Gardener’s Glove, Frost, and First Cut encapsulate the philosophy and world of their creator, Diane St. Clair, who was profiled at length in Part I. On an olfactory level, they are nature-based bouquets (with roughly 80% natural raw materials or essences) that embody the smells of the world around her — the gardens, flowers, meadows, grass, hay, woods, and earth — but they are also extensions of her artisanal philosophy, a philosophy which has made her gastronomy and the Michelin world’s Queen of Butter:
I think people can feel drawn to artisanal fragrance for many of the same reasons they seek out artisanal foods. They want to feel connected to the person who is making the product, and they want to trust them and understand their intentions.
People who seek out my butter know that I am passionate about my farm and my cows, and it shows in the quality of the end product.
I want people who buy my fragrances to know the same thing. Smell, like taste, is such an amazing sense that not only helps us to survive, but also to enjoy life to the fullest. My scents allow me to share my environment and sensibility with others through the olfactory experience. I want my perfumes to be beautiful, high quality products that are reflective of the labor and the love that I put into them. It’s a personal message from me to those who wear them.
So let’s look at that “personal message” and the three fragrances up close.
As explained in Part I, Gardener’s Glove was revised after its debut in January, and one of the changes was to increase its concentration to 25% which therefore makes it an extrait or pure parfum by technical standards. (However, once again, I strongly suggest looking at it like a mid-range eau de parfum given the way that it wears.) St. Clair Scents describes the fragrance and its notes as follows:
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.
Top Notes: Meyer Lemon, Tomato Leaf Absolute, Galbanum, Bergamot
Middle Notes: Jasmine Sambac Absolute, Jasmine Organic Extract, Apricot, Black Currant Bud Absolute, Linden Blossom, Lily, Rose Absolute
Base Notes: Leather, Saffron, Patchouli, Ambers, Vetiver, Benzoin Resin, Castoreum, Fir Needle.
Gardener’s Glove opens on my skin with alternating waves of bright citrus, juicy red fruits, sweet florals, greenness, and spiced, leathery smoke. The initial wave consists of sweet Meyer lemons and plump berries that hint at being tart, musky cassis (blackcurrant). Right on their heels is indolic, fruity jasmine paired with lemony, honeyed red roses. Both waves pour and crash over a pitch-perfect rendition of an old, leather gardener’s glove. Large clumps of freshly cut grass and green moss lie across the glove’s fingers, while a pinch of dark earth rests under its palm.
Like twin photographs presented in both micro and macro/broad-view settings, there are different elements to Gardener’s Glove depending on whether you smell the fragrance up close or from afar. From afar, all the opening notes and accords meld into one solid entity, the titular glove, with various parts of the garden smeared in broad, almost impressionistic strokes across its structure, from the juice of recently pruned flowers to the red fruits, soil, grass and greenness around them. Up close, however, the glove clearly wafts smoky, spicy saffron (Safraleine) and smoky leather which, on my skin, smells like a mix of birch tar and isobutyl quinoline.
The big picture encapsulation is even stronger when you apply only a small scent application because, then, the individual components blur completely out of focus on my skin. With only a few light smears amounting to roughly 1 spray from a bottle, one has the sense of red fruits, grass, sweet florals, earth, and an abstract, quasi-mossy-ish greenness, but the individual components are much less distinct or clearly delineated. They’re presented in broad, impressionistic brush strokes which build up to and form a larger goal: a perfect rendition of a well-worn gardener’s glove which is only softly imbued with the scent of its toil in a garden filled with fruits, citruses, flowers, and greenness.
Regardless of quantity application, one thing appears on my skin in all instances and it’s also the one thing which stops me from falling in love with the fragrance as others have done. It’s a by-product of one of the two saffron materials used to create the central leather note, possibly the Safranine, and it smells just like antiseptic or rubbing alcohol on my skin. It appears in every one of my tests right at the outset and grows quite pronounced (to my nose) during the fragrance’s main stage when the leather takes over as the dominant element. It ruins the fragrance for me, but I have a peculiar sensitivity to certain aromachemicals as you all know and no-one else seems to have detected it, so I doubt it would be apparent to most people if they tried the fragrance.
Moving on, what’s interesting to me about Gardener’s Glove is how the individual notes coalesce to create very different aromas than what is mentioned in the note list. Not once have I ever detected linden blossom in any way; the tomato leaf doesn’t smell like any sort that I’ve encountered in other fragrances with that material; and the galbanum is quite different, too. I’m not terribly keen on either green note as a general rule, but galbanum is actually one of my least favourite things in perfumery because it’s often so biting, green-black, immensely cold, and bearing a cutting sharpness. Tomato leaf can be overly herbal, astringent, aromatic, or sharp as well.
Neither holds true here. Something about the combination of notes or Ms. St. Clair’s handling of them transforms the green elements, softening their edges, and creating quite a different set of aromas. Instead of anything approaching the cold, brusque, abrasive galbanum greenness in Bandit or Chanel No. 19, there is a sense of sun-warmed plush mosses, green grass, floral green sap, fresh leaves, and even a piquant, slightly peppery ivy-like note. When I spoke to Ms. St. Clair about it, she guessed that it may be the indirect impact of the linden blossom tempering the tomato leaf and galbanum, or some other combination of elements. Whatever the particular reason, for a fragrance which has no actual oakmoss or grass, there is a very strong sense of both in Gardener’s Glove.
