Have you ever played the game where you compose a dinner party of any guests that you want? With all four leaves in my dining room table I can seat twelve people. I haven't chosen all the guests yet, but I'm tentatively down for Dolly Parton, M. F. K. Fisher, Jimmy and Roslyn Carter, Charlie Chaplin — and perfumer Germaine Cellier. Germaine Cellier is the nose behind an astonishing list of list of fragrances, including one of my favorites, Balmain Jolie Madame.
According to a profile of the perfumer by Jeannine Mongin for the Société Française des Parfumeurs, Germaine Cellier was a tall, thin blonde with an unerring sense of style (she favored Balmain suits) and a dirty mouth. She studied chemistry and during World War II worked for Colgate Palmolive scenting soap. She lived in Montparnasse, modeled for André Derain, and was friends with Jean Cocteau. She kept three dachshunds named Cléopatra, Félix, and Valentin and a parrot who could sing Etoile des Neiges. She was imperious, generous, opinionated, and never married but spent the last thirty years of her life shacked up with a tennis pro. If Cellier were alive today, she'd be exactly 100 years old.
And, of course, she made marvelous, groundbreaking perfumes. Balmain Vent Vert, which she created in 1945, was the first truly modern green fragrance. She also created Piguet Bandit, Piguet Fracas, Balmain Monsieur Balmain, and Nina Ricci Coeur Joie. As Mongin wrote (and this is my translation of her French — francophones would do better to read the original article): "Germaine Cellier composes in perfume without constraint, without prejudice, with genius, in the manner of a painter...Her creations are daring, straightforward, a little brutal. She transposes Fauvism and abstract art into perfumerie."
In 1953, Cellier created Jolie Madame for Pierre Balmain. The fragrance was so successful that Balmain named a line of designs after it. Jolie Madame's notes include gardenia, artemisia, bergamot, coriander, neroli, jasmine, tuberose, rose, jonquil, orris, patchouli, oakmoss, vetiver, musk, castoreum, leather, and civet. This list makes Jolie Madame sound like a thief broke into a florist's shop and shoveled everything he could into his leather satchel. Really, though, Jolie Madame smells like sharp green leaves, violets, and leather.
Think about the genius behind this combination. The upfront green gives the perfume liveliness and energy. The violets are womanly and elegant. The leather lets you know that the woman wearing Jolie Madame will kick your keister around the block if you mess with her. Yet somehow these disparate elements feel made for each other, a surprising and memorable combination — just as I imagine Cellier was.
The new and vintage versions of Jolie Madame Eau de Toilette are subtly different. I like them both. Vintage Jolie Madame is less stridently green at first and its leather feels richer and silkier than the new version. It shifts subtly through a bright opening and delicate violets supported by sun-ripened spring flowers, and soon you find yourself breathing soft, full leather fluffed with sandalwood and marveling at how smooth the ride was. The new version has a clunkier transmission. It opens with a green as bright as a galbanum and hyacinth cocktail then abruptly turns crisp violet and leather. After half an hour on my skin, both the new and vintage Jolie Madame smell similar, with the vintage's leather a little more animalic. They both wear close to the skin and don't last much longer than four hours.
A 100 ml bottle of Balmain Jolie Madame Eau de Toilette is easy to find at discounters for a good price.
Note: images via Parfum de Pub.