s

SmellyBlog

Bal à Versailles

Versailles by Ayala Moriel
Royal Boudoir, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
Smelling Jean Desprez's Bal à Versailles is what I can imagine Jean-Louis Fargeon (Marie Antoinette's personal perfumer) would concoct especially for her: in his dusty apothecary in Paris, he would measure into the beaker with much abundance the costliest of all extracts: tuberose, jasmine and jonquil enfleurage from Grasse, attar of rose from Morocco, shipped across the Mediterranean, aged orris root tincture, tincture of vetiver, oakmoss from the Albanian forests, collected by wolverines in the moonlight, and every animal extract he could get a hold of: Ambergris? you got it! Tonquin musk? Oh yeah. Civet? Sure, but only a little bit...

Although I've been reading a lot of reviews that go on and on about the civet being the star of the show, I beg to differ. Bal à Versailles, although I still think agree that it could have been more aptly named - my suggestion would not be "Orgie de Versailles" (which is what it would have been if civet were the star of the show - as it is in Tabu, for instance), but rather more delicately, as in "Boudouir de Versailles".

The Eau de Toilette I have on hand is vintage, probably from the 90's, or late 80's at the most. It is redolent of black pepper, opulent flowers and dry, musky oakmoss. While it has a definite carnal energy about it, it is not due to civet, but rather, musk and white flowers. I was scratching my head for a while trying to recall what it reminds me of. And when I got it, I was a bit surprised - more than anything at all, it reminds me of my very first version of Schizm, when I was so naive that I thought that the "black musk" that was sold at the Persian Arts jewellery and antique store in Pacific Centre were in fact vintage perfume bases (hence containing synthetic musks, including the defunct musk ambrette and deliciously animalic musk ketone). The old Schizm was just like this - a surge of pepper, tuberose, narcissus, oakmoss and musk, with a bit of cedarwood accentuating the dry aspect at first, and turning into something sweet (taken over by the oakmoss) in the end.
And sure enough, the drynenss of oakmoss' top notes, the cedar and pepper bows and lets the sweeter song of raspberry-lined musks to make their coiffed entrance, powdered wigs and all. Vanilla, dark and real, is not too loud but makes its presence known, like a seasoned seductress partly hiding behind a black laced fan. And just like this confident woman in black, which does not need find the urge to flash her assets to be noticed, you'd also find a hint of the leathery, a nuance of fur and purring with its dry breath of isobutyl quinoline.

This early version of Schizm was never sold commercially, therefore I realize this comparison is not the most relateable. To give you a more familiar point of reference, I'd say that Bal à Versailles, despite it being a child of the 60's (launched in 1962) reminds me of the good old Caron fragrances: it has the same dry-peppery feel as Poivre and the delicious muskiness of Parfum Sacré
(well, this is not really old, it's from the 90's yet it has the same vintage feel), yet at the same time an underlining dark, almost dirty, boudoir feel of Nuit de Noël. In short: don't let it scare you. While very old-fashioned in feel, it is neither dense nor overbearing. It is very easy to wear, although I would definitely reserve it for special occasions, or at least for the evening, when you can truly savour it, sipped slowly like a glass of spicy Syrah.

Top notes: Black Pepper, Cedarwood, Citrus 
Heart notes: Tuberose, Jasmine, Orange Blossom, Narcissus, Orris Butter
Base notes: Oakmoss, Musk, Patchouli, Vanilla, Amber, Leather

Jolie Madame (Vintage)


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.

60s ad : Jolie Madame, a Balmain perfume
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.

Nuit de Noël

Of all perfumes, that one that reminds me most of a Northern Christmas isn’t actually Nuit de Noël, but Parfum Sacre. The olfactory connection of Nuit de Noël to Christmas did not reveal itself to me until few days ago. It suddenly dawned on me: Plum pudding and ink!

Nuit de Noël bears the mark of many of the Caron perfumes created by Ernest Daltroff: density, complexity and a vast mystery which is reflected in the seamless connection between the notes. It is not easy to dissect the notes from one another, not to mention categorizing the perfumes.

The dryness of cedar wood is evident at the start, and roses unfold from beneath a dark dress. There is a certain dustiness to it all, as if the perfume was collecting dust for a year before being noticed again. But now that it did, time and age has only improved it. Powderiness is not absent, and in some regards, this perfume is akin to N’Aimez Que Moi in darkness, density and the thread of rose and powder. But what gives Nuit de Noël its distinct character and its important place in the Caron family is Mousse de Saxe.

Apparently, Mousse de saxe accord is what gives many of the Caron scents their dark undercurrent. It is said to include geranium, licorice, leather, iodine and vanillin. In Nuit de Noël, this accord is used in higher proportion to the rest of the composition, making it quite memorable even among the many rose perfumes of its era (not to mention only those from the house of Caron).


Sharing similarities with other powerhouse perfumes, Nuit de Noël is at once rosy, leathery, powdery and sweet. It reminds me of a less sweet, less in-your-face Habanita, a more leathery sister to N’Aimez Que Moi, and an inspiration to daring, feminine yet unsweet rare appearances of present day, such as Agent Provocateur, and even the dry down of Opium Fleur de Shanghai.

The flacon of Nuit de Noël is made of black crystal glass, and looks like a cross between an ink bottle and a hip-flask, adorned with a Charleston-style gold headband. It was said that Nuit de Noël was made for Daltroff’s lover, who loved Christmas. Somehow, I can only envision a very lonely winter night, with Charleston-music playing in a gramophone, and many glasses of red wine and whisky being used up until that lover finally shows up, hours after the family Christmas dinner is over.

While the connection of plum pudding to Christmas is quite obvious, that of ink isn’t. In any case, use Nuit de Noël as an ink for expressing your innermost feelings only when the time is ripe. Otherwise you may need to be dancing more than just one round of Charleston.

Notes: Cedarwood, Rose, Orris, Mousse de Saxe accord (Oakmoss, Licorice, Myrrh, Cedar moss), Vetiver, Sandalwood, Castoreum

*Nuit de Noel poster courtesy of Fashion Era

Other reviews of Nuit de Noël:
LegerdenezBois de JasminMore about the history of Caron

Back to the top