I love the naturalism of the net effect and the very chypre-like quality that runs through the opening stage, but what I love most about Gardener’s Glove is another clever sleight-of-hand recreation: honeysuckle. As a technical matter, “honeysuckle” is not a flower which can be distilled into an essential oil for perfumery, and perfume notes by that name are usually mixed accords constructed from other materials (typically jasmine with some fruit notes or other elements) or else they’re made out of terrible, thin, rather inauthentic synthetics.
I’m being quite serious when I say that the note in the revised Gardener’s Glove is the single best and most authentic, naturalistic “honeysuckle” that I have ever encountered. Simply exceptional. (It’s also in Frost, although in significantly more muted, anemic fashion.) While it was pretty in the original Gardener’s Glove, it’s been strengthened, heightened, and deepened here in the revised version and the result is quite head-turning. Sweet, liquidy, delicately fruity, and completely heady (in the very best sense of that word), this is “honeysuckle” the way you smell it in nature when it is growing in lush abundance. It was so authentic-smelling and rich that I wrote to Ms. St. Clair to ask if she’d somehow stumbled across an actual honeysuckle essential oil. She laughed and said, no, it was an accord which she’d constructed out of jasmine, the apricot, and something else. She’s also clearly used some top-grade raw materials because the “honeysuckle” is beautifully smooth and deep, too. Yes, you can clearly smell the jasmine within it (as well as separately), but the sum-total effect is of more than just jasmine alone and it works like a beautiful bridge between that and the rose.
Gardener’s Glove shifts slowly but quite noticeably within the first hour. Roughly 10-15 minutes in, the citrus and fruity notes dissolve, losing their separate shape and melting into the rose, as though they were simply a natural corollary of that flower’s innate lemony, fruity, jammy facets. In other words, instead of smelling Meyer lemon, cassis, or red berries, you’re left with a rich, heady, multi-faceted and completely naturalistic rose that smells as though it were blooming in a garden. The various green and patchouli earth notes dissolve in a similar fashion, although it takes longer (roughly 30-35 minutes in). The result here, too, creates a 3-D rose, because they replicate the leaves, grass, and earth in which the flower grows. Around the same time, at the 30-minute mark, the jasmine blooms, the sense of a separate “honeysuckle” note grows stronger, and the smoky, spiced, saffron-scented leather retreats to the sidelines.
The cumulative effect changes both Gardener’s Glove scent and its emphasis as the first hour draws to a close and the second begins. The fragrance is no longer a verbatim rendition of a leather glove lightly imbued with the fruits of its labour but, instead, a floral-centric scent. Almost a literal bouquet, in fact: an armful of roses, honeysuckle, and jasmine pulled straight from the ground and held together by a thin, dark ribbon made out of smoky, spicy leather. Bits of grass, earth, leaves, and moss cling to the flowers but, like that leather ribbon, they’re secondary or tertiary factors which merely serve to emphasize the naturalism of the main floral bouquet.
Once again, the fragrance structure calls to mind a photographer presenting both a panoramic overview and a close-up, and the picture changes depending on how much scent you apply and whether you smell the fragrance up close or on the scent trail from a distance. Ms. St. Clair has structured and composed her fragrances by building on accords, weaving them seamlessly to convey a particular image but, if you don’t pay close attention and, in particular, if you don’t apply enough fragrance (say, generous smears amounting to roughly 2.5 good sprays from a bottle on a single patch of skin), then the image is a misleadingly simple one. You have to apply a good-sized amount of scent, in my opinion, to see the finer details (or notes), and sometimes sniff up close as well. Otherwise, you’re left with a rather impressionistic, panoramic bouquet. Basically, it’s the modern approach to perfumery and to fragrance construction, one made popular by Jean-Claude Ellena and adopted since then by a whole host of famous noses.
Another nose also repeatedly comes to mind when I smell the revised Gardener’s Glove: Bertrand Duchaufour. Something about the revised scent (with its new 25% parfum concentration) makes me think of the paradoxical airy but strong and rich weightlessness that is such a Duchaufour signature. When combined with the fragrance’s moderate-to-discreet sillage, its polish, seamless blending, and its mix of rich florals offset by streaks of darkness, I’m also reminded of his eau de parfums for Neela Vermeire Creations. There is no Indian or oriental element here, but Gardener’s Glove has the same contrasting mixes found in many NVC fragrances: light and dark; airy lightness combined with strength; simplicity accompanied by meticulously layered subtle details; and effortless chic which is also very easy to wear.
Yet, regardless of how much scent one applies, Gardener’s Glove eventually grows blurrier as it develops and, more importantly, its focal emphasis also changes quite significantly. If the opening stage during the first 30 minutes were a literal gardener’s glove before gradually transitioning into a floral bouquet at the end of the first hour, the next stage merges the two to result in a floral leather.
