The scent of figs is amazing and unique among fruits; succulent, juicy, milky sap green with a bitter edge when unripe. Pairing a few slices of prosciutto with fresh figs and grapes is an exercise in pure hedonism...But apart from the quality of the fruit, the ambience of the whole tree, the crisp verdancy with the almost fuzzy leaves, the nubile bitter stems, the tough bark and the resinous freshness of the sap, its shade and all, is a major constituent to its charms. It's not hard to imagine how one would long to capture that summer solace from the scorching sun of the Mediterranean in a fragrance to put on in the darker days of autumn to evoke summery pleasures. Or how the fig leaf has retained an added sensuality thanks to its traditional imagery of hiding many a pudenda in art. Dusty or glossy, bitter or sweetish and hazy or succulent, the varied universe of fig fragrances is winking at us to impart of the joys of the here and now before more sinister thoughts detach us from sensual pleasures.
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Fig in Perfumery: How to Synthesize a Fig Note
The recreation of the smell of fig trees in perfumery is possible thanks to two crucial ingredients: stemone and octalactone gamma. Stemone (Givaudan tradename) imparts a green, fresh tonality like mint that combined with octalactone gamma (prune-like) evokes the earthy, sticky green of fig leaves (a smell of dry earth, scorched by the sun of a hot place with a hint of bitterness) and the milky sap of the young fruit. The always handy Hedione (a fresh jasmine note, Firmenich tradename) and Iso-E Super (a dynamic and shape-shifting woody synthetic, IFF tradename) are often utilized to bring “lift” to the genre.
The best fig-centered fragrances balance the warmer and cooler tonalities and recreate the ambience of sitting under the shady branches while breaking open the naughtily-shaped fruit: likened to male genitalia when whole and female ones when cut into halves, figs are an evocative fruit in more sensual ways than one. Could that be one of the reasons the voluptuous Christina Hendricks loves a particular fig scent so much?
Fig Fragrances: The Historical Milestones
The first soli-fig fragrance was Premier Figuier (meaning “first fig tree”) stating its innovation at hello, launched by L’Artisan Parfumeur and composed by perfumer Olivia Giacobetti. Still one of the very best out there, it conjures a vivid image of late August days spent in the Greek countryside when cicadas are loudly singing around at the scorching hour of noon and people hot and weary from a sea dip are sitting beneath the shade of the fig tree to enjoy their Spartan meal of fresh fruit and cool still water. The coconut curls note is rounding the foliage with just the right sweetness and provides a euphoric touch.
Olivia Giacobetti went on to create another emblematic and still highly regarded fig scent for Diptyque and my personal favorite: Philosykos. This time the homage to Greece which is characteristic in the Diptyque scents line anyway (the founders being fond of vacationing at their house in mount Pelion and trekking through the Athos peninsula in search of herbs) is evident in the name; the scent was inspired by a dreamy vacation in Greece. Philosykos means “friend of figs” in Greek (much like Phillip is the friend of horses). And one wouldn’t be hard-pressed to see how anyone who likes the fig tree and its connotations would fall madly in love with this gem of a scent! Supported by the more robust cedar wood note, the green note of leaves is nicely mellowed. Diptyque also do a less complex but equally welcoming Figuier candle and room spray.
Giacobetti in an unstoppable strain of fig-producing mode went on to create an Eau de Parfum version to the best-selling Premier Figuier, baptized Premier Figuier Extreme, highlighting the rounder elements and extending its stay. This EDP version even has its own fig-shaped limited edition bottle! Both lines have matching and faithful home fragrances in the form of sprays and scented candles which recreate a paradisial, calming atmosphere at home for when you want to bring back those lazy summer days of skulking aimlessly and relax.
Another great approximation to the scent of the fig tree and its ambience is A la Figue by Satellite. A study (fugue) on fig, it’s delectable, piquantly bittersweet and dustily green just like the imposing trees themselves are. So is Carthusia’s unisex Io, an aromatic composition with tea leaves inspired by the majestic villa the Emperor Tiberius built on Capri.
