On learning that the Jo Malone line now includes Orris & Sandalwood Cologne Intense, my thoughts went something like this:
Orris & Sandalwood? I love both those notes. This might be amazing!
Of course, it’s Jo Malone. Does that mean it’s simply a literal translation of the two notes?
And if it were, is that so bad?
There was only one way to get to the bottom of it, and that was to sample.
Perfumer Pierre Negrin developed Orris & Sandalwood. The Jo Malone site lists its notes simply as orris, sandalwood and amber. It doesn’t take a genius to add jasmine and vanilla to that list — and black pepper. Lots of it. Frankly, I’m not sure why they didn’t just call it Pepper & Orris and get it over with.
First, an aside. For those of you new to fragrance, “orris” is iris, and I think it’s one of perfume’s most magical notes. Real orris butter comes from macerated iris rhizomes. It’s fiendishly expensive.1 In some towns, you could probably trade a kilo of aged Florentine orris for a house. In perfume, iris is a shapeshifter and can be fruity, powdery, rooty, glamorous, soothing, or moody. As a solifore, it can come off as more thought-provoking than emotional. Think Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist or Chanel No. 19. As supporting cast, it elevates Chanel Cuir de Russie from saddle bag to aristocrat and adds the backbone to the otherwise “pastry chef special” that is Guerlain L’Heure Bleue.
Orris & Sandalwood goes on with a blast of pepper and lots of fresh iris. To me, the pepper is a little overwhelming, but the iris is more than welcome. The iris’s earthiness is matched by a hum of jasmine for a bewitching alto-soprano harmony. Sandalwood begins to soften the fragrance’s edges, although it doesn’t entirely succeed against the onslaught of pepper.
After half an hour, the pepper calms, and for a brief time I smell the balance of iris and sandalwood. Then, the topaz-like glimmer of amber rises, tinted with vanilla, and what once smelled like sandalwood could now be a more generic two-by-four brushed with amber. The iris now smells fruitier, less like pure iris and more like a blend of iris and violet.
After a few hours, the iris and violet disappear, and Orris & Sandalwood fades to a gentle woody amber. All in all, it’s a nice fragrance, but it has stiff competition on the perfume shelves, especially at its price. For instance, I’d take the less expensive Prada Infusion d’Iris Absolue over it any day, and even the bargain-priced, if fruitier, Yves Rocher Iris Noir might win votes. That said, I’d happily sit next to anyone on the bus wearing Orris & Sandalwood.
My guess is that Orris & Sandalwood will be a terrific bridge to other iris fragrances for the perfume shopper who hasn’t wandered beyond the pleasant, welcoming Jo Malone in-store boutiques. But once they’ve drained their bottles, a whole world of amazing iris fragrances beckons.
Jo Malone Orris & Sandalwood Cologne Intense is $170 for 100 ml. It’s available at fine department stores.
1 Ed note: If you're new to fragrance, you should also know that traditionally-processed orris root is expensive, but orris root processed using modern methods is cheaper and faster to produce, and not all fragrances listing orris / iris as a note include real orris butter anyway.