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Bergamot: The Silent Queen of Perfumery

Minimalistic yet complex, BERGAMOT is often misunderstood or underestimated. In this article, you will discover its origins and journey from Asia to Europe, where it became crucial to the birth of Western perfumery. Learn why perfumers consider bergamot oil a quintessential raw material in their palette, and why the bergamot note appears in the majority of olfactory pyramids. However, restrictions apply.

 

Bergamot History

 

WHAT IS BERGAMOT?

 

Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) is a hybrid of bitter orange (citrus autantium Var. amara L) and lemon or citron (it is unclear). This citrus fruit typically has a round to pear-like shape, measuring approximately 8-10 cm (3-4 in) in size. Its peel is thin and yellow-green when ripe, containing its aromatic essential oil. However, when searching for it online – even on reputable stock image databases – we often come across images of a green citrus fruit with a thick, lumpy, and wrinkled rind. This fruit is actually the makrut or combava (Citrus hystrix), previously referred to as “kaffir lime,” a term considered derogative in many countries.

It’s challenging to pinpoint the exact reason for this misidentification, but one potential factor could be the shared terminology in the Thai language for both bergamot and makrut. This linguistic overlap might have led to widespread confusion. Consequently, many essential oil brands and distributors, whose owners or managers never actually held a bergamot, often use images of makrut on the labels of their bergamot oil bottles. Even if some of them are aware of the distinction, they might hesitate to use the correct image, fearing that consumers, accustomed to seeing the makrut depiction, might perceive their brand as unreliable.

 

Makrut Bergamot

Makrut or Combava (Citrus hystrix) to the left; Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) to the right

 

ORIGIN & USAGE

 

Native to Southeast Asia, bergamot was introduced to Europe during the Crusades in the 15th century. Its cultivation thrived in the Mediterranean region, particularly in the Reggio Di Calabria peninsula, Italy, where it earned the moniker “green gold.” The etymology of “bergamot” is uncertain, but the most widely accepted version suggests that it is derived from the Turkish word “beg-armüdi,” meaning “prince’s pear.”

Today, over 80% of bergamot production originates from Calabria, benefiting from its unique microclimate and terroir. Interestingly, the bergamot trees that grow in Sicily, which is so near, do not deliver the same quality of oil.

Approximately 90% of bergamot production is dedicated to its oil. About half of this oil is utilized in perfumery, while one-third finds its way into aromatherapy, primarily for anxiety and stress reduction. The rest is allocated for flavoring purposes, notably in Earl Grey tea. The remaining 10% of bergamot serve as fresh fruit for confectionery products like marmalade, jams, and syrups.

 

Eau De Cologne

 

JOURNEY INTO PERFUMERY

 

Bergamot achieved prominence in 1693 with the creation of “Aqua Mirabilis” (“Miraculous Water”) by the Italian pharmacist Giovanni Paolo Feminis. This concoction featured bergamot alongside various herbs, leaves, spices, and other citruses. Initially developed for medicinal purposes, it was believed to retain therapeutic properties to reduce pain, stress, and inflammation. Subsequently, Feminis’s nephew, Gian Paolo, transformed “Aqua Mirabilis” into a fragrant liquid primarily for external use. He officially registered it in 1709 in the city of Cologne, Germany, marking it as the first commercially available fragrance in history.

The simple and cost-efficient cold-pressing process for extracting bergamot oil from its peels undoubtedly contributed to its widespread usage in Europe. However, it was the complex and multifaceted scent of bergamot – fresh, zesty, crisp, bitter, and sweet, with spicy and floral undertones – that captivated perfumers, making it a quintessential ingredient in their palette. They soon discovered that the multiple aromatic properties of bergamot oil transcended its traditional use in eaux de cologne, where it was paired with other light ingredients such as lemon, neroli (obtained from orange blossom), petitgrain, and lavender.

Without a dominant signature compared to other citruses, bergamot plays a multifaceted role in richer and denser compositions. Beyond its aroma, it contributes to creating a unique effect. Bergamot bestows upon any fragrance an elegant and smooth opening, along with vibrancy and fullness. Crucial to the classic chypre and fougère accords, it also adds depth and complexity to ambery scents. A good example of the latter is Guerlain’s iconic Shalimar (1925) – an amber-vanilla perfume where bergamot constitutes 30% of the composition. Here, bergamot introduces a striking contrast, harmonizing freshness and warmth, luminosity and darkness. This efficiency and versatility explains why bergamot is present in most olfactory pyramids.

It’s fair to assert that bergamot played an integral role in the inception of Western perfumery.

 

SAFETY RESTRICTIONS

 

The use of bergamot oil in cosmetics (which include perfume) is limited to 0.4% due to its toxicity. This limitation arises from its photosensitive and melanogenic properties, attributed to furocoumarins, primarily bergapten. Bergamot oil can contain up to 10 times more bergapten than other citrus fruits, increasing the risk of skin burns and cancer. Consequently, perfumers turn to FCF (Furocoumarin-Free) bergamot, which is modified to eliminate toxic components.

These restrictions have driven up the price of bergamot oil, prompting fragrance companies to recreate its odor profile and effect using a blend of citruses and linalyl acetate (a soapy-scented molecule also found in lavender and coriander), not to mention cheaper additives.

 

Guerlain’s master perfumer Thierry Wasser shows the harvesting of the “green gold” of Calabria

 

Dior’s master perfumer François Demachy explores the terroir of this iconic raw material

 

Italian farmers harvest bergamot for Le Labo Fragrances

 

(text by Daniel Barros)

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DANIEL BARROS

DANIEL BARROS

Editor-in-Chief

DANIEL BARROS is Brazilian, based in São Paulo, and the author of  ‘1001 Perfumes: The Guide’. He has been collaborating with ScentXplore since 2021, contributing to content production and management, as well as organizing the annual ScentXplore People’s Choice Niche Fragrance Awards. In addition to his editorial responsibilities, Daniel is actively involved in mentoring niche brands and fragrance enthusiasts all over the world. Click here to send him a private message or report an error. Follow Daniel on Instagram @danielbarros_1001perfumes.

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