The World’s Most Expensive Perfumery Ingredients, Part One: Orris Root

One of the joys of being a natural perfumer is getting to work with so many beautifully fragrant ingredients — the natural essences that are my stock in trade. They number in the hundreds, and I’m in love with them all, from herbaceous angelica root to lush ylang-ylang and everything in between.

There are certain essences perfumers use which are classified as rare and precious ingredients, a distinction that’s made based on the difficulty of extracting an essence from its source, and its resulting price. Jasmine, sandalwood and magnolia are a few examples of rare and precious ingredients.

Then there are the rarest and most precious of them all: orris root, ambergris and oud. These are the three most expensive perfumery ingredients in the world. I’ll cover each of them in separate posts. In this post, I’m going to tell you about orris root. It’s one of my absolute favorite essences, and I’ve had the pleasure of using it in several of my perfumes (Haute Bohème, No. 9 and Love Lavender).

Highly prized in perfumery as a gorgeous base-to-middle note, orris root is very tenacious and an excellent fixative. Its incomparable scent has an exalting effect on perfumes even in low amounts.

Orris root is derived from the bearded iris plant (iris pallida). Grown primarily in the Italian countryside, iris pallida can be seen blooming on hillsides in May and June. The flower itself has very little scent and is not used in perfumery. But through a painstaking process that’s as labor-intensive as it is time-consuming, the plant's roots yield an essence that costs about $30,000 per pound.

In its fascinating transformation from gnarled, dirty old root to an essence more costly than gold, the extraction of orris root seems like something out of a fairy tale.

It works like this: After an iris flower blooms, its stalk is cut, but its rhizome (the orris root) is left in the ground for three years. After three years, the root is carefully unearthed, fastidiously cleaned by hand, and left to dry in the sun for another three years. Care must be taken to ward off insects and fungi throughout this time.

During the drying period, the root slowly oxidizes, which increases the concentration of a naturally-occurring aromatic molecule called irone (and the higher the concentration of irones in the rhizome, the more valued in terms of fragrance).

In the seventh year, the roots are ground by hand and transformed through hydro-distillation into their final, market-ready form: a substance called orris butter, which is a semi-solid essential oil.

The jaw-dropping price of orris butter is a consequence of the labor intensity, extensive growing and storage periods, and generally low yield involved in its production.

Here’s how it adds up: One thousand tons of fresh orris rhizomes yield just three hundred tons after peeling, drying and grinding the roots. And one ton of the ground roots yields only four and a half pounds of orris butter.

The farms where iris is cultivated for orris butter production are generally small and family-run, with many having been passed down through generations. On these farms, harvesting and processing of the orris roots is done mostly by hand; such a delicate operation generally resists mechanization.

So what does orris root smell like? The scent is so multi-dimensional, it's hard to describe. But I'll try ...

It’s earthy and rooty, yet clean and powdery; it's sweet and smells faintly of violets; it's rich and delicate, cool and waxy; it’s woody, soft like suede, a bit peppery, a tad metallic. It's mysterious and enchanting, but also comforting and elevating. Yes, it's all of those things at once, which makes it a truly captivating essence.

The orris note in perfumery, more of a woody-floral than a true floral, is sophisticated and subtle, and appeals equally to women and men. Orris butter is usually found in relatively small amounts in a perfume formula, which is all that's needed to bring forth the depth and radiance of the note.

You may see the orris note referred to as "iris" in some perfumes. The terms may appear to be interchangeable, but caveat emptor: “iris” is often used where the perfume contains a synthetic facsimile of orris root (which is the case in most commercial perfumes these days). Being an ingredient purist, I never use synthetics or aroma-chemicals of any kind, and the orris root in my perfumes is the real deal.

The enterprising person who first discovered how to turn iris roots into a world-class perfumery essence is unknown. What we do know is that as far back as the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder wrote about orris root's use in medicine and perfumery.

And in the 1500's, Catherine de Medici ignited a trend in the French court when she arrived from Florence with orris-scented gloves. By the 17th century, finely milled orris root was being used across Europe by the cognescenti to freshen clothing, linens and powdered wigs.

Today, ground orris root still finds some use in herbal medicine (digestive aids; decongestants) and the cosmetic industry (skin care; scented powders and soaps).

It has culinary applications as well: in North Africa and the Middle East, orris root is found in a complex spice blend called Ras el Hanout. And it’s one of the botanical flavoring ingredients in Bombay Sapphire Gin.

In its journey from lovely iris plant to intriguing botanical essence, orris root captures the senses and the imagination like no other.

Next up: oud. — Claudia

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