Citrus notes in fragrances
Citrus fruits are wonders of mid winter when you live in the Mediterranean. And citrus notes have the same uplifting effect in fragrances too. Citrus trees – orange, both sweet and bitter, and lemons – glow with zingy jewels as their fruit ripens. It’s as if Christmas’s garlands are still festooning the trees.
My home islands of Malta have a special relationship with bitter oranges, as those were the first and for a long time the only oranges on the islands having been introduced by the Arabs in around 800 A.D. The Spanish Knights of the Order of St John brought the sweet orange centuries later.
We tend to associated citrus with summer; those refreshing lemon barley waters and colognes to keep the stifling heat at bay. In fact, if you Google citrus fragrances, you’ll find the results dominated by citrus scents linked to summer. However, citrus is harvested in mid winter, with the best of the crop hitting shops in January so I felt it timely to seek out winter citrus scents to lift body and soul now. Why wait til spring into summer for some zing in our lives?
Citrus is among the most common of all top notes, and rare is the scent that can capture those incredible, uplifting citrus notes and make them last beyond a mere half hour, if that. I decided to hunt down those that gives a huge blast of citrus – neroli, bergamot, grapefruit, sweet orange, lime and lemon – or weld them perfectly into dusky, deeper, muskier wintry middle notes without leaving us smelling like a Christmas pot-pourri.
Citrus Perfumes to love all year round
Dare I suggest a pick of top citrus perfumes when citrus in all shapes, colour and varieties has to be the most common accord across all fragrance families? I do so because citrus is one of the most misunderstood players in fragrance; often thought of only as a cursory top note rather than part of the main concerto that comprises a fragrance.
An experienced perfumer knows however that although citrus top notes set the scene, they can also alter the composition and are as much a star as fleeting or unsung heroes. Then, there is a the decision of which citrus to choose.
A sharp, piercing lemon note is light years away from juicy, full-blooded, red orange and also from a floral fragranced neroli. Citrus peel (distilled or expressed), twig, leaf, and blossom all provide a vast range of citrus or hesperidic fragrance family options.
Our signature fragrance Olentium Le Parfum, redolent of a Mediterranean warm spring into summer day, has a distinct top note start with citrus: bergamot, lemon, mandarin as well as pink pepper and ginger.
Citrus Perfumes Equal Summer?
Citrus perfumes are of course beloved in summer fragrances as they exude a freshness and coolness we yearn for as the mercury rises. They are redolent of summer G&Ts by the pool and thirst-quenching lemonade. Citrus rarely offends anyone’s nose which is why it leads as perfume top notes in almost any fragrance family.
Yet, despite its prolific appearance in summer-fresh colognes and fragrances, citrus fruit itself is a winter harvest. In fact, when you think about it, festive celebrations in winter are dominated by citrus scents in combination with spices in fare like mulled wine and Italian panettone, with its lemon and orange zest and candied peel. Citrus perfumes including spice top notes are common in amber perfumes.
I adore citrus perfume notes and could easily wear a citrus fragrance all year round. However, citrus notes can be polarising as a glance at review sites like Fragrantica show. Pick any citrus scent listed there, scour down the comments and you’ll see what I mean.
You don’t love citrus?
Common complaints about citrus notes in perfumes focus on their fleeting appearance as top notes only, the poor longevity of citrus fragrances (as soli-citrus perfumes) if not taken in a different direction and anchored with a raft of heart and base notes, and their potential to have sour, rough edges.
We’re so used to citrus scents in shower gels and household cleaners that when we meet them in a fine fragrance accords, we might be reminded of their more mundane, ubiquitous use. They need to be handled well to avoid the cleaner cliche’.
When I did a straw poll among my enews subscribers on the topic of citrus note loves and hates, most said they like them but so long as ‘not too harsh or lemony’. The household cleaner effect coming into play here. Some pointed to particular pet peeves about citrus saying they hate lime or sherbert lemon notes.
Others singled out neroli, which is derived from the flower of the bitter orange tree. Pure, unadulterated neroli of superior grade is vastly expensive. This is probably why some respondents said that while happy to spritz neroli, they sometimes found it too harsh; the cheaper grade oils can be. Almost all were happy with bergamot, which itself is a nice compromise citrus mid way between lemon and petitgrain. It has to be the most commonly used citrus notes, which is why I would subtitle this read ‘Beyond Bergamot’.
In this post, I’ve taken 5 fragrance families that deploy citrus, but don’t always make it the star accord. As you will see, citrus is ever present in so many fragrance genres even if the perfumes veer in other directions. So, we’re looking for citrus used in:
- Citrus family fragrances (soli-citrus frags);
- Green; and
As you can see, citrus is never far from any fragrance family.
Top Citrus Perfumes to love all year
Citrus as the Star
Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria Limon Verde Eau de Toilette: the Aqua Allegoria range is all about showcasing citrus so it is hard to single out one that shines above others. Plus, as a biased citrus aficionado, I find it nearly impossible to favour one. I do though feel comfortable recommending a trusty Guerlain especially given its 170-year history producing colognes.
