Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Case of the Jolie-Laide Madame ~Jolie Madame by Balmain: fragrance review

"A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears".
~Getrude Stein

It is perhaps fitting that a review of Jolie Madame, the leathery fragrance by Germain Cellier created for couturier Pierre Balmain in 1953 should start with a quote by one of his famous clients who graced this perfume with her preference over others* [*actually this last bit isn't conclusive as Stein died in 1946 as pointed out by our readers, assuming the fragrance was originally created in 1953, and not before, for her own use].
Like Stein herself, Jolie Madame bypasses jolie (=pretty) for stunning and makes you experience it with other senses than the designated one.

I personally remember first smelling it from an almost empty little bottle of parfum on my grandmother’s dresser: a woman who had a way with poetry as well and spoke no less than 7 languages.

On meeting Stein, Alice B.Toklas, her longtime companion and her Paris confidante, wrote:
“She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else's voice--deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto's, like two voices”.
~Mellow, 1974, p. 107-08

It is this sound coming in a stream of conciousness as I think of the sonorous merging of violets and leather that is at the verdant core of Jolie Madame: two voices, the pitch of a deep contralto.
Cellier was an iconoclast working with essences and concepts that were rejected by other perfumers because they weren’t au goût du jour: her hyperbole of galbanum dosage in the vintage Vent Vert (a Balmain creation that trully is the antipode of everything Jolie Madame stands for), the assertion of isobutyl quinoline rendering the leathery note in Bandit, the rubbery nuances of tuberose in Fracas that has an almost trigeminal effect to our brain.

Directly inspired by her previous work in Bandit and to a lesser degree in Fracas, Cellier set out to create something for Balmain that would smother leather with an unexpected accord: the duskiness and powderiness of violet.
Violet has an old-fashioned, Victorian connotation, because historically that was the zenith of their popularity. Violets also have a reputation of an aphrodisiac effect, albeit a tempered one. And for that reason they have been featured in pastilles as well as other edible treats. However the surprising fact is that it was the sweet, powdery flowers which were prized then, whereas it is the greener-smelling leaves which are now used in commercial perfumery. As the floral absolute is labour intensive and therefore prohibitedly expensive the recreation of a violet accord is composed with 2,6-nonadienal, beta-ionone, dihydro-beta-ionone and alpha-ionone in addition to other elements.

Jolie Madame marries violet with the ingredient which lends Bandit its harsh, demonic character: quinoline. But whereas Bandit is un parfum figuratif, trying to give the rendition of quinoline’s acid pungency, Jolie Madame is not as much. Instead alongside violets it takes some elements of the gardenia chypres that were popular at the times, yet pushing the envelope all the way. Lots of the chypres in that genre began as a mossy composition embracing a heart of gardenia rendered by styrallyl acetate, a substance naturally found in gardenia buds. Featured in Ma Griffe, which was at the time considered the pre-eminent debutante fragrance, as well as in Miss Dior, it bestows its feminine, oily fattiness to the proceedings attracting women who still kept a little girl hiding someplace in their hearts. Leather scents, on the other hand, whether they were strictly adhering to the chypre structure or not, were not as well-received and popular in a time of traditional values and fashion sense (the 1950s) as the gardenia chypres.

Jolie Madame therefore took a risk: a calculated one, given Balmain’s fashion apotheosis in that decade in the halcyon days of Paris fashion dominance, but still a dare. It was unapologetically the scent of a woman, not a debutante, and it mirrored Stein’s words who claimed Paris was her hometown as much as America was her country:
“…in our American life where there is no coercion in custom and it is our right to change our vocation so often as we have desire and opportunity, it is a common experience that our youth extends through the whole first twenty-nine years of our life and it is not till we reach thirty that we find at last that vocation for which we feel ourselves fit and to which we willingly devote continued labor”.

~Mellow, 1974, p.67-68

Indeed, much as I try, I would find some difficulty in gifting a very young woman with the wonder that is Jolie Madame. The acrid opening of artemisia that vibrates at an emerald frequency is otherworldly and trully awesome. It has a passing resemblance to the minty top of Halston, a scent that came two decades later, at the time of the resurgence of emancipated chypres.
Less strident than brigant Bandit, not as dry as Chanel’s Cuir de Russie but with a more animalic streak running into alleys of deep castoreum and womanly civet, Jolie Madame opens up to reveal a vista of patchouli and moss-laden powdered hides. Its roguish leatheriness stays on throughout, lasting exeptionally well even in the modern eau de toilette. To reference Luca Turin, everything in Jolie Madame is mature, powdery, evolved.

