Van Cleef & Arpels Collection Extraordinaire – And a Prize Draw
When I first heard about the pending release of six perfumes at once from the prestigious jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels I thought oh boy, another bunch of half-hearted and badly done fragrances rushed to market for the holiday season. Then I thought more about it, and they did do a great job with First and Murmure, but it’s been awhile since they did anything splashy or memorable. They don’t get a lot of publicity for their perfumes either so who knows if any of those “First” flankers and derivatives were any good? So it got my attention when Octavian Coifan gave the Collection Extraordinaire his seal of approval over on 1000 Fragrances. He is a perfumer, writer and industry insider who understands the technical aspects of perfumery better than I ever will; I just know what I like. I recommend that anyone who has not read about why he thinks they are good should do so, I certainly learned a lot and I can’t improve on his impressions. A different perfumer composed each of these fragrances, and they are all very different from each other, yet they share such a unified aesthetic that it would be easy to think that they are all the work of one person.
When I received my samples I tried them all briefly and I got a good feeling about every one, which was unusual; there is generally at least one dud in the bunch in these multiple releases. I decided to wear each one by itself for a whole day and see how they held up. I began with Orchidée Vanille (by Randa Hammami), the sweetest one by far. It is indeed sweet but in the manner of the original Hanae Mori fragrance, it’s light, happy and delightfully hazy and never cloying. I happen to love vanilla anyway, and this is a clear vanilla orchid interpretation, leaving no doubt as to where vanilla really comes from. Remarkably, I did not find it to be gourmand at all, because the treatment resembles vanilla-scented flowers more than anything. I absolutely love it and I want a Jeroboam of it.
Next up was Muguet Blanc (Antoine Maisondieu), and since I am a lover of lily-of-the-valley from way back, my standards are high for any interpretation of this accord. (As Octavian points out, it is impossible to extract the scent from this flower so all “muguet” perfumes are accords made up of elements that simulate its fragrance.) All I can say is that they really hit it with this version. It manages to be both traditionally chilly and uniquely abstract. Clear as a bell and so immediate that you can almost feel the cold ground against your cheek as you bend down to smell the diminutive blossoms, and at the same time cerebrally disciplined; it will not turn watery or sour on skin over time. This one joins Diorissimo and Muguet de Bonheur in my personal pantheon of muguet all-stars.
More forest delights were to be found in Bois d’Iris (Emilie Coppermann), which started out with a dry woodiness that began to turn sweet rather quickly, and I wondered where it was headed, fearing the worst, until I realized that it was not going all gourmand on me but that the vegetal aspect of orris root was giving way to a delicious violet shored up with creamy woods. It never turned the corner into the powdery iris, found in so many perfumes, which I don’t really like as much as I do the more natural style. As with the Muguet Blanc, I could imagine myself sniffing violets in the cool spring air with the smell of the earth and last year’s leaves mingling with their sweetness. Another winner!
Gardenia Pétale (Nathalie Feisthauer) is so sheer for a gardenia scent that I was sure it would fade in no time. Wrong again – it persisted very well, and remarkably for such a transparent rendition it really does smell like gardenias, buttery and rich, while never being heavy or going over into the dreaded bleu-cheese-over-stale-popcorn territory. There are just enough green notes and other florals, including white lily, to keep it restrained while still smelling very much like a real gardenia blossom, although one surrounded by other flowers in a paradisiacal garden. I have no idea how this was accomplished but I don’t care, I just want a bottle. At last a real-smelling gardenia perfume to wear in polite company, as it stays close to the skin while remaining true all day long.
Along with Bois d’Iris, Cologne Noire (Mark Buxton) is one of the two nominally unisex fragrances in the group. It’s entirely without sweetness but I would not really call it dry either. It is done in the classic “masculine” aromatic style with a hint of florals and just enough incense to make you wonder if that’s really what you smell. This is another one that I was certain would be fleeting but it lasted about six hours, which for cologne of this type is impressive indeed. It is also blessedly without that aggressively pushy and sharp woody/amber thing that far too many masculine scents have, even though it does have benzoin and cedar in it, which makes it perfect for women to wear too.
I saved Lys Carmin (Nathalie Cetto) for last because I felt that I would judge it the most rigorously. I have grown and smelled a lot of lilies, they are my favorite flower, and the scent of Oriental lilies is to me the most sensual and delicious floral aroma of all. To some people lilies are just too much, as their dizzying headiness can actually affect the mind adversely if one is exposed to them for long periods. (I guess that would explain a lot about me.) Fragrant lilies are fleshy, spicy, sweet and indolic all at the same time, and their perfume is too heavy for many. For my part I would be happy to be locked in a room with great towering bunches of them and I am always looking for a lily perfume that does them justice. Lys Carmin has somehow managed to capture the odd fleshy quality that Tania Sanchez says smells like “Easter ham” in the book Perfumes: The Guide. I laughed out loud when I read that, because it’s the best description I have come across; the spiciness, the sticky sweetness, and yet the enticing aroma of succulent flesh is there too, underneath it all. Furthermore, this perfume gets that part right with an ingenious combination of accords and still manages to be civilized about it. It’s not the cold perfection of Serge Lutens Un Lys, it’s warmer and softer and highly wearable. If I got my true wish, it would be bigger, more like those room-filling lilies I love, but then I couldn’t leave the house wearing it. For life in the real world this is the next best thing.
This collection is a very pleasant surprise. It avoids the worst of today’s trends while embracing the best that modern perfume science has to offer and it uses the chosen materials exceptionally well. I commend Van Cleef & Arpels for not taking the easy road and producing fragrances that are just okay, which they could have done and still come out on top considering what passes for a decent perfume these days. The price is $185 each for 75 ml, which is not cheap but is pretty reasonable if you factor in the quality, since there are many perfumes out there costing a lot more which are not nearly as good as this group. They are quiet and refined, no overpowering sillage here, but I found lasting power to be very good for what they are, and furthermore they held their character and did not turn disappointing after fifteen minutes (or less) like virtually all the department store scents I have tried recently. As always, try before you buy, but these all get my vote of confidence.
As much as it pains me to do so, I am giving away a brand new full sample set of all six perfumes, so if you are interested please say so on the comments, and I will draw a winner by random name generator the week after this post appears. Commenters posting as “Anonymous” who do not include a name in the body of their message will not be entered. (U.S.A. addresses only please, I am unable to deal with items requiring Customs paperwork because of my work schedule.)
Image credit: Oriental lilies, photo © by the author.
Thanks to Fragrantica.com for the names of the perfumers.