Monday, January 28, 2008

Unveiling a myth: Iris Gris by Jacques Fath (fragrance review)

 A fragrance history snippet cum fragrance review on the "best perfume ever" according to the legend...

by guest writer Denyse Beaulieu

The day I finally smelled the peach in Mitsouko – a full-fleshed downy peach bulging through the seamless composition – was the day after I smelled the mythical Iris Gris, by Jacques Fath. As though the latter had opened up an unknown dimension in the former: the same peach note, known as undecalactone or aldehyde C-14 (though it technically isn’t an aldehyde), pushing itself through once I had grounds for comparison.

Thanks to Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent, I knew both fragrances shared the note. His few lines on the tragically rare Iris Gris, the best iris ever in his opinion, had spurred my curiosity. But I didn’t hold much hope of smelling it outside the Versailles Osmothèque: each, rare flacon seemed to go for astronomical price… The French couturier Jacques Fath launched it in 1947: but he died at 43, in 1954, and though Fath perfumes continued to be produced, the expensive Iris Gris was soon discontinued: hence its extreme rarity.

No hope at all, that is, until I happened on an open-air flea market right next to my place, under the aerial metro that runs past the Eiffel tower. Somehow, that Saturday, I knew there was a perfume waiting there for me. Eyes peeled, I wandered from stall to stall, thought I spotted old flacons, was quickly disappointed when the seller told me they weren’t perfume… And nearly fainted when she did point me towards a table where she had a couple.

It was sitting there. Iris Gris. No more than 1/5 evaporated, sealed, with box. Impeccable colour. Reasonable price for what it fetches in auctions. I didn’t haggle, and stole away with my prize, mind reeling. I knew I’d gotten hold of a myth.

The great unsealing took place in a café right by the Palais-Royal, with perfumer and perfume historian Octavian Sever Coifan. He was the man I needed for the occasion: he’d smelled the Osmothèque reproduction and could vouch for its condition (authenticity was never in doubt, because of the intact seal).

It is impeccable. Fresh as the day it was composed, which Octavian explained to me was due to the fact that it certainly didn’t have any hesperidic top notes: those are the ones that spoil in vintage perfume.
But what jumped out immediately was the peach. As smooth and downy cheeked as a Renoir model’s, sweet without being tooth-aching syrupy.

Octavian held out blotters of orris absolute, irone (the molecule that makes iris smell of iris: the higher the concentration, the higher price the orris fetches) and ionones (the violet smell) for comparison.

And magically, iris came to the fore. Its slight metallic tinge softened by the peach, but definitely iris – and iris with a smile.

Now every time I picked up the blotter, I got either peach or iris. A bit like in those 3-D postcards we used to have as children: tilt it one way, and you get the peach. Tilt it the other way, and it morphs into the iris. If there are other notes (and there are in Octavian’s detailed breakdown), I just couldn’t pick them up. It’s that seamlessly blended: like a “gorge de pigeon” (pigeon-throat) taffetas – a comparison Luca Turin uses in The Secret of Scent ~the iris-peach combination is woven into the very fabric of the scent. Then as the fragrance evolves, the iris-peach weaves somehow tightens and melds into a single, smooth and utterly unique scent: a joyful iris, a fleshed-out iris as light-hearted as an aldehydic, but without the “old-fashioned” feel that some people get out of aldehydic scents because of their classic status, or that “hairspray” smell that comes from hairspray actually being scented to resemble the likes of Chanel N°5.

The overall effect is amazingly modern and spare: it could’ve been composed yesterday and it could be reissued with great success tomorrow, and walk rings around Kelly Calèche (which I admire, by the way). Unlike some vintage scents that feel very much of their time and need a special frame of mind to get into – much as a vintage dress does – this feels as young and joyful as the day it was composed.

Jacques Fath was indeed one of the first couturiers to think of very young women in his fresh and sophisticated designs: of course, young women of the time were quite a bit more sophisticated than they would be in the following decade. With his matinee-idol good looks, the designer to Hollywood stars (he designed Rita Hayworth’s wedding dress) was very much a star in his own right, as famous in his time as Christian Dior whose New Look he interpreted in a more supple, playful manner. A gifted colourist, he was said to favour amethyst and grey – which may have partly been the inspiration for Iris Gris

The scent itself was composed by Vincent Roubert, who authored the classic leather fragrance Knize Ten in 1924, as well several Coty fragances, including the best-selling floral aldehydic L’Aimant in 1927 (which was thought to be Coty’s answer to Chanel N°5), but also the masculine Fath Green Water (1927), still produced but with a very different formula.

The house of Fath has recently revived its clothing line with designer Lizzie Disney at the helm. Here’s hoping they reissue the original Iris Gris, without tweaking the formula at all. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying every drop with the tight throat that comes from releasing a long-imprisoned genie from its bottle, knowing it’ll never come back…

For another take on Iris Gris, visit Octavian's blog clicking here.

Pics: Images: Bettina in a white satin battle-dress jacket, fall/winter 1949-1950, from Fath archives, excerpted from Mode du Siècle (éditions Assouline); Jacques Fath in his studio, courtesy; peach iris courtesy


  1. How absolutely lovely that you found this rare gem! I can't help but imagine your buzz on the day - it must have felt so exciting and wonderful!

