It was perfume that first brought a touch of Luxury & Romance to chilly misty Northern Islands. Now there’s a thought! And that perfume, in its amphorae, stone jars and rough glass phials was in its turn brought over to Britain by Roman colonists at the end of a long sequence of travels from the Near East and southern Europe. Some say the Phoenicians, too, from Tyre and Sidon traded their spices, scented oils and purple murex dyes for the precious tin of what is now Cornwall.
If there’s one thing everyone loves and wonders at in fragrance, it is the way in which it tugs and pulls at the memory, stimulating it in leaps and bounds, and sending it haring off down forgotten alleys of the mind. And what can be more extraordinary than the way in which the same perfume ingredient, despite all the twists and turns of its processing and interpretation, is still basically yielding the same smell as it did on the skin of Poppaea Sabina, Augustus, Zenobia of Palmyra or Joseph of Arimathea.
Recently, a brand new scent fell to earth at Les Senteurs: I mentioned it very briefly two weeks ago. It has the glorious name of IRIS PALLADIUM. Put Tommy Steele, Judy Garland and the Tiller Girls out of your mind. The original Palladium was a small statue of Pallas Athene, the tutelary goddess of Troy. Athene the Grey-Eyed let fall her image from Olympus and for so long as it was honoured in that Anatolian city, Troy was preserved. Odysseus stole the idol, his diabolical Wooden Horse rolled into the doomed city, and after many wanderings the Palladium was transferred to the keeping of the Vestals in the Roman Forum. The last of it was seen at Constantinople, back on the shores of Asia Minor.
The graceful iris and its use in perfumery is as least as old as the Palladium. Pallas Athene’s rival goddess, Hera the Queen of Heaven, employed the nymph Iris¤ as her messenger. Iris’s gauzy coloured mantle streaked across the skies leaving the arch of a rainbow. The Divine Courier received the souls of dying heroes and carried messages into the Valley of Sleep and Dreams. The elegant plant which inherited the deity’s name exhibits and manifests all her beauty, as well as the blissful smell which always gives the game away if you have a demi-god or saint in your midst.
Some people stubbornly and mistakenly say that the flower of the iris has no scent: “no! no! the fragrance is all in the root, the rhizome”. True enough it is the precious rhizomes which have always been dried, powdered and pounded into orris concreta for perfumes of exceptional quality. But stand by a single blooming blue or brown bearded iris – by no means the most pungent variety – on a warm May evening in an English back yard and then tell me there is no smell. The fragrance is almost liquid – silky & fluid – while at the same time it has the powderiness of orris: that intoxicating, slightly chalky, honeyed density and thickness. If you are lucky enough to have a whole border of these tough old plants you will stand in a paradise bower of piquant paradox. For I find that iris seem to love a dry bed of grit and cinders; and this despite our native yellow flags in streams and pools; or those ancient Egyptian prototypes amid which Moses’s basket floated. Irises are the most accommodating of plants: drought-resistant and just asking to be left alone to get on with it. But then, contrary wise, if you close your eyes amid the iris you might imagine that you were at the heart of the most costly and delicious perfume shop in the world, such is the natural redolence that billows out for a scant three weeks every spring. It must be a residual or unconscious belief in sympathetic magic that persuades parents to use ‘Iris’ as a given name, hoping that baby will inherit the plant’s eponymous charms. It is one of the most stylish of the late Victorian flower names and the Misses Adrian, Murdoch, Origo, Apfel and Tree have all done well by it.
Can IRIS PALLADIUM live up to all this and justify its stately name? Yes, and superbly so. I freely admit that although – or, more probably, BECAUSE – I’m dotty about the flower, I’m often dubious about the manufactured perfume. Iris scents often seem too intense, too sharp, too magenta in hue when they should be a diaphanous mauve. They can be too vegetal, almost culinary, overly damp and earthy. I adore IRIS POUDRE and NAIVIRIS but I perceive them as essentially orris fragrances. PALLADIUM is much more about the flower. You know my tastes by now: there is a fragility, a transience here that I love. The scent has a heart-stopping quality, not sweetness exactly, but a palpitation of intensity at its core that drives me wild and sends me ferreting after the (impenetrable, so far) secret. A faint silvery mineral – almost sandy – accord, startling in the headnotes like a late frost on petals, warms into a powdered nectar haze.
The perfume’s ultimate resolution is forever receding and unattainable. The closer you come to unravelling its final enigma, the faster it drifts away, shifting and gliding, just beyond reach -so like the elusive and forever-fleet goddess with her rainbow trail.
¤ Iris was the daughter of Electra, a nymph of the clouds. Electra translates from Greek as “amber” – another intriguing link with perfumery.