This stage typically starts about 90 minutes into the fragrance’s development when the saffron leather leaves the sidelines and sweeps over center stage, engulfing the rose, jasmine, and honeysuckle in a sea of darkness. Swirls of smoke, both leathery and of the woody variety, are followed by dry woods, patchouli, and dark resins which, together, form a central, dominating spiced, smoky black leather accord. Fruity red roses and syrupy honeysuckle-like jasmine are subsumed within, along with a hazier, quieter grassy-mossy green accord. These individual parts are relatively clear at the 90-minute mark, but they become harder to pull out as the fragrance progresses. (Even more so if you only apply a small, light amount of scent.)
By the end of the second hour and start of the third, Gardener’s Glove is a full-on dark, smoky, spiced leather on my skin. Streaks of largely abstract sweet florals ripple within and there continues to be a muted touch of greenness (now wholly abstract), but the focus is undeniably on the leather. I’d estimate that it makes up as much as 75% of the bouquet. (My difficulty with this phase is the prominence of the Safranine or Safraleine’s antiseptic alcohol side on my skin but, again, I would be surprised if most people could detect it. Plus, even if they did, few people share my aromachemical issues.)
At the end of the 4th hour and the start of the 5th, Gardener’s Glove changes again. The florals fade away, leaving only a small puddle of syrupy sweetness atop the leather which is now extremely dry. As a result, it is somewhat masculine in feel, similar to the sort of leather which you find in Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather, Dior’s Leather Oud, and Armani Privé’s Cuir Noir (which is also a Safraleine leather).
This is essentially the first part of the drydown on my skin, and Gardener’s Glove only changes slightly when the second half begins late in the 8th hour. At that point, the smoke and dryness finally weaken, leaving a softer, mellower spiced leather. Occasionally, the fragrance’s texture bears a quiet, creamy plushness about it, almost like a suggestion of floral-speckled suede, but it is a subtle quality and a will o’ the wisp in the face of the main note, the spicy leather. In its final hours, though, the leather dissolves, leaving only amorphous darkness with vestiges of smoke and spice about it.
Gardener’s Glove’s sillage, projection, and longevity depend wholly on how much scent I apply but, as a whole, the fragrance performs and feels like an airy, moderate, mid-range eau de parfum, not a parfum. If I apply generous smears amounting to roughly 2 to 2.5 big sprays from an actual bottle on a single 3-inch patch of skin, or between 1/4th and 1/5th of a 1 ml vial, the fragrance opens with about 2 inches of projection and about 6 to 7 inches of sillage. After 90 minutes, the sillage drops to roughly 4 inches and the projection to about an inch. 4.75 hours in, the sillage is close to the body and the projection hovers above the skin, although the fragrance doesn’t turn into an actual skin scent until the 7.75 hour mark. In total, it lasts around 12.5 or 13 hours.
The numbers are lower with a small fragrance quantity. If I apply a few light smears amounting to a bit more than 1 spray from an actual bottle, say one and half spritzes, then the opening projection is around 1 to 1.5 inches and the sillage is around 4 to 5 inches. At the 90-minute mark, the projection hovers above the skin and the sillage is closer to the body. Roughly 4.75 hours in, Gardener’s Glove becomes a skin scent. It lasts just under 8.75 hours in total.
Frost is a tribute to the poet, Robert Frost and, according to the St. Clair website, it follows the story of his poem, “To Earthward,” which:
describes the transformation of youthful love, from “sweet like the petals of the rose” and “sprays of honeysuckle” to painful love, which stings like “bitter bark”, “burning clove” and “rough earth.”
The official note list is:
Top Notes: Bergamot, Mandarin Yellow and Green, Coriander, Petitgrain sur fleur, Meyer Lemon
Middle Notes: Honeysuckle Accord, Rose Geranium, Elderflower Absolute, Petitgrain Absolute
Base Notes: Cistus, Labdanum Absolute, Vanilla Absolute, Vetiver, Cedar, Smoke, Clove Absolute.
Frost was strengthened in mid-March to 20% concentration. Technically, that puts it in parfum or extrait territory, though some might argue that it is at the end point for an eau de parfum on the spectrum. (I would.) Whatever the technical definition, I find that even 20% Frost wears, acts, and feels like a light eau de toilette or perhaps a robust, strong cologne. (To be specific, something like one of the old, vintage Guerlain colognes which has grown stronger by virtue of concentration over the decades.) Bottom line, please do not expect an extrait in either weight or performance, or you’ll be disappointed.
Frost opens on my skin with a beautiful juxtaposition of light and dark that strongly and repeatedly reminds me of Mona di Orio‘s signature Chiaroscuro style. A slew of crisp, bright, cool citruses — half sweet, half sour in aroma — are slathered over sour, green-pink, fruity roses, and then the whole thing is overlaid with a filter of darkness.
The dark filter is the driving element on my skin and I love it, although, interestingly, it doesn’t closely match what’s on the actual note list. On my skin, it smells of: cade, birch tar, wood smoke, burnt wood, citrusy-bitter wood, bitter cloves, other dark spices (rather nutmeg-like in aroma) and a generous heaping of dry, spiced, patchouli-laden earth. The official text description of “bitter bark,” “rough earth,” and “burning clove” are definitely there, but I don’t detect conventional vetiver or cedar on my skin in any clear, distinct fashion; the petitgrain is a quiet, blurry suggestion subsumed within a different sort of wooded notes at this point; the florals usually smell more like actual roses rather than rose geranium; and the main olfactory woods actually resemble cade and birch tar instead. Nothing in Frost’s note list includes patchouli or nutmeg, but their scent wafts from my skin nevertheless. In fact, the sense of earthy-woody “patchouli” is significantly stronger and more defined than the petitgrain.
