Otherworldly. Cold as icy vodka. Hard as steel. Silvered like mist from outer space. That is the hypnotically strange, fascinating and, yes, a little bizarre opening to the famous Iris Silver Mist from Serge Lutens. It’s perhaps the most famous of all the Lutens Bell Jar fragrances, an iris fragrance taken to such extremes that it feels very futuristic at the start. All I could think of in its opening moments is how Serge Lutens had created the perfect scent for a Star Wars stormtrooper or a Terminator cyborg. And, strange as that may sound, that’s my favorite part. A Terminator cyborg sipping vodka in outer space while wearing Iris Silver Mist.
Iris Silver Mist was released in 1994, and is one of the few Lutens fragrances not created by Christopher Sheldrake. It was made by Maurice Roucel, a famous perfumer responsible for such fragrances as Frederic Malle‘s Musc Ravageur, Guerlain‘s L’Instant, Hèrmes‘ 24 Faubourg (one of my favorites), Gucci Envy, Rochas‘ Tocade, Bond No. 9‘s Haarlem, and many more. Iris Silver Mist is one of the Serge Lutens’ Paris Exclusives in a bell jar form, though it can actually be purchased outside of France, either from Barney’s New York or directly from Serge Lutens’ international and U.S. websites.
The Lutens website describes Iris Silver Mist as follows:
You can’t see a thing, but the scent tells the story.
Gleams of silver in a fine mist. Under our very eyes, powdery notes are transformed into an iridescent fragrance..
Iris Silver Mist is an iris soliflore, a fragrance centered around one key note, and few ingredient lists makes that as clear as the amusing one from Surrender to Chance which writes:
iris, cedar, clove, vetiver, iris, benzoin, incense, iris, white amber, clove, iris, iris, galbanum, iris, iris, more iris, little more iris, musk, Chinese spicebush and, um, more iris!
iris pallida root, galbanum, cedar, sandalwood, clove, vetiver, labdanum, musk, benzoin, incense, and white amber
There is a famous story behind Iris Silver Mist’s creation which is pretty funny. As Surrender to Chance puts it:
Rumor has it that during the making of Iris Silver Mist, Serge Lutens kept telling Roucel that he didn’t have enough iris (pallida) in the fragrance, put more in, until Roucel dumped every iris compound he could find in it, took it back, and Serge pronounced it perfect, and that became Iris Silver Mist.
Then, there is Luca Turin’s version of the tale in Perfumes: the A-Z Guide. It’s useful because it also adds to the perfume’s feel and notes, while also describing what must have been a very stressful perfume collaboration :
Long before everyone started doing irises and (mostly) pseudo-irises, Lutens had commissioned an iris to end them all from Maurice Roucel. The story goes that Lutens pestered the perfumer to turn up the iris volume to the max, and Roucel in his desperation decided to put into the formula every material in his database that had the iris descriptor attached to it, including a seldom-used brutal iris nitrile called Irival. The result was the powderiest, rootiest, most sinister iris imaginable, a huge gray ostrich-feather boa to wear with purple dévoré velvet at a poet’s funeral.
The “most sinister iris imaginable” — or perhaps, the most futuristic one. Iris Silver Mist opens on my skin as cold as iced vodka. The perfume actually has some of the drink’s same, lightly alcoholic, clear aroma when it is a thick, syrupy, frozen liquid, though it doesn’t smell like pure alcohol per se. The smell is simultaneously a little bit metallic in its nuances, artificial, synthetic, misty, and faintly powdery.
Front and center, however, is iris’ most frequent characteristic: the scent of boiled carrots. The note has a strong undertone that is both watery and sweet at the same time. At times, it almost seems accompanied by the aroma of rooty turnips, as well. The accord is ensconced and cocooned by the earthy, green nuances of the galbanum. Frequently, galbanum can be sharply pungent, almost bitter, and abrasively green. Here, however, it merely feels like very damp, dark, loamy soil that is infused with a soft, watery, floral sweetness. It’s delicate, and very lovely. The whole combination is lightly dusted by powder which adds to the silvery whiteness of the visuals.
