Friday, July 6, 2012

Perfumery Material: Fig, Between Woody and Succulent

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.

Modern interpretations 

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 FrontFig & 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?


  1. I love reading your aromamaterials posts, E.

  2. Oh, I love fig perfumes (not so much figs though).
    I somehow missed the Fig Tree by SSS but I will definitely give it a try. So far my favourites are Premier Figuier (it's just so easy to love), Philosykos (of course) and Figue Amere.
    One that just didn't sit right with me is IO Capri by Carthusia.

  3. Ever since a child I loved the scent of fig leaves (figs not so much) and to this day it is the one scent that says summer to me more than anything else. Philosykos is the only fig fume I have tried that can create this feeling. Nothing else comes even close.
    I have read a lot of reviews that mention Womanity as a "disturbing" perfume. It is totally acceptable to my nose. The one I can't really appreciate is Figue Amere. To me it smells clearly of peach. The components of the fragrance are not well blended and it soon falls apart to what I can describe as a "sticky mess". Too bad because I had high hopes for the "Amere" part...

  4. Dain,

    a high compliment from such a meticulous person such as you, thanks! :-)

    Hope you're very well, honey!

  5. Ines,

    hi there!

    I think Laurie's interpretation is very credible. To try, for sure! PF and Philosykos are the golden standards, so naturally most people find them great.
    I think Io is more masculine leaning which makes it a bit foreign on feminine skin. More citrusy than usual perhaps?

  6. Kosta,

    thanks for commenting!

    Yeah, fig leaves have a smell all their own. It's fortunate that fig trees grow so chaotically wild all over Greece and provide some welcome shade in the summer. Many an impromptu pic-nic after a swim was aided by the shade of those flat leaves. I think Philosykos is unsurpassable in this game and believe most Greeks would agree with us (in the realistic capturing of an atmosphere).

    As to Womanity it's surely a most challenging perfume, though I can see the appeal. It's quite intense, which is why I find it hard to wear personally, but I can understand how it's innovative nevertheless (Mugler does nothing by halves, it seems, an interesting range).
    Figue Amere is an acquired taste, I agree with you. I found it has a touch of weird salty apricot if anything, very savory instead of sweet or woody dry, which is unusual, as if one was wrapping the skin of the figs with cheese or something. Odd.

  7. Dina C14:41

    My favorite is the L'Artisan Premier Figuier Extreme edp. The combo of fig, sandalwood and galbanum is delectable and serene to me. I wear this one year round. I also appreciate the Pacifica Med. Fig in solid form for airplane travel.

    The one fig that I didn't like, so far, was Womanity. To me, it smelled like someone sprayed an artificial fruity room freshener over a guy's dorm room filled with dirty, sweaty socks. :-)

  8. Dina,

    serene is a word I missed, but you're so right! There's indeed a sense of peace to these scents, of zen like tranquility. :-)

    Ha ha on your description of Womanity; it IS polarizing!! (and you're not too far from the truth in the feminine vs. masculine vibe it combines)

  9. Irene15:22

    thank you for this great article and a list of perfumes to check out! I live in a country where the fig trees are only to be found in flower pots and fruit in supermarkets, but two of the fig perfumes you list are among my favorites. I love Philosykos and Ninfeo Mio (tried this one after reading your review) and have been rotating them for the past 3 months. I find that Philosykos has less staying power on me when the weather is really hot, but Ninfeo Mio, on the contrary, needs high C's to continue to bloom all day long. I can't decide which one I like more, though :)
    I'm also hoping to get Un Jardin en Mediterranée some time soon, and Sonoma Scent Studios and Figue Amère are on my try-to list, they sound very intriguing.

  10. Irene,

    oh good, thanks for saying so, I'm so glad to prompt discoveries!!
    Your comment on the temp having an effect on projection of certain fragrances is spot on! How true. NM is very refreshing indeed.
    Do try the Mediterranee especially, it's a very refined interpretation!

  11. Mimi Gardenia15:43

    Elena - I too LOVE your aroma material articles ! I think I have read and re read every one of them many times . :) It's a gem of a resource .

    Now Fig- L do love figs fresh and raw and I have been known to eat several in succession !
    However, why is Fig often paired with coconut - Premier Fig Extreme was strong and coconutty on me. I am sure it has something to do with imparting creaminess but still ....
    I quite like Ichnusa by Profumum though.

    I must re sample the L'Artisans and the Diptyque to see how they fare for me these days. I was able to get over the coconut in Peche Cardinal ..

  12. I love figs - so intensely sweet when eaten ripe from the plant, with the syrup drop oozing out of the little opening at the bottom. Caramelized figs are fantastic too.

    Unfortunately, since they do not ship well, they simply do not exist this side of the ocean. The unripe, dry, sad little things found occasionally in fancy supermarkets are matched only by the rock hard, but bright red peaches one could use for baseball.

    While I like them, somehow I never wore fig scents. I am intrigued by womanity. The idea is great and innovative, though I only wish it were realized a little differently (though I wouldn't know how). But it does remind me of focaccia with figs, something eaten in my family town.


  13. Anonymous16:12

    Hello and thank you for the article, Ms. Vosnaki. I love fig notes in fragrances. I have an oldie/cheapie-but-goodie bottle of Mood Ripe by Victoria's Secret. The notes are listed as fig, orris, caramel, and cashmere woods, and I wish I purchased additional bottles before the EdP was discontinued.

  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  15. Sunduri23:49

    Olympic Orchids' "A Midsummer Day's Dream" is a very nice fig frag. Wish she did it in a candle.