The Aqua Allegoria collection which has been around since 1999 and is renewed with fresh scents, was created to recall Guerlain’s expertise in colognes dating back to the legendary Eau de Cologne Impériale in 1853. Citrus colognes are clearly in its pedigree.
Bergamot underpins all the range but Limon Verde centres on lime in a caipirinha-style scent that includes notes of fig, sugar cane and tonka/coumarin.
Created by Thierry Wasser, head perfumer at Guerlain (and the first non-Guerlain family member to take on this role), Limon Verde is summer beach vibe in classic swimwear, suitably kaftan covered for cabana bar cocktail hour. Not for those who hate lime, but certainly one in the Allegoria collection that is summer in a flacon, and to turn to reminisce about summers past.
To enjoy it in cooler months, I suggest layering Limon Verde by preceding it with a patchouli or an amber-dominated scent to give it a different take. Just make sure its tonka note marries well with your chosen base. Tonka, a hay-vanilla note, generally blends well with most things though.
Bigarade Concentre, Editions Frederic Malle – perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena. This is an ode to bitter orange both twig and flower. A simple aesthetic at play here, in typical minimalist Ellena fashion. Another classic to my mind and one for all seasons. See also my review of Ellena’s retrospective at Pitti Fragranze 2019.
Eau de Toilette Cedrat , L’Occitane – Billed as a male fragrance but totally genderless, this cedrat soli-citrus is affordable enough to splash on liberally in summer. With cedrat – a knobbly, longer-lasting cross between lemon and grapefruit (to my nose) – bergamot, gingergrass, cedar, musk and nutmeg, what’s not to like if you adore a totally zingy fragrance.
This is a vast sub-category of floral as barely a feminine-styled floral fragrance doesn’t feature a citrus top. The fruity-floral category is particularly fond of citrus as it blends so well with fruit notes. Where to start and how to home in on a star in the panoply? I am going to push the category a bit here by focusing also on citrus flowers, namely orange blossom.
Chance, Eau Fraiche, Chanel – A flanker of Chance, its namesake, eau fraiche is l’ete ideal en flacon. Excuse my French, but this is my ideal go-to fragrance for languid summer days under cicada-filled olive trees, sipping something elegant and cool and overlooking a Cote’ d’Azur coastline.
A simple line-up of notes based on citron, jasmine and cedar (or ‘teak’ as Chanel says). A minimal list echoing Chanel’s eponymous black and white suits of the 50s. In fact, there is more going on as a classic is born by giving the impression of sophisticated simplicity (oxymoron intended).
Cedar, water hyacinth, pink pepper, musk, patchouli, vetiver and iris are apparently also there – for some. I personally find it a woody citrus with a light floral scent. Hence my ideal scent for lying under shady trees in peak summer heat.
Elie Saab, Le Parfum – Orange blossom from the bitter orange tree we met earlier is a killer in this perfume created for the Lebanese designer Elie Saab by Francis Kurkdjian (after 279 trials). The orange flower, heady enough, is joined by two jasmines (sambac and grandiflorum) and dries down to a honey-rose accord. Not quite a citrus as in expressed or distilled peel but the orange flower celebrated with compatriot white florals of summer nights.
It is a classy act and deserves wearing not with finery but with a plain white T and ripped, low-slung jeans and thong sandals. It is a classy girl throwing caution to the summer wind. I suggest layering with a very top-note citrus which will then extend and merge into the orange and jasmine notes. Buy a L’Occitane or Atelier Cologne then add a spritz of Elie Saab, Le Parfum.
Mirroring Le Parfum’s love of orange blossom is Diptyque’s L’Eau de Néroli, Eau de Toilette. This is all about bitter orange flowers using both neroli and orange blossom flowers. Another to layer perhaps.
White Rose & Lemon Leaves, Jo Loves – I adore white rose, which is among the most expensive of rose oils. I find the natural has a lemon edge to it so I am not surprised to find it teamed with lemon. Cedar and rose absolute give it body. Of course, this is a mostly a synthetic recreation but quite spot on. White rose is a blousy, lightly sweet summer dewy morning scent. If you want a refined, light breeze of a citrus-floral, this is for you.
Terres d’Hermes – Hermes – Stretching the category again, this time to include vetiver, an Indian/Asian-grown grass that has green, citrus, smoky, woody and earthy facets. Vetiver is a mainstay of grown-up fragrances for men but as there are so many genres of vetiver don’t think they all have all nuances I list. Here, perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena creates in Terres d’Hermes (first brought out in 2006) a dirty orange top note that is followed by a smooth, elegant vetiver along with woods and spices.
The orange is a blood, red variety and both juicy and woody at the same time. We are not talking zest but orange flesh. The vetiver is smooth to my nose but you do need to love vetiver to pull this off.
I came late to the party enjoying vetiver but feel it a perfect summer citrus complementary note. It gives a kind of gravitas to citrus and Terres d’Hermes is most certainly a scent for individuals not the mass. I would wear it, so it’s not only ‘for men’ in my opinion.