Nevertheless, much as realism is admired in perfumery when recreating a certain smell, one could not leave out impressionism. And herein enters one of the most individual and unique renditions of figs in recent perfumery, the one which Jean Claude Ellena proposed for Hermes with his first Jardin offer, Un Jardin en Mediterranée. Inspired by a plate of fresh figs, offered by a young woman, hot (so to speak) off the branch in a garden in Tunisia, the scent presents the bitter, sharp and yet imposing qualities that the inspiration behind it must have conjured in its creator’s mind like taking in the serene paysage and the introspective, philosophical thoughts the latter surely triggered. The fragrance’s coolness and vegetal feel, comparable to tomato leaf, is truly imaginative.
Miller Harris with her Figue Amère is proposing another fig off the beaten path. The salty, slightly bitter impression of the composition is perhaps a nod to the usual accompaniment of figs in the countries where they’re consumed by the gallon: salty cheese. Salt at once cuts down on bitterness and rounds out flavors, providing the perfect backdrop for such a central idea as unripe figs. Complimentary notes of ambery fir balsam, shady violet leaves, bitter angelica and citric hesperidia demand an inquisitive and adventurous soul to carry it off with panache.
The most perverse and love-it-or-hate-it fig fragrance however has to be Womanity by Thierry Mugler. There is a watery-sweet note on top which is very unusual: The fruity note passingly resembles that in Un Jardin En Mediterranée or Figue Amère by Miller Harris, but whereas the warmth co-existed with the cool in the Hermès fragrance, laid on thin over the green notes, and it was bitterish-cool in the Miller Harris, in Womanity the figs have caramelised. Their succulent flesh id more apparent in the sun than the leaves or the bark of the tree, with a nod to fig cookies as well. And then the salty note, said to evoke caviar!! Its intimate, lightly animalic quality is musky and intriguing and shows the frontier options to bypass.
Jo Malone in the line’s usual luminous, diaphanous style presents Wild Fig and Cassis, marrying the sourness of cassis with their ammoniac note with the sweeter aspects of the fig fruit in a simple game of a contrasting duet. Guerlain on the other hand opted for the delicate and earthy-powdery anchor of iris along with the house’s characteristic sweet vanilla note in their playful fruity-accented Figue Iris. The fragrance forms part of the Guerlain Aqua Allegoria line, a collection of refreshing simple colognes that partake of beloved materials in simple compositions.
More tropical nuances reminiscent of beach vacations and sunscreen lotion are explored in Coco Figue by Comptoir Sud Pacifique, a French line in aluminum cans fit for travelling and inspired by exotic locales, as well as by Fresh in their Fig Apricot where two summery fruits conspire to give a delectable treat that tempts to be eaten rather than dabbed.
Other fig fragrances in the niche sector include: Ninfeo Mio by Annick Goutal (with its matching candle Sous le Figuier), Les Nez Turtle Vetiver Front, Fig & Garcons by Nez a Nez, Fico di Amalfi by Aqua di Parma Blu Mediterraneo, Fig Tree by Sonoma Scent Studio, Figuier Eden by Armani Privee, Hermessence Santal Massoia (Hermes), Fig Tea by Patricia de Nicolai, Byredo's Pulp, Fico Verde by Antica Farmacista, Sous le Figuier by M.Micallef, Figaro by Lubin, Aftelier's Fig built on all naturals, Bois et Fruits by Serge Lutens, Fresh Fig by Laura Mercier, Mediterranean Fig by Pacifica, and Henri Bendel's Wild Fig.
Even more mainstream brands have embraced the fig fad in their portfolio, starting with Marc Jacobs Men, Marc Jacobs Splash Fig, Island Capri by Michael Kors, and Versace Versence, all the way down to Bath & Body Works Brown Sugar & Fig, proving niche brands map out emerging markets.
Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Scents of the Mediterranean, Perfumery Raw Materials articles
Do you like figs and fig scents? Which is your favorite?