Hello friends — this week, I am seeking your advice! I will be in the South of France, and I’d love to know your thoughts on any particular fragrances that are easier or less expensive to get in France than in the US, or any special fragrance “explorations” I should pursue. I am already signed up for a perfume workshop at Parfum et Vous, and I can’t wait! I’ve been to Grasse before and have done one of the factory tours at Molinard (great fun and very instructive). Our group will be visiting Saint-Paul de Vence and Nice. I’ve visited Nice before and plan to wander in the markets there; I’ll probably bring home some of those lovely soaps. Any other suggestions? P.S. We will have one transfer in Charles de Gaulle airport, coming and going, but I don’t know how much time we’ll have there.
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.
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?
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.
Another bottle from my Collection Voyage of Miller Harris fragrances is Terre d’Iris. I like it very much but I don’t feel I fully understand it yet. Fragrantica says it “represents a fragrant journey around the Mediterranean. Calabria bergamot and Sicilian bitter orange open the composition leading to the heart of delicious southern herbs such as rosemary from Dalmatia and clary sage, followed by orange blossom and roses from Tunis and Turkey. The base is composed of patchouli, moss, French fir balsam and Florentine iris.”
I definitely get the opening citrus notes, bergamot and bitter orange. The bitter orange in particular is pleasant and strangely compelling. I generally like green fragrances, with their herbal notes, and although I wouldn’t describe Terre d’Iris as a green fragrance, it is certainly aromatic, with a little bite to its opening. Here is its “scent mosaic”, from the Miller Harris website:
It is important that one of the key notes is not just iris, but “Florentine iris.” Florentine iris is one of the few irises that is considered to be an herb, not just a beautiful flower. Rachel McLeod writes in NaturalLife: “The most important herbal use for irises to day is the use of the rhizomes from certain species to make orris root for use in perfumery and pot-pourri. Orris root has been one of the most important ingredients in any scent industry from as far back as the 15th century. The scent is rather like sweet violets but its real value is in its ability to fix other scents…. Orris root comes from three closely related irises – Iris germanica, Iris florentina and Iris pallida.”
Iris florentina is now known to be an ancient hybrid of iris germanica, or bearded iris. It has white flowers flushed with mauve. The flower itself is scented although the main value of this iris to perfumery is as a source of orris root and iris butter, which is painstakingly extracted over a period of years from the plant’s rhizomes. Iris florentina is grown mainly in Italy and southern France, but also throughout the Mediterranean, which is truly the “land of iris”, going back to the Egyptians whose use of iris can be documented. Van Gogh often painted iris flowers in Provence, such as the lovely “Field with Irises near Arles”, above, whose vibrant colors were restored in 2015 by stripping off old, yellowed varnish. Isn’t it clever, how the Miller Harris scent mosaic echoes the colors of the Van Gogh painting? You can still see fields of iris, both in Provence and in the Giardino dell’Iris in Florence, the city for which the iris flower has long been a symbol.
As Terre d’Iris dries down, what I smell is the sweetly carroty note that is supposed to be characteristic of orris root. It is not sugary at all; rather, it is the scent of a freshly dug and washed carrot after you bite into it, maybe even with a little dirt still clinging to it (I’m looking at you, oak moss!). I do not smell powder at all in Terre d’Iris, if you think of powdery as the cosmetic. Instead, there are more dry, earthy, woody, herbal tones that contrast with the citrus opening. If I had to describe the iris heart note using non-flowery words, I would say it is smooth and buttery.
Although my bottle came in a Collection Voyage “Pour Elle” set, Terre d’Iris is clearly a unisex scent, as it is described elsewhere. It may even lean a bit more toward masculine than feminine; it would smell marvelous on a man (really, I’m going to have to start experimenting with some of my fragrances on my husband!) while also smelling lovely on a woman. This is not a girlish fragrance. Very few floral notes, and the ones it has are not strongly present other than the subtle iris. They lend a smoothness and gentleness to the overall experience but I wouldn’t be able to tell that there was any rose in Terre d’Iris if it weren’t listed among the notes. The only fruit notes are in the astringent opening of bergamot and bitter orange.
Will Terre d’Iris become a go-to fragrance for me? Probably not, as I do love my flowers and floral notes. But this is a well-crafted and lovely fragrance that doesn’t smell like anything else out there. It becomes a skin scent pretty soon but I can still smell lingering traces of it on my wrist ten hours after application. I’m so glad to have this small bottle of it!