“It’s like a legend for people. It is considered to be the most beautiful perfume in the world—something almost unattainable.” In her airy office inside niche perfume house Panouge, on the upscale Paris avenue of Victor Hugo, creative director Rania Naim’s gentle voice trembles with emotion. And yet, sitting at her Starck-designed desk, surrounded by watercolor illustrations, she is poised and in command in black slacks, a white ruffle shirt, and Gucci loafers. An APM Monaco pink flamenco earring dangles from one ear, hinting that the Beirut native is not all work and sacrifice. For that, is precisely what appears to have consumed the past ten years of her life—from the minute when she decided to embark on a thrilling adventure to revive the douce sleeping beauty of all perfumes, Iris Gris.
When couturier Jacques Fath (1912-1954) commissioned Vincent Roubert to make the perfume in 1947, it appeared to contain 30% iris (absolute, concrete, and synthetic). Named Iris Gris, the most valuable perfume was born. It was soon discontinued, however, when Fath perished from leukemia and his widowed wife faltered to maintain the business that had once seen the likes of de Givenchy, Valentino, and Balmain as apprentices. Today, the perfume’s recipe remains locked away, hidden inside a safe at the Osmothèque, the perfume museum and world’s largest scent archive in Versailles. Another Beirut native, award-winning perfume critic Luca Turin states that the original scent, based on having smelled pristine collector samples, is in fact “more of a violet than an iris, against a smooth, elegant green-powdery base.” He adds that the Osmothèque’s version, a reconstruction based on the secret formula that Roubert’s son gave them, is “an all-out el expensivo iris butter against a peach; an laconic-clove base that I’m not crazy about.”
When Panouge purchased the maison Jacques Fath in 2008, Naim began the slow process of un-turning every stone to learn as much as possible about the Iris Gris perfume and its legend. In the meantime, she launched two collections under the line “Fath’s Essentials.” The first with perfumer Cécile Zarokian and the second with Luca Maffei. The eight fragrances are revealed in potent colors and evoke the spirit of travel and joy. Among them, is the reproduction of the Jacques Fath vintage perfume Green Water (1946).
Putting her plan to revive Iris Gris in motion, Naim recalls, “I couldn’t have the pretense to determine the perfume alone. I needed to surround myself with historians, critics, and perfumers, in order to create what I could deem a responsible reedition. I contacted everyone, starting with Luca Turin—the first to write about Iris Gris—to help me and bring together a team of judges.” Meanwhile, Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder and director of The Institute for Art and Olfaction had heard the rumors of the reedition in Los Angeles and informed that she wanted to document the process on film. The scene was set and five perfumers, among them one industry giant, were offered samples, access to the Osmothèque, ingredients, and nine months to produce their respective works. The winner would be selected by way of blind testing.
“Each perfumer was given four different samples of Iris Gris, but they all smelled different, which is normal of course,” says Naim. “There are many natural materials in this perfume. And live matter changes with time.” Along with iris, the perfume also contains peach, violet, carnation, vetiver bourbon, and jasmine from Grasse, which sells for US $136,000/Kilo. Referred to as “White Gold,” a small quantity of jasmine is produced in the small, South of France town each year. Naim managed to acquire some, though it is generally reserved for Chanel and Dior alone. “We asked the perfumers to create a synthesis of all of these smells. Since no version is the same, what is important, is to recreate the same emotions. Iris Gris is a monument, like the Eiffel Tower. Everyone considers it ‘their’ perfume.”
The judges were unanimous in their decision. Turin enthuses, “It combines the sleek base of the original with the glorious top note of the second (and then some), and is one nostalgic, elegant sweep from top to bottom.” Naim contacted the winners via Skype, while Wilson-Brown filmed. The man for the making: Patrice Revillard, a 25-year-old perfumer who didn’t even have his diploma at the time [he is now a graduate of l’Ecole Supérieur du Parfum]. “I could have said, ‘He is too young. Iris Gris is a grand perfume.’ But I said yes, and the judges were unanimous,” declares Naim.
With the juice determined, Panouge’s creative director, who helmed the project from start to finish, decided on the name L’Iris de Fath. “What is No. 5 without Chanel?” she shrugs. The bottle is a nod to its original. The weighty objet d’art features the words Jacques Fath embossed on the glass. An elongated cap is drawn with eight angles to recall the points of a diamond. The 30 ml perfume sits snug in a satin cushion box reminding of a fine jewelry case.
Panouge’s artistic director’s delicate fingers gently touch the twenty or so perfume blotters on her desk, representing a year’s work. She has just returned from Esxence Milano, an annual exhibition fair for niche perfume houses, and where she unveiled L’Iris de Fath for the first time. “We had a man come to our stand who had purchased a bottle of Iris Gris from a collector for US $2,200. He told me, ‘I understand that you have made a re-edition of Iris Gris. I have brought the original bottle with me. It’s still closed, and I would like to open it here, at your stand. But first, I want to smell what you have created.” He smelled our perfume, and then, with tears in his eyes, he handed us his Iris Gris bottle. ‘It belongs with you,’ he said. And our first bottle, will be his.” Sold in select boutiques, including Jovoy, Roja Dove, and Campomarzio70, Iris de Fath is limited to 150 bottles/year, price estimate US $1850 for 30 ml.