As you probably already know if you read Monday´s post, I dug up my bottle of Van Cleef & Arpels First when I was rooting around looking for fragrances that reminded me in some way of the new Estee Lauder Jasmine White Moss. I enjoyed my revisit of First so much that I thought it deserved its own day, because my sense is it´s one of those classics that has fallen through the cracks and doesn´t get the attention it deserves from the perfume community.
I do go on and on today, so in case you can´t read much further than this: in a larger sense, this post is about my experience of falling in love with a fragrance I didn´t much care for initially. Many of us have learned the hard lesson that some of the scents we dislike at the outset (although there´s often something compelling about them, as opposed to craptastic) end up being scents we come to treasure. So if a fragrance you´ve smelled haunts you, even if you hated it: do yourself a favor and don´t give up just yet.
According to Michael Edwards´ Perfume Legends, a reference book I love which I hear is now out of print, sadly — there´s one used on Amazon for $340, God help us… where were we? Oh, yes. First was created for Van Cleef & Arpels in 1976, and done by Jean-Claude Ellena — his second major perfume commission (the first being Sisley´s Eau de Campagne in 1974). The idea of a jeweler doing a perfume was something of a radical idea, apparently, with detractors saying it would never sell.
Notes via Perfume Legends are bergamot, blackcurrant buds, mandarin, jasmine, narcissus, aldehydes, Turkish rose, ylang-ylang, cloves, sandalwood, vanilla, musk, tonka bean, amber.
First is a difficult fragrance for me to appreciate. I have trouble with aldehydes; they can seem either too powdery or too sour (or both.) Going back and looking at my mini-review from some time ago, I was amused to see that I repeated the same idea in Monday´s comments – the initial blast of First smells like a glammed-up disco fragrance, something that is very much not me at all – too dressy and too louche, simultaneously.
So why did I fall in love with First? When I look at my notes jotted down over several sessions, I kept coming back to the overall idea of the sun coming out from behind ominous clouds. The first ten or twenty minutes are sharply aldehydic and formal to me, and my guess is any number of folks who are not fans of aldehydes or green notes have taken a whiff of that and promptly given up. But hang in there, people! (Hey, if you like the top, so much the better.) Watching the opaque sharpness of First´s opening notes give way to the jasmine in its heart is, in my opinion, one of the most glorious transitions in perfumery. There´s a point in the shift from the top to the heart notes that´s particularly moving; it smells like champaca to me, both floral and resiny. Even knowing how it unfolds doesn´t dim my sense of being in the throes of a revelation. The sweet florals of the heart linger, cradled by the sandalwood, musk and amber of the base. The drydown is stunning, with the spicy sandalwood offset by the sweetness of the vanilla and amber.
Jasmine lovers — take note. “First is about jasmine,” says Ellena in Perfume Legends. He goes on to talk about its importance to him (“Compare Sophia Grojsman´s work with roses; she´s into roses, I´m into jasmine.”) So why does the sun come out in First? Ellena jammed in a huge amount of Hedione, or methyl dihydrojasmonate, derived from a molecule found in jasmine absolute and patented by Firmenich in 1962. Ellena reports that Hedione was used in much smaller quantities in Eau Sauvage in 1966, and that he put ten times the amount into First. Hedione has a sort of solar effect on fragrances; Victoria of Bois de Jasmin in her review of First describes Hedione as “a material which has a subtle scent on its own, but in combination with flower notes, especially jasmine, its dazzling qualities are brought to life. The flowers kissed by Hedione unfold in translucent layers, with the composition preserving its clarity, while attaining wonderful complexity.”
Ellena had the center of the fragrance but kept trying to extend its boundaries, ultimately stretching it in two directions – he upped the dosage of the bitter narcissus/cassis/mandarin at the top, and the musk and amber at the bottom, to give the scent the longevity that his clients wanted. Quoting from Perfume Legends, Ellena said he was told, “Make something very nice. Afterwards we´ll talk about the price.” Ellena talks about how much this freedom meant to him; apparently there´s not much of that going around these days.
Fans of JCE´s less baroque scents for Hermes, particularly the Hermessences, might find a sniff of First informative. First feels as deliberately constructed and ornate as a Faberge egg, and it would be tempting to dismiss it as something very much of its time and, as such, a little dated. The soft, surreal radiance of the heart of First pretty much ends that line of thinking. In Perfume Legends, Ellena says First has become an archetype – “People say, this fragrance smells like First, or it came from First.”
I have the EDT, which can be found ridiculously cheap (under $30 online.) I´m really thinking I should spring for the EDP, and I bet the parfum is stunning. There are also a number of flankers (First Love, First Pour l´Ete, etc.) none of which sound interesting to me except possibly First Jasmin de Chine. Has anyone tried any of these? Finally, I´m looking forward to the Collection Extraordinaire, although … do those bottles remind anyone of another collection? Yeah, me too.