Jasmine Award winner Emma Hill went on a journey with Lancôme to find out if you can bottle happiness in the form of fragrance - are irises the key?

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It’s May, and I find myself perched precariously on the back of a pony and trap.  Speeding along a dirt track at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire chasing irises, yes irises, they are lacing their way across the fields in full bloom. Next moment, my co-traveller Liz grabs my foot as one moment later I would have flown off the back, such was the vigour with which we were moving. Much hilarity ensues.

I’m on a road trip in the South of France to find out two things. Whether it is possible to create an olfactory version of happiness: bottle happiness in a scent.  And the story behind iris, which has become a leading light in some of today’s more interesting scents including my host, Lancôme’s latest, La Vie Est Belle. Its name alone tells you its message is a cheerful one.

“So, can you bottle happiness?” I ask Olivier Polge (we are now sitting in a garden just outside Grasse, where pale pink roses climb ancient olive trees).  Olivier is one of the three perfumers behind La Vie Est Belle; he is also the spitting image of a young Jean-Paul Belmondo. The answer is a roundabout yes, with specifics.

“You have to have a certain sparkle […] and it has to have something obvious,” he says.  “A fruity part and a comforting part is important, but not only that. It has to have the right balance with easier sharper notes and then the more dressed up notes like orris and patchouli.”

Images © Thibaut de Saint-Chamas / Lancôme

La Vie Est Belle (whose face is Julia Roberts with her glorious trademark smile) is bang on the money.  A ‘fruity sharpness’ is delivered with pear and blackcurrant, a ‘comforting part’ through a gourmand note - the scent of ‘spun sugar,’ says Olivier (candy floss to you and me).  And then there is the ‘dressed up’ orris (perfumer for iris) and patchouli, which add body and depth to a scent – in other words an elegant grown-up-ness.

Fruity and citrus scents have long been linked to happiness, as are certain food or gourmand scents. They are also often linked to childhood memories, and this is the key. We know that the olfactory bulb in the brain is linked to the limbic system, the part of the brain that governs emotion and memory. That’s why childhood smells can be so emotive, both in a good and bad way. And tests have proved that smells trigger emotional responses (parts of the brain are visibly stimulated) – the big thing is that they’re linked with a past experience of that smell.

Images © Thibaut de Saint-Chamas / Lancôme

Canvas friends on their favourite smells and you will find they are always associated with good memories; ‘that is what perfume is about,’ says Olivier. And as I scan comments on a post by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project , they confirm that many of the happy-making smells are universal: coffee, toast, newly mown grass. And some less so: take Old Spice, ‘it is like my dad hugging me’, crayons ‘especially brand new ones… complete flashback to childhood’ – as long as the memory is there, whatever works for you. That spun sugar, or a powdery iris note (a bit like your mother’s lipstick) or blackcurrant might evoke similar isn’t hard to imagine.

Other scents capitalise on the feel good associations provided by memories, too. Estée Lauder Bronze Goddess bottles the exotic coconut and floral smells of holiday and sunscreen, and is back with Eau Fraiche Skin Scent , £45, and a divine Body Oil,  £35, (currently out of stock) for summer by popular demand. Mary Greenwell’s Lemon , £60, is a sophisticated citrus scent with hints of the 1970s classic, Ô de Lancôme. It takes me (as does her first scent, Plum) to childhood and a first foreign holiday in the South of Spain, where I had my first brushings with serious glamour. It’s happiness bottled, as is a new discovery, Irish Leather , €160 (also available at Harvey Nichols), by French niche perfumer, Memo (soft, elegant, powdery). It also happens to contain an iris note.

Images © Thibaut de Saint-Chamas / Lancôme

As Olivier and I sip our tea and talk irises and happiness (I am trying to stay with the story, not blush and not flirt – I discover that his shoes are Crockett & Jones and he doesn’t wear a watch) there is a loud clicking noise coming from the pond behind us. We get up, peer into the pond foliage… and there they are, two pretty acid green frogs in the final clinch. It was one of those unexpected moments of ridicule, hilarity, slight embarrassment and the touching insouciance of nature and it made us laugh out loud.  And were it to be bottled, it would make you grin from ear to ear.

* * *

I am now back at Mt Ste Victoire standing in a field of irises, inhaling the scent of a blue Iris Palladia. This is the species used in perfumery. It comes from Italy (and is the Florentine symbol) and is now cultivated in this spot, where growing conditions are perfect. “A valley position with both the Mistral wind from the North West and the East wind,” the iris ‘fermier’ informs me. Its smell is super floral, a bit citrus but sweet and sickly like a synthetic French Fancy cake. It bears no relation to iris in scent, which is more complex, less sweet yet powdery and also earthy. This is because its scent as you probably know, is extracted from the root.

Images © Thibaut de Saint-Chamas / Lancôme

The process involved in producing iris absolute, the alcohol based extract a perfumer uses, takes six years, a lot of roots (around 40,000 makes a kilo of absolute) and a great deal of expertise. This accounts for its €100,000 a kilo price tag. As a comparison, oud , also highly priced in perfumery, is around €18,000 a kilo.

An iris plant is allowed to flower for three years for the root to reach its optimum size. At the end of the third May after flowering, the stems are cut away and in July the roots or rhizomes (to the purist, they are not simply roots) are harvested then cleaned. They are left to dry in the sun for three days, after which they are stored in wooden palettes for another three years. After this, they are pulverised into a fine powder, from which the raw extract, iris butter or concrete is extracted with steam.

Now ready for the final and most fine-tuned extraction process, it is shipped from the farmers at the Mt St Victoire to the labs, in this case at IFF LMR Naturals, in Grasse. Here, multiple extractions take place to produce a number of fractions (refined extractions) and it’s these fractions (imagine test tubes containing gold liquid) that contain irone – the molecule that gives the iris its scent. These are then blended to achieve the required irone or scent balance and there you have your iris absolute.

It is a long process, but like all good things it really is worth the wait. Iris gives scent a wonderful, elegant quality. Sometimes it can feel a trifle old fashioned; part of its charm but not for everyone, which is why La Vie Est Belle is clever. By blending spun sugar with iris’ dry elegance it is truly modern and just lovely.  And if like me you’re an iris devotee then the new version might just be for you.

La Vie Est Belle Eau De Parfum Légère is available today from www.lancome.co.uk  and nationwide from 1st September 2013, RRP £39 (30ml, limited edition) and RRP £55 (50ml).

Words:  Emma Hill