Fragrance Friday: First Cut

Fragrance Friday: First Cut

Diane St. Clair is a dairy farmer and artisan maker of butter so good that she supplies it to the legendary French Laundry restaurant, among others. She is also now an artisan perfumer, having launched her first three scents earlier this year under the name St. Clair Scents. I’ve already written about Gardener’s Glove; today, I’ll take a look (or sniff!) at First Cut.

The name refers to the first mowing of a hayfield, in late summer. This is an important time at a dairy farm, as the mown hay will provide fodder for the cows during the winter. Here is the description of First Cut from St. Clair Scents’ website:

The hay harvest is the focus of every dairy farmer’s summer, keeping the fields regenerating and providing hay for the cows in winter.

The mowing and drying of native grasses, clovers, wild flowers, and legumes takes three days of sunshine and many hours of hard work.

This scent is of meadows, herbaceous and green, with wild flowers strewn throughout and splashed with radiant sunshine.

  • Top Notes: Bergamot, Yuzu, Rosemary, Basil, Tomato Leaf Absolute
  • Middle Notes: Lavender Absolute, Rose De Mai, Rose Geranium, Immortelle Absolute
  • Base Notes: Hay Absolute, Tobacco Absolute, Oakmoss, Vanilla Absolute

The opening is strong and appealing — so much so, that my husband suddenly asked, after I had dabbed some on my wrist, “What smells so good?” The bergamot and yuzu really pop. I don’t normally like yuzu in fragrance, but here it really works, as it is dominated by the bergamot I prefer, and accompanied by the herbal notes of rosemary, basil, and tomato leaf. I can’t really pick out the rosemary and basil separately, but all the top notes blend harmoniously into a bright, herbal announcement that something special has arrived.

Kafkaesque offers her usual in-depth, insightful analysis, noting that First Cut merges aspects of both a traditional “fougere” fragrance and a “chypre”. As fougere scents more traditionally appear in men’s fragrances, I’m not as familiar with them, so I’ll share some of what I have learned. Most notably, the classic fougere includes a strong presence of lavender combined with oakmoss and coumarin, the latter widely considered to evoke the scent of sweet hay. And no wonder, based on this information from Fragrantica:

Coumarin … is a synthesized material in most perfumes, but it’s also found in abundance in natural products, such as tonka beans (Dipteryx odorata) where it is the principle aromatic constituent (1-3%). In fact the name derives from “cumaru”, an Amazonian dialect name for the Tonka bean tree. But that’s not all: apart from tonka beans, coumarin also occurs naturally in “vanilla grass” (Anthoxanthum odoratum), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), sweet clover (Meliotus L.), sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata) and cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum) among other species.

First Cut is all about hay, and there among the base notes is “hay absolute”, so we see the relationship to a classic fougere, together with the traditional lavender, oakmoss, and tobacco notes. Unlike a traditional fougere, though, here the lavender is clearly present but not dominant, which I prefer.

In my review of St. Clair Scents’ Gardener’s Glove, I described the meadow that bordered my father’s vegetable garden, the garden that Gardener’s Glove evoked for me. First Cut evokes that meadow and the same sense of a French potager, an enclosed garden that includes vegetables, flowers, fruits, and herbs. This potager, however, is not in New England but in the South of France, with its classic Mediterranean notes of lavender, rosemary, basil, rose de Mai, and citruses. It is on a farm, bordered by hay meadows and lavender fields which figure as much in this fragrance as the kitchen garden.

Filed of lavender and hay meadow on French farm in Provence

Lavender field in Provence; image from https://birdshooter.smugmug.com/

One of the many interesting things about First Cut is that it dries down in a way that mimics the maturing of a hayfield! The initial phase is very fresh, herbal and green, especially with those green herbs and tomato leaf absolute, like the fresh greenness of early summer. The middle stage is more floral, but in the way that midsummer clover is “floral”, nothing like the Big White Flowers. I think it is the immortelle that starts making the fragrance feel drier, as the middle stage leads into a base of dry tobacco, dry hay, dry oakmoss (and vanilla, which adds the creaminess and sweetness that Kafkaesque noted, and balances the dry notes). I love this creative progression and how it summons up the months from early summer through the peak of summer, ending with the late summer hay harvest known as the “first cut.” Brilliant! Even the lingering sweetness in the base is reminiscent of late summer honey from bees that have gorged on meadow flowers. I wonder if Diane St. Clair keeps honeybees?