The metallic clang to the iris concentrate is fascinating. It not only counters the subtle rootiness and powderiness at the perfume’s base but, more importantly, it feels as hard and silvered as steel. I’ve never encountered an iris note quite like it before, so it must be that “seldom-used brutal iris nitrile called Irival” which Luca Turin referenced in his book. Whatever the cause, the iris flower has been taken to silvery, grey extremes, amplified by the perfume equivalent of steroids, to smell completely alien. It’s more than just the thick, frozen vodka note infused with floral, boiled carrots and green earthiness, or even the feel of frozen metal. It’s something indescribable that just smells of the cold; an extreme, almost futuristic “cold.” The hard edge seems best suited for a futuristic world of ice, mist, silver, metal, and cyborgs, not to the world of today.
Iris Silver Mist doesn’t change much in its opening stage. At the five-minute mark, powder joins the icy metal brigade, as does a hint of cloves. The earthy, rooty, vegetal base of the fragrance is further emphasized by a touch of vetiver which carries the same tonalities. At the end of the first hour, the iris slowly softens, feeling a little buttery and much warmer. It starts to take on a faint veneer of soft kidskin suede. The note that I like to call “iced vodka” continues, but it’s slowly growing weaker. The same is true of that very cool, edgy, metallic, futuristic clang that adds such a unique tone to the fragrance. It’s still there, but its retreat makes Iris Silver Mist seem a little less otherworldly. I think something in the base elements is having an indirect effect, warming up the perfume, smoothing out its cool edges, and rendering it far safer and more traditional. Dommage.
As a soliflore, Iris Silver Mist is pretty true to its core bouquet, and doesn’t twist or turn substantially over time. It remains primarily a scent of vegetal iris, boiled carrots, powder, suede, moist earthiness, and rooty, almost turnip-like touches — all imbued with the merest hint of a light, soft musk. As the hours pass, Iris Silver Mist becomes sweeter, warmer, and more traditionally floral with the iris smelling a bit like really expensive, buttery, soft suede. Its carrot undertone remains, waxing and wanes in strength, sometimes feeling like a mere flicker, while at other times, it’s much stronger.
Around the second hour, the subtle powder and light musk notes in Iris Silver Mist become more prominent. At the same time, the galbanum and vetiver retreat to the background, their quiet, wet, fresh earthiness no longer noticeable in any strong, distinctive, individual way. Unfortunately, some combination of the light musk, the powder, and perhaps the muted earthiness of the fragrance leads Iris Silver Mist to take on a subtle soapy vibe. It’s not actual soap, to my nose, but there is a definite aura or impression of extremely expensive French floral soap subtly wafting around — and I’m not a fan of it in the slightest.
More interesting is the start of something creamy in the base around the end of the second hour. It never smells like true, genuine Mysore sandalwood (or any particular wood for that matter), and it also doesn’t smell like vanilla. Instead, it smells like some nebulous, vague abstraction of both things combined: white woods that are creamily soft with just the bare hint of sweetness. Regular readers know my issues regarding the supposed “sandalwood” in most modern perfumes, so I suppose those creamy, vague, amorphous, wood notes are supposed to be the “sandalwood” mentioned on the perfume list. I refuse to acknowledge it as such. (Yes, I give in, I admit I’m a sandalwood snob. It’s Mysore, or nothing.)
Three hours in, Iris Silver Mist is a soft, buttery, lightly powdered, iris that is now warmed up and silky, almost purely floral in nature, and freed of its more vegetable-like characteristics in large part. The bouquet sits atop some muted, amorphous, creamy, beige woods with a flicker of light musk. Alas, the impression of very expensive floral soap still lingers around the edges. Equally sad, the lovely damp earthiness from the vetiver and galbanum is but a mere shadow in the background. Far below, in the base, stirs a trace of some vanilla that is sweet, but also a little bit dry. I don’t detect any amber anywhere at all. By the end of the fourth hour, the powder has largely disappeared and Iris Silver Mist is a lightly musky, vanilla-sweetened iris over creamy woods. It stays that way for a few more hours, until it dies away as just a faint trace of some abstract floral note with vanilla.
All in all, Iris Silver Mist lasted 7.25 hours on my skin with low sillage throughout. The projection was moderate at first, wafting about 2 inches from the skin, before quickly dropping at the end of the first hour to hover just above the skin. Iris Silver Mist became a skin scent just short of two hours into its development, and became extremely difficult to detect around the sixth hour. In fact, I thought it had died at one point soon thereafter, but the fragrance hung on doggedly, even if it did take some hard sniffs to find it. As a whole, its weight is airy, and feels as sheer as mist.