Frost shifts quickly and often. About 10-12 minutes in, the various citrus notes are pushed into the background where they float about in small wisps. Unless I smell my arm up close, they act more like occasional, impressionistic suggestions rather than crisp, clearly defined notes. 15 minutes in, the sour, fruity, green roses morph into rose geranium and retreat to the sidelines where they form a fringe of floral-leafy greenness that encircles the dark accord. The latter is increasingly voluminous, building in strength and presence and billowing out fantastic gusts of rich clove-nutmeg spices, sweet-dry black earth, green-woody patchouli, and aromatic logs of cade/birch wood charred by flames in a campfire.
Around 35 to 40 minutes in, a new arrival joins the ring of leafy greenness created by the rose geranium on the sidelines: a purely floral accord consisting of honeysuckle, jasmine, and roses. The flowers are not fresh and juicy but, rather, wizen and dried, as if all the moisture had been sucked out of them by the charred woods smoke and dried spices. Personally, I think the florals could have been amped up much further so that they were robust and less timid. As it stands, I find them to be demure, diaphanous, and soft — both in weight and presence. It’s as though they were impressionistic abstractions painted in very diluted watercolours as a light wash over the dark spicy-earthy-woody accord which covers the canvas in rich acrylics and oils. It’s a stylistic choice and, while it creates an interesting juxtaposition of light and dark, sheer and heavy, I personally prefer a bolder, more clearly delineated, and more concrete approach to note presentation. (Plus, I’ve never been one for the impressionistic style of perfumery, as anyone who has read my comments about Jean-Claude Ellena and his creations knows full well.)
Frost shifts again as the first hour draws to a close. The petitgrain wood, the background bergamot-yuzu notes, the rose geranium’s leafy greenness, and the increasingly abstract floral accord all fuse together. Together, they ripple softly and lightly like a bright, fresh breeze across a landscape which is now dominated to a singular degree by dark, spicy, clove-covered woods, with dark patchouli earth and wood smoke layered within. It is, once again, a chiaroscuro approach which juxtaposes thin, soft streaks of light against broad swathes of darkness.
Gradually, inch by inch, the landscape blurs, the clarity of individual accords dissolves, and everything melds together into a single impressionistic bouquet. Around the 90-minute mark, it’s a simple clove-earthy-woody scent smudged ever so faintly and lightly at its edges with citrus, smoke, and a drop of syrupy floral sweetness.
That landscape dissolves in the middle of the third hour when Frost changes direction once more and, in the most simplistic terms, morphs into something far more leathery in nature. I’m guessing that the “leather” impression derives from whatever smells so much like cade or birch tar on my skin, and the way it interacts with the other elements (particularly the resins) to approximate something much close to leather than mere woodiness. But whatever the technical source and reason, the overall emphasis is now on spiced, clove-ish, smoky, wood-laced leather rather than on cloven, earthy, citrus-floral-flecked woods.
Once again though, just as with Gardener’s Glove, Frost has more nuances the more scent I apply. With a light application, the fragrance is not only softer and lighter but also simple and blurred in its layers; its clove, wood, smoke, and leather are painted in the broadest swathes. However, with a heavier, larger scent application, more facets come into view, though they can be soft and I sometimes have to put my nose right on my arm to detect them. But, if I do, then I can detect: slivers of orange and the petitgrain wood on which they grow; something vaguely approximating fruity jasmine sambac and its floral syrup; green patchouli leaves; and large clumps of greenness which smells like both the rose geranium flower and its fuzzy green leaves. If I dig my nose deep into my arm, close my eyes, and really focus, there are even whispers of vetiver grass and vetiver earth.
With a really large quantity of fragrance, like emptying almost half the vial on one 3-inch patch of skin, things come into extremely sharp focus. With that amount, roughly 3.5 hours in, all these accents swirl around a lovely, enticing bouquet that is centered on spicy, sweet, smoky leather which is coated with red roses and lush honeysuckle, then placed atop a bed of earthy, green and spicy patchouli along with smoked birch woods and dark, ambery resins (both toffee’d labdanum and its greener-smelling, more leathery cistus cousin).
Everything changes when the drydown begins, usually 4.25 hours to 4.75 hours into Frost’s development. If I apply a generous amount, the completely blurry bouquet is typically dominated by a citrusy, vaguely petitgrain-ish woodiness with soft ripples of earthy spices, smoke, and abstract floralcy woven within. Sometimes, however, the emphasis is on a citrusy floralcy, in which case, this time, it’s the woodiness which is buried within. Plus, there is only a pinch of earthy spices.
A third version appears when I apply only a small, light quantity of scent, and it’s a bouquet which is almost impossible to figure out except for the fact that it is primary citric in character. There are the occasional hints of an abstract woodiness trailed by even more elusive, abstract will o’ the wisps which hint at being flowers, greenness, or spice but, really, that’s a guess. Everything is extremely difficult to pin down. Frankly, the problem is that is Frost is so light, discreet, thin, and anemic on my skin at this stage that all but one of its specifics ends up being nondescript and amorphous.
