When I was a child, I used to go into my parents’ bedroom and open up my mother’s perfume bottles. She had a pretty bottle of Bourjois Evening in Paris for special occasions, and she also liked a little-known scent called Devon Violets. She rarely wore either one, actually; back in those days perfume was considered to be a real luxury for people like us, and as a child of the Depression she had learned the hard lessons of frugality. Those bottles never seemed to get used up, and I do not remember what happened to them after we moved away from my childhood home.
Quite some years ago, I took my mother down to my local perfume boutique when she came out to visit from the East Coast. She had been there a couple of times before on her trips West, and she had even asked about whether or not Devon Violets was still on the market. (It was indeed, after a long hiatus, the company having been purchased by a new owner.) I wanted her to have something more special than a little bottle of violet cologne. I told her to try some real perfume and pick out something she liked. After testing old and new perfumes for a long time, she chose a bottle of Houbigant Demi-Jour in the Eau de Parfum strength. I jokingly threatened to borrow it from her at the time, as I thought it was beautiful. It was perfect for an older lady, yet not timid or staid, and certainly more adventurous than watery violets. That this perfume even existed was a surprise to me; I thought of the omnipresent drugstore standard Chantilly as the most popular scent from this house, and I never could abide the heavy, powdery Lutèce that hit department stores in 1984. The only Houbigant I knew of that was a true classic was the oldie-but-goodie Quelques Fleurs. It seems that the House of Houbigant has been through a number of ownership changes and revivals; Demi-Jour was the product of one of the periods of upswing for Houbigant. Even now I am not sure what its status is, as some recent listings for their scents state that Dana now makes them. That seems very unfortunate.
About six years later, my mother died after a long illness. My sisters and I were with her back in New England, and it fell to us to divide her possessions and choose keepsakes from what was a very reduced amount of possessions, since she had moved into a small apartment in a senior housing complex. One of the things we found was the bottle of Demi-Jour, carefully wrapped up at the back of a dresser drawer and barely used. It was still in excellent condition, since it was a spray bottle and had been kept in the dark. I took it as one of the few things of hers that I really wanted as a keepsake. When I got home I put it away again, and every so often I would take it out and sniff it. For some reason I never wore it, though I can’t say why, except that I felt sad that my mother had kept it the same way she had kept her other perfumes many years before – stoppered and unworn.
Recently I revisited this scent while trying to organize my collection of bottles, decants and samples. (Mine is quite modest compared to those of more serious perfume collectors, but over time I have gathered a selection that would have amazed and perhaps even dismayed my mother; after all, her own perfume wardrobe consisted of only two bottles!) I opened it and discovered that it was still good, all notes intact, and just as beautiful as the day it was purchased. I decided that I would start wearing it in honor of my mother, and in the spirit of not allowing the beautiful things we own to languish on the shelf, waiting for special occasions that never seem to arrive. Perfume, most especially, is “use it or lose it.”
Demi-Jour was introduced in 1988, and according to Perfume Mart, this is the composition:
Top Notes: Bergamot, aldehydes, greens, violet
Heart Notes: Rose, orris, lily of the valley, jasmine, ylang-ylang, heliotrope
Base Notes: Musk, moss, sandalwood, cedarwood
Yes, there is violet in this scent, which is probably part of the reason my mother chose it, but it’s all grown up and no longer innocent. The bergamot and greens make for a rather sharp opening, which softens considerably once the heart notes begin to express themselves. I don’t get a lot of aldehydes except at the very beginning. Even with jasmine and heliotrope, this fragrance never gets really sweet, restrained as it is by the green notes, orris and base notes. It is one of those florals that has a generous dose of rose yet is nowhere near being a rose scent, just rounded and gentle. Some find it to be a powdery scent, and there is a touch of that to my nose, but it is more of a dry powder if anything, and not cloying at all. (In fact, it reminds me a little of a long-discontinued Russian perfume I once smelled that was composed only of dried flowers.) It is like a bouquet in a heavily curtained, darkened boudoir that is slowly fading yet still lovely.
The “moss” in the base is oakmoss, and lots of it, which makes for a dry warmth and depth that persists for the life of the scent. The woods provide a sturdy backbone and good lasting power. A similarity to Sinan by Jean-Marc Sinan is apparent in a certain deep, soft muskiness, but that scent is far more flagrant in that quality. It is not a white or crystal musk in the modern style, but a suede-like skin musk that is very appealing. At first the musk is not really all that apparent among the floral notes, but the longer this is on the skin, the more it begins to acquire a gently animalic “body” quality, which is akin to breathing in the essence of someone on clothing that they have worn. It’s like taking an evening gown of heavy satin or an opera coat out of the closet; it might also smell of cedarwood, but if you put your face right into it and inhale, you can detect the lingering aroma of the one who wore it the last time it was taken out for a night on the town.
Overall, I would say that this as a classic floral-chypre scent, one of my favorite types of perfume. It is well constructed and nicely balanced, even considering the slight oakmoss overdose, which I happen to love. The name translates as nightfall, twilight or semidarkness; which has always been my favorite time of day. There is wistfulness about it, a tinge of regret, and also a sense of longing, of memory and nostalgia. It is certainly refined enough to wear just about anywhere, but it is also very well suited to romantic situations, for whoever gets close to the wearer is rewarded by the hidden depths revealed when smelled right next to the skin.
Demi-Jour is widely available from Internet perfume discounters. I cannot say whether or not it has been reformulated since 1998 and/or was acquired by Dana, and it is now for sale mainly as an EDT in a 7.75 oz. size (!) and the bottle is a different shape, flattened instead of round and missing the heavy texturing of the glass and the beautifully ornate cap. I can only hope that it is still the same fragrance, as it is so lovely and feminine, but it may have been changed. (At least I have not seen it show up in the drugstores next to Chantilly yet). It is probably worth looking for a vintage bottle of the EDP instead. It will probably not appeal to those who only like edgy or weird scents, as it is very traditional in style. Fortunately for me, that’s in the plus column. I will happily wear this for work or play, and it will feel right for any situation. And most of all, I will get the enjoyment from it that my mother did not allow herself to have. We only live once, and we must take even our smallest pleasures where we can find them.
Image credits: Demi-Jour bottle from imaginationperfumery.com. Photo of a freeze-dried wedding bouquet from alicesfloralfantasies.com.