Balmain‘s vintage Jolie Madame — an exquisite chypre that turns into a softly animalic floral leather then into a suede-like floral — was created by the legendary Germaine Cellier but it is not one of her creations that I hear people commonly talk about, unlike Bandit, Fracas or, to a comparatively lesser extent, Vent Vert. That’s a shame because I think that Jolie Madame has a heartbreaking tenderness and delicacy which I find largely missing in those bolder, more operatic masterpieces. In essence, Jolie Madame is like Chopin or Vivaldi, not Wagner or Beethoven.
To be clear, I love Beethoven, enjoy some Wagner, am passionate about vintage Fracas, and I find Bandit to be beautiful (but brutal with its galbanum, my kryptonite), so the differences are not negative but one of personality, style and/or vibe. Relative to Cellier’s va-va-voom Fracas or Bandit’s more butch, unapologetic boldness, I find that there is a greater delicacy to Jolie Madame in its contrasts and with its kaleidoscopic soft harmony, particularly in the vintage eau de toilette concentration. There is a time and place for this sort of fragrance just as there are for Cellier’s other creations.
Here in Part I, I’ll describe the bouquet and development of that vintage EDT along with the vintage parfum and also provide a comparative assessment.
In Part II, I’ll cover the bottle and packaging differences over the decades for each concentration in case you’re interested in getting a vintage Jolie Madame for yourself. I’ll also discuss which years I think you should focus on, what to look for, prices, sellers, and some of the problems in assessing the date of a bottle.
HISTORY, REFORMULATIONS, & NOTES:
Jolie Madame was created by Germaine Cellier and released in 1953 in both eau de toilette and pure parfum/extrait concentrations.
I’m a little hazy on the timeline of its history after that point. The fragrance was discontinued at some unknown point, possibly the early 1990s (?), then brought back at some later point in a reformulated or re-imagined version created by Calice Becker before being discontinued again around 2014. I don’t know if the scent returned one more time after that, but I doubt it and I can tell you that Balmain does not mention fragrances on its website these days.
Also, I’m unclear about when and how often the pre-1990s versions were reformulated. One well-established vintage Etsy seller noted that her eau de toilette (hereinafter “EDT”) was an old 1970s version but was released before the reformulation that followed when the company started using batch code numbers (aka “EMB” numbers), which was also in the 1970s. So, there was at least one reformulation during the 1970s, but I don’t know the exact year in which batch codes were adopted. (I’m assuming that Jolie Madame was also reformulated at some point between 1953 and the 1970s since almost all fragrance houses reformulate their creations roughly every 5-7 years after the launch.)
This review will be for what I believe is a 1970s vintage parfum and a 1960s eau de toilette.
Barbara Hermann, the perfume historian, author, and vintage perfume blogger at Yesterday’s Perfumes, lists Jolie Madame’s notes as follows:
Top notes: gardenia, artemisia, bergamot, coriander, neroli
Heart notes: jasmine, tuberose, rose, orris, jonquil [narcissus]
Base notes: patchouli, oakmoss, vetiver, musk, castoreum, leather, civet
Fragrantica has a slightly different and much longer list of materials:
Top notes are Artemisia, Coriander, Gardenia, Neroli, Bergamot, Petitgrain and Cloves;
middle notes are Violet Leaf, Narcissus, Orris Root, Tuberose, Rose, Jasmine, Lilac and Orange Blossom;
base notes are Leather, Oakmoss, Vetiver, Tobacco, Civet, Patchouli, Musk, Cedar and Coconut. [Format changes and bolding added by me.]
The notes on my skin were slightly closer to the Fragrantica list due to the inclusion of lilac, violet leaf, and orange blossom. There was also a creaminess to the scent that might possibly lend credence to their inclusion of coconut, though I’d like to stress that the creaminess was never tropical, fruity, foody, or reminiscent of suntan lotion in aroma. It was a purely textural thing. Also, I would add castoreum and aldehydes to the list because both appeared consistently in all my tests and in both concentrations.