That one exception is the citrus, and it is the common link between all three drydown bouquets regardless of how much or how little scent I apply. I’m guessing that it’s because Frost includes six materials which are either actual citruses or that have citrus-related facets: bergamot, yellow and green mandarin, coriander, petitgrain sur fleur, Meyer lemon, and petitgrain absolute.
To be clear, nothing in Frosts’s drydown wafts endless lemon or mandarin on my skin. No, it is always citrus wrapped around other aromas — either woody or floral ones, or sometimes both — and with tiny, gossamer curlicues of spice, earth, smoke, and greenness weaving faintly around the background. The net effect is okay, but it doesn’t blow me away, perhaps because neither citrus nor petitgrain is my favourite note whereas I’m a big fan of cloves, patchouli, and campfire smoke aromas and I really enjoyed the autumnal, chiaroscuro-like, spiced-woody bouquet presented earlier.
Frost becomes even harder to dissect as its drydown continues. To be quite frank, by the end of the 6th hour and start of the 7th, when the fragrance turns into a skin scent, I’m not sure exactly what I’m smelling other than the fact that there is a citrusy component to it. I think. I wouldn’t bet money on it. There are occasional suggestions of something woody and/or spicy lurking deep down, but I wouldn’t bet money on their existence either. The only thing clear to me is that I’m wearing something scented. While I think it hints at a citrus-related aroma, everything, including that, is far too discreet, diaphanous, amorphous, and indeterminate for me to pin it down with any confidence or certainty. And this indeterminacy lasts all the way through to Frost’s final moments.
The drydown is a nutshell representation of my larger difficulties with Frost when I take it as a whole and from start to finish. For my tastes, it is too abstractly, lightly, and modestly drawn in its notes, and it is also too discreet, light, and soft in how it performs for something with 20% concentration. On the other hand, it would be fine for a cologne or light eau de toilette done in the Jean-Claude Ellena style of soft, sheer minimalism. In fact, I’ve tried some eau de toilettes and so-called, alleged “eau de parfums” (snort) from Ellena which act, feel, and perform in much the same way as Frost. They’re not my thing, but I’m in a minority and I know countless people who adore precisely this style of perfumery. Similarly, quite a few Italian brands opt for streamlined simplicity and lightness in their bouquets, often including a strong citrus component as well. I was thinking specifically of some Nobile 1942 eau de toilettes or Santa Maria Novella colognes. Again, not my thing, but very popular in some quarters, particularly during the hot summer months.
If one views Frost as a strong cologne or a soft eau de toilette, then its performance is pretty good. Not so much for 20% concentration, though. Using several smears, roughly equal to 1/5th of a vial or 2 very large sprays from an actual bottle on the same patch of skin, Frost opens with about 2 inches of projection and about 5 inches of sillage. The numbers begin to drop incrementally after the first hour. 2.75 hours in, the projection is between 0.5 and 1 inch while the sillage is close to the body, unless I move my arm around my nose. The sillage becomes an intimate whisper 3.75 hours in. Frost turns into a skin scent at the start of the 7th hour, although it’s still detectable if I put my nose on my arm. By middle of the 8th hour, however, I have to really dig my nose in to detect its presence. If I continue to exert effort, then I can tell that Frost clings on tenaciously (but wispily) until around the 9.25-hour mark, but it really does require some effort.
When one applies a small quantity of scent, roughly equal to a single good spray, the numbers are obviously lower. In a nutshell, the projection is generally low; the opening scent trail is soft and then turns hushed after 2 hours; and the weight of the fragrance is extremely light and sheer. Frost becomes a skin scent (and citrusy blur) at the end of the 4th hour. It’s overall longevity is typically around 7.5 hours.
I love several aspects of Frost’s first few hours, but scent is a subjective and personal thing and, if you’ve read me for any amount of time, you know that my personal tastes skew heavily in the direction of powerhouses, vintage heavyweights, or super-rich attars. In short, fragrances whose heft and operatic boldness of character would make them well-suited to an accompanying score of Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries” (or the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now). Neither the modern minimalist or impressionistic style nor the (unbearable) lightness of being are my personal thing.
They are, however, so many other people’s thing. Witness the popularity of the Ellena’s style and how widely its been adopted by others. On top of that, there is always much demand for light fragrances, either for conservative office environments or for the hot, sticky summer months. And I can’t count the number of men who write to me to ask for citrusy fresh, spicy, woody scents. Well, if you fall into both those categories, then Frost will be right up your alley.
As I wrote in Part I, the final St. Clair release, First Cut, is a fougère-chypre-hay fragrance which plants you right in the great outdoors on a sunny day. The composition, which has not been revised, has 17% concentration and is described as follows:
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
First Cut opens on my skin with a light, airy, crisp bouquet redolent of a citrus and herb garden growing near lush, verdant meadows on a sunny day in early summer. There is tart, tangy, grapefruit-like yuzu paired with brisk, refreshing, lemony bergamot, both of which are splashed generously over a large mound of herbal aromatics. Fresh basil and rosemary are layered in-between sheaves of green, quietly astringent tomato leaves and a small bunch of aromatic, herbal, faintly sweet lavender.
