I always get a kick out of reminding myself that First, the 1976 perfume from Van Cleef & Arpels, is a Jean-Claude Ellena creation. There's nothing about the classic and ornate floral powerhouse composition that hints towards the sheer and airy direction Ellena took later in his career.
Once again I find myself having to call a perfume bottle that's younger than my little sister "vintage", but what I have on hand is some decidedly older extrait de parfum, so vintage it is. Of course, First is still in production today and the good people of Van Cleef and Arpels have been nice enough to keep offering the parfum ($175, 0.5oz at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman). I've only tried the newer First in EDP or EDT and it's still impressive and even formidable, though obviously thinner. I also have a mini of the EDT from the early 1980s, and I have to admit that I suspect I like it better than the parfum, though I tend to layer them for longevity.
Like many among us who suffer from Fear Of Aldehydes (see March's review on the Posse), it took me years to come around and surrender to First's charm. It's the same story as with other classics of a certain age: I needed to sniff my way around the world and back before I really got what Ellena did for Van Cleef & Arpels: he sort of reinvented jasmine. You can read more about it in Victoria's review on Bois de Jasmin.
There are a couple of words that appear again and again in discussions of First: radiant and sunlight. I can't find better ones myself. Most of us will not get to own and wear a piece of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry in this lifetime (I do have hopes for my next incarnation, though). The beauty of first on its opulent bouquet is as close as we can come. It has something to do with the way the jasmine and narcissus are paired and come alive on skin. It's a little burst of charm and beauty: a bit Old World, very well-bred, like perfect manners that accompany true kindness and a sunny disposition (yes, I've been watching too much footage of Duchess Kate).
It's worth repeating: the big difference between First and other aldehydic-floral perfumes such as Chanel No.5 or Lanvin Arpege is the way the jasmine note is created and treated. The older classics make it a point not to let any one flower steal the show. They're blended and woven together into the silkiest fabric. If this Van Cliff & Arpel fragrance were a gemstone it would have been a yellow diamond. A big one.
The dry-down of First is warm and sandalwoody and my old extrait is also a little animalic, or maybe that's just the way the juice has aged. It's more ambery and creamy than No. 5 but maintains the patrician bone structure and never goes all the way into cuddly territory. First is a thing of beauty in every form I've encountered, which makes me wonder if I need to stockpile against future tinkering and sellouts.
Notes: aldehyde complex, peach, raspberry, hyacinth, jasmine, rose, muguet, tuberose, orris, orchid, carnation, vetiver, musk, amber, oakmoss, honey, civet, sandalwood.
Van Cleef & Arpels ads (vintage and new) of the perfume and jewelry via hprints.com, couleurparfum.com, and adblog.com.