Let’s move onto the olfactory details and experience.
THE VINTAGE EAU DE TOILETTE (1960s):
Vintage Jolie Madame EDT opens on my skin with exquisite, delicate florals set upon a chypre base. The precise floral pairings change not only from time to time over the course of the fragrances development but also from one wearing to the next. Generally, however, the opening centers upon beautifully fragrant, sweet, and lightly powdered lilacs which are joined several minutes later by dry-smelling narcissus. Sometimes jasmine and iris appear at the start, too, but not always.
The varying floral combinations are always woven together by crisp, refreshing citruses, then sprinkled with greenness that is alternatively crunchy like violet leaf, quietly pepper, or quietly herbal.
In the base, plush, aromatic oakmoss grows; in the skies above, aldehydes float like fluffy, clean cotton wool balls.
In a few wearings, a heady, creamy gardenia appears15 to 20 minutes in, accompanied by a clove-ish spiciness that fuses with the florals or the roses in a way that mimics or evokes spicy carnation.
In some wearings, a suggestion of civet pops up after 10 to 20 minutes, too, but it is not a clearly delineated, unmistakable note and it most certainly doesn’t impart any animalic or urinous aromas on my skin. Instead, it’s a sort of low-pitched buzziness imbued with muskiness, although the latter could also derive from the castoreum used in the base to create Jolie Madame’s subsequent leather accord.
In all wearings, the opening lilac-driven bouquet transitions into a narcissus-gardenia one. The timing varies, however, depending on wearing and on how much fragrance I’ve applied. The transition occurs anywhere from the 30-minute mark to the close of the first hour. (Dosage levels have a significant impact on Jolie Madame’s progression, so please keep that in mind as you read.)
The gardenia-narcissus stage is frequently accompanied by other elements but, as usual, they tend to vary from one day to the next. Half the time, a delicate smattering of pink roses swirls around. A few times, either the clove-ish “carnation” aroma, a cool and rooty iris/orris, or both together join the festivities as well. At still other times, there is only a dry, almost straw-like, green-tinged, and sunny narcissus layered with creamy, heady gardenia. The lilac has disappeared and the aldehydes have weakened, but the citruses that tie everything together remain.
So does the oakmoss base. However, in all wearings and roughly about 30-40 minutes in, it ceases to be purely green in visuals and begins to turn both darker and more complex. There are growing levels of a woody-spicy patchouli, more spiciness, and the first sense of musky leather imbued with that civet buzz mentioned above.
Vintage Jolie Madame EDT continues to cycle through different floral combinations and permutations, including one that is driven by jasmine, what smells like the fruity orange floralcy of orange blossom, and lingering traces of dry narcissus. I will spare you the play-by-play to focus instead on how the bouquet changes in larger, more significant ways.
First, starting at different times, the flowers begin to turn blurry, overlap, and start to lose individual delineation and clarity. When this occurs depends on how much scent I apply. With a small quantity – 2 sprays from the atomiser into which I’ve decanted the splash EDT or with the smeared splashed equivalent thereof – Jolie Madame begins to blur on me after just 20 minutes. With a larger amount – 4 atomiser sprays or the smeared splashed equivalent thereof – the process begins after roughly 50 to 55 minutes.
The second point worth noting is that vintage Jolie Madame EDT always changes fragrance families several times over the course of its lifetime. Most of the time it begins as a chypre before turning into a floral leather and then a floral. Occasionally, it starts as a pure floral before cycling through those three other genres. The timing varies and, as always, how much scent I apply impacts when these changes occur but, generally, with about 4 decant sprays, Jolie Madame turns into a floral leather somewhere between the 1.25 hour mark and the 1.75-hour one.