Something about the combination continuously calls to mind old, classic Guerlain fragrances, specifically, the early stages and top notes in vintage Jicky and Eau de Cologne Impériale, both of which combine several different sorts of citruses with rosemary and lavender. In fact, Basenotes claims Jicky had basil in addition to those other elements in its original formulation, though I don’t recall ever detecting it in any versions that I’ve tried.
However, there are important differences between First Cut and those classic fougères or citrusy colognes, starting with the fact that First Cut is greener, and significantly so at that. What Ms. St. Clair has done here is very clever, in my opinion. First, she’s taken the classic Guerlainesque fougère combination of herbs, citruses, and lavender and given it a fresh, modernized twist by including copious amounts of tomato leaf to turn it very green. Then, she’s paired it with an equally modernized upgrade on the traditional chypre, weaving the two together seamlessly for something more interesting, something that feels new and original. I can’t recall the last time I encountered a fougère-chypre hybrid, but it certainly wasn’t in recent memory.
While First Cut fuses the two fragrance families into one during the opening stage, the balance of notes and focal emphasis definitely skews to the neo-chypre side on my skin because a slew of greenness surrounds the citrus-herbal-lavender accord on all sides, a greenness which is lightly dappled with other colours and notes. There is: red from a soft spurt of sweet roses and red-green from a more lively burst of rose geraniums; cream from sweet hay; gold from a drop of immortelle; and brown-black from a soft touch of tobacco. These accents are judiciously and fluidly blended within an all-encompassing sea of emerald composed out of oakmoss, the aforementioned tomato leaf, and also from what feels like flouve (a material that smells like grass as well as coumarin and hay).
The net effect is, simultaneously, both a micro and a macro olfactory snapshot. If you pay close attention, apply enough fragrance, and sniff closely, you can smell each of those components, albeit to varying degrees and some more so than others. But, like the other two St. Clair scents, First Cut has been composed in such a way that you’re mostly struck by the wide-lens panoramic picture and broader landscape. Ms. St. Clair told me once that she doesn’t want people to think about note lists or accords but just to feel her fragrances and to be transported to the world that she’s trying to create. First Cut is the ultimate example of that because, for all the clever, technical modernization of classical strains and for all the delicate brushstrokes of different notes, what you’re really left with is a (misleadingly) simple picture which transports you straight into her world: a garden lying adjacent to a country meadow where a soft breeze carries a delicate citrus, herbal, lavender, and floral rose bouquet, the grass grows fresh and crunchy under your feet, and bales of sweet hay lie drying on the soft earth.
This portion of First Cut shares a few similarities with two all-natural fragrances which also have a nature-based bouquet and chypre-ish character: Aftelier‘s Bergamoss and AbdesSalaam Attar‘s Muschio/Tarzan/Oakmoss for his La Via de Profumo. Like both of those fragrances, First Cut is a warm, sun-dappled interpretation of green meadows and fields, sprinkled lightly with citrus. The feel and vision they seek to evoke are very much the same. The notes and olfactory nuances, however, are not. On my skin, First Cut is more fougère-laced, fractionally more floral thanks to the rose/rose geranium combination, more herbal and aromatic, and sweeter.
By “sweeter,” I do not mean any heavy sweetness, and most certainly not anything artificial, cloying, or in your face. Rather, it’s a purely naturalistic sweetness, the sort you’d find in nature when roses seep their nectar or fresh fruits have turned ripe and been drizzled with a bit of honey. Initially, the sweetness is merely a hushed whisper, but it grows more noticeable 30 minutes in when the vanilla, immortelle, and hay slowly seep up from the base and trickle over the citrus-fougère-chypre bouquet. The base notes are beautiful together, creating the image of sweet summer hay lightly coated with vanilla-honey maple syrup, then generously splashed with bright, fresh grapefruit and lemon.
Everything is fluid, so seamlessly blended and in such judicious quantities that the various accords flow breezily one into the next. One minute I’m struck by the rose-rose geranium accord layered between the oakmoss-grass-louve waves of greenness; the next, it’s all about the hay, immortelle, citrus, and sweetness. One minute the lavender is crystal clear and strong; the next it’s merely a muted ripple within the hay, immortelle, and vanilla. Both the notes and the broader accords flow like waves, waxing and waning, sometimes individually clear but usually indivisible from the larger panoramic picture which is being painted here. As I said before, it’s a micro and macro snapshot of life in the country.
But if you only smell First Cut from afar and, much more importantly, if you don’t apply a generous amount of scent, then the minute brushstrokes and details dissolve, resulting in an impressionistic and overly simplified overview. I’ve tested First Cut with different quantity applications and it makes a big difference to both the “picture” which is being presented and the feel/performance of the scent. The smaller the scent application, the simpler, more abstract, duller, and flatter the picture becomes; the more the accords turn into blurry, impressionistic swathes; and the lighter, quieter, and softer the scent becomes. Conversely, the larger the amount, the clearer the photo, the crisper the focus, the more the fine points are revealed in a sort of close-up, and the stronger the sillage.
