Perfume Review: Bal a Versailles, or Hurrying Time

Perfume Review: Jean Desprez Bal a Versailles
Date released: 1962
Perfumer: none listed
Sample provenance: parfum bottle won summer 2009 in drawing from parfum1, parfum de toilette mini bought from eBay 2009 (labeled vintage, but who knows for sure?)

The CEO dislikes Bal intensely in its early stages, and I understand why. It smells, mostly, of heavy floral perfume, and reminds him of the elderly ladies at church during his 70’s childhood. Bal is the epitome of what I think of as “French cathouse.”

You know, French cathouse – like when teenage you goes out with some friends, wearing your tastiest clothes and a generous swipe of Cheri’s plum eye pencil, not to mention Carlynn’s coral lip gloss and Kelley’s Sand & Sable, and your father stops you at the door and gives you The Look. “Young lady,” he says, “you’re not going out of this house like that. You look like a clown, and you smell like a French cathouse. Get back in this house, go into the bathroom, and wash that stuff off!” You roll your eyes, but you comply, dabbing off the lip gloss and the eye makeup with tissues and muttering under your breath, “He just doesn’t understand… there’s nothing wrong with it… I don’t know what his problem is.” You swipe at your neck and wrists with cotton balls soaked in rubbing alcohol. You sniff back a tear or two, then re-powder your nose to cover the pinkness, and march out to the front door again. You pass inspection. You receive the reminder of curfew without rolling your eyes, and you escape. Twenty minutes later, you’re again bedecked with the bounty of Cheri, Carlynn, and Kelley, making a mental note to hide the evidence before you go home from the skating rink.

Yeah, that “French cathouse.” The smell that is almost toooooo much. It’s a heavy, rich smell that opens Bal a Versailles, and it is somehow, quintessentially, French.

I recently read a review of Teo Cabanel Alahine by Brian at I Smell Therefore I Am, in which he compared Alahine to Bal a Versailles. I didn’t get it then; I don’t get it now. Alahine is pure happiness to me, while BaV is the kind of scent you wear when you don’t want to go home alone, shall we say. They’re completely different in feel, as well in actual scent.

However, I would call both of them symphonic – very richly compounded, very layered and complex, greater than the sum of their parts. Maybe that’s what Brian was getting at. (I should ask him. And while I’m at it, I’ll put in a plug for ISTIA. Great writing by two people who love perfume, go check it out.)

March at Perfume Posse calls Bal, in parfum, “candied incense,” and I don’t get that either. **But her take on the edp (similar to my pdt concentration) is “floral sex,” and that is spot-on. Spot. On. Big florals, with something honeyed and rich, followed by warm skin that is not quite sweaty… I’d say Bal in parfum is “floral sex, with candles burning.” Maybe my “candles burning” is March’s “incense.” And candied? Well, I just said “something honeyed.” Maybe I’m closer to her description than I thought. (** It’s in the comments of a recent post which wasn’t actually about Bal, and if I can find the darn thing, I’ll post the link.)

If I were to compare Bal a Versailles to any other perfume, I’d say Balenciaga Rumba. Rumba is similarly dense with complex florals and honeyed fruit, and contains a beautiful note of burnt dust that I for one find very pleasant. It’s not exactly the candle wax of Bal, but in both scents there is that hint of heat and consumption – the dust burns, the candles melt, and underneath it all is the smell of warm skin and hurrying time, with a faint reminder that death waits for no man and decay will someday take this warm flesh.

Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
(from To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell)

That breath of mortality is something you won’t find in many modern fragrances. It makes me want to seize the moment, because I suddenly remember that my moments are not infinite. It’s genius, it’s philosophy in a bottle. It’s why I forgive Bal her French cathouse florals, and wear it again and again.

Notes for Bal a Versailles – an “everything but the kitchen sink” recipe if there ever was one:
Top: Rosemary, cassia, lemon, bergamot, mandarin, neroli, orange blossom, jasmine, rose, Bulgarian Rose.
Heart: Lilac, ylang-ylang, muguet, sandalwood, patchouli, orris, vetiver.
Base: Tolu balsam, amber, musk, civet, benzoin, resins, vanilla, cedar.

Notes for Balenciaga Rumba, just so you can compare:
Top: Orange blossom, plum, raspberry, peach, basil, bergamot
Heart: Honey, magnolia, carnation, tuberose, gardenia, jasmine, orchid, marigold, heliotrope, muguet.
Base: Leather, sandalwood, plum, amber, tonka bean, patchouli, musk, vanilla, oakmoss, cedar, styrax.