Wooden beehives in multi-colored wildflower meadow.

Beehives in wildflower meadow; image from http://www.apiplanet.lt.

I like First Cut very, very much — and if you are a man, or have a man in your life, who loves fougeres, try this!  So far, of the two St. Clair Scents I have really tested, my heart still belongs to Gardener’s Glove, but First Cut is beautiful, pleasing, and clever all at once. As the late great perfumer Guy Robert is said to have told many people:  “Un parfum doit avant tout sent bon (A perfume must above all smell good).” First Cut smells very, very good.

Samples kindly provided by St. Clair Scents; opinions are my own.

Fragrance Friday: St. Clair Scents’ Gardener’s Glove

Fragrance Friday: St. Clair Scents’ Gardener’s Glove

By now, regular readers know that I am a committed gardener as well as a lover of fragrance. One probably led to the other, as I favor scents with green, floral, or woody notes. I’ve had to educate myself about genres like gourmands, and they’re still not at the top of my list although I now know more of them. So many of my earliest memories involve the gardens of the houses where my family has lived, and the surrounding New England woods where my sisters and I played for hours. There were the small wildflower garden by the stream that ran through the back yard of the house where I spent my first seven years of life, and the bulbs my parents planted, and my father’s large vegetable garden. A large patch of lilies of the valley spread in the shade against one side of that first house. My American grandparents’ house had a small garden crammed with azaleas and dogwoods, and they owned a nearby plot that was my grandfather’s extensive vegetable garden, which provided bushels of food for them and others during the Great Depression. My grandmother was something of a “grande dame” of the local garden club and prided herself on her flower arranging, so there was also a cutting garden for the flowers she loved.

Later in my own childhood, at another house, there was a wide meadow between our house and that of the famous architect who sold my parents several acres of his woodland on which to build. There, my father’s vegetable gardening became more ambitious, as he fenced about 100 square feet against the predations of deer and woodchucks. I was his reluctant helpmeet in the vegetable patch, the obedient middle child who didn’t vanish when he headed outside, or who could be easily found reading a book in a tree (aka, “doing nothing”). So I learned to weed, pick beans that were ready, take up ripe tomatoes before the squirrels got them, pick raspberries without my hands getting shredded by thorns, and cut the gladioli my dad loved to plant along the edges of his beds when their buds were half open, so they could finish unfurling their parasols of bright colors indoors, in one of my mother’s vases. One year, I even had a little corner of my own in that garden, to grow herbs, after I became entranced with the idea from reading the books of Elizabeth Goudge, especially The White Witch.  The main character is an herbalist and healer, and the book has many descriptions of various herbs, their uses, and their fragrance. I took my blogger name and the name of my gardening blog from another book that inspired my love of gardening when I was a child: Old Herbaceous.

Illustration of vegetable garden

Vegetable garden; image from http://www.sitez.co

The meadow itself was full of native wildflowers like butterfly weed, which my father nurtured with a passion. Past the enclosed vegetable garden, a single pathway through the meadow was kept mowed, and it was the shortcut to the woods for us and other children, as well as the deer who gazed longingly through the enclosure at my father’s lettuces and other green delicacies. The rest of the meadow was mowed once a year, and only after the wildflowers’ seeds had ripened. This late summer mowing, which removes competing tree saplings and also helps spread the seeds, is also known in England as “the hay cut.” It was essential for a meadow like this, as the surrounding woods, including the native northern white cedar, did their best to encroach stealthily and steadily within its bounds.

Wildflower meadow with butterfly weed in Connecticut

Wildflower meadow with butterfly weed; image from www.vimeo.com

Gardener’s Glove evokes all of these memories, starting with its top note of tomato leaf absolute, a favorite of mine. As Diane St. Clair’s website for St. Clair Scents observes:

If you work amidst the thorn and bramble, you know that the gardener’s glove is a soft, pliable leather, worn down from work, in all the right places.

The scent carries the background fragrance of the glove—tanned, aged leather, woods and soil—along with the ambrosial elements of the garden—sumptuous jasmines, roses, green blossoms and ripe fruit.

