Van Cleef & Arpels Un Air de First (2011) {Perfume Review & Musings}


First (1976), the original fragrance, is remarkable to me as a re-take on the aldehydic genre (cf. Chanel No. 5), comingling with fruity and green notes. A complex tapestry of notes, it nevertheless offers a distinctive, immediately recognizable olfactory signature - a crucial element to merit the name of a fragrance composition in the fullest sense of the expression. This is why despite the fact that perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena has expressed some reservations about this early work of his, it is still worthy of anyone's attention. Not too many perfumes can benefit from an instant recognition factor. To have done so while conjuring up the liquid ambery ghosts of classics like the No. 5 by Chanel and Arpège by Lanvin shows the uncanny gift that some perfumers have for meshing deep historical tradition with innovation.

Un Air de First by perfumer Nathalie Gracia-Cetto prevails itself of the liberty of being an echo of First -not its faithful copy. Her perfumery work seems impeccable as the blotter can testify: the perfume smells incredibly good and tantalizing on paper days afterwards. While it made me think Un Air de First might have enough substance to be more than a flanker, I am less sure when I wear it as it seems a tad too discreet. Perhaps it aimed to be an Eau Première to its own Chanel No. 5 but in order to ensure this, it would need perhaps a little more frontal presence in my opinion while I cannot but admire its effective enveloping sillage and the maestria with which it was created...

Un Air de First opens on a spray of fresh aldehydes which gains in coolness rather than warmth for a good long while. A galbanum note cuts through the opening notes to create a sensation of sappy freshness rather than frank greenness as in Vent Vert or Chanel No.19. The distinct blackcurrant bud note which appears in the original composition - reminiscent of Chamade by Guerlain - is also present.

The abstract scent of aldehydes - which smell like a clean, immaculate and freshly ironed shirt left to cool down on dry ice with subtle hints of both singeing and radishes, is humanized a bit by a fruity note evoking Pear Williams. White peach is listed but not that characteristic at this point in time. The galbanum note blooms now into a green-leaves effect.

Reflecting the coloring of the bottle, the perfume seems to take on an almost snowy, frosty cast like snow falling in the middle of summer, or white icing on a cake. The sensation reminds me of a childhood day in Normandy when suddenly snow flakes started to flurry in August in the afternoon.

As the fragrance evolves, the scent becomes peachier. An ambery facet appears also which progressively takes on more significance to the point of leaving you with the impression that Un Air de First is also a study on an amber, one fit for warmer weather. A hint of fruity raspberry adds tartness and gaity -- raspberry, especially in French perfumery, is connoted as a particularly happy and carefree note thanks to childhood gustatory associations. Discreet, egg-y and meringue-like nuances add a touch of understated gourmandise, like with those gadget-y "chocolate cigarettes" that you inhale rather than eat, devised to cut down on calories.

Whereas Un Air de First started off very cool, it ends up feeling warm and a bit powdery with a tiny hint of musty oakmoss for a near subliminal old-school effect. The aldehydic personality of the original is preserved.The distinct signature of First can be intercepted in the air around you with its blackcurrant, musky-skin nuance. Somehow, perfumer Nathalie Gracia-Cetto managed to push back the olfactory signature of First inside the sillage more than in the perfume when perceived at skin level.

This is a perfume for people who would like to wear a lighter First or a discreet aldehydic fragrance and are in general attracted to restrained, tasteful perfumes which however much you may spray them on will never make you smell overly perfumed. In other words, it's a good option for creating an elegant olfactory cachet which is incapable of a faux-pas in public because its manners are just too well-ingrained and superlative.

Notes are: mandarin, aldehydes, blackcurrant buds, galbanum / Egyptian jasmine, Bulgarian rose, lily of the valley, white peach / vetiver, vanilla, amber, musks.

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