Vintage Venture Perfume Review: Balmain Jolie Madame

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.

Oh, my.

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 exactlyflowers 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 JasminMarch at Perfume Posse,  Grain de Musc (brief mention), Olfactarama (brief mention), Sweet DivaPerfume Shrine, Yesterday’s Perfume.

Top Image: Jolie Madame from Parfum de Pub, via NST.  Second Image: Colors Perfumes and Tastes of the Wood by Giancarlo Mella at flickr.com.  Third Image: Jolie Madame from salenetone at ebay.

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21 thoughts on “Vintage Venture Perfume Review: Balmain Jolie Madame”

  1. I am pretty much a vintage virgin, but I do know the regular Jolie Madame that turns up in T K Maxx and is doubtless the most recent version. It is a half way house between the horror that is present day Cabochard (though it came from a good year! : – ) ) and something leathery that I really rather like. And JM is more in the latter camp than the former – probably 70% congenial, 30% ooh errr…

  2. Mals, you write so beautifully – I love reading your posts! Thanks for sharing your perfume expertise with us and keep it up. 🙂

    I have yet to be bitten by the vintage bug. Trying to focus on newer releases so as not to become disheartened when I can’t find what I want. Unfortunately, though, so many of the new releases are awful! Cheap formulas with high price tags. Disappointing. Niche (that seemingly taboo word now in the fragrance “niche” business) seems to be the only hope for the future. If I were to travel back in time I’d want to find vintage Rive Gauche and vintage Poison (yes, you heard me correctly – ha!). And I’m curious about a drugstore scent called Ritz by Charles of the Ritz. I remember it smelling like coca-cola! Would be so much fun to smell it again…

    1. Karin, thank you so much. But I have to say it’s definitely not “expertise,” just my experiences with scent that I’m sharing.

      You are probably wise to stay away from the Vintage Rabbit Hole. It’s tough to climb out of. (Poison?? Gosh, back in the day Poison was so scary. It did really smell like it was halfway out to kill you. I don’t remember Ritz, though.)

      New mainstream releases have not been impressive, have they? Gucci Flora was nice, YSL Parisienne was utterly fascinating for fifteen minutes and then merely meh, Beyonce’s newest was heeeediously sweet… Sigh. And we can look forward to Jennifer Aniston’s new No-Perfume perfume, too, whee!

      1. I just placed an order for Chanel 19. I know. Reformulated. But looks like even the reformulated version is on it’s way out…at least here in the U.S.!

      2. (jaw dropping in shock) Oh, say it ain’t so! We’re all gonna be at the mercy of No-Perfume Perfume and the Fruities…

        No. 19 discontinued in the US. I can’t believe it…

  3. Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it all that???

    Brutal nectar. No, challenging nectar. No, tie you up and kiss you nectar. Oh, I give; what *you* said. 🙂

    Chuckling at Flittersniffer’s evaluation of the current version, though I have to say, I get a higher percentage of congenial. But that vintage juice…. I know someone who has a full bottle, and wears it beautifully. I’ve decided No. 19 is my vintage grail. Because otherwise, I’d be chasing so many butterflies with a small net that has no bottom. (Did that image register as difficult and likely to fail? It’s getting late…)

    Lovely post.

    1. Oh, SS, it really is All That. (“Tie you up and kiss you,” that’s fabulous!)

      I have, by and large, satisfied myself with very small representative bottles of vintage stuff. The exceptions: No. 5 parfum (3 bottles), No. 19 edt (1 big one, two minis), Emeraude (my lips are sealed on this one), and Jolie Madame extrait (I already told you about them).

  4. Wow! Now I think I’ll go and let eBay search one for me as well.
    Like FS, I’m pretty much a vintage virgin but I no longer want to be one! 🙂

    1. Ines, there were so many good and interesting and intelligent scents that are no longer produced. Not to say that the current stuff is junk, though – I just tested a relatively recent one that’s terrific (HM Haute Couture).

      Be careful of the Rabbit Hole! 🙂

    1. Ari, I think it is the new stuff, based on the picture they display. Which, as I say, I haven’t smelled. At the same time, $13! That’s… oh, three cups at Starbucks, right?

  5. What a wonderful and fortuitous review! I just received a wee 1/8 ounce parfum extrait of Jolie Madame along with some 24, Faubourg in a swap. My bottle’s a little rectangular number that’s black and gold, and the contents are absolutely stunning! I get the herbal top notes with a bit of gardenia before the fragrance slides into the violet and leather part. It is definitely what I think of as one of my ‘serious business’ perfumes, and when I tested it beside 24, I had to laugh at how JM makes 24 look like a tiny good little kitten though 24’s quite the tigress on her own.

