strong, but like musk, even trace amounts have a noticeable effect on a perfume where it has an exalting effect, meaning that it "lifts" and enhances the entire fragrance accord, makes it richer, and adds a “vibration,” a sort of ghostly presence throughout the perfume that is very much present, but not overwhelming. Curiously, it's hard to pump up the iris note in a perfume and still keep things interesting. Heavily dosed, orris butter can be a bit melancholy or thick, so perfumers look for contrasts. In Iris Gris (1946), Vincent Roubert famously paired iris with a peach note (aldehyde C-14 which is actually a lactone and not an aldehyde but that's a story for another day). In Feu Secret, my orris perfume, I pair it with eucalyptus and spices (turmeric and pink pepper). I also emphasize the woody facet with cedar and sandalwood. My goal with Feu Secret was to allow a sort of hidden warmth to shine through the cool surface of orris butter and to stay true to the rooty-woody aspects that I find so compelling.

Bruno Fazzolari