The language of perfume is subtle and mysterious. Hence, finding the artist's fingerprints within their creation takes attention to detail. And the perfumer's ability to maintain their voice and still please their client, which more often than never turns out to be a particular French fashion designer.
Germaine Cellier was a beautiful, audacious and intelligent woman that went against the grain simply by choosing her profession: a chemist and a parfumeuse in a world of male perfumers. She dies the year I was born, but her name always brings a breath of fresh air to my psyche. She may have turned into dust by now, but her perfumes have the twinkle she must had in her eyes when she created them.
In 1945, she created Balmain’s first perfume, a most significant piece as it began the green floral genre: Vent Vert (green wind), and was much ahead of its time (the green florals made a big “come back” in the 70’s). Jolie Madame shares the vibrant orange blossom note that is so prominent in Vent Vert, and a deep, dry, austere oakmoss note in the base of both. This creates a beautiful connection in that collection: There is a sort of a green thread that runs through most of the Balmain fragrances, and continued on also to Ivoire, the formal yet sweet white-soap green floral from 1979.
But it is Jolie Madame that I would like to discuss here. The perfume which I was fortunate to experience in its vintage state on several occasions, and most recently received a sample of in a swap. Jolie Madame to me is a multi-dimensional woman: she has bright and beautifully accessible aspects that she projects outwardly, but also embraces her “shadow”, her darkness, her primal nature and wild instincts. She might be wearing a proper and demure Balmain and is soft spoken and polite, but she surely knows how to roar when she needs to protect her young. She emulates luxury and style, but she’s no stranger to hardship and will stick by her friend’s side when they need her the most. Her smile reveals milky teeth, while she sings with the voice of the forest. She wears a double string of pearls, but she will be equally at ease wearing her enemy’s bones on her neck - so lest you forget not to mess with her.
As if to embrace the duality of women, Jolie Madame highlights olfactory dualities that I’ve always found most intriguing - as a perfumer-creator and appreciator of scents. Opening with a bright neroli paired with austere greenery of violet leaf – this duo is reminiscent of a sun-dappled forest clearing. Without the sun there will be no forest, yet it is the trees’ shade and moist darkness that provides the competitive floor for the myriad of life forms of the deep woods. These bright and light notes are further contrasted by herbaceous-sweet wormwood, giving it a slightly leathery-masculine edge right off the bat.
Then, the violets warm gradually and become an inky love letter to hunting and wild animals. As isobutyl quinoline makes its subtle appearance, it plays agains sweet violets - portrayed by the raspy-voiced, woody and dusky alpha ionone, which is reminiscent of Atlas cedar, candied violets and honey all at once. Together with the furry, leathery-smoky isobutyl quinoline, there is an arcane mystery, like finding a big dried stain of black India ink on an old leather-bound book.
Pull the strings of this dusty library’s cobwebs off the leather covers, and you’ll find that forest yet again: this time, a salty, mushroomy, dry, green oakmoss. The very bottom of the forest floor is still brimming with life and dark nuances of leather and indolic civet, which only later on blooms into luscious jasmine. The leather (read: castoreum note) is not as pronounced in the end as I remember it from the vintage parfum I’ve smelled at Alyssa Harad’s book launch, but it’s wonderful all the same *. While the isobutyl quinoline brings to mind Caron’s signature Mousse de Saxe accord – Jolie Madame is her own thing altogether without hardly any rose to make note of. The very last breath of Jolie Madame brings forth the dry woody aspects of patchouli and vetiver, but only ever so subtly. It is a little shorter lived than I was hoping, getting a little short on the base notes before they are fully developed.
Top notes: Artemisia, Violet Leaf, Neroli, Gardenia, Bergamot, Coriander
Heart notes: Jasmine, Orris, Violet Flower, Tuberose, Rose, Jonquil
Base notes: Oakmoss, Patchouli, Vetiver, Musk, Castoreum, Leather, Civet
*This review is of a vintage eau de toilette. I’ve smelled the parfum and it’s richer and with a better lasting power (naturally) but both are lovely and mysterious –vintage magic at its best.