Roja Dove on Orris Root

Roja Dove published a book called The Essence of Perfume (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2008). In it, he gives wonderful descriptions and evaluations about all things perfume-related; but especially enlightening are his descriptions of some of the natural raw materials that go into making scents. In all, he details 94 separate natural raw materials. He deals with 24 synthetic materials also; in my opinion he deals with synthetics much better and much more fully than almost any non-technical book I have seen on perfume. For instance, in talking about synthetics, he explains the differences among natural isolates, reconstructions, synthetics proper, and aldehydes.

But today, I want to take a look at what he says about orris. Here's the text:

Orris absolute is obtained either from Iris pallida or Iris Florentina. They are still cultivated in the region around Florence. The flower of the iris is not used and, along with the leaves and roots, it is removed before the rhizome is dried. The finest orris is white orris which is obtained by peeling; a lesser quality of oil is obtained by not peeling the rhizome.
As the rhizome dries an isolate forms inside it called irone; the longer it is dried the more irone it will produce. It is dried for three years, ground and steam distilled. It forms a waxy paste known as Orris Butter which is reminiscent of a concrete. The butter is then washed with alcohol to remove the waxy elements. The process takes approximately six years and results in an unimaginably small yield, which is why it costs some three and a half times the price of gold bullion and is now very rarely used other than in the finest compositions. Its woody, violet-like odour imparts a feeling of great luxury to any composition and, when used in conjunction with vanilla, it gives a feeling of great femininity. [pp.54-55]

Under his
entries on synthetics, he says further about the isolate irone:

Irone is a natural isolate found in orris oil which was first discovered in 1893. Irone is highly costly as the yield of orris from iris is tiny, and the amount of irone within it is minuscule. This is the perfect example of when a synthetic material is far more costly than a natural. [p.63]

In describing the methods of extraction of essential oils from natural materials, he writes in more detail:

Throughout history humankind has tried to capture the ephemeral odors which fill its world. Many are still elusive, but many have been harnessed through the development and perfection of various processes. It is difficult or us to imagine in today's high-tech, scientific world that many methods still in use seemingly owe more to the alchemist than to the chemist. Take orris for example, the iris rhizome has to have its roots, leaves and flowers removed, before being dried for a minimum of three years which results in a hard, fossilised looking 'stone'. It is now known as orris and has no real odor. Any sane person coming across it would have thrown it out, but someone in history decided to place it in alcohol and leave it there for two years. The orris dissolves into the alcohol, becomes yellowish in color and looks like butter which has been left too near a hot stove. It is now known as orris butter, or beurre d'orris, and smells fatty and in a vague way slightly violet-like — this is the first real glimpse of the beauty hiding within. The orris butter undergoes a final treatment to extract the oil which again does not truly reveal its hidden secret; it is only when it combines with other materials that its inherent soft, luxurious, powdery magic reveals itself. Today, the way orris is processed has not greatly changed, and because of this it is one of the most costly ingredients. [p. 35]

He mentions in passing that carrot seed has an odor "reminiscent of orris and violet notes with a warm, spicy undertone." [p. 48] This accounts for the presence of "carrot" in the fragrance pyramids of Olivia Giacobetti's creation Hermès Hiris and a few other orris compositions. He also mentions orris again in writing about the herb costus (Saussuria costus), whose scent he also compares to both violet and orris. [p. 50]

All in all, Roja Dove's book doesn't mention orris very much. For example, in his treatment of various perfumes in Chapter Six, "The Great Classics," where he deals with great perfumes from the 1880s to our own decade, he does go into some detail about the ingredients of many of the classics, but the index entries in the book don't seem to cover this section.

Even so, what he does do is far more interesting than merely detailing formulas: he breathes life into the methods and techniques that bring us wonderful things from some very unprepossessing and humble flora and fauna of our natural world. Who ever thought of the process of extraction for orris? What clue did they have that all their effort would yield anything interesting or useful? One just has to marvel at the curiosity and obsession of perfumers, and Dove's treatment of the subject of orris reveals that incredibly well.

When I first put on Chanel 28 La Pausa, which is an almost impenetrable orris perfume, I felt
in my bones some of what Dove describes. Both beautiful and elusive, cold and rapturous — a whole series of contradictions — it is very hard to unravel the subtlety of the iris from anything else in the juice. I can imagine that some of its ethereal quality must come from what Dove suggests is an alchemical method of extraction. In that process, the redolence of orris seems to come out of nowhere, or at least from some mysterious interaction of the passage of time, the perfumer's patience, and the botanical's exposure to alcohol. 28 La Pausa is an in-and-out experience on me, like a radio signal that is fighting static: now it's there, now it's not, now it's there again, flickering in and out of existence in some precariously contingent universe.

Somehow, reading about the extraction of orris accounts for some of that elusiveness. With such a wide selection of iris-toned scents out there today and their overall relatively high quality, what I read about orris in Dove's book provides fodder for a greater appreciation of the noble fleur-de-lys.
 

Blog Comments

Redneck Perfumisto

League of Cycloöctadiene Isomer Aestheticists
Basenotes Plus
Feb 27, 2008
Great post, Jaime!

Even so, what he does do is far more interesting than merely detailing formulas: he breathes life into the methods and techniques that bring us wonderful things from some very unprepossessing and humble flora and fauna of our natural world. Who ever thought of the process of extraction for orris? What clue did they have that all their effort would yield anything interesting or useful? One just has to marvel at the curiosity and obsession of perfumers, and Dove's treatment of the subject of orris reveals that incredibly well.

This really is the strength of Dove's book, for me. There are two kinds of professors that I greatly admire - the passionate orators who set hearts on fire, and the quiet scholars who those hearts later study under. Dove is clearly more of the former. Like you, I was struck by his words about orris. He really has an enjoyable writing style.

Thanks again for a wonderful post. :)
 

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