Van Cleef & Arpels First : Perfume Review



Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.

Contemplating a quintessential classical fragrance, Chanel No.5 and Lanvin Arpège immediately come to mind. The aldehydes add shimmer to the flowers in the opulent floral bouquets of these great classics, interspersing the petals with the diamond dust of aldehydic fizz. Creating a fragrance in the classical spirit is an exacting task, because composing something novel becomes more challenging. In this sense, Van Cleef & Arpels First encompasses both the classicism and the spirit of innovation. Intended as the first fragrance for the jewel house Van Cleef & Arpels, a fragrance that would sparkle like a jewel, First transforms luminescence into the form of scent. From its brilliant top note to the resplendent heart and radiant base, it shines like a perfectly cut diamond and feels like a smooth South Sea pearl.

First was the fragrance that marked the inception of Jean-Claude Elléna’s great career. Even though his Sisley Eau de Campagne came out in 1974, First’s debut in 1976 was an even bigger success. Experiencing the fragrance, it is not difficult to understand why, because the composition has a seamless and perfectly polished quality with the notes melding one into another, drawing one into the languid sensation of the composition. …

First is focused around jasmine, its rich sunny sweetness accented with the glittering effect of the aldehydes and the emerald green vibrancy of blackcurrant bud. The aldehydes, however, are a light touch, rather than a thick veil as in No.5, merely emphasizing the luster of the composition and lending an elegant twist to the luxurious blossoms in the heart of First. The rainfall of soft flower petals is set alight by the radiance of Hedione, 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.

The base of the composition evokes the feeling of being bathed in the sunlight, with its honey drizzled warmth of amber and sandalwood. Contained in the flacon inspired by Van Cleef & Arpels pendant, First is the fragrant jewel of stunning elegance. For me, it is in the class of fragrances with Guerlain Chamade, Frédéric Malle Iris Poudré and Lipstick Rose, which while very diverse, are the fragrances that make me feel poised, yet perfectly at ease.

First is also available in the EDT and the parfum. Despite my usual preference for the parfum, in the case of First, I prefer the EDP, because it possesses more of the sparkling effect. Where the parfum is about the seductive richness of the floral notes, the radiance pervading the composition is dimmed by softness. The EDT, on the other hand, is not as rich, its lighter heart giving way to the ambery base perhaps a bit sooner than I would have liked.

Notes include aldehydes, mandarin, black currant bud, peach, raspberry, hyacinth, Turkish rose, narcissus, jasmine, lily of the valley, carnation, orchid, tuberose, orris, amber, tonka bean, oakmoss, sandalwood, vetiver, musk, honey, civet. The fragrance is available at Neiman Marcus, Saks 5th Avenue as well as other department stores. Online retailers such as Imagination Perfumery and Perfumemart also carry First in a variety of concentrations.

Please see other reviews of fragrances created by Jean-Claude Ellena:

Balenciaga Rumba (with Ron Winnegrad)
Frédéric Malle L’Eau d’Hiver
Hermès Hermèssence Ambre Narguilé (brief description)
Hermès Hermèssence Ambre Narguilé (full review)
Hermès Hermèssence Osmanthe Yunnan
Hermès Hermèssence Poivre Samarcande
Hermès Hermèssence Rose Ikebana (brief description)
Hermès Un Jardin Sur Le Nil
L’Artisan Parfumeur Bois Farine
Paul & Joe Blanc
The Different Company Bois d’Iris
The Different Company Divine Bergamote
Van Cleef & Arpels First
Yves Saint Laurent In Love Again Fleur de la Passion

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  • paru: As always, your review is wonderful written. I haven’t tried this but am now intrigued. The idea of jasmine with a base of amber and sandalwood sounds like a combination I would like. January 20, 2006 at 8:42am Reply

  • Lost: Years ago, I walked into Saks and asked the SA for something unusual and elegant – something I wouldn’t smell on everyone else. I was all of 25. It was my first unsniffed purchase!! I wore First exclusively for the next 7 years – it is the scent I always associate with my husband because it is what I wore when I met him and during the first few years of our marriage. This year I rediscovered this while shopping with some dear friends…alas it is part of my collection again…and deeply appreciated by my husband. I suppose I smell familiar again. Like you, I prefer the EDP version although I will someday own the parfum. I appreciate you profiling a fragrance composed by JCE and which should not be forgotten. It is a classic that is easy to wear and always makes me feel special. What more could a woman want? January 20, 2006 at 8:51am Reply

