Decoding Obscure Notes Part II: Iris, Skin and Powder
The subtlety of musks and their similarity to the scent of the human skin is not unique to musks alone. There are other notes that possess similar qualities – the oiliness of orris butter is reminiscent of the soft and sweet odor of a newborn baby’s head. At the same time, it has a cool, watery and even slightly earthy aspect to it.
Orris root absolute is one of the most precious perfume materials. The roots need to be peeled and aged for a long time before extraction and distillation. It is invaluable in perfumery, for its powdery and delicate aroma and its role in floral compositions (especially those which require a violet-like touch). Orris is also used to soften woody, floriental and oriental compositions. Orris is one of the notes that make the Guerlain perfumes so soft and unique – it is one of the notes in the infamous Guerlinade. It’s role is of particular importance in Apres l’Ondee, Shalimar, l’Heure Bleue and Samsara. Recently, an orris theme has been receiving more attention by niche houses – Hiris (Hermes), Iris Poudre (Frederic Malle), Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens), Bois d’Iris (The Different Company), Iris Nobile (Aqua di Parma), Hirisa (Creed), and even the more mainstream Dior Homme released last year by Dior.
But orris is not the only note that has a distinct powdery and soft character that resembles the human skin. Some on their own – and others give this impression off only once they become part of a more complex accord.
From the wild jungle tree of Argentina and Paraguay. The oil is waxy, fatty, almost skin-like, slightly smoky and with a unique tea rose scent. It is often used in tobacco or leather compositions as well as in masculine spicy and woody orientals. I have yet to smell a distinct guiacwood note in a perfume that is not my own, though I am certain and it is not officially listed as a note in very many perfumes.
Delicate and powdery, from the abundant yellow blossoms of the mimosa bush has a fragile top note that is somewhat soapy, reminiscent of cassie and slightly honeyed. Despite its powderiness, it is far smoother and more subtle than orris.
A relative of the mimosa, cassie has a more pronounced floral-powdery scent, and is very delicate floral base note. It is warm, powdery and slightly spicy, herbaceous and warm.
Cabreuva are extremely hard woods from Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. Cabreuva has a very unusual watery, delicate floral note reminiscent of cassie, lily of the valley and mimosa. It has a scent that I cannot describe better than “watery”. When I smell cabreuva, I feel as if it gently rinses my brain with water… It feels clear and clean, and strangely soft and warm all at once. It adds those characteristics to perfumes as well – giving off a soapy, clean, watery feel…
Rosewood (Bois de Rose)
A by product of the rosewood furniture industry (steam distilled from rosewood dust). Rosewood contains a lot of linalool, a bright, clean, heady yet soft aroma chemical. Rosewood is a light and floral top note, powdery-smooth and slightly rosy (henceforth the name) and is not unlike lavender, but less herbal and slightly dried than lavender – and indeed often accompanies lavender to create a soft, powdery effect in fougere scents.
While orris and guiacwood have the oily, skin-like and powdery qualities on their own – notes such as mimosa, cassie, cabreuva and rosewood are more often used either as a theme or as a supporting note in a floral composition. Nevertheless, they are responsible for making a heady floral more personable by adding a pulsating suggestion of human bare skin – either freshly showered, or warm and smooth – either way, pulsating with sensuality that is strange and familiar at once…