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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