    I’ve dived face-first into the vintage rabbit hole. Besides replenishing my one ounce of Fracas extrait, scoring a .25 ounce bottle of Narcisse Noir extrait during an awesome sale (my, but that bottle’s just jaw-droppingly beautiful), and receiving my bottle of Jolie Madame today, I’ve fallen so hard for Bandit that I’m trying to decide just when I’ll be able to acquire some to calm the hyper lemming bouncing around in my brain. It will fit in perfectly with NN and JM, and they can hold their own in the corner of my cabinet, doing shots, smoking and taking turns gossiping and telling raunchy jokes to each other. I love them.

    This was a wonderfully accurate review and made me smile a great deal. Of course, my CEO smokes and loves leather jackets, so I don’t usually have to convince him very much if the frag has leather and/or tobacco. I don’t know when I’ll hit bottom, but I did try Chanel Cuir de Russie and it went on the list as well. Definitely not as bad girl as Bandit or Jolie Madame, but a refreshing alternative when I need a break from all my tropicals, florals or tropical florals. 🙂

    1. Hi, S! It really is just amazing stuff, isn’t it – the vintage JM? Theoretically, I’d be happy to get more of the gardenia from my little vintage bottles, but the truth is I’m so gobsmacked by what I do get that I don’t bother wishing for something other than what’s there.

      It does fascinate me that each bottle seems to age differently. I have two bottles of vintage No. 5 parfum – one that seems to be early 70’s and one from, I think, the 50’s – and have smelled samples from four other vintage No. 5 parfums, and every single one of them is different. They’re all No. 5, but subtly divergent.

      I love narcissus but have yet to smell vintage NN – the current version is absolutely insipid and full of orange blossom, which isn’t a favorite of mine. I was disappointed. (Just this week, I received some samples from DSH Perfumes, one of which was narcissus absolute in jojoba oil. It is beautiful. If it lasted a little longer, it could be a perfume all on its own, it’s so complex and lovely.)

      Bandit scared me. But I can see it lounging on your shelf with JM and NN, and turning it into Sin City… Good for your husband, for liking those gutsy leather dames! Have you tried Cuir de Lancome?

  6. I remember with fondness the Jolie Madame my mother used to wear when she was dressing up for a party and I was a child. I recently ordered a new bottle (didn’t know they had reformulated it) and what a horrible disappointment! PLEASE, does anyone know where I can get the vintage Jolie Madame? I would be so grateful!

    1. Hi, Ali, thanks for dropping by to comment. I don’t know where you live, but I have had great luck finding old bottles on ebay.

      Were you looking for the parfum? There is a half-ounce bottle of that available right now (I typed “vintage jolie madame” in the search box and it came up) on ebay.

      It is harder to find than some fragrances – seems like everyone’s Aunt Minnie had Arpege and Evening in Paris and No. 5, but Jolie Madame is rarer. You might have to be patient and look over several months, but I wish you luck!

      Or here’s a link to one that might be the older edt: http://cgi.ebay.com/JOLIE-MADAME-BALMAIN-1-7-EDT-SPRAY-WOMEN-TST-Rare-/270692913180?pt=fragrance&hash=item3f068e101c
      I’m not affiliated with that seller, and you might want to send a message to make SURE that the bottle in the picture is the one you would get and not simply a stock photo, but that’s the packaging that my edt is in, and it’s pretty nice.

  7. Thank you SO much for the tip! I went right to ebay and purchased it…and I thought it was worth paying the full $14 as I really thought it was worth it! Now for a very ignorant question…what does EdT mean? thanks again…

  8. Not to worry, I’m deeply embarrassed to realize that it means Eau de Toilette. Looking forward to receiving my vintage EDT !

  9. malnano86 I have an original bottle of Jolie Madame and it’s about 2 inches tall. The color is exactly the way you described like iced tea. I treasure it because it belonged to my mother. The bottle is atleast 36-37 yr. old. It still smells beautiful. I put a little on the other day, and it did last easily 6 or more hrs. The cap is round, and this one is black. The label does sits on the corner of the bottle. The label is black with white writing. My mother also had a larger bottlle, but the perfume is all gone. The smaller bottle is about less than 1/2 full. Would be nice if they started selling the vintage Jolie again, I would buy it.:)

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