Suzanne's Perfume Journal

To read my most recent posts, return to Home Page

A Post on Iris Ukiyoé by Hermès, in Honor of Japan

Back in December, a friend sent me a sample of Iris Ukiyoé—the ninth fragrance in the Hermessence Collection from luxury-brand Hermès and, like the others in this unique collection, the creation of perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. I’m not familiar with the majority of the Hermessences, only a small few, but I am familiar with a number of other Ellena fragrances, many of them ethereal to the point that they seem like auras, making me think the perfumer’s interest is not so much in capturing the corporeal nature of whatever place or thing he is examining, but rather the spirit that hovers over it; the expiration it gives off; the ions suspended around it in their magnetic embrace.

Therefore, I wasn’t expecting the queerly crisp and insistent green fragrance that met my nose when I uncapped the sample of Iris Ukiyoé. It seemed to possess as much structure as it did aura, though it possesses both, and as such its greenness struck me as both sobering and a little too bright. Even so, its oddness wasn’t exactly off-putting or something I wanted to dismiss. I wrote back to my friend saying, “While I could never imagine wanting a bottle of this one, it is a fascinating thing to study and may inspire a post from me.”

Well, what better time to post about Iris Ukiyoé than now, when all of our thoughts are with Japan. I have made my Red Cross Japan donation; I trust that you have, too. How does a person help beyond that, in circumstances that seem monstrous in proportion to the kind of aid that each one of us is able to lend? I have to say that while I’m not a religious person, I still believe in the power of prayer in all of its myriad forms. Sometimes I think that’s where we really exist, so maybe Jean-Claude Ellena is onto something: maybe the thoughts and wishes that we breathe out and breathe in—that hover around us like auras and, at their tipping point, break free like an ion wind to collide with other bodies—are more substantial than our corporeal selves.

At times like these, that's the philosophy I embrace and that’s the real inspiration for this post. A little prayer, spoken through the language of perfume, that simply hopes that it will join up with a few billion other prayers to say, While you are going through this horrendous time, I will hold what I know of your beauty close to me and nurture it. Because that I can do.

Iris Ukiyoé was inspired by the perfumer’s admiration for Japanese engravings, particularly those of the Ukiyoé (or Ukiyo-e) genre, which pertains to the Japanese concept of “the floating world”—that realm of transient beauty and diversions that seems to exist in its own fragile bubble, separate and adrift from the mundane world and its concerns. The beauty of nature and of seasonal things (such as flowering trees), of song and theatre, of simple pleasures like sake poured by a geisha and drunk in the company of friends—these are all “floating world” pleasures. The olfactory Ukiyo-e that Ellena created is described on the perfume website as “a poetic Japanese perfume composed around water iris,” which is quite fitting: When I smell it, I think of the traditional Japanese garden, which has its own poetic structure, a structure not unlike Haiku.

Cool, crisp, and freshly but densely green, is how Iris Ukiyoé smells when it first hits my skin. There are glints of sunlight on the greenery, thanks to a citrus accompaniment of mandarin and orange, but the greenness is so all-encompassing that experiencing Iris Ukiyoé is like entering into another world. “It has been a Japanese sentiment from olden times to put as much greenery as possible in the garden,” says the author of one of my Japanese garden books, which has pictures of gardens so expressively written in that verdant hue that the air of quietude they evoke (to the eye alone) is almost startling. That’s the kind of green that Iris Ukiyoé embraces in its first half-hour of wear.

Eventually a fine nuance of rose and orange blossom will soften the green notes, but they do not peek out of the fragrance and announce themselves to you by their proper names. Instead they commingle in a way that adds a soft floral touch and a bit of lift. In a traditional Japanese garden, water is often expressed abstractly through the placement of stones and is an important element. In Iris Ukiyoé, water is also an important element, and this is indeed a fragrance wrapped in aqueous notes which, to me, do not smell calone-like but distinctly vegetal, with the wet, cucumber-like smell of violet leaf being most prominent.

My initial feelings about Iris Ukiyoé have not changed: this is not a fragrance I would wear on a regular basis, yet I would like always to have a sample of it. It provides a particular image of beauty that I enjoy contemplating, even knowing I will never adopt it for my own. Every year it is always the same with my garden: I find myself irresistibly drawn to that burst of color that comes from annuals, and the scent of old-fashioned flowers like petunias and marigolds, all of them bunched together in ways one would never encounter in a natural setting and that are anything but contemplative. But in winter time I will get out my gardening books and fantasize about creating a garden like the one at the Yoneda Estate in Shimane or the Sasaki Estate in Niigata—places that I will only ever know from the pages in a book, but that occupy a place in my “floating world,” just the same.

Iris Ukiyoé can be purchased from; $235 for 100 ml.

Image: Ukiyo-e engraving, "The Plum Garden in Kameido" by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).

March 16, 2011: