I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the price of fragrances. Specifically, the question of astronomical pricing in the super-luxury niche market, and people’s reactions to it. It is something that comes up whenever I review fragrances from certain brands or luxury collections, most recently the newest Serge Lutens Section d’Or parfums. For me, it’s not as cut-and-dry an issue as it seems to be for others. The “tl;dr” summation for those who want the bottom-line is that, for all my eye-rolling, $600, $800, $1000-and-up price tags don’t really offend me, I refuse to instantly, automatically condemn fragrances bearing them, and I think it’s important both to keep an open mind and to judge things on the particulars. The rest of this post will explain my thoughts and personal reasons why.
Sometimes, you just have to experience something, and forget about all practical considerations. That was the thought that drove me to the very exclusive environs of JAR Parfums in Paris. JAR is a perfume brand that is often spoken about in hushed tones, and which reeks of inaccessibility. The perfumes are the creation of one of the world’s most expensive, famous, secretive, and idiosyncratic jewellers, Joel Arthur Rosenthal, who simply goes by his initials as JAR. To really understand what the JAR perfume experience is like, you have to understand who JAR, the man, is first.
Forbes’ Magazine has a piece entitled The Cult of Jar which explains some of the jeweller’s mystique and legend:
[The] creator is a secretive, eccentric artist called, by Diane von Furstenberg, the Fabergé of our time.
This jeweler certainly knows how to make his products sought-after. Born Joel Arthur Rosenthal, he affects to be known, in the manner of Prince or Christo, by a single name: JAR (no periods). His shop in Paris’ Place Vendôme has no display window, no regular hours. It does not advertise and opens its doors to only a select few, including Elizabeth Taylor, Elle Macpherson, Barbara Walters, Ann Getty, Mary Pinault and Jo Carole Lauder (and reportedly Marie-Josée Kravis, Marella Agnelli and Princess Firyal of Jordan). [Gwyneth Paltrow and the philanthropist, Mrs. Lily Safra, are clients, as well.]
The craftsmen in Switzerland and France turning out his creations produce only 70 to 80 pieces a year, each of them one of a kind and many designed with a particular buyer in mind. He reserves the right to refuse to sell an item if he doesn’t think it would look good on the intended wearer.
That last sentence is actually not an exaggeration. I’ve heard a lot about JAR’s refusal to sell millions of dollars worth of jewellery if he doesn’t think it would suit a buyer’s personal style. In his defense, he has been quoted as saying, “I am not arbitrary. If you happen to have ideas and defend them, people make you into a dragon. Getting the right things on the right people is part of making those things[.]” I’ve heard that his refusal to sell his extremely exclusive jewels (apparently only about 250 women in the world own one of his pieces) can result even from such small matters as his disapproval of a client’s fragrance.
It may be hyperbole, and part of the whole mystique, but one thing is for certain: Joel Arthur Rosenthal has very definite ideas on perfumery. He began his line in the 1980s, with the motto: “JAR does not believe scent can be rationalized. Fragrance is an emotion.” The blog, Style Sight, quotes more of Mr. Rosenthal’s perspective in an article that focuses specifically on the New York Bergdorf Goodman store:
[It] is in a hushed alcove at Bergdorf Goodman in NYC [… and] so hidden that many Bergdorf employees don’t even know of its existence. There, the seven perfumes are displayed with a price tag of up to $380 an ounce. Although he has never revealed the notes in his fragrances, they contain the finest high-quality materials and are exceptionally concentrated to extend the wear on the skin. “It’s fragrance the way it was originally meant to be experienced way back when,” explained our JAR specialist. The perfumes do not contain the typical top, middle, and base notes. Rather, they blend together for an unpredictable release. The Bolt of Lightning fragrance takes 10 minutes to develop on the skin.
Inside the boutique, a specially trained JAR representative takes you on a fragrant journey, offering a series of lidded glass containers from which the scent rises. They are instructed not to sell, and just guide visitors through the JAR experience. “Part of the pleasure of perfume,” said Rosenthal, “is where it comes from–literally the shop it comes from. If you can buy something anywhere in the world, as is almost always the case today, the pleasure and mystery of the source of the thing is gone.”
I was hesitant to enter his Paris perfume store because, frankly, his fragrances (which can be far more than $380) are outside my budget, but when there are only two places in the entire world which carry a particular line, and you are standing mere feet away from one of them…. well, it seemed damn foolish not to give it a try. I pushed open the heavy glass door to JAR at 14, rue Castiglione (a few doors down from Jovoy), and thought to myself: “Well, here goes nothing.” I had no expectations for what I was going to experience, except that I had been told that you can’t sniff the perfumes at will, you can’t put it on your skin, you can’t sample them, you can’t take photographs, and… well, basically, you can’t do anything but submit to the experience that JAR wants you to have. To my surprise, I had an absolutely lovely time that engaged me on a very intellectual level. Ironically, for the most part, JAR is all about the senses, and not about the mind. Intentionally so.
So, what is it like? From the outside, the boutique doesn’t even appear to be a perfume destination; the discreet facade barely proclaims its presence at all, let alone the fact that it is the passion project of one of the world’s most exclusive jewellers. As you push open the heavy, glass door, you enter a small, narrow room decorated in purple velvet and mirrors. It’s not imperial Roman purple, nor a true eggplant purple, but more of a dusty plum-mauve. The velvet coats the walls and all the tables, creating an elegant, opulent cocoon where all sounds are stilled and hushed. Mirrors hang on the three velvet walls, while overhead is a crystal chandelier which hangs low from a painted ceiling. It’s a fresco of a dark, stormy sky, marked by a large bolt of lightning. Your overall impression is a plum, velvet jewellery box decorated with crystal and gold.
Right below the chandelier, in the center of a room, is a table with two or three plum, velvet, straight-backed chairs, and whose surface is covered with an array of glass cloches. There are six, round, glass coverings in a circle, each lying over a glass plate that contains some sort of fabric (silk?) infused with perfume. In the center of the circle is a seventh glass bowl containing a small, oval bottle with a pink, jeweled lid nestled in a pile of tiny, dried, crimson rosebuds. It is the very first JAR fragrance, called Golconda, but I’m afraid I can’t recall how it smelled beyond the central rose note. Speaking of my memory, I’m afraid it’s rather hazy on quite a few of the JAR perfume specifics, as I was not able to take notes. (Much more to the point, I had arrived in Paris after partying in the South of France, with perhaps a maximum of 12 hours sleep in four days, if even that.)
Upon my arrival in JAR’s hushed, elegant environs, the manager came out and greeted me. As I later learned, his name is Jozsef, and I think he was quite key to my JAR perfume experience. Jozsef is a tall, courteous, handsome, very serious man in his early 40s (I think) with dark hair, elegantly chiseled high bone structure, a quiet smile, and beautiful, piercing, sensitive, blue-grey eyes. I told him that I knew of the JAR rules and that I was in his hands, but I also informed him up front that I was a perfume blogger who wanted to write about the experience.
Jozsef removed the first glass jar covering, starting with the one around the front center left side of the circle at what would be the six o’ clock mark on a clock. The cloche had a name etched in the glass, but I didn’t see it as Jozsef extended it to me, inverted, for me to take a sniff of the aroma molecules coating its interior. I’m someone who has difficulty in getting to the core essence of a fragrance on the blasted paper strips, so this was even more elusive for me. For someone who loves details, facts and analysis, it was a bit frustrating, I must admit. I remember giving Jozsef my impressions, but he said nothing, neither confirming nor denying the notes that I suspected. It is not the JAR philosophy. He then gave me the perfume’s name; I cannot recall it, but I do remember that the perfume left me largely unmoved. As did the next two.
I think it was around the third glass cloche that we had the discussion which really made JAR a memorable part of my Paris perfume visit. In essence, it was a vigorous debate on what should be the perfume experience, about two extremely polarized perfume philosophies, and what constitutes honesty versus PR/marketing. There are few things I enjoy more than a spirited, intellectual discussion, and Jozsef (speaking on behalf of his employer) made me — temporarily at least — really question the essence of what should be the perfume experience, or one’s approach to fragrances.
It began when I told Jozsef how the JAR experience was completely antithetical to my personal approach as a blogger. My goal is to dissect a perfume down to its notes, hour by hour, or minute by minute even, and arming my readers with absolutely every single piece of information that they may possibly find useful. From my personal breakdown to the quoted assessment of others, my reviews are intended to avoid generalized, purely sensory generalizations or impressions. I want to be as detailed and comprehensive as possible, giving you a starting point from which you can then explore more. I think it does a reader absolutely no good at all to talk about abstract emotions or fanciful stories, without also giving you the specific details of what the hell the perfume actually smells like, from the first minute to the very last one.
JAR represents the exact polar opposite of that philosophy. In fact, I don’t think you could find a more singularly contrary perspective to my own if you tried! After I had explained to Jozsef the reasons for my approach, he countered with his own (or, to be precise, with Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s) rebuttal: perfume is meant to be a sensory experience and a highly personal, subjective, emotional one at that. Moreover, it’s dishonest for some perfume houses to lead you by reference to such factual details as notes. For example, if you go to a store and tell the assistant what notes you like, you are directed to certain fragrances and — in the JAR philosophy — that’s rather limiting. Why not explore on the basis of your senses and without prejudgment? Is it in fact honest to direct you like sheep to certain things through marketing, names, a list of notes, and a factual context, when it may condition your responses to the scent?
Intellectually, I can completely see his point. Perhaps JAR’s philosophy respects the client more, by giving them free will and believing that they have an unlimited potential to like different sorts of things. There is no doubt that perfume is all about the senses, and where a particular fragrance will transport you is very personal. I think we all agree on that. So, is JAR actually giving people and their instinctive ability to respond to aromas the greatest amount of respect by not limiting clients to predetermined little boxes?
While I was impressed by the theoretical implications of all this, I was wholly unconvinced on a practical level. The simple reality is that I just don’t like certain notes. You can tell me until kingdom come that I should be open-minded to go where the aroma takes me, but the truth is that I wouldn’t like something like synthetic, clean, white musk (let alone that hideous ISO E Super) if you put a gun to my head. Plus, I’m not one who enjoys a lack of control, especially not at niche perfume prices. As a former lawyer with some obsessive-compulsive issues involving details, I demand facts, and I need to have some (very precise) idea of what on earth is going on.
Still, JAR is not about trying to convince you that you like something you don’t; JAR is merely telling you that you should make up your mind for yourself. Sniff something without preconceived notions, and then make up your mind from there. If you love it, great. If you don’t, then that’s fine too. But at least give things a chance without the influence of specific notes, detailed facts, or a sales assistant’s hard sale to sway your perspective.
Honestly, JAR may have a point. And, I’m afraid to say, Jozsef concretely proved that precise point later on in the visit. As he extended one of the glass cloches, I inhaled deeply at the inverted glass, and murmured, “grassy, earthy notes. A damp forest with green notes, then a floral.” I smelled that cloche at least twice, if not perhaps three times, and the primary thing I detected was a green, almost earthy, damp forest floor smell. The floral aspect was always secondary.
You know what that perfume turned out to be? Jardenia (which may be written as JARdenia, perhaps), a fragrance that some consider to the epitome of a gardenia scent. Now, granted, gardenia doesn’t technically have a true aroma of its own and is often reconstituted from other elements. And, at least one Fragrantica commentator noted that JARdenia has a grassy, earthy, almost “mushroomy” scent similar to what I detected from that glass covering. Still, the real point is that I would never have thought “gardenia” as the immediate, automatic aroma of that fragrance when smelled blindly. Upon hearing the name, however, my mind did immediately connect to the flower, and translate the molecules that I sniffed into what my mind has registered or programmed as “gardenia.”
