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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Love In the Afternoon: Demi-Jour by Houbigant

By Donna

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 Photo of a freeze-dried wedding bouquet from

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Blogger tmp00 said...

Wonderful, as usual!

I don't wear a couple of my Mom's favorites for obvious reason (don't think I could rock Joy or Miss Dior the way she did) but I do wear Bandit on occasion and might have to go spritz some on now...

12:28 AM EDT  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

You KNOW I loved this post, dear one.
And how I felt about being able to share in the experience- so honored, really.

I heartily second your sentiments about 'squirreling' scents away; joy should not be postponed.

6:50 AM EDT  
Blogger Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

This was a wonderful post and I loved sharing your experience. It is especially touching to me today as my own mother, a very stylish and classy woman who will celebrate her 87th birthday in August had a massive stroke on Saturday and is in a coma. Your post reminded me of something that I could do for her today which is to go grab her bottle of L'occitane Vanilla, spirit it to the hospital and give her a little bit of a spray. I hadn't thought of it in the midst of all of the confusion, but because of your beautiful writing I am now more connected to the necessity of honoring that part of her spirit which is the most important part of my mom. You made me remember that she would be absolutely appalled if she knew that she was lying there without perfume and lipstick.
Thank you from the deepest part of my heart.

8:30 AM EDT  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

I'm devastated for you.

Absolutely- put on her lipstick, swish her mouth with anything, cream her up, and perfume her.
If you can bring in her favorite music- do that, too.
Trust me- it matters, deeply.

Tell her jokes, gossip, anything you'd normally do.
[I put a drop of something wonderful on my patients' upper lips-
So they can smell something heavenly...
[Sometimes, Caron's Or et Noir, stuff like that]

My thoughts are with you both.

8:56 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I imagine there are going to be many people today both touched by the post and also directly affected, as Beth is. Having spent some time attending to my grandmother's hair & other aspects of her grooming to help ease her experience, I both wholeheartedly agree with the encouragements to attend to the patient, and to take a moment to enjoy the now.

(Giving thanks for the power of scent.)


9:46 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