I grew up under a green lemon tree. Well, not quite. But I can say that a beautiful green lemon tree (also known as a lime tree in the U.S.) has graced my parent’s courtyard for almost 50 years. Its sprawling branches, frequently weighed down by the round, juicy fruit, continue to reach my childhood bedroom window. Farther away, standing in a corner, a bitter orange tree thrives. If you are familiar with the multitude of scents these trees emit, you may guess my life as a young person was happily scented. Or, if you will, fragrantly happy.
It’s very possible that my proximity to these trees dictated one of my most cherished themes of my work as a perfumer. Blending citrus essences comes naturally to me, and informed by my studies in botany, it’s not only a pleasure, but using them is a personal necessity!
I was certainly an odd young man living in Mexico City in the 80’s. At that time, pre-teenage and teenage boys were interested in sports, heavy metal rock, comics and the occasional pretty girl. I liked art books, plants and collected empty perfume bottles. In fact, I had become a bit of a bloodhound with a lust for revealing people’s scents. Sometimes cute, sometimes annoying, I lived my days sniffing around. And whenever I spotted a citrus scent, my heart would skip a beat. Somehow, the concept of a fragrance being a complex (rather than simple) mixture of strange natural and chemical substances was already clear to me, so I began to understand that my favorite smells—meaning the citrus smells—were ALWAYS there, sometimes as the big star, sometimes as supporting actors, but always absolutely essential to the film!
Here’s an anecdote as an example: my mother was a teacher of biology at the National University of Mexico and taught techniques for preparing microscopy slides – that is, how to treat and preserve samples of plant and animal tissue on a strip of glass in order to be examined under the microscope (I explain this as this may seem so obsolete today). Many strange chemicals and other “hocus pocus” substances lived in the cabinets of that smelly laboratory: creosote, phenol, ethyl acetate, formaldehyde (!!!) and, used as a lightener for unwanted yellow hues: Italian bergamot essence. My mom would tell her students that bergamot was used in the finest of perfumes, and she wuld drop the names of Roger et Gallet and mention 4711. She loved bergamot very much, and wanted to transmit this love. Students would mostly shrug her off and continue with their tasks. But one day, an older lady who had decided to pursue biology studies after having kids, and who was a very good student, told my mom that her favorite perfume, Shalimar de Guerlain, contained bergamot as a main ingredient.
Now, my mother, who like many members of my family, was a big perfume aficionado, really disliked Shalimar (it happens…) so she was incredulous. I would accompany her sometimes to the school, and overhearing the conversation, as I was already familiar with Shalimar, assertively confirmed what the lady had said.
“But it’s so sweet and heavy!” my mother said. And the lady expertly replied: “It’s the bergamot that makes it heavenly, as it does something to control the sweetness.”
Around that time, my older brother had been introduced to Earl Grey Tea, and he feverishly drank it while studying his lessons in the afternoons. The freshly brewed tea would give the house a clean and citrusy smell. That’s when my mother understood that her beloved bergamot was part of a perfume she couldn’t stand. We have all learned that perfumes work in miraculously mysterious ways, and that perfume raw materials are the big actors delivering these mysteries and miracles.
Some years later, but still before I started studying perfumes formally at ISIPCA, I started to find a new kind of citrus scent featured in new perfume launches. (Yes, I went on being the pesty perfume blood hound). At that time I would describe this new note as the tart and bitter smell AND taste of grapefruit peels combined with the pungent smell of tomato vines. I first discovered it in the top note of Eau de Caron, and combined with a strange over ripe fruit touch, and a “glacial” impression, it was prominent in Quartz de Molyneux. Later on, already at school, I discovered Prescriptive’s Calyx, and L’Ombre dans l’Eau by Diptyque. I knew this note was a citrus, but it was a bit “hocus pocus” in itself. I asked teachers about it, but didn’t really find an answer. With time and a bit of training, I discovered the important role that sulfur molecules play in the physiology of citrus fruits (grapefruit, for sure, but mandarins and limes also boast a very complex sulfur physiology) and how fabulous this bitter, puckering, mouthwatering compound can be. Years later, I’d feel an enormous pleasure to find the right sulfur component as I wanted to depict the joyous scent of a mandarin laden piñata being broken at a Mexican fiesta, and the match box-like scent of the mandarin peels exploding on the ground. This olfactive image, and this accord, are the core of John Varvatos Artisan.
A Scent of History and Tradition
It’s also very important to know the historical and religious importance of citrus trees and fruits. Some years ago, my dear friend Carlos Huber, founder of Arquiste, the history-inspired line of ‘parfums d’auteur,’ approached me to work with him on a fragrance inspired on the etrog fruit. This Southern Italian lemon plays an important role in the Jewish festivities called Sukkot, which celebrates with gratitude the good crops of the year. Etrog lemons are dry and pointy, but quite aromatic. Carlos wanted to make a fragrance using actual etrog essence and mix it with the other symbolic plants used in this ritual (myrtle, willow and palm tree). We conducted some research. The etrog lemons were so expensive and the yield of essence was so low, that if produced by normal means in Italy using traditional extraction methods, the actual etrog essence would make both of us mortgage our apartments!
Instead, we used cedrat essence. With its idiosyncratic lemon-meets-greenery-meets-thyme scent, cedrat made L’Etrog a shining star within the Arquiste’s collection, and a fragrant illustration of Jewish tradition.
Back to the Motherland
My personal story of lemons and limes came back full circle when working again with Carlos Huber on an adventure that took us back to Mexico, and right back to the green lemon tree.
A prominent department store commissioned us to work on a project celebrating Mexico as a crucible of so many cultures and countries. We immediately thought about citrus trees, which are not Mexican in origin, but adopted citizens of my country. At that time, the researchers in naturals at Givaudan had implementะำฟท ed a program to review and rejuvenate our citrus palette. An astonishingly beautiful collection of new citrus notes appeared on our shelves. Taking cues from the flavor industry, and from new fractioning techniques, these new citrus materials would be totally bespoke, chiseled, stretched, primed and plucked (figuratively!). After experimenting with them, we realized they behaved in uncanny ways as they would have noticeable long-lasting properties, something that had proven to be basically impossible with “normal” citrus extracts.
Additionally, some of them would feature surprising green leafy aspects, unexpected fruity nuances and some of them would exhibit unusual spicy aspects reminiscent of cumin, ginger or cascarilla. It felt like applying Technicolor techniques on a beautiful, but monochromatic, black and white film. Using again the language of color, a dear colleague described them as follows: “In the past we could have different shades of, say, purple as the different qualities of bergamots available to us. But now, we can combine the primary reds and the blues that make up these purples in so many ways that what results all the shades of purple imaginable!”
This citrusy treasure trove beget the fragrance Limoneros (Spanish for “lemon trees”) for El Palacio de Hierro by Arquiste. Its fresh hesperidic top notes linger into the heart and the background, and the result is very surprising. What a wonderful personal homage to that generous tree in Mexico City that has always made my life better, and continues to do so.