On that note it bears mentioning that the reformulations have not been tremendously respectful to the original and in fact there have been at least two of those: one occuring about 3 years ago and one in the late 90s. I can’t profess an opinion on the most recent edition other than I have heard it described as more aldehydic and with a more pronounced iris heart while trully different than the version which I enjoy; the latter is deeply mossy and leathery, uninhibited rather than demure.
The lighter-coloured version comes in the rectangular bottle with grey label surfacing on many online stores. The vintage is coloured like fine thyme honey and encased in a bottle as the one depicted.

Pic by Migr.


  1. Lovely descriptions of my favorite people and scents....

    Ironically, I came to these very young, along with Alice B. and Gertrude- but I'm an odd fish.
    They all just felt right, and natural, to me.

    My poor sons were treated to 'The Complete Portrait of Picasso' when they were small-
    VERY disconcerting to see small boys parroting:
    "Would he like it , if I told him ?
    If I told him, would he like it ?"
    Ad nauseam, LOL....

  2. Dear I,

    thank you for the compliment, it's a joy to see that we share an appreciation for both the scent and the cultural reference ~natürlich we would! ;-)

    I can't say that I came very young to them myself, but it helped me appreciate the pioneering spirit of the mundane use of language to a higher end (which defeats the Hemingway claim to originality, ha!)

    As to your sons, to parrot is to parrot is to parrot is to parrot...LOL!!!

    (love the little rascals! ~term used affectionaly)

  3. It just happens I sniffed the latest version of Jolie Madame yesterday: it's still recognizable, but it has lost some of its punch.

    A writer should write with his ears, not his eyes. Gertie was being facetious, as usual... either that or... hey, if she was serious then it explains a lot about her own writing. She was a wonderful patron and mentor, but for great writing give me her young disciple Hemingway any day.

  4. Hmmm, Blogger ate my comment again--so I'll repeat myself.

    You capture JM perfectly, Helg. What a glorious, womanly scent it is. The newest version is weak stuff, but not unpleasant. I am very grateful to have a supply of the real thing, which I'm hoping to make last as long as I do. ;-)

  5. Thanks Bela for confirming what I have heard. It's a pity that its characteristic flair has been mellowed, apparently.

    I believe that indeed Gertie might have been cajoling the notion: it's certainly the kind of paradox turn of phrase she would use, isn't it?
    For some reason I personally never warmed too much to Hemingway. I think my taste is a little "darker" and not as "realistic". Or I could be finicky or something!

  6. Dear M,

    I will chastise Blogger!
    *naughty, naughty Blogger, don't you ever eat up dear M's comment again, do you hear?*

    Thanks for the kind words. I have come to appreciate the daring of the composition and the old-fashioned quality. Disappointed to hear corroborated that the newest version is poor.

  7. Anonymous12:10

    I learn something every new each time I come to your blog. So Getrude Stein liked and wore Jolie Madame. And the violet note is made with synthetics.
    Lovely description as always too.

    Thank you very much!!


  8. Anonymous13:04

    Shashing review Helg!! I will try this one for sure, if you say it's so good.
    Any tips on how to find the vintage?


  9. Anonymous16:52

    Such a fascinating review E, thanks. (and btw I find Hemmingway too dry and not in a good, sardonic way!) Love to know the chemistry, it gives a little weight to the poetry of the description. I think that, sadly, I have sniffed the most recent reformulation because it wasn't as deep as I imagine the original to be. Cellier was completely brilliant wasn't she.

  10. Thank you for your enthusiastic compliment Irene. I think your best bet is Ebay, but also try online decanters.

  11. Dear N,

    thank you for validating my editorial choice :-) Glad you like it!
    Indeed you might have.

    As to Cellier, I have heard of a controversial anecdote from behind the scenes, as to how she went about her business in the shocking stackes, but unfortunately am not at liberty of publicly divulging.