Both images from fragrantica.com.

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17 thoughts on “Perfume Review: Bal a Versailles, or Hurrying Time”

  1. Remarkably, this is the one and only civet-containing perfume I like, and even own a bottle of. I completely agree with the description of it as "floral sex", and can only surmise that I like it as much as I do because the other notes are amongst my very favourites!I have to be in a very robust and expansive mood though, to apply it even in moderation…

  2. Flitter, I'm finding that I actually like a *bit* of civet – Parfum Sacre and Climat contain it.To be honest, I don't like the first half hour of Bal. It's sooo… busy. But after that I love it.

  3. Interesting – a decant of Parfum Sacre is currently on its way to me from NY, so I will see if I detect it. I believe there may even be some civet in Coco, though if so, that is also fine.Like you, I prefer BAL after it has settled down, and the skank is just a warm background hum.

  4. So I'm torn about this one. First off– loooove the review. "The Look….Young lady….French cathouse…skating rink" Hah!! I wish I had driven my dad that crazy…Now, I love the idea of smelling like a French cathouse– in my mind. I think the reality is awfully scary, though. I keep thinking that one of these days one of these vintage bombshell scents is going to reach out and grab me and then I will become, like a whole other person– Rita Hayworth maybe? But I haven't found The One yet. I've read about BaV, like, three or four times this week, however. Clearly it is calling my name…

  5. LCN, it is a must-sniff, at least. And do note which concentration you're trying: I've heard that the edc, particularly in the vintage, is the dirtiest thing ever (March calls it buttcrack), the edt is a bit more polite (i.e., the least interesting), and as you go up the concentration ladder it gets more smooth and incense-y/candle-waxy.That vtg pdt of mine, though… whooeee. I mean, it makes you imagine those big Georgia O'Keefe flowers gettin' DOWN.

  6. Oh I say, Mals – I have the EDC, though I don't know if it is the vintage or not. A white cylindrical plastic bottle with gold lettering. Funny to think I may have hardcore taste in this one isolated case!

  7. Woo-hoo, gimme that French cathouse smell anytime! (hee) To my nose, Bal a Versailles, one of my favorites, doesn't smell like floral sex or candied incense – it smells like horse stable. And that's OK with me! Horses, saddle leather, sweet hay – and a few indoles tucked underneath. Mmmm.

  8. I have the EDT concentration. After reading your comment that the EDC is even skankier, I think I have to find some! I used to have a small decant of the extrait (used up now) which originally turned me on to this fragrance. So far, I haven't had guys trying to follow me home when I'm wearing it (drat!). I'd like to get more extrait someday, or maybe I'll try to find that PDT on eBay.

  9. "…those big Georgia O'Keefe flowers gettin' DOWN"!!! You slay me!! You have given me a whole NEW image going on in my mind!!

  10. Dear Muse,
    I absolutly love Bal, and have just started wearing it again. I was hunting for a similiar product,stumbled across your blogg then got waylaid savouring your insights. I was suprised to find 2 more of my favorite things…ANdrew Marvel’s Poetry and Rumba. I have been wearing Rumba for many years and am now able to understand why I love both these perfumes. I teach literature and love studying the Romantics-it all just makes alittle more scents!

    1. Welcome, Deborah! I do love Marvell. And Bal… hey, it’s getting cooler again, I can wear it in this weather.

      I just decanted a bit of Rumba for a friend recently, and it sure smelled up the house for hours. Those are such big, expansive, kitchen-sink fragrances. I think I mostly love the drydowns, but they’re definitely not for the fainthearted.

  11. We found your review and comparison very interesting. Bal a Versailles is in fact a stronger scent then most, but that is due to them more expensive and natural ingredients. We also agree that it is time to release a new Jean Desprez fragrance (last one was 1962), so that is what we are doing. A new Jean Desprez fragrance will be released in the first quarter of 2011. You can register for advance notification and a nice discount at http://www.jeandesprez.com To entice you to our website, we are also offering (limited quantities available) three Bal a Versailles Miniatures including the Parfum, yes the parfum for $29.95 plus very reasonable shipping. Happy Holidays from all of us at JeanDesprez.com

    1. I don’t normally allow comments that relate to overtly commercial enterprises – but when was the last time someone from a perfume house posted a comment on a tiny little blog? And offering a special deal, too?

      Thanks, Jean Desprez folks, and we’ll be anxiously awaiting the new scent.

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