There are some very exciting things going on in my studio lately. Of course, as per usual I have about two dozen designs (or more ??) written down in my working notebook for 2014, but after the last four new design launches, I have been busy working with a client on a custom / reproduction. I should mention that I rarely do this kind of work anymore (reproductions) as they are VERY labor intensive and therefore time-consuming (researching ingredients, many times locating these ingredients is a task in itself; sniffing out and reverse engineering the design, creating samples and getting feedback….). The cost in time alone can become exorbitant. In the past, I used to take quite a lot of commissions to do this sort of thing just for the opportunity to see and feel what other perfumers had done, what choices they were making in the constructions, what materials produce what results, etc. It goes back to the ‘copy a masterwork to learn’ method that I came out with from art school. But those were the days when I had a fair amount more time to devote to that kind of learning and taking on those clients who just could not let go of their (discontinued) beloved.
I recently made an exception. Not merely because my client is so lovely and I wanted to work with her, nor because she is battling cancer and this scent is her dream, but because the perfume she wanted to have made is a true gem. I wanted to work on it purely from an artistic standpoint. You know by the title which masterpiece of perfume history I am referring to, the incredible and so ridiculously hard to find, Iris Gris de Fath. This perfume is one of legend among connoisseurs; the proverbial ‘white whale’ among iris / orris perfume lovers in the know. Any vintage perfume collector can tell you how hard this fragrance is to come by and if you do, how expensive just a sample or decant can be. I have seen mini *eau de tolette* bottles go on ebay for upwards of $300. For less than 10 ml, that’s a serious investment. I happened to get very lucky when I found a partial bottle of the pure perfume for less than an arm and a leg. It’s one of my “preciouses” that I found for my little perfume museum and it is perfect.
This commission, too, was really perfect for me in so many ways. First of all, I love the behind the scenes work of developing my sense of history and working at becoming a perfume historian. It gets right to heart of my geeky / hermit streak. You know, I adore the thought of being hold up on a desert island with my museum pieces, notebooks and my computer to just spend countless hours exploring the ins and outs of what’s happening in these precious bottles of living history; what they meant and mean to us now, as well as their construction, materials (many now long gone from the market and use) and the artists intent behind them. It’s like having conversations with Picasso, Shakespeare, Michelangelo… finding the avenues to their greatness on a trail of crumbs left behind. It’s pure bliss and I can’t express how much joy these objects contain for me. But I digress (as I often do).
Can I just say, Iris Gris is magnificent. Truly. It’s subtle and bold at the same time; elegant and cool but beneath that haute couture outfit lurks a real, sensuously warm-blooded being. I love that it feels so timeless as well. Yes, there is a vintage feel in that ‘they just don’t make ‘em like they used to’ vibe but it’s so flawlessly constructed that I believe we would love to smell like this today (and every day).
You may be wondering how I go about deconstructing a perfume in order to create an original formula based on my research and smelling it on my ‘subject’. Well, it’s just that: smelling. I don’t use a GC or any kind of computer to detect the chemistry. I have always felt that the key to getting reproductions right is in the smelling and the human experience that’s in the feel of the perfume, not just its smell. Another key is to attempt to get into the head of the ‘lover’ (the person who is commissioning the perfume) to understand what they are smelling, experiencing and taking note of. Everyone smells in a unique way, so what is important in a fragrance or aroma signature to you may not be the points of importance for someone else. The trick is to get into another person’s heart and mind to find those sweet spots and be sure to hit them in the new design. Not an easy task, but very worthwhile. You will learn A LOT about people and fragrances…and so I have.
The first thing I learned was about the construction. Barbara Herman wrote beautifully about Iris Gris on her blog, Yesterday’s Perfume, and also listed some of the ingredients based on the expert Octavian Coifan’s notes from his now (sadly) defunct website, 1000 fragrances. Octavian is an amazing resource for the perfume lover / historian and it’s so lucky that Barbara listed the notes that Octavian had published about Iris Gris. This is what Ms. Herman quoted from Mr. Coifan:
“[C]lean but not soapy, rich but not old-dusty…The perfume (a floral woody fruity but in fact an orris soliflore) is constructed around 2 ideas: orris notes + peach. Because orris and violet molecules are in general metallic/cold and usually express melancholy, the perfumer avoided this tendency with a soft peach note (undecalactone) that evokes a girlish skin complexion. The orris note is composed with all known orris notes (ionones, irones, methyl ionones, natural orris more than 35%). The woody note is mainly cedar-vetiver (their acetates for a light woody note). All other notes (jasmine, lily of the valley, heliotrope-lilac) are delicately drawn to support the floral-orris note and not to show their presence. There is an almost hard to detect chypre note (oakmoss – but I’m still not sure for that) and a light celery note (tuberose aspect and another trendy note in the 40-50’s used in traces) still to check. There is of course musk and a very light carnation like that in l’Air du Temps. Iris Gris is the breath of angels!”
(From Octavian at 1000Fragrances.)
As I began working on my formula, I did find that some of the true notes in the original formula were not available: the musks would have to be replaced by some slightly more modern musk notes and the civet would need to be synthetic as well. So, I set to work making a skeletal structure to test on my clients skin…
And that’s where I’m going to leave you for now. Stay tuned for part 2. :)
I hope that imagining what’s happening on the skin sparks your creative juices for today. I’ll be back with more before you know it. oxox
image credits: photo image by jennie marie schell found here; iris gris drawing found here; iris gris perfume bottle image found here; iris gris perfume ad no.1 image found here.