  12. Dear Abigail,

    I am honoured if you think so.

    Perfume Shrine indeed aims to provide new info, not just rehash same old, same old with a dusting of glitter!
    It's so nice to hear that it is succeeding to some degree at least!

  13. Anonymous13:45

    Jolie Madame is one of the perfumes that I have the most strange reletion.When I was a little girl my mother used to put this perfume on me...When she and I were going out for a wolk at the city,I wore my best dress and Imagined that I was a "big lady"...
    Your description is presice of how actually this smells...It's like you have photographed this one...
    Your review is fantastic...

  14. Thank you for your enthusiasm, dear P. From someone who has such a vivid and endearing memory of this scent it honours me to think that I did it justice.
    Grown-up indeed, like a "big lady".
    Hope to hear from you again.


  15. Sorry about the delay.

    I've been thinking about that curious Gertrude Stein pronouncement. I know what she was doing: she wasn't being facetious; she was being Cubist. Just like the artists she supported, she was trying to make us view and think about familiar things in a 'different' way, from different angles.

    As for Hemingway, he is the master of the spare, transparent prose, the opposite of purple, the antithesis of turgid. It is much more difficult to emulate him than to write in an overblown manner.

  16. No problem Bela.

    You know, I hadn't thought of it in that way (being Cubist), but all that companionship to Picasso might have done the trick. It's a very smart suggestion! (thanks)

    Re: emulating Hemingway: I couldn't agree more on what you say! And purple is so rampant!

  17. Hilary04:31

    I know this post was written a long time ago, but I still feel obliged to correct the record: Gertrude Stein died in 1946, so if Jolie Madame was made in the 1950s she can't possibly have worn it. I'm not sure where this misapprehension came from, although she and Balmain were friends and she admired his clothes.

    Otherwise, a lovely review, thanks.

  18. Thanks Hilary.

    Your point is certainly logical enough! My memory fails me on where that bit of info originally came from (probably a Balmain book monograph) so it'd need a bit of searching through to find it again. One guess would be that maybe there fragrance might have been created for her and used by her (as she was a good friend) but later issued for wider reach. This is one hypothesis.
    Another is that someone writing the book/article I was taking this off didn't check dates of perfume creation (this is more common than you think, especially in what concerns older books when this perfume info wasn't widely available like now).
    At any rate I would be happy to add a little tidibit there that this is debatable, your point is certainly logical and thanks for bringing it to my attention. :-)

  19. Anonymous21:31

    Jolie Madam is my favourite perfume ever. it is spellbinding and hypnotic like no other. it has the same effect on me as do the smells of nature; the sea in April as the weather warms up; summer breeze at night; the smell of hay; the rain on a hot summer's day; all those beautiful rich, natural smells which no perfume can ever really match and which defy deconstruction. JM is an earthly smell. It has something elemental, fullsome and all encompassing about it. God knows what it is. I tended to think it was the leather but I do not like all leather fragrances. JM is a mystery but it transports me. Can't really put it into words. Perhaps its something in our DNA that attracts us to certain smells; i know there is something common to the fragrances i like although it is not always in the formulation..

  20. This is a very late comment, but I felt it belonged here. Very recently I got my hands on a vintage 2 oz. extrait bottle of Jolie Madame. The bottle was nearly full, imagine my excitement when I started opening it and realized it was actually sealed! The juice inside was still perfect, and indeed the depth and beauty of it are breathtaking. I can't stop smelling my hand. I tried it next to my other bottle of Jolie Madame (recent, probably reformulated eau de toilette) and the latter quite simply disappeared after five minutes, while the vintage stuff remains strong but not overpowering, just close to the skin.

  21. Anon,

    certainly you seem to like a unique leather fragrance, as Jolie Madame is without peer; it's powdery, violet-y and has all around a sui generis temperament, it's just not like the other "leathers".
    Your theory on a DNA predeliction for certain things though is mighty interesting! I know that the predominent view is that smell isn't hardwired (hence babies go for all different things), but could it be that some things are predestined to be prefered over others in the upbringing phase? Who knows.

  22. Patuxxa,

    what a wonderful find, thanks for sharing with us and please enjoy in good health!! :-)
    The vintage version is spectacular, a leather fragrance like no other (as described above in my comment)


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