05 April 2012

Arquiste L'Etrog

As I mentioned in my last post, I missed meeting Carlos Huber, the mind behind Arquiste, at the Elements Showcase in January. Thankfully I had a second chance this week at Aedes de Venustas, which held a reception for Carlos to celebrate Arquiste’s launch at the store. Upon introducing myself, I immediately dragged Carlos into a conversation about L’Etrog, which, while far from the most outspoken of the Arquiste range, is hands-down the most interesting to me, both as a variation of the geo-historical Arquiste concept and also as a fragrance unto itself.

For the majority of the Arquiste perfumes, Carlos started with a very specific point in time and place: a 17th century convent in Mexico City (Anima Dulcis); the January morning of Pushkin’s final duel in St. Petersburg, 1837 (Aleksandr); the first meeting of Louis XIV and the Spanish Infanta in the Basque region, 1660 (Infanta en Flor and Fleur de Louis). With L’Etrog, however, it began with the exploration of the prized citrus for which the scent is named (Etrog is the Hebrew word for the citron fruit, or cedrat in French). Citron was first brought to Carlos’s attention by two friends who are landscape architects with vast botanical knowledge. From there his research led him to the Italian region of Calabria, the site of the earliest Jewish settlements in Italy, which are credited with introducing citron cultivation to the region.

Serendipitously, Carlos didn’t have to look far to find the complementary structure for his citron-focused fragrance. He simply drew from the fruit’s religious significance as a component of the mitzvah of the “Four Species,” performed daily during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The ritual involves holding the etrog together with the lulav (a closed date palm frond), the hadass (a bough of myrtle leaves) and the aravah (a willow branch) and waving the four species in the air during a blessing.

For Carlos, the four species also amounted to a sophisticated aromatic profile, and in the skilled hands of Yann Vasnier and Rodrigo Flores-Roux, L’Etrog essentially became an olfactory painting of an ancient religious ritual. The bright, clear citron and minty, herbaceous myrtle notes combine in perhaps the best citrus opening I’ve experienced in the past year. For the date palm component, the perfumers used the fruit of the tree, which appears as a mild and velvety sweetness as the fragrance develops, extended by a touch of jasmine. The date is among the notes that save L’Etrog from falling into the increasingly static and formulaic Eau de Cologne genre (in which Chanel takes the blue ribbon, end-of-story), steering the scent instead towards something like the “cologne absolue” concept that Atelier Cologne has made quite successful. In fact, in its contrasting sharp green and soft, mossy-woody aspects, L’Etrog reminds me a bit of Trefle Pur, without the patchouli.

Impressively, most of the essences selected for L’Etrog are produced in the southern Mediterranean region that inspired it. The citron essence itself comes from a Calabrian producer who still cultivates some of his crop according to kosher standards, for use as etrogs by rabbis. It’s bolstered by Calabrian bergamot and Sicilian lemon; the date is Turkish; Mediterranean pistachio tree and Lebanese cedar stand in for the willow (which does not offer up a natural essence) and also evoke the sukkah, the rudimentary wooden structure around which the Sukkot holiday revolves. The only exception is vetiver, which adds a welcome earthiness in the fragrance’s later stages.

While all of the Arquiste scents achieve an enviable level of quality, refinement and thoughtfulness of composition, something about L’Etrog sets it apart to my nose. It certainly lacks the spectacle of Flor y Canto’s Aztec festival, the regal stature of Fleur de Louis and Infanta en Flor, and the utter romance of Aleksandr. But it makes up for a lack of flair with a simplicity that escapes the others; it’s the humble beauty that doesn’t know quite how beautiful it is.

Many thanks to Sr. Huber and the good people at Aedes de Venustas for the opportunity to learn more about this work of art (and for the prosecco).

L’Etrog is available at Aedes, $165 for 50 ml.