  16. brie14:02

    You have mentioned two of my favorites-Sonoma scent studio fig tree and Pacifica's Mediterranean fig! Would have loved to try Fresh's Fig Apricot but I believe that many of their earlier scents are now discontinued.

  17. Reading this list, I realize how many fig perfumes I love and what a favorite note it is in spring/summer! My standing favorite has been Un Jardin en Mediterranee, but I finally re-tried Premier Figuer and now need more of that. I had tried it very early in my perfume "career" and was not yet ready for figs. I also adore Ava Luxe's Fig Leaf for a super bright and juicy green fig. And over the last year and a half Ninfeo Mio has given Mediterranee a serious run for its money. It is a go-to for summer weddings and events. I have also just recently sampled SSS Fig Tree, which is also tempting me into a purchase. Thank you for another amazing post on materials that has made me go through the list to seek out some new loves!

  18. Mimi,

    aw, thank you :-)

    I believe the coconut lactone is used to render the inherent lactone of the fig. When the fig is on the tree (and not at the grocer's ripe and ready to be eaten) it oozes a bit of whitish milk which is both creamy and bitterish. So the lactone aids to recreate that unripe state which is fresh and more green than foody.
    So you're not far off, you're actually correct.
    I prefer the original PF to the Extreme version myself. Kinda fresher. (?) Philosykos is the golden standard.
    Peche Cardinal is so much, so profusely peach to me I was almost oblivious to the coconut! ;-)

  19. M,

    ah, you know what I mean, you really do!! (But of course since you're Italian)
    I can't fancy what those hardened things you mention are supposed to do. Surely they won't be pleasant to eat? I am always temped to just cut off some off the trees in the neighborhood (they grow wild) when the mood strikes. I do buy them at the open air market or the grocer's of course and eat them by the kilo, it seems.

    Lutens does a great rendition of the caramelised fig thing in his scents, Bois et Fruits and Arabie are both prime examples.

    Foccacia with figs.....yum!!!!!! I need the recipe!

  20. Anon,

    you're very welcome, thanks for commenting!

    That VS's scent Mood Ripe does sound very inviting, I must admit. The notes are very cozy. Isn't it a shame when something you love gets discontinued? :-(

  21. Please refrain from entering purely commercial links on comments. If you want to advertise, please do it openly.

  22. Sunduri,

    I admit I have not sampled that line. I really should start someplace, so thanks for directing me. :-)

  23. brie,

    glad I have!!

    Can't say I recall Fig Apricot appearing anywhere I've seen for the last few years. Then again, shouldn't a bottle pop up on Ebay from time to time? *faint consolation*

  24. Stacey,

    thank you for commenting and for your wonderful compliment!

    You list indeed some of the most refreshing and refined ones, they do lend themselves perfectly to spring-summery mood. Ninfeo Mio is indeed a great choice for occasions where you know you will need to retain composure and not sweat too much ruining your dress. :-)

    There's something great about fig scents that is unique to them, isn't there?

  25. Olfacta14:24

    Hi E! I like Figue Amere -- actually have a bottle of it -- it never occurred to me that it was salty but of course you're right. My first exposure to raw figs was in Greece, usually accompanied by fresh feta cheese -- could be this is the reason? (Most Americans eat figs only in the form of the "Fig Newton" biscuit/cookie and possibly, for the adventurous, in jam.) Bet it is...

  26. What about Fig Pulp candle by Oliver & Co. ?

  27. I tried and it's super! Not the typical "milky" fig leaves, but the fig fruit, the pulp, the fig we eat

  28. P:

    no recipe necessary for focaccia with figs. Just a good, salty, thin, crunchy focaccia (ie not the taller breadier, oilier variety) and ripe figs inside, as a sandwich. Likely works well with appropriate cheeses (presumably whichever cheese goes well with figs) but I have not experimented.

    Must try bois and fruits...


  29. P,

    hello darling, how are you? So happy to "see" you! (have been using that Frangipane oil you had sent me while going to the beach, these days, you know).

    Oh definitely, the salt cuts out the very sweet and renders figs richer, deeper! We do this with watermelon as well (which is very sweet too).
    It's fine to pair figs with parmigiano reggiano too for the same reasons and with prosciutto (or even a good air-dried salami). Makes for a delicious & very easy meal. :-)

  30. Unknown,
    thanks and glad you answered your own question.
    I now need to locate some of that!

  31. M,

    sounds very easy to do then! I'd pair with parmigiano reggiano or feta cheese. Should make some soon. Will let you know!

    Noting down to do a review of B&F by SL. ;-)

  32. I love the scent of fig leaves but a photorealistic recreation of this in perfume cannot hold my attention for long. I love JM Wild Fig and Cassis because it makes the most of a sharp green-ness and I also like Nimfeo Mio becaue the fig in this composition just joins the performance and does not completely take over the stage.

  33. Anonymous20:41

    I've no idea if anyone could help with this, but for years I've been trying to find out: what version or fragrance of fig is closest to the scent Estee Lauder uses in their lipsticks? If they bottled it, I would buy it in a heart beat. Wouldn't wear every day, but it's highly uplifting and yummy. Secondly - many, many years ago I purchased a fig candle at what I believe was called The Discovery Store. By far my favorite candle, all I have is chunks left and no label to give me the brand. Any ideas on my fig quandaries? =)

    1. That's something I thought about too. In the reverse sense, since I don't like the smell in the EL lipsticks (as in the actual lipsticks, it could be fine in some other product). I think your best bet would be a dark figgy fruity scent rather than the green figgy leaf scents that are around. Maybe the Jo Malone one could be a good bet?
      No ideas on the candle, sorry, that's so little to go on.


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