I’m hoping that this will be the first of many reviews of vintage fragrances, since I’ve collected so many miniature vintage scents (no, you really don’t want to know how many!), and they’re so different from everything else currently available, even niche fragrances. Look for a post soon on “falling down the vintage rabbit hole.”
Jolie Madame, composed by the acclaimed Germaine Cellier, she of Vent Vert and Bandit and Fracas, was released by the couture house of Pierre Balmain in 1953. It is a classic, and thus squarely in my testing sights. I’d read numerous reviews on Basenotes and Fragrantica and perfume blogs, and Tania Sanchez’ review in Perfumes: The Guide had further piqued my interest. A sample sat on my Perfumed Court wishlist for several months, while I debated with myself. I’d already tested Chanel Cuir de Russie and found it just too hideous for words, but then my darling Seven-League Boots vintage No. 19 had discernible leather in its base, and I loved that… should I test Jolie Madame, or not bother? I considered. I waffled. I temporized.
I considered the notes again, and waffled once more. I couldn’t make sense of them. Artemisia? Castoreum? With gardenia? Weird. Freaky. And everybody said, It’s got violets. They’re not listed in the official notes, but they’re there. Well… violets, you say? And leather? I don’t knooow, I said, doubtfully.
Notes for Jolie Madame, from Fragrantica: Top notes are artemisia, coriander, gardenia, neroli and bergamot; middle notes are tuberose, narcissus, orris root, jasmine and rose; base notes are leather, patchouli, musk, coconut, civet, oakmoss and vetiver.
But after reading Angela’s lovely review of Jolie Madame on Now Smell This, I rushed right over to eBay to troll for a small bottle. The only one I could find was a micromini bottle, clearly old and only half-full. It was the same price as a sample of vintage extrait at TPC, so I bought it. When it arrived, the bottle was about an inch tall, and the juice inside was a dark yellow-amber, the color of good iced tea – maybe a milliliter and a half in there, I surmised. It looked oily. I unscrewed the metal cap and carefully eased off the plastic stopper inside, oh so sloooowly… dang! One drop fell from the stopper onto my good white shirt. Hope it doesn’t stain! I thought. And then I took a good sniff.
My mouth fell open, and I kept breathing it in. Oh. Oh, my. I’d never smelled anything like this before: a bitter, crushed-stems herbal green, and sweet fresh flowers, and somewhere in the background the intoxicating smell of my first leather briefcase. Oh, my. It smelled like mossy green and bright brown and orchid purple, startling and lovely, both eerie and entirely natural. It was like the face in that Jolie Madame ad: all angular bones, soft lips, and haunting deep eyes. That one drop carried me six hours on a cloud of wonder. It was stunning. I only had a tiny, tiny bit. I wanted more.
So I went immediately back to ebay and set up one of those automatic searches for “vintage jolie madame,” and monitored it vigilantly for six months, eventually scoring two more partially-used, quarter-ounce bottles of extrait, a full eighth-ounce bottle in a set of ten different classic scents in parfum, and a larger bottle of (possibly) 1990’s-era EdT. My extrait bottles look like the ones in the picture above: plain rectangular glass with an incised B on the round brown cap, with the label rakishly set on the corner. The packaging is a clever twist on a simple structure – even though the bottles are plain and the labels just white lettering on brown paper, the diagonal application is like a proper hat set at a flirty angle. It bats its eyelashes and says, “I am stylish. I am tway, tway Fwansh. You know you want me.” Well… yes. Yes, I do.
Each one of the bottles of extrait smells different. The tiny one smells the most heavenly to me, because its florals are so fresh and green next to the leather that, as Angela puts it, it’s as if you broke into a florist’s shop and shoved all the blooms you could grab into your nice leather handbag. Yes, that’s it exactly – flowers and stems and the softly pungent smell of good suede. One bottle smells mostly of leather and sharp herbal greens, with an overlay of jasmine. Another bottle smells of gardenia, violets, and leather briefcase, with a bit of citrus (bergamot?) in the top which is not apparent in my other bottles. The small bottle from the collection is lovely but a little bit schizophrenic, with lots of green herbs followed by violets, and then an astringent, vetiverlike leather. You get Bitter, then Sweeeet, then Bitter again. It’s utterly fascinating, a sandwich cookie of Freakishly exaggerated and Pretty in the middle.
The various bottles of extrait all last varying lengths of time on skin, from about three hours to six. I think this variation must be a function of age – that tiny bottle seems the most concentrated, probably due to evaporation. Sillage is very gentle.
My EdT bottle looks like this. (Apparently it had belonged to an elderly woman who’d gone into a nursing home, and her niece was selling some of her aunt’s china knickknacks, purses and bottles of perfume, so I don’t actually know how old it is. I just know it’s not the current packaging.) I admit to tossing the goofy white bow, because it made cap removal and replacement fiddly, and also because it just looks dumb. This is a hideous bottle, I think – all the charm of the classic Balmain packaging is gone. Round shoulders, gilded-plastic cap, plain gray paper label; the appearance adds up to Insipid and Boring. Hmph. It’s all the more ridiculous because the fragrance inside the EdT bottle is sharply tailored, no-nonsense, Invisible Armor and don’t you forget I’m in charge! in a way that the extrait is not. Weird the extrait may be, with its stark contrasts between green herbs, gardenia and violet, and leather, but it isn’t as aggressive as the EdT. I wear the EdT on days when I need extra backbone. To be honest, I’d contradict the P:TG reviews – Jolie Madame in EdT is the heartless one, not Chanel No. 19. The EdT lasts about four hours on me (on the long side of my average experience with most EdTs), and throws a little more sillage than the extrait. In fact, it’s a little more sillage than I usually like, but when I’m wearing the EdT, I don’t feel like being nicey-nice and polite, so that’s all to the good.
(I stay away from The CEO on those days, too – he really dislikes the EdT of Jolie Madame. He doesn’t care much for the extrait, either, but it is softer and wears closer to the skin. Sometimes I’ll layer a dab of some sweet violet thing like Soivohle Violets & Rainwater or Goutal La Violetta next to the extrait, just to tone down the bitterness, and he doesn’t seem to mind that combination.)
I’d never have guessed how much I would love the old Jolie Madame (“pretty lady” in French, which seems a bit inadequate to describe how it really smells). Love leather? Me? But I do. I treasure my little bottles of extrait, only wearing it when I can devote some time to enjoying the experience. It is really beautiful.
I have not smelled the modern version, which I understand is somewhat thinner and brighter but not entirely ruined by reformulation. If you’ve smelled what they’re currently putting out in that very-elegant rectangular bottle as well as the vintage, please share. (Oh, and if you’re concerned about my favorite white shirt – it survived. The stain came out, but the shirt carried a faint whiff of Jolie Madame for weeks.)
Besides the Now Smell This review mentioned above, here are some other reviews of Jolie Madame: Bois de Jasmin, March at Perfume Posse, Grain de Musc (brief mention), Olfactarama (brief mention), Sweet Diva, Perfume Shrine, Yesterday’s Perfume.