  • linda: Beautiful review, V! I am very happy you wrote about it, because I used to wear First when I first (ha, ha) met my husband and he still associates it with me. I’ve been planning to repurchase a bottle and I might do just that today. 🙂 January 20, 2006 at 10:57am Reply

  • Laura: Darn! I saw First at your place the other day and should have tried it! I remember sniffing it years ago but I wasn’t so interested in perfumes then. And it is JCE’s first (pardon the pun) scent? I’m going to track this down again . Still, many mass market scents give me raging headaches and I don’t know why. I don’t think it is from aldehydes and I don’t think it is from snobbism. So even though everything about this sounds as though I’d love it, I wonder if my head will come through unscathed on trying it. January 20, 2006 at 7:28am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: L, well, next time you are welcome to it. It was technically not JCE’s first, because Sisley Eau de Campagne came two years earlier, but it was the first major success. First is stunning fragrance, different in some ways from what JCE is doing now and yet bearing his signature clarity. I do not know if it would qualify as a mass market fragrance though, however I think I know what you mean. Maybe, you would enjoy it nevertheless. January 20, 2006 at 12:33pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: P, jasmine anything is enough to catch my attention, and here it is especially wonderful. January 20, 2006 at 12:35pm Reply

  • Donna: This is something that I find confusing. What is really a mass market fragrance? Would Chanel Allure be considered mass market? January 20, 2006 at 12:39pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: F, I love this story! I agree that it is elegant, however it is not difficult to wear and appreciate. The aldehydes are subtle, and the floral notes are simply stunning. And that warm base is simply wonderful. January 20, 2006 at 12:41pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: L, oh, another nice story. I love having a fragrance with nice memories associated with it. I hope that it still brings back them. January 20, 2006 at 12:44pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Katie, I think that you might really like it. I also love the bottle. The parfum bottles looks like a little jewel, while the 100ml EDP has a nice heft. The ads were great, and you can see the rest of them from January 20, 2006 at 12:45pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Donna, Chanel Allure would not be mass market. It is considered to be a prestige, according to what I have seen: selective (distributed only in certain locations, like Chanel Cuir de Russie and I believe that VC&A might be in this category as well), niche (like L’Artisan), prestige (department store fragrances like Chanel Allure), mass
    market (Ashanti Jewel, various drugstore brands), limited edition (Burberry Brit Gold), and travel retail fragrances (sold in duty-free stores). This is how I understand it. January 20, 2006 at 12:53pm Reply

  • Katie: Oh this sounds lovely V. I’ve seen it mentioned here and there, but never took much notice. This sounds beautiful to me, very appealing. Especially the jasmine with that base sounds perfect for me. (On a wholly juiceless note, I love that bottle in the ad image – how fun and pretty would that be to see every day on your dresser top?) January 20, 2006 at 11:19am Reply

  • Robin: First is so gorgeous and I think rather underrated these days — you almost never read about it on the fragrance boards. And glad to know that you & F both prefer the EdP as it is all I have tried so far. January 20, 2006 at 6:40pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, I agree! It is very underrated, but it is a beautiful fragrance, and as far as I can recall, it is included among legends in Michael Edwards’s book. The EDP is simply the best of the three concentrations, in my opinion, because it sparkles the most. January 20, 2006 at 6:55pm Reply

  • Artisankey: Great review!

    I always think of First as a “dark floral”- very sophisticated, a grown-up perfume that IS easy to wear. In the summer time the parfum takes an almost chypre-like turn and reminds me of Crepe de Chine in the dryout. Not one I wear very often these days, but your review will have me revisiting it again soon. January 21, 2006 at 7:01pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Glad to see another fan! It is a beautiful fragrance. I love the way JCE treats jasmine–it scintillates in his hands. January 22, 2006 at 3:00pm Reply

