The pantheon of figs is dominated by two classic creations by Olivia Giacobetti – lover of the ficus carica and of transparent, fresh fragrances in general – and the very talented perfumer who did Premier Figuier (‘the first fig tree’) for L’Artisan Parfumeur in 1991 and Philosokos ( ‘fig lover’ inGreek) for Diptyque in 1996. Both of these scents capture the cool, lactic, dark-green essence of the tree’s lobed rough leaves.
The Diptyque creation is the stricter fig of the two; more spartan and verdant, the leaves of the tree forming the centre of the composition. A tiny hint of coconut adds a hint of sweetness, although this is soon undercut by a fresh (almost harsh), woody note of white cedar that lasts for hours on the skin. Philosokos is refreshing and headclearing, a ‘calm in the storm’ kind of fragrance that allows you to re-equilibrate yourself in hot situations. I have the parfum solide, which is probably the most discreet and gentle scent I own in my collection.
Premier Figuier is a milkier, more pregnant fig. I fell for this around 1993 as it seemed to represent a new beginning in my post-university life and was probably my first ever niche purchase. I remember excitedly stepping out onto the King’s Road from the L’Artisan boutique (which felt so secret back then, tucked somewhere behind a little side street, veiled in black, a real showroom of unusual treasures for those in the know) where I had been instantly seduced by the gorgeously leafy beginning of this perfume (parasol lime, galbanum, fig leaf), but even more by the entwining, in the heart, of fig and woozy coconut (one of my very favourite notes in perfumery), a fusion that seemed to hover from my skin in a dream-like aura. It was addicting and compelling to me, and it now occupies a special position in the taxonomy of my mental fragranced library – me at twenty two. But the perfume also has another dimension- a persistent, almost sweat-like aspect, which comes from the addition of sandalwood and a note of dried fruit. This stage of the fragrance was always a bit precarious on me ( I don’t wear sandalwood well) – and probably what caused this fig, for me eventually, to lose its lustre.
Following these very original olfactive innovations by Giacobetti there was a time for a while in the nineties when fig was the note du jour, much as iris, rose, and oudh have been recently, and notes of the fruit or its leaves were injected into various small perfumeries’ new creations, as well as in mainstream releases such as Dior Dune Pour Homme (1997) and Marc Jacobs For Men (2002), both of which are quite nice, if less poetic. Most figsimiles kept that insistent green note in the foreground, though, and the genre was at one point in danger of becoming tired.
Miller Harris’ Figue Amère was a very different affair. I am an admirer of this English perfumer’s work in general : there is a real integrity and quality to it, a lack of cheap sweetness and the whole curdling sexual package – her scents unfurl and go off in skillful and self assured new directions. While most Harris compositions tend towards the tastefully floral, incense, or citric, Harris does let her hair down (the hilariously pink disco Noix de Tubéreuse comes immediately to mind, as well as the literally unwashed hair smell of the Jane Birkin collaboration L’Air de Rien), and Figue Amère belongs to this more strongly colour-blocked territory. To me, this perfume is all purple; flamboyantly dressed fairground people, big wheels, and Black Love joss sticks. The scent is so lush in its heart and base (narcissus; angelica; sweet moss, cedar and amber) that the violet/fig/bergamot top notes soon get swallowed up in all this velvet crush : it is a rich blend that is warm and charismatic. For me, Figue Amère occupies its own special tassled turf of fig territory.
To move further along from the leaves of the tree – along its branches, its stems, and up to the curving inflorescence of those pulpy, seed-lined fruit and their heady pink flesh, we come to Figue Noir (2006) by Angela Flanders, a perfumer with a lovely little boutique just by the Columbia Road flower market in London. I spent a whole afternoon with Ms Flanders a couple of years ago, interviewing her over tea and cake as she told me the story of her life and perfumes. What I liked especially about her is her passion for her craft but also her nonchalance – she has a mischievous side to her as well – which is inspiring to see in someone who has been around so long. She is not jaded in the least, and her fig – nominated for a FIFI award – is a rebellious shocker: it smells like swelling, overripe figs falling apart in your hands; a hilarious, sticky mess. No, that is not it: Figue Noir isn’t as natural as that. It is more like a tongue-searing mouthful of glinting, hardboiled sweets: if you could buy them at the confectioners they would be pear drops. Great big fig drops.
The scent is almost mind-bendingly headachey in its synthetic overdoses but also actually somehow brilliant, its psychotropic examination of this fruit from within opening brand new and exciting figgy vistas in our giddy heads.
A warmer, more expansive and suffusive fig scent is the natural- smelling, tranquillizing, yet engrossing Fig Tree by Sonoma Scent Studio; an inspiriting, woody fig with rich balsamic undertones that draws you into its allaying, shaded spaces and allows you to stop what you are doing and breathe. While the beginning stages of extraordinarily verdant, harsh green fig leaves are almost unsettling, quite soon, richer, denser notes of cedar, tonka, patchouli and vanilla begin to be sucked up, drop by drop, up through the bark of this confidently imperious fig tree, and the scent, imbued with nutritioning sunlight, comes fully into its own. A love-filled perfume to collect your thoughts; coalesce; regroup.
Completely on the opposite end of the ficus spectrum is the fascinating Io Capri by Italian perfumery Carthusia, a transfixing scent that I only discovered recently at a shop in Tokyo, but which transported me anywhere but: I was in Rome, in the cold, marbled atrium of an otherworldly, ancient palazzo on some hot September afternoon. I could smell the fresh, cool sheets of a hotel room; of a huge, beautiful, shining white bath and inviolable, hard, triple-milled soaps waiting, timelessly, on its sides. Strange, aqueous depths. Blue caves; Roman dolphins; the underworld. Weird. In fact, though I couldn’t stop myself from sniffing this odd creation, I had no ability mentally to break down this scent into its olfactory constituents; it remained a scented conundrum, incredibly fresh and clean in a way that made me just want to lie down and sleep. Deeply. In those sheets: the Foro Romano, the place I used to walk on cold days alone in the rain, out there somewhere – dogged, discordant – in the distance. It was only when I looked up the notes in the scent did it start to jigsaw into sense: a green, herbaceous fig with wildly discordant notes of mint, eucalyptus and tea fused with fig leaves that takes you to watery grottoes of Botticelli, of clifftop villas and lagoons. Gorgeously strange, Io Capri doesn’t suit me in the least but I might buy it nonetheless as it touches me in a way I can’t quite understand.
Which brings us to the present day, and Ms Gunzburg’s latest addition to this world of figs. This new perfume is called Flagrant Délice, obviously a play on in flagrante delicto, or being caught in the act – a criminal caught with his hand in the caramellized fig jar? – or more simply a pun on the sense of flagrant, blatant deliciousness. Fortunately the scent does pretty much live up to its name, and I am enjoying this perfume at the moment as we get into the Christmas season.
This is a sparkly, gourmand fig, with a delicious base of tonka bean, almond milk and white musk, the fig main theme complemented with bergamot, mandarin, and surprisingly, a scintillating note of red currant that dances above it all like a sweet Yuletide posy. The warm richness of the scent – which in its entirety smells a little like licorice – is vaguely reminiscent of Hermès Vétiver Tonka, while the overall feeling is of a fig, fully realized, and happy. This is not something I could wear every day – it is quite ‘thick’ – but if you think of it as Premier Figuier and Philosokos’ older, fruitier cousin, dressed up and festive in a Santa costume under the Christmas tree, it is a very attractive and welcome new addition to the fig club.