It rather proves Jozsef’s point. Had I known the perfume’s name prior to sniffing it blindly, then I would immediately have made a mental association between the obvious olfactory note, and what I detected. However, when free of all preconceived notions, I primarily detected something else. I was not mentally transported to a hot-house with lush, blowsy gardenias, nor did I visualise a languid, sensuous 19th-century courtesan whose pillowy, white flesh reeked of opulently indolic flowers (as I did once in the past when it came to a white floral fragrance by Grossmith). No, instead, I smelled the green earthiness of a forest first and foremost.
Think about all those people who dread the richness, potency, or indolic nature of white florals like gardenia. They immediately eschew a fragrance when hearing it is centered upon that note. However, as my experience may suggest, perhaps they are inherently limiting their options and boxing themselves into unnecessarily narrow, predetermined categories of taste by making such judgments. Perhaps the JAR philosophy is far from being rigid, and is actually more freeing at the end of the day? At the very least, I think it is an intellectual approach that is worth debate, instead of merely rejecting it as the eccentric, difficult, possibly cantankerous rules of an incredibly wealthy jeweller who has made perfume his passion project without concern for the traditional, conventional system.
As for the rest of the perfumes, some were my cup of tea, and some weren’t. Two of them, however, made me sit up and blink. The first was JARling which Fragrantica classifies as an Oriental Vanilla and which it says includes “star anise, spices, vanilla and heliotrope.” I can’t recall the exact aroma, but I really liked it.
It was nothing, however, as compared to the next one which Jozsef informed me had no name. There was, however, a bolt of lightning on the glass cloche and the fragrance is often referred to as such. I asked Jozsef if he had heard about the new American television series, Hannibal, which focuses on Hannibal Lecter’s early life and which had a whole dinner scene devoted to the beauty of JAR’s Bolt of Lightning. He smiled, and said that someone had told him about it the week before. He also pointed to the painted ceiling of the room where a large bolt of lightning streaked across a darkened, stormy sky.
As I’ve said a number of times in the past, I struggle with a perfume’s smell on paper strips. I simply can’t get at the essence or notes unless the perfume is actually on my skin. JAR never gives samples,but Jozsef was kind enough to put Bolt of Lightning on my arm, and it took my breath away. It was very different than what I had smelled in the cloche, and so much more beautiful. Immediately, I detected white flowers that were somewhat mentholated from heavy indoles. To be specific, I thought I smelled orange blossoms, but looking now at Fragrantica, Bolt of Lightning is a floral oriental that supposedly features tuberose. Given how JAR never releases the notes, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were orange blossoms in there too, but perhaps my nose is merely broken. Either way, it was gorgeous. In fact, the perfume almost brought me to tears, and that has never happened. Simply exquisite, whatever the hell its specific notes may be.
Naturally, however, my favorite perfume also turns out to be THE most expensive one from a house that is hardly cheap to begin with. If I recall correctly, Bolt of Lightning retails for €600 or $825 for a single ounce of parfum. There is a reason why Bolt of Lightning is on all the magazine lists of the most expensive perfumes in the world (per ounce). Other JAR fragrances are much cheaper (though we’re talking about the absolute wonkiest scale of relativity here), but Bolt of Lightning surpasses them all. If I had the money, I would absolutely buy it but, as I had made clear to Jozsef early on, I certainly could not afford it.
My experience at JAR left a mark on me in a few ways. I continue to think about the idea of preconceived notions. It is something I had previously explored a bit in my satirical courtroom review of Etat Libre d’Orange‘s notorious Secretions Magnifiques. As noted in that review, I suspect that a small, tiny portion of people filter what they smell through the lens of preconceived notions, the fragrance’s notoriety, and their existing knowledge of its notes. For some, the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve smelled far more horrid fragrances, and I have to wonder what the result would be if people approached Secretions Magnifiques in the JAR way, blindly.