First Cut changes direction and focal emphasis as it develops. The herbs and chypre-like greenness retreat to the background when the second stage begins, which is typically anywhere between the 45-minute mark and the 75-minute one, depending on how much fragrance I apply. The focal emphasis shifts towards the hay, slick with the sweetness of citrus-vanilla-immortelle syrup and interspersed with freshly cut grass.
The lavender tends to be a noticeable secondary note during this stage as well, though the degree and extent of its role varied in tests, depending on the size of the scent application. As a general rule, however, it vied with the grass for third place behind the central hay and immortelle-citrus-vanilla duet. As most of you probably know, the scent of hay is a hallmark characteristic of coumarin, a material classically used in the base of fougères, so its inclusion here with the lavender and citrus continues the fougère theme. However, I want to reassure those of you not keen on either that fragrance family or lavender itself that First Cut still feels like a very different genre of perfumery to me. For one thing, the lavender is hardly a driving force in the composition but, rather, a quiet accent and, sometimes, rather a will o’ the wisp accent at that. For another, there are still touches of the mossy chyprish and floral/rose elements in the background, even if they’re so soft that I sometimes have to dig my nose into my arm to detect them.
At the end of the second hour and start of the third, tobacco arrives, joining the main notes on center stage, and beginning the transition to a complete different stage in First Cut’s development. At this point, though, the tobacco is only a tertiary element and the vast majority of the scent bouquet continues to emphasize the hay, honeyed immortelle, and vanilla. I would say the latter accord makes up perhaps as much as 80% of the bouquet; 10% comes from the tobacco (which occasionally has a nice boozy undertone to it, probably due to the impact of the immortelle and vanilla); and the remaining 10% consists of lavender, vetiver-ish grasses, and oakmoss.
I must say, I found the mix of hay, immortelle, and vanilla, lightly flecked with soft streaks of tobacco and lavender, to be extremely enticing. It reminded me of the accord at the heart of Serge Lutens‘ Chergui, back in the old days before it was gutted and badly reformulated. That said, I must emphasize that First Cut isn’t an oriental scent in any way. Aesthetically, and in terms of general vibe, it’s closer to Dusita‘s Issara during its second hour, before the overwhelming laundry/white musk floods over it. On my skin, Issara’s second stage has loads of hay, grass, and sweet tonka coumarin, as well as lingering touches of lavender and some tobacco, so it may be a closer fit in some ways than Chergui.
Even so, crazy as it may be, it is Old Chergui that I keep thinking about, particularly once First Cut’s tobacco grows prominent about 3.5 hours in. Chergui is darker, drier, purely oriental, and replete with amber and incense to go along with its tobacco, hay, honey, and vanillic tonka/coumarin, but it is those last four notes which always made me sniff my arm convulsively with Chergui and the accord which dominates First Cut’s heart stage smells so much like it on my skin. Okay, the tobacco is not at the same levels as in Chergui because it is always the hay which is the overriding element here, not the tobacco, but still, that’s a mere question of degree, not a wholesale difference in kind.
The tobacco’s surge to prominence at the 3.5-hour mark signifies the end of the transition period and the full start of First Cut’s long heart stage. All lingering traces of oakmoss, citrus, or lavender disappear; the vanilla pipes up a little more in a distinct, solo fashion; while the immortelle is now indivisibly fused with the hay. The vanilla’s stronger role is significant because it transforms the tobacco. Whereas once it veered in aroma between a sort of fragrant sweet-dryness and the rawer, green leaf variety, it is now sweeter and richer, a little bit like the vanilla-laced pipe tobacco one finds in Tobacco Vanille (only this is not cloying) but even more so like the honeyed, tonka-hay-infused tobacco in Chergui.
First Cut changes when its drydown begins roughly 5.75 hours into its development.The tobacco retreats to the background and silky waves of creaminess take its place. I find it quite paradoxical how the fragrance’s body and weight are so sheer at this point and, yet, its bouquet is positively plush with cream. I think it’s due to an actual perfume material, as opposed to being merely a textural impression or a side-effect of any coumarin/tonka, because I recall Ms. St. Clair telling me about a particular element she used in one of the other fragrances to create a streak of creaminess. Though I can’t recall now what it was, the technical source doesn’t really matter because all you need to know is that First Cut turns creamier and creamier in its drydown, smelling like honeyed suede, vanilla cream, and creamy hay. Interestingly, there is now more vanilla than hay. A shade more “honey” from the immortelle, too. While the tobacco quietly licks the background edges, it’s an increasingly minor touch and it disappears entirely a few hours later.
There is little change from this point forth. In its final hours, Final Cut is a simple blur of creamy, honeyed sweetness with an occasional whisper of hay lurking underneath.
In terms of longevity, First Cut acts just like a light eau de toilette on my skin while its sillage and projection are akin to that of a strong, enriched cologne. The actual numbers, performance, and feel are very similar to that of Frost, which is only 3% higher in concentration. Basically, you should expect low projection, low to fair sillage, and longevity that is totally dependent on the amount of scent you apply. With such generous, repeated smears amounting to roughly 2.5 big spritzes from an actual bottle, all on a single 3-inch patch of skin, I managed to get roughly 8.5 or 8.75 hours out of First Cut. Even so, the sillage became discreet after only 1.75 hours and First Cut basically became a skin scent 4.25 hours in. When I used the equivalent of 3 sprays on the same area, I bumped up the numbers by 60-90 minutes but, when I used less, say the equivalent of 1 good spray, then First Cut was frustratingly elusive and anemic.