  2. Divina, my heart literally skipped a beat: I think I actually came close to fainting for a millisecond. I'm not a rabid collector and I wasn't on the hunt for it. But that find, especially in this condition, and at that type of market, was spectacular. There was a Goddess for perfumistas that day and her name was Serendipity -- one of my favourite words in the English language.

  3. Anonymous12:32

    Fabulous review. I love how you note its modernity and simplicity--it makes it all the more tantalizing. I can only imagine the feeling when you encountered it...all alone on the table, just waiting for you to take home and experience. Can you imagine if some bottle collector had found it and dumped out that gorgeous jus?

    I didn't know they were reviving the house, either--perhaps a reissue is (finally!!!!) in order?

    Oh, and please enter me in the drawing for Nombre Noir! I'd love to sniff that one from a vial that isn't damaged.

  4. Anonymous12:58

    What a beautiful review! This is becoming my favorite place lately, I had been reading so many things over the net and now focusing on things I mostly enjoy and this is one of them.


  5. Billy, a collector wouldn't have dumped the jus: it's worth a lot more sealed with original contents. But he/she wouldn't have opened it to experience it, for that very reason. I must admit it was a (short) struggle between putting it up for auction (God knows I need the euros) and smelling it. You know which won...

  6. Irene, I'm sure Helg is as pleased as I am that you would choose this as one of your favourite venues.
    It's hard to do justice to such myths as Iris Gris and Nombre Noir. I'm sure as I wear Iris Gris (it's on my skin today) I'll discover so many more facets I'll want to rewrite this all over again!

  7. D,

    I wish I were with Denyse on Saturday!! I can tell you that.

    This is an extremely lucky occurence, similar to mine with Nombre Noir ~although that was through the providence of an antique-hunter friend, so the perfume gods were smiling indirectly to me ;-)

  8. Billy D,

    Thank God, D opened it up! So now we know how good it is.

    Wouldn't it be a great idea if we contacted a bottle collecting community who are also interested in empty flacons? Perhaps we would be lucky that way *wishful thinking*

    I have included you in the draw for the NN sample, rest assured.

  9. Indeed I am, Irene!

    Thanks a lot for your preference and hope you derive lots of pleasure.

  10. Anonymous14:27

    Congratulations on your find, Denyse! It gives hope to others as well as providing the material for a beautiful review. As Mitsouko is one of my Top 5 scents I am interested in that peach aspect. So interesting. I was wondering if you think any of today's iris offerings bear any resemblance to IG? Aren't they just lovely clothes too - I really fancy that white jacket!

  11. I would be interested in the comparison with other iris fragrances as well, Donanicola: I hope Denyse setps up and comments.
    Iris and peach, iris and peach...I can't seem to think of one that is predominantly those two.

    On a fashion note: aren't Fath's clothes wonderfully wearable and effortlessly chic? Balenciaga's are so unbecoming to anyone who isn't a stick-thin model: too much volume for a real body to handle.

  12. Anonymous16:56

    Iris Gris! Even the name is spectacular. I'd love to know what you think of it in a few months, after you wear it more (I'm hoping you'll wear it from time to time--that kind of beauty shouldn't be sealed away).

    And Nombre Noir, too! Two legends in a week. Please enter me in the drawing.

    I think my next grey cat will be named Iris Gris, and my next black dog will be Nombre Noir.

  13. Angela,

    the names are lyrical: who can argue with that? It would be wonderful to baptize pets with those names (I have a post with some relevance to this coming up shortly....)

    You're in the drawing, of course!

  14. Donanicola: I really fancy that jacket too. I scanned that particular picture because the whole look could be worn as is today without the vintage feel, exactly as is the case for Iris Gris. I also love Bettina's sweet gamine expression, so impish and young!
    As for comparison with other irises: there isn't one that strikes that particular chord. The iris of reference to me is Iris Silver Mist, but the spirit is totally different. ISM is haughty and melancholy. The current irises offered are all tinged with chocolate (Equistrius, Dior Homme, Iris Ganache) which doesn't appear at all in Iris Gris. Can't compare with the Prada: I need to dig out my sample!

  15. Angela, I have in fact been wearing it today. It dries down to a very soft cedar-tinged musk, with the iris-peach blend still peering through. A wine expert client of mine told me he perceived something slightly caramelized: I'm wondering if it's the combined smokiness of cedar and a touch of oakmoss with the sweetness of peach?

  16. Anonymous18:41

    Lovely review D. I am lucky to have a drop of this - I love the way the peach quality is muted by the iris, but in turn gives that often metallic chord a roundness, a softness. A beautiful fragrance indeed. And likely a source of inspiration for many perfumers in the JCE style... Though of course, it seems a different kind of simplicity to more contemporary creations

    (n.b. I will be replying to you soon. I am such the slacker...)

  17. Isn't it completely modern? Octavian has been trying to duplicate it, check out his new post. He says it's cut with laser-like precision.

  18. Hello
    New post online inspired by Equistrius Parfum d'Empire !

  19. Late to the party but I scored a bottle the other day, for no more than some 32 euros. I must join those who say that this thing should be relaunched.


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