Vetiver Insolent, Miller Harris – another green smoked vetiver with a wollop of bergamot in the top. Easier to wear perhaps than Terres. Elemi, iris, amber and moss flesh out and balance the vetiver to place this scent midway between citrus-green and citrus-amber. A frontrunner for me in the various Miller Harris’ collections.
Sunday Cologne, BYREDO – a twist on a classic cologne that somewhat recalls gentlemen strolling in London parks, reluctantly following a perambulator. Think 1950s male cologne or vintage Italian barber shop splash-on updated. Its bergamot top is followed with a traditional green geranium and lavender combo in the heart and anchored in the base with vetiver, moss and patchouli. Some compare it to Terres d’Hermes though I feel it’s a more informal vetiver-citrus and easier for more everyday wear.
Citrus in Amber Perfumes
As citrus starts so many amber fragrances, I’ve picked just two from niche houses. If not blind buys, they are both worth a sample trial just to see where citrus and amber meet in other worldliness.
Ambre Royal, Ormonde Jayne – I love this perfume house along with Miller Harris, both of which are ‘known’ but not too well known so contain some hidden secrets of exquisitely blended, unusual fragrances.
Ambre Royal has a good citrussy start with bergamot, along with top green notes and orange blossom; the latter takes us into the headier, heavier amber territory nicely. The amber accord comprises cedar, Ambroxan, musk and patchouli but is preceded and also blends with a core of waxy florals and roots such as orris, jasmine, rose and osmanthus. Not always an easy citrus-amber to wear, but worth a punt.
L’Air du Desert Marocain, Tauer Perfumes – Swiss chemist turned edgy, niche perfumer, Andy Tauer has created a modern classic in this Moroccan desert-inspired fragrance. This is not for the faint hearted but for those who love wearing the memorable and also wearing it for days.
Certainly a citrus top-note scent that has tremendous staying power. Imagine a long slow desert trek!
While starting with classic citrus accord of lemon, bergamot and petitgrain, Tauer moves in to pack a punch with cistus (rock rose), vetiver, patchouli and ambergris, via some sweetness of geranium and rose. Watch out for cumin which dirties up the whole affair but is such a Moroccan ingredient that an amber with this name couldn’t be without it.
Chypres – from classic to cool citrus
The Chypre family of fragrances has a long, illustrious history. Without bergamot in the top, or another citrus note, Chypres wouldn’t exist. Traditionally comprising bergamot, cistus, oakmoss, patchouli and labdanum, but including a variety of possible heart notes – often floral – the Chypre is the grande dame of perfume genres.
Born of Coty’s ‘Chypre’ of 1917, its name the French for the island of Cyprus which inspired its original ingredients, Chypres usually start with a sharp citrus top note of bergamot.
These days, Chypres blur into all all fragrance families from floral to amber and leather. In fact, many lovers of Chypres-style fragrances wouldn’t even know their beloved perfume belongs to this scent category.
While Coty’s Chypre itself is no longer produced, the true benchmark of the classic, unbeatable chypre is Mitsouko by Guerlain, which is alive and kicking. It is such a classic it is admired even if not worn today much.
So let’s investigate some more contemporary classic Chypres that perhaps will lure you to rekindle the genre in your fragrance collection.
Botega Veneta, launched in 2011 in conjuction with Coty Prestige (so keeping up the Chypre heritage link), is the first fragrance of luxe Italian leatherware brand of the same name. It is described as a floral-leather Chypre and meant to recall the scents of the rolling Veneto hills and the grounds of a perfect Palladian Veneto villa. Already, one is magically transported and imagining its notes.
Crafted by Michel Almairac of Robertet, which is renowned in the perfumery world for its high-quality, natural perfumery oils, it is a soft leather suede floral that starts out with our famous bergamot along with a frisson of pink pepper. The bottles are Murano glass and trimmed with BV’s leather.
I tried it in a duty free a few years ago and while not picking up a flacon then, I do intend to add it to my collection of modern-day, classy-act classics. One I recommend and a Chypre for all seasons.
Clinique – Aromatics Elixir – Launched in the 1970s when other Chypres wore more full frontal (think of Rive Gauche in its blue and black working girl livery), this chypre-style fragrance is earthier, more herbal and less sharp floral. It almost seems to be the traditional Chypre pyramid of notes reversed. Patchouli, chamomile and oakmoss dominate with the citrus note of bergamot trailing.
It has of course gone through numerous reformulations, so today it isn’t the patchouli-oakmoss punch of the ’70s but still a chypre and still with its lovers, both nostalgic ones like me who knew its original and those younger who want to feel a link to the ’70s vibe.
Runner-up to note: Eau du Soir, Sisley – A very elegant, sophisticated chypre from this Italian fashion house. Is there something the Italians know about crafting decent, contemporary Chypres? No oakmoss of old but a amber-patchouli base finishing a floral citrus composition. Perfection! Again, good to go all year round. Perhaps less a runner up and more a main contender?
Photo by Vladimir Gladkov on Unsplash