Iris Silver Mist is an extremely well-crafted, elegant, sophisticated perfume, but it’s not my personal cup of tea. I adored the first 30-40 minutes, and thought it was cool beyond belief — in all senses of the word. Alien, original, almost disconcerting, wholly futuristic, and so damn intriguing, you couldn’t stop sniffing your arm to figure it just what the hell was going on. A perfume that made me think of “Space, The Final Frontier,” cyborgs, stormtroopers, the icy mist of the Milky Way, and the 22nd century (or the 25th)? Bring it on!
But, the elegant, refined, sophisticated 20th century iris of expensive, grey suede gloves with flickers of carrots, French soap and vanilla that Iris Silver Mist soon turned into? Eh. Not so interesting, for me personally, even though it is truly very lovely as a swirling, delicate, elegant, sum total. If the lovely, earthy, wet greenness had remained, and if the impression of expensive soap had never shown up, perhaps I would feel differently. But, I’m not an iris fanatic at heart, so I find it hard to be moved by something that is so traditionally pretty. Yet, I’m sure the suede heart of buttery, floral, powdery, vanillic iris is the Iris Silver Mist that most people love; it’s the sane, approachable, easy, wearable, and normal part. In fact, I’d bet I’m rather an oddity in loving that strange beginning. After all, suede, flowery iris with its gobs of orris butter is the iris suited to the likes of Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, or extremely wealthy, well-dressed, sophisticated Parisiennes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of it, but it’s hardly as edgy or funky as futuristic, icy, vodka, metallic, cyborg iris from outer space.
Perfume bloggers and renowned experts like Luca Turin adore Iris Silver Mist, consistently rate it Five Stars, and wax rhapsodic over its brilliant beauty. Bois de Jasmin gives it the same rating, using words like “radiant” and “ethereal” in her review:
Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist is iris to the power of 10. Despite its raw strength it manages to convey the ethereal softness and exquisite silkiness that make iris one of the most prized materials in perfumery. […][¶] Orris butter has a powdery quality reminiscent of violets covered with chalk dust, but Iris Silver Mist manages to preserve an amazing clarity. It opens up on a sharp, vegetal note of galbanum that calls to mind sliced green peppers. Its vibrancy is underscored by an earthy pungency, which like a flash of chili on the tongue serves as a piquant accent. The voluptuous beauty of iris unfolds in the heart of the composition, foiled by rich woods and sheer amber. Although Iris Silver Mist begins with thunder, it takes a turn towards graceful softness. […][¶]
It is not a perfume with universal appeal, as it does not attempt to soften the vegetal chill of iris root as has been done in either the floral sweetness of The Different Company Bois d’Iris or the ladylike elegance of Frédéric Malle Iris Poudre. Embellishments, in fact, are unnecessary, for Iris Silver Mist does not attempt to be coy—it is striking and beautiful.
Robin from Now Smell This also calls Iris Silver Mist “ethereal,” writing:
Iris Silver Mist starts with damp, dirt-caked roots, spicy and peppery, with a touch of dry, mossy green. There is a slightly bitter, vegetal edge to the top notes that has been compared to the scent of raw turnips, and there is a hint of the metallic buzz that frequently accompanies iris. It is earthy, but not earth-bound; it has a sheerness about it that together with the resinous notes and sandalwood perfectly evokes the cold swirling mist implied by its name. The longer it is on the skin, the more vaporous it seems, so that both Hiris and Bois d’Iris seem comparatively heavy and weighted down. [¶] It is an unusual, intensely captivating fragrance.
I’d already written most of my review when I stumbled across a very different assessment from Perfume-Smellin’ Things. I was thrilled to read the title — “Alien Technology” — and to see that Iris Silver Mist’s opening evoked “distant planets” for her as well. Like me, Donna is not an iris lover, but, unlike me, she hated the opening and only barely enjoyed the normal part of the fragrance. Her wonderful, absolutely hilarious review reads, in part, as follows:
My first question was: is this really a perfume? It is? Then why doesn’t it smell, um, wearable? Like something that’s supposed to be put on your skin? It’s so very strange, like the atmosphere of a distant planet where humans need to wear space suits. Nothing about it is inviting to me but it is certainly oddly beautiful, a piece of chilly abstract art that hangs in a whitewashed gallery filled with cold blue light; you admire it from afar even if you are not sure what the artist meant by it, but you really don’t want to see it hanging on the wall in your own house. It would make you feel weird having something like that around all the time and it certainly would not go with the rest of your home décor, unless your name happens to be Seven of Nine.