Gardeners Glove artisanal fragrance by St. Clair Scents

Gardeners Glove, from St. Clair Scents; image from http://www.stclairscents.com

If you haven’t yet discovered St. Clair Scents, you are in for a treat. The scents are a small group (three, to date) of handcrafted artisanal fragrances made by Diane, who is a premier artisan of dairy products at her farm in Vermont. Diane became intrigued with perfume and embarked on a course of study with her mentor Eliza Douglas. These three fragrances are the result. Diane was kind enough to exchange a few emails with me, in which she said:

I am really trying to position myself as someone producing perfumes with the aroma and feel of nature, a sense (scents) of place, if you will, since I am lucky enough to live and work on a farm. I also try to give my scents a vintage feel, from the days when naturals made up the bulk of perfume formulas, rather than synthetics.

On the St. Clair Scents website, Diane writes:

As I have done in making artisanal, farmstead food, I am interested in creating scent in a similar fashion: producing it with an individual vision and in small batches using fine ingredients. My perfumes are bottled by hand, each one a work of art on its own.

And Gardener’s Glove is indeed a work of art. It opens with a bright, sunny, green burst of citrus (including bergamot, which smells green to me), tomato leaf, and galbanum. It smells like the sun on a vegetable garden, verdant with tomato plants and herbs. As it evolves, the floral notes emerge — linden, rose, lily, jasmine — but also more greenery, in the form of blackcurrant bud, and fruit via apricot. So this vegetable garden, like my father’s, includes flowers; it also has some flowering fruit trees, bushes, and vines, like a true French “potager”. If you’ve ever smelled a fresh, ripe apricot, warmed by the sun and just plucked, you will recognize the note, as light as it is here. A hint of roses in sunlight, a waft of jasmine, perhaps twining its way up a fence or a post, a breath of lilies, round out the heart. Those floral notes together with the linden also leave a strong impression of sweet honeysuckle.

The greenness continues into the drydown, with vetiver, patchouli, and fir needle, now mixing with the warmth lent by saffron and amber notes, but on my skin the dominant theme of the base is the soft, fragrant leather of a well-worn gardener’s glove. If you garden, you know that there is that one favorite pair of gloves, often leather or part leather, that just fits right, has worn well, is sturdy enough for any job. Such gloves often pick up the various scents of the garden: pruned clippings of green leaves and grass, juice from harvested fruits, fragrant blossoms trimmed from their stems and gathered for the house, sap  and resin from shrubs and tree branches, dark, fertile earth, well-aged compost; and those scents mingle with the softened leather of one’s favorite gloves.

Part leather garden gloves used to prune roses

Garden gloves; photo from http://www.nocry.com

That is what Gardener’s Glove smells like — heaven! Some of my favorite fragrance blogs have reviewed Gardener’s Glove very favorably. I especially liked this comment by Sam at “I Scent You A Day”:

Gardener’s Glove takes you on a tour of a garden: a true gardener’s garden, earth, twigs, leaves and all. It’s a wonderfully clever fragrance that reveals itself leaf by leaf.

Sam also pointed out that the fragrance contains “everything sappy, sharp and green that you can find in the garden”. Yes! Yes it does! And I love it. Kafkaesque, whom Diane consulted in the last stages of the scent’s development, offers her usual detailed description, and I agree with almost all of it, except that I don’t get the medicinal note that bothered her. Jessica, at “Now Smell This”, called Gardener’s Glove “a leathery floral, with a leather that’s soft and smooth rather than animalic or dirtied-up”, while acknowledging the earthiness brought by notes like vetiver and castoreum. Robert Hermann wrote, at “CaFleureBon”, that Gardener’s Glove “is a flat out masterpiece of a fragrance; a perfect marriage of the best of vintage perfumes shot through with a modern sensibility.”

I have to agree. I don’t think I’m qualified to say what fragrance is or isn’t a masterpiece, but Gardener’s Glove is wonderful, and a worthy companion to my beloved Dryad, with which it shares a number of notes, by another artisanal perfumer, Liz Moores of Papillon Artisan Perfumes. If Dryad is the wild woodland sprite, Gardener’s Glove is her more domesticated neighbor in the meadow adjoining the woods. I love them both.

Samples kindly provided by St. Clair Scents; views expressed are my own.