Another thing I ponder quite a bit is Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s unique position as a perfumer. This is a man who has the good fortune, metaphorically and literally, to make perfumes his way, to paraphrase the old Frank Sinatra song. He has chosen to approach them as art, without concern to their saleability or accessibility. If you like them, can afford them and buy them, great. If not, it doesn’t matter because he’s doing it for himself. He ostensibly creates them without the help of any trained nose, without regard to the usual rules about perfume pyramids and structure, and without giving the smallest damn if he sells any at all. You could call it a “vanity project,” or you could argue that his approach perhaps meets the purest definition of art as art. There isn’t a single commercial consideration involved. Instead, it is all entirely personal, and a creative extension of himself. Does it really matter what the perfumes are like, or what their specific notes are, when the original impetus is pure individualism and self-expression without submitting to what others may think or do?
Very few people are lucky enough to be in Mr. Rosenthal’s position, and I think we’re all probably a little envious. Wouldn’t you want to be able to create your own perfumes, without concern to financial cost or profit? I certainly would. I think it helps to approach JAR’s perfumes in that light, and with an understanding of the underlying philosophy, as opposed to how one would approach regular, normal fragrances. JARling, JARdenia, Bolt of Lightning, and its siblings are not intended to be something like a Dior or Guerlain perfume. On some levels, they’re not even actually intended for you. They’re the love child of a man who has the total freedom to express himself as he wants, and the rules be damned.
Everything about JAR is a different world, and that’s what made it so fascinating for me. It is an absolutely unique perfume experience from start to finish. And I cannot thank Jozsef enough for all of it. There were a few people who came in as he was walking me through the seven or eight cloches on the table; each time, with incredible courteousness, he made them feel welcome and attended to, but without leaving his demonstration for me or pushing me out the door. Instead, he asked them if it would be possible for them to return in 10-15 minutes so that he could devote himself to them fully. He spent a considerable amount of time with me, debating the finer points of the JAR philosophy, and even sharing some of his own perfume tastes. (He loves vintage Opium, which pretty much sealed the deal for me in terms of how fabulous I thought him to be! And, a long time ago, he used to wear one of my favorite, comfort scents, Karl Lagerfeld‘s Lagerfeld cologne.)
Jozsef gave me permission to photograph the store, which is an incredibly rare privilege. Unfortunately, as I’ve stated numerous time by now in writing about my Paris experiences, my bloody camera seems to have chosen this time in which to die and seemed to have a particular neurosis about taking crisp, non-blurry photos of perfume in specific. I am rather horrified by how terrible my JAR photos turned out to be (even the few that weren’t wholly unusable and which I’ve included here), so I can only apologise to Jozsef. By the way, I was even allowed to take a picture of Jozsef himself, but I was informed that he would hunt me down and throttle me if I posted it. He gave a small grin as he said it, but obviously I will respect his wishes. I will say, though, that I thought he looked like an extremely intellectual, serious, distant cousin to Jim Caveziel, and that’s a compliment.
All in all, I think JAR is something that every really serious perfumista should experience. It’s not about the perfumes and their price; it’s about the completely unique philosophical perspective that Mr. Rosenthal brings to the perfume discussion. It’s about reconsidering how one sees one’s own perfume tastes, the basis upon which we make our judgments, and the very theory upon which perfume is presented or marketed to the general public. It may be a very abstract discussion triggered by a man who is not subject to the common norms or to the practical considerations of the usual perfume house, and none of it may be very realistic for the average perfume buyer (as opposed to a hardcore perfumista), but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss his opinion without giving it a chance. Mr. Rosenthal has a very original voice to match his unusual fragrances, and a philosophy that I found that worthy of respect. The ultimate irony, however, is that the man who wants us to stop thinking analytically and intellectually about perfumes impressed me precisely because he made me think….