The first time anyone smells fresh bergamot, they usually have one comment, “Earl Grey!” We associate its peppery scent so much with the flavored black tea that it’s hard to picture bergamot as anything else. In reality, it’s a small citrus of the Citrus bergamia variety, and its fragrant essence that ends up in our tea and perfume is cold-pressed from the peel of unripe fruit. The best bergamot oil comes from the province of Reggio Calabria in Italy, and for this reason perfume companies gladly flaunt the provenance by mentioning “Calabrian bergamot” in the note descriptions. The growing conditions on the plantations along the Ionian Sea coast are so ideally suited to this unique citrus that the region generates 90% of the world’s production.
I call bergamot unique not because of an enthusiastic overstatement; it’s unlike other citrus used in perfumery. Bergamot is zesty and sparkling, but not pungently acidic. For the perfume geeks among you, the main constituents of its oil are the floral-crisp linalool and linalyl acetate (in contrast to lemon, orange or mandarin, which are dominated by the icy sharp limonene). Linalool also gives lavender and coriander seeds their distinctive note, so in some aspects bergamot has more in common with aromatic herbs than tart citrus. Then imagine a note reminiscent of freshly ground black pepper draped over the floral freshness, and you have bergamot.
Because of bergamot’s distinctive character, it’s one of the most common notes in the perfumer’s palette. You can find it in the lightest of colognes and the darkest of orientals. Bergamot adds an instant dose of shimmer to just about any composition but it can also be used in large amounts to create a radiant backdrop for the rich woods, spices and ambers. To experience bergamot in all of its glory, go straight to Guerlain Shalimar.
Shalimar goes down in the annals of perfume history as the classical oriental perfume, a type of fragrance rich in woods, vanilla and other heavy notes, but containing more than 30% bergamot oil, it can almost be a citrus cologne! It has delicious heft and luminosity. As perfumer Sophia Grojsman describes Shalimar, it’s dark but transparent, a difficult effect to achieve.
Jacques Guerlain, the creator of Shalimar, also experimented with a generous dose of bergamot in Vol de Nuit and L’Heure Bleue. His grandson, Jean-Paul Guerlain, continued the tradition with Habit Rouge and Vétiver. Bergamot can make the richest notes palatable, and the bergamot trail can be found from Chanel Coco to Esteé Lauder Youth Dew, from Yves Saint Laurent Kouros to Aquolina Pink Sugar.
If you would rather go for something crisp and bright, then start with colognes. You’ll be sharing your love for bergamot with Napoleon, whose favorite perfumes and soaps were scented with its essence. Not of Napoleon’s vintage, but a great classic of the 20th century, Dior Eau Sauvage contains close to 40% bergamot oil and feels as modern today as it did when it was created in 1966. It blends the peppery freshness of basil, citrus and rosemary, with just enough woods and musk to give a lingering presence and unmistakable character.
Listing all of the colognes that feature bergamot would try your patience, but I can’t resist mentioning some of my other favorite modern examples. Tocca Colette is a gin & tonic with a bergamot twist. Annick Goutal Eau d’Hadrien is an adult take on lemonade, while The Different Company Divine Bergamot is a triple bergamot with a sliver of ginger.
You can make an oriental or even a cologne without bergamot, but the classical chypre family is impossible without this citrus note. Bergamot offsets the inky, bittersweet roughness of oakmoss and prevents you from smelling like a moss festooned tree. Guerlain Mitsouko, Christian Dior Miss Dior, Chanel Cristalle, and Aramis are the classical examples. Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely may skip oakmoss, but it still retains the chypre’s bergamot flourish.
Finally, bergamot marries well with many floral notes, and if a perfumer wants to give a dose of spring-like freshness to a sketch of a flower, they might turn to citrus. For a bergamot flavored rose, try Annick Goutal Rose Absolue and Marni. Jasmine and bergamot are explored in Serge Lutens Sarrasins and Etat Libre d’Orange Jasmin et Cigarette. Frédéric Malle Iris Poudre, Penhaligon’s Iris Prima, and Chanel 28 La Pausa illustrate that even something as perfect as iris can benefit from a dash of peppery citrus.
Extra: Citrus : From Bergamot to Yuzu for descriptions of other citrus notes and a history of cologne.
Do you have any favorite perfumes that include bergamot?
Top and bottom images, Calabrian bergamots: photography by Bois de Jasmin