In most cases, the bouquet is consistent in scent: musky castoreum leather imbued with dry narcissus, a civet-y buzz, a subtle and muted ashy undertone (presumably from the birch tar), patchouli, spiciness, an increasingly faded and abstract mossy greenness, and one or more florals. The latter tends to consist of either rose, jasmine, narcissus, iris, or some combination thereof in varying and constantly fluctuating degrees. I should mention that, during this stage, there are no aldehydes, herbaceousness, or aromatics on my skin and only an occasional, muted suggestion of bergamot.
On occasion, the bouquet is simpler: castoreum leather with either narcissus, jasmine, rose, gardenia, or some combination thereof. It’s infused with just the faintest whisper of a civet-y buzz, patchouli, iris, and citrus, and the whole thing is extremely out-of-focus with the notes overlapping. This tends to be the version which pops up when I apply the smallest amount of scent possible. As you might be noticing, the more fragrance I apply, the more complex or nuanced the bouquet and the longer each micro-stage lasts.
Jolie Madame’s floral leather gradually turns creamy, velvety, and plush in texture in tandem with the leather incrementally dissolving into soft, smooth suede. I think these are two somewhat unrelated events. My guess is that the gardenia (and possibly also the alleged coconut?) are responsible for the textural creaminess. It lies over the leather like a coating but, separately, the leather’s castoreum gradually transitions from something dark and musky into something is, in itself, more textural and tactile than olfactory.
The cumulative effect eventually changes Jolie Madame’s fragrance family once again and results in the fragrance’s third main stage on my skin. This time, the bouquet is a pure floral – albeit a totally blurry, impressionistic floral – that is infused and smothered with thick creaminess and that also has a suede-like texture.
Once again, the timing of this stage varies from one wearing to another and depending on how much scent I apply. Generally, Jolie Madame begins to transition during the 3rd hour as the leather incrementally dissolves and the thickly velvety impressionistic floral blur takes over fully about 3.5 to 3.75 hours in (or late in the 4th hour). So, it lasts about an hour, at most. A few times, however, Jolie Madame’s leather stage only lasted about 30 or 35 minutes on me. Those were the times when I applied less scent.
In all cases, the floral suede or floral cream stage is a blur. There is absolutely no clarity by which to determine what the flowers are. On occasion, there are pops of jasmine or rose but those are fleeting and I have to sniff my arm hard to detect them. The bouquet is, by and large, one whose defining characteristics are its texture and a simple, sweet-smelling floral abstraction.
Jolie Madame remains this way until its final hours when it is merely sweet, plush creaminess with a subtle, muted floralcy imbued within.
Since Jolie Madame’s sillage and longevity depend on how much fragrance I apply, let me preface my numbers by saying that my Jolie Madame EDT is, like all the vintage EDTs prior to the 1980s, a splash bottle so that I decanted some into a spray for ease and convenience of use. For the purposes of this review, I have applied the fragrance both by smearing/splashing it on my forearm and by spraying it on.
With 4 sprays or the splashed equivalent thereof, Jolie Madame’s opening sillage is low. The EDT projects about 5 inches; there is no real trail or cloud around me unless I move my arm around my face and head. About 55 minute in, the projection has dropped to about 2.5 to 3 inches. There is still no scent trail around me. About 2.25 hours in, Jolie Madame projects about 0.5 inches above my skin, if that, but the fragrance doesn’t turn into a pure skin scent until the 3.5 hour mark or the middle of the 4th hour. In total, a 4-spray application yielded 8 to 8.5 hours in longevity, depending on test.
With a 2-spray application, the numbers were obviously even lower. In essence, you should shave off 75 to 90 minutes off what I’ve listed above. The longevity was usually, at most, about 6 to 6.25 hours, though it was sometimes less.