  • debra_b: As always, your review evokes the scent perfectly! I only tried First for the first time last month – a gift from a generous swapper. I’m always a little leery of aldehydic florals, as I often find them just too *much* and they become headache-inducing. But as you say, First has a freshness about it, rather than the stereotypical powder effect of aldehydes. It’s very much a scent of its time, yet modern, too. With that juicy jasmine, it reminds me of Jontue – a contemporary of First which I wore and loved in the ’70s. Thanks for bringing up the classics, not just pandering to our cultural hunger for the new and improved! January 23, 2006 at 11:43pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: D, thank you very much! I admit that I have not tried Jontue, but it sounds like a worthwhile fragrance to hunt down, especially on a recommendation from you. I do love the classics, not only for the fact that they had an ornate aura that some of the modern compositions lack and that they, more than anything, allow me to time travel. Of course, for a lover of jasmine, what could be more magnificent than a lush dose of it in the heart of First! January 24, 2006 at 1:34am Reply

  • zetousa: My husband offered First to me before we married in 1977 as an alternative to Chanel 5. Since then i never stopped wearing that wonderful fragrance. Unfortunately I cannot find the perfume any more. The EDP has not the same strenght. I hope they will produce it again one day. October 25, 2013 at 8:01am Reply

  • Kate: First is a stunning, perfectly balanced fragrance and to me it has changed very little over the past years. It has retained its gorgeous depth, complexity and elegance. For a lighter effect, one small spray applied to a non scented oil and used as a body oil works beautifully. October 30, 2014 at 4:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think they’done a good job reformulating it. October 31, 2014 at 11:26am Reply

  • Teresa williams: I discovered First around 25 years ago , I always wear it on special occasions and when I need to feel a little special. Every time I wear it people comment how nice,soft and unusual it is . If you want a scent that will attract attention but in a very subtle way, First is one you might like to try . November 14, 2014 at 10:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree! It’s elegant, but it’s far from a wallflower. Such a beauty! November 24, 2014 at 12:54pm Reply

  • Jeanette Traylor: First is a fragrance I became aware of in the seventies. Even though I thought it was wonderful, I wasn’t yet into fragrance. I now shop online for the bath gel and lotion. I only use a dab of the perfume. Even though it’s an evening fragrance, I often wear it to work. Late into the evening people are still complementing me and inquiring about it. There’s no fragrance like it in my opinion June 16, 2015 at 7:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree, it’s versatile enough, and it lasts for hours. June 17, 2015 at 5:00am Reply

  • Notturno7: A great review of the great classic!
    I was lucky, the SA who became my friend, she gave me the whole tester and it’s the EDP version.
    It really sparkles. I didn’t even know about it until then. It works in summer and all year round for me. Thanks for reminding me to start using it again 💜 July 13, 2016 at 1:01am Reply

  • VY: First is one of those perfumes you never get over it. It is just sexy and it sparkles, off course because of jasmine, what I love about this EDP is the base notes of amber and sandalwood. Such an exotic perfume, I prefer it over Chanel’s No.5 August 10, 2016 at 2:16am Reply

  • Ann: My Mom’s perfume is Joy, and I remember my Grandmother (her MIL) wearing Di Borghese, I feel like First reminds me of a combination of the two – do you think that idea has any merit?

    After trying on several underwhelming perfumes, I am reveling in First, it is so beautiful, so reminiscent of the 70/80 for me in a great way. It is “refreshing” to be bathed in a heavier perfume. May 17, 2017 at 10:04am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t remember Di Borghese that well, but I recall my mom wearing it and wearing it beautifully. May 17, 2017 at 2:59pm Reply

  • Mojtaba: Great review!
    First has a very nostalgic aroma…
    How about current reformulation by Interparfums? Is it still great and acceptanle reformulation or they’ve ruined it? December 29, 2018 at 5:25pm Reply

  • Ugo: I just bought the edp versione after tried a very old tester at my favourite perfumery in Spoleto, Italy. The tester was something exceptional. Perfect perfume for me, floral, bright, a scent that can touch the sky but is also earthy, deep sweet with various layer of beauty. But the bottle that arrived today is nothing like this. It seems a different fragrance. A very big delusion. I expected a reformulation but this is the worst ever!!! It’s not even floral, it’s acid and dark, a very old terrible scent. I wanna cry because I really hoped to put on me that marvellous jasmine 😖 May 28, 2020 at 1:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh no! That sounds terrible. I’m sorry to hear this. May 28, 2020 at 2:44pm Reply

  • Ugo: Could you please suggest me some beautiful perfume like the old First? Something rich, elegant, classic with the same type of jasmine? May 29, 2020 at 8:47am Reply

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