On a purely olfactory basis, I enjoy many parts of First Cut, but its performance and behavior are exceedingly frustrating to someone like me. I love attars and Valkyrie powerhouses, and I’ll add “discreetness” to my earlier pun about the unbearable lightness of being. But those issues are wholly subjective and personal matters of taste preference; they have no bearing on the objective issue of whether a fragrance is well made. And First Cut, like the others, definitely is.
My advice is to think of First Cut as a light, fresh, summery, moderate-level eau de toilette or, if you apply only a moderate amount of scent, as a cologne. Either way, it’s the sort of thing which wouldn’t make waves in a conservative or anti-perfume office environment, and it would also be a good choice for people who want something light, fresh, crisp, and cheerful for the hot, sticky summer months. Given the very bucolic, agrarian, and nature-based aromas which First Cut encapsulates, I think it would also work well for someone who preferred their scent to be naturalistic in aroma, rather than anything overtly “perfume-y.”
ALL IN ALL & FINAL THOUGHTS:
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I cannot emphasize enough how much ALL THREE St. Clair fragrances perform better, last longer, feel stronger, and have more complexity and nuance with a hefty scent application. I’m not talking about two sprays divided between different body parts. I’m talking about generous splashes or large amounts per part. Gardener’s Glove may have initially moderate sillage, but even that becomes soft after a few hours. And the rest are definitely on the discreet side.
Be that as it may, I think it might help to think of the fragrances as though they were all-natural ones in the way that they perform and feel. The trio is generally about 80% natural, though it feels to me as though the figure would probably be higher for Frost and First Cut. If one compares them to all-natural brands like Aftelier or La Via del Profumo, it creates a different perspective. Like those brands, the St. Clair scents feel naturalistic, but they are also stronger, more present, and better lasting, in my opinion. (Significantly more so than Aftelier stuff. I’d be lucky to get 4 or 5 hours from many of her fragrances, even if I douse myself. Similarly, AbdesSalaam’s fragrances usually lasts around 6 hours.) A closer comparison might be to April Aromatics, another all-natural brand from whom I get roughly similar sillage as the St. Clair trio and decent to good longevity if I apply a large amount. When viewed in the context of these other brands, then the St. Clair numbers might not be an issue for some perfumistas.
I want to briefly change gears and discuss international shipping. On Tuesday, St. Clair Scents changed its website to offer it. I had thought they did when I wrote Part I, but I had misunderstood something that Ms. St. Clair had previously told me and had to amend my post. As some of you learnt when you tried to order, there was only shipping to Canada. But that’s all changed now. The company will ship to the EU and beyond. I hope that’s of some help, since all the fragrances are fairly priced for the quality of the materials and the scents in question: $65 a bottle. Personally, I’m going to hold off until Ms. St. Clair’s next release which has blown my socks off in mod form and which I’ll be the first to buy when it’s released.
The reason why I bring that up is not to be obnoxious or smug but because it bears on a larger point regarding this trio, the talent behind them, and the fact that tiny indie start-up companies often require a little time to find their footing. I genuinely think Ms. Clair has talent paired with technical skill, and I think both things will grow in time as she develops. One of my main problems with the original fragrances that I tested was their timidity in notes, structure, and character. In other words, a lack of confidence in her own skill and in the story she wanted to tell, a hesitancy to just go out and grab the smeller’s attention with boldness or oomph.
The revised Gardener’s Glove demonstrated to me just what Ms. St. Clair can do when she’s feeling braver and more confident. Face it, it’s tough being an outsider in this wealthy industry, starting up your own firm from scratch without investment backing, and presenting your creations to an increasingly jaded set of niche consumers. When you’re not formally trained as a professional perfumer, the very first launch must be incredibly daunting, indeed.
No perfumer wants to tweak anything after launch (except for some attar makers and Creed who have no issue with batch variations) and, yes, there were initial stumbles but I think it’s telling that Ms. St. Clair took the risky gamble this one time to change her fragrances. She wanted to present the best versions of her fragrances that she could and she built them UP, not down as so often happens in this business. I think that says a lot about the heart behind this brand and the desire to be as good as possible.
It was a valuable lesson which I think will lead to bolder, more confident, and more compelling fragrances going forward. Ms. St. Clair is a quick learner, as the changes to Gardener’s Glove demonstrate, but I think the next fragrance with its head-turning, compulsively sniffable bouquet and its rich 30% concentration (yay!) will show it best. It has oomph right from the very first sniff. (There will be no post-launch tweaking from here on out for any subsequent St. Clair release.) In short, the talent, skill, and creativity were already there, but the confidence is growing in leaps and bounds to match it.
All in all, I think Ms. St. Clair is one to watch. I think she will surprise and delight many of you in the years to come.
Disclosure: My samples were courtesy of Ms. St. Clair. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.