Vintage Jolie Madame EDT’s weak sillage is, in fact, one of my greatest issues with the scent. Yes, my skin eats through floral-dominant compositions like a ravenous termite, but I don’t seem to be the only one who has had problems with longevity or presence. A number of Fragrantica posters have mentioned that the EDT didn’t last long on them. One Twitter friend said that the opening chypre stage lasted a mere 20 minutes on her before the EDT became an ashy floral leather. Granted, she said she didn’t apply much scent but still, that’s not great. In essence, Jolie Madame skipped into its second main stage after just 20 minutes which means that it’s overall longevity had to have been curtailed or shortened as well. To be fair, she added that she thought the fragrance’s delicacy and short lifespan added to its heartbreaking appeal because its beauty was fleeting.
I’m not into that sort of olfactory heartbreak, so I was eager to try the vintage extrait in order to see if I fared any better. However, I found that the parfum had its own set of issues, on my skin at least.
THE VINTAGE PARFUM (1970s):
The 1970s parfum typically opens on my skin with a surprisingly (vintage) Opium-like bouquet. There is: sharp, brisk, and sweet bergamot that smells both green and ripe; fresh cleanness via aldehydes; juicy oranges; an impressionistic sense of indolic orange blossom; spicy patchouli; and a hint of syrupy, indolic jasmine – all woven together with thin filaments of muskiness and campfire smoke before being placed over a gorgeous, thick, vintage-smelling carpet of plush oakmoss greenness.
A few minutes later, the bouquet shifts. Green, sappy, sweet, heady lilacs join the party, then take over as the dominant floral focus after 10 minutes. As a lilac lover, I’m thrilled. What I particularly like about the parfum version of lilacs is that they are not powdery on my skin. Instead, they are sappy, liquid-y, and green enough to evoke hyacinths in my mind, my second favourite flower in both perfumery and life/nature.
I’ve tested the extrait 4 times since I received it and, while this is the opening in 3 of those tests, in the 4th, there was no noticeable lilac change or presence. Instead, the bouquet’s dominant floral component was syrupy, slightly indolic jasmine. In that 4th test, there was also no muskiness or quiet pops of birch tar’s campfire smoke. Finally, when the musk and/or smoke do appear, they don’t last long, typically disappearing after 10-15 minutes.
Vintage Jolie Madame parfum generally takes far longer to cycle through its stages than the EDT. There are also fewer to few micro-stages in comparison. It’s as though the richer, heavier concentration of oils elongates and draws everything out. Imagine pasta dough being manually stretched horizontally and you’ll have a sense of what I mean.
Furthermore, when Jolie Madame changes, it frequently does so in incremental degrees that take time to effect major, overarching change. For example, the lilac dissolves and fades away after 45 minutes. Ditto the orange blossom suggestion, the aldehydes, and the cloves.
Between the 45- and 90-minute marks, many of the notes turn out-of-focus and overlap. For example, after 60 minutes, the chypre base turns into a blur of plush but impressionistic greenness in which the various citruses are subsumed. 75 minutes in, the narcissus arrives; a creamy undertone begins to run through the base; and there are occasional pops of a heady, creamy gardenia. Yet, I wouldn’t describe them as crystal-clear in scent or shape, and I sometimes have to bring my nose closer to my arm to pull them.
In most of my tests of the vintage parfum, Jolie Madame turns, around the 90-minute point, into a rich but indistinguishable haze of sweet floralcy, crisp and sweet citruses, plush verdancy, and a quiet, almost ambered-like warmth, all coated with a thick layer of creaminess that is as much textural as olfactory, or maybe even more so. It doesn’t smell of either castoreum or gardenia, per se. It’s simply as though buttery and velvety clotted cream was overlaid and smeared over the florals, the oakmoss, the patchouli, spice, and other notes.
Like the vintage EDT, the parfum doesn’t follow a consistent path after its chypre stage. For example, in 3 of my 4 tests, it lacked any civet-ish buzz on my skin (at any point), and there also wasn’t any clear, easy-to-notice progression towards a leather-driven bouquet. That’s a big difference from the vintage EDT. My guess is that the waves of cream derived from the gardenia (and/or any coconut that may be in the scent?) have drowned out the tertiary notes that would signal a leather transition like, for example, the castoreum’s dark musk or any campfire smoke from the birch tar.
