Sue Townsend, founder of Ortigia, on capturing the aromas of Sicily

Interview: Clare Finney

I began making scents in the gardens of San Giuliano, where I lived for some time with the family of my friends, the Marchese di San Giuliano. The last Marchesi, Giuseppe, spent a lifetime planting exotic trees and collecting flowers for his magnificent garden, and I learnt about the flowers of Sicily there. I began to create perfumes from the garden and sought help from Italian master perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi. After some years, Ortigia was born.

Sicily is the fundamental essence of the Ortigia range. All the perfumes are directly distilled from indigenous plants that grow in the Mediterranean climate of the south-eastern part of the island, known as La Sicilia Orientale. Our Fico d’India perfume, for example, is based on an enormous pale green cactus with bright orange spiky flowers, the powder of which is mixed with cedar from umbrella pines. The Coral Shell perfume, taken from shrubs such as juniper, is an intense, aromatic perfume that captures the Sicilian sea shore in the height of summer. Ambra Nera is a deep, resinous scent, redolent of October when the heat is less intense and before the rains come.

The orange tree is revered in Sicily, depicted in mosaics in the Palazzo dei Normanni and in cathedral gardens, where orange trees are often planted. The zagara are the white flowers of the orange tree, and they have perhaps the most famous aroma in Sicily. When the orange trees begin to flower, the citrus groves have a highly aromatic scent which for me encapsulates the island. Our best-known citrus perfume, Zagara, comes from the orange blossom flower.

The gattopardo, or leopard, has been the symbol of Sicily for centuries. It has featured constantly in Sicilian culture, from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s famous novel The Leopard to Visconti’s film Il Gattopardo, starring Burt Lancaster. It was during the reign of King Roger II, in the 12th century, that the world-famous gold mosaics at the Palazzo dei Normanni, which include the most beautiful leopards, were created. They are a wonder to look at, and I wanted to use them for the company’s graphics. I played with these images and added the bright Sicilian colours and lots of metallic finishes to make the packaging more lustrous.

Our products are made by small Italian companies, using natural methods. We do not use any synthetic or artificial additives, colours or parabens, and we keep our formulas as natural and simple as possible. Almond oil and olive oil have been used in Sicily since ancient times, and are both important ingredients in our creams.

When Italian people find the London shop for the first time, it can be an emotional experience. The sense of smell is inextricably linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses, and this can be powerful. A man once told me that smelling the Bergamotto transported him to his childhood in the Sicilian countryside, although he had not been back for many years.

LifeMark RiddawayOrtigia