I must admit that I am not an “iris person” when it comes to perfume. I like what it does to many compositions, but by itself it always seems remote, and sometimes even flat. There are only a couple of iris soliflore fragrances that I have really liked […][as] iris perfumes always seem to be aloof and bloodless. Iris Silver Mist begins with a super-cooled blast of iris that is immediately followed by a smell that is exactly like those Red Hots™ candies flavored with artificial cinnamon, creating an icy-hot pain rub effect, and then a very emphatic carrot chimes in, and an odor like a gutted Halloween pumpkin the morning after a heavy frost. It’s not until about half an hour later that it finally becomes eerily beautiful as it drifts through the air, but if I put my nose to my skin it is still iris root, carrot and little red candies. It’s the sillage alone that makes it work for me, floating in space and waiting for my breath to catch it, an otherworldly isotope of some rare element being distilled and refined out of the raw ore applied to my flesh. It is only then that I can appreciate the artistry that went into it, but it never comes close to adapting to my skin, as it simply sits on it refusing to make allowances for a mere mortal. There is a popular saying that you are no one until you have been ignored by a cat; now I know what it feels like to be ignored by a perfume.
That last sentence may be the best thing I’ve read in a while!
On Fragrantica, some people are even less enthused than she is about Iris Silver Mist. There are repeated comments about “public toilet hand soap,” rotting vegetables, and carrots. (Seriously, there is a lot of talk about liquid hand soap and carrots!) Several men also add that Iris Silver Mist is unwearably feminine in their eyes. But one woman wrote: “Iris Silver Mist smells like a carrot that got shoved into an electrical socket. I can’t say it’s friendly or wearable, but it does stand out from the crowd.” In fact, the issue of wearability comes up often, from both genders. As one male poster said, “Genius, but I wonder if I could ever really wear it? For the first time in a LONG time I was actually struck dumb by a fragrance.” And another admiringly compared it to conceptual art, with the full implication being that it was not particularly approachable.
Yet, the fans — and there are a number of them, men and women alike — write adoringly of Iris Silver Mist’s elegant austerity, its cool sophistication, its aloof chilliness, and the way the iris radiates different facets like a prism. They talk about the iris’ cool, green earthiness, or the violet nuances that some detect. Quite a few people bring up the sandalwood, though not everyone likes it. (One person described its aroma as “rotten teeth,” while another thought it soapy.) Some don’t find Iris Silver Mist to be chilly or cold at all, but poetically moving or transformative. The words “masterpiece,” “dreamy,” “beautiful,” “elegant,” “romantic” and mysterious are thrown around, with one calling Iris Silver Mist the perfect scent for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Actually, I can see that a little.)
I think the bottom line is that you have to be passionate about iris in all its manifestations to really love Iris Silver Mist. If you do, then you simply must try Serge Lutens’ brilliant masterpiece. If you aren’t a hardcore iris devotee, or if you only occasionally enjoy it in conjunction with some other notes, then I’m not sure Iris Silver Mist will be your cup of tea. Perhaps you’ll be intrigued by the alienness of the opening the way I was, but it’s equally possible that you’ll share the opinion of Perfume-Smellin’ Things and conclude that Iris Silver Mist is simply too difficult for most mere mortals. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. As always with Serge Lutens’ most storied and admired creations, some people need to admire them from a distance. A great distance. And, preferably, on somebody else.
[UPDATE 9/5/2022: Iris Silver Mist has been reformulated – at least twice, by many accounts. The first reports of that came in 2015. The Palais Royale General Manager told one person that all the Lutens fragrances but Serge Noire had, by 2015, already been reformulated. After the major Lutens overall in 2017, it seems likely that all the fragrances, including Serge Noire, were further changed. So do not expect the current 2022 version to smell like what I have described here.]