In 2 of my tests, Jolie Madame actually skipped the leather stage entirely! There was only the aforementioned opaque filter of cream lying on top of everything and a seemingly related layer of suede in the base. I can only guess that the castoreum turned into suede due to the impact of whatever material is responsible for the practically tactile buttery texture. While the result is enjoyable to wear, it is also unexpected. I had anticipated the vintage parfum yielding swathes of growling, feral darkness, not soft, buttery floral cashmere and suede that skew creamy in colour.
In a 3rd test of the 1970s parfum, however, the leather appears suddenly, all at once and without notice, just after the 1.25-hour mark. Sadly, it only lasts an hour, at most, on my skin but at least it’s there as promised.
The leather smells smoky, quietly ashy, but also musky, like a mix of castoreum and Cuir de Russie-style birch tar. It’s not, however, animalic or urinous on my skin, and there is no civet-y buzz. There is a quiet warmth to it, not precisely ambered in feel but also not cool or black-skewing in mental visuals the way some birch tar leathers can be. The leather isn’t dense or heavy in feel, either, but soft, supple, and somewhat weightless. Its companions are fluctuating and varying levels of a rooty iris, abstract golden floral sweetness, cool citrus and, once in a while, will o’ the wisp pops of daffodil-like narcissus, pink roses, soft gardenia, and spicy patchouli. The oakmoss recedes into the background where it is merely an muted and abstract green sliver, letting the leather take over as the star of the show. Most of the time, I can’t even pull out the greenness unless I sniff my arm hard and concentrate.
My 4th test was essentially a combination of the two versions listed above. There was both suede and musky quietly smoky, ashy birch tar leather. However, I’d estimate that the suede dominated by a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio. The cream seems to overtake everything on my skin more times than not, which is a bit of shame as I prefer the ashy, musky black leather stage followed by suede as I had experienced in the EDT.
Like the vintage EDT, the vintage parfum always transitions into a creamy floral during its third main stage. While the cream or suede continues to act as a sort of fishbowl filter or opaque lens distorting what lies underneath, the floral component generally seems to consist of a rather impressionistic, almost abstract syrupy jasmine with suggestions of a rosy-ish floral sweetness layered within.
Occasionally, there are tiny pops of something vaguely narcissus-like as well, but they rarely last for long. Just as with the vintage EDT, the defining characteristics of the bouquet are its texture and its overarching sense of floral sweetness.
And, like the vintage EDT, the timing of the stage varies. In half my tests, it began around the middle of the 4th hour or about 3.5 hours in. In my other two tests, once it began sooner, once roughly two hours later. It’s extremely difficult to parse or carve out with precision due to the creamy overlay that acts like an obscuring fog on my skin.
Vintage 1970s Jolie Madame parfum doesn’t change in any significant way on my skin after this. It’s essential a floral cream or floral suede until its last four hours when it becomes a simple textural velvetiness imbued with gradually decreasing, vaporish wisps of vaguely floral-scented sweetness.
Jolie Madame vintage parfum had, like many extraits, low sillage but very good longevity. I generally applied 3 to 4 smears across a broad patch of my forearm. With that amount, the fragrance opened with about 4-5 inches of scent, though there was no real cloud or trail around me. After 15 minutes, the sillage grew to about 8 inches and created a small bubble that lasted about an hour before the numbers dropped back to about 4 inches. 2.5 hours in, Jolie Madame projected about 2.5 inches above my skin. About 4.75 hours in, the scent projected about 0.5 inches. Jolie Madame parfum turned into a skin scent at the end of the 7th hour and start of the 8th, if we’re going to use projection as the standard, but it wasn’t difficult to detect if I put my nose on my arm. That changed around the start of the 10th hour. In total, Jolie Madame parfum typically lasted between 13 to 14 hours on my skin, depending on test.
COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS & OVERALL THOUGHTS ON BOTH:
When taken as a whole, Vintage Jolie Madame parfum isn’t a wildly different fragrance on my skin but there are three broad, overarching differences from the EDT. One of the most noticeable is that there are fewer floral permutations and a greater consistency in development as compared to the kaleidoscopic vintage EDT.
An even greater difference is the thick haze of cream that lies over everything almost from the start, creating an opaque lens through which one has to peer to discern the individual notes. Its thickness also obscures a number of the finer details, nuances, or changes which I experienced with the EDT.
The third major difference is that the EDT stages that I’ve described above are drawn out here, lasting roughly 60-90 minutes longer than in the EDT, if not longer.
The cumulative effect is the sense of a more monolithic, streamlined, and uncomplicated scent as compared to the EDT. But let me emphasize that these aspects of the scent are relative to the EDT. If I hadn’t tried the EDT first and many times over the years, I doubt that I would have ever noticed them.
I blame my personal skin chemistry for the parfum’s clotted cream fog and for the lack of a consistent, predictable, and major animalic leather stage the way that Jolie Madame is supposed to have. All other accounts invariably mention it. For example, Barbara Hermann of Yesterday’s Perfume said that the drydown on her skin had the floral “sweetness fading into leather and tobacco.” (She did not clarify whether she was writing about the eau de toilette or the parfum, nor did she say what era it was from.)
If the lack of substantial, enduring, and consistently appearing leather on my skin gives you pause, Bois de Jasmin‘s lovely 5 Star review for the vintage parfum should ease your mind. I particularly like it as she mentions the unpredictable nature of the scent. I’ll share two snippets of the review and then leave you to read the rest if you’re interested. I think it’s worth reading in full.
Meeting Balmain Jolie Madame for the first time is an encounter that leaves one intrigued by the unpredictable personality of this beautiful stranger. The dazzling shimmer of the green floral notes has a lighthearted character, however as soon as one is ready to see a smile of its dewy heart, the veil of leathery smokiness falls darkening the gentle features. […¶]
An exploration of Jolie Madame is like a journey, with the scenery changing unexpectedly. Falling into the remarkable lushness of the heart, one discovers that its verdancy hides a surprisingly dark and creamy touch. A swirl of white petals and one emerges into the radiant glow that oakmoss and amber cast upon the base. The dry warmth of the base spreads slowly, seductively tender and surprisingly assertive.
The backdrop of smoky leather dispels any misconceptions about Jolie Madame being merely pretty. […] The animalic darkness sets Jolie Madame apart from most of the feminine fragrances that tend to enjoy success at the moment. [Remainder snipped.]
On a purely olfactory level, the vintage EDT works better for me. I enjoy its nuances and details, its revolving door of micro-stages, its consistent leather stage, and the greater note clarity which ensues without all the obscuring creaminess of the parfum.
In terms of performance, however, I find the EDT to be frustrating in its weakness, lightness, thin body, and lack of presence. My personal skin chemistry is particularly poorly suited to making the best of this sort of composition, so maybe you’ll have more luck. Judging by some of the reviews on Fragrantica for the vintage EDT, however, I’m not the only one with this problem. (As a side note, a large number of the Jolie Madame reviews on Fragrantica are for the modern version, now discontinued, so you have to scroll through to find the ones for the original vintage fragrance.)
Next time, in Part II, we’ll look at different Jolie Madame parfum and EDT bottles and their packaging over the ages, including what the discontinued modern version looks like so that you don’t accidentally buy it when you’re looking for an older formula. We’ll cover what to look for in the pre-batch code era and after, what cap colours may signify, box wording, labels, and more. Though I’m far from an expert on dating fragrance bottle eras, I’ll share some basic pointers that I use to cut through the confusion as well as provide eBay and Etsy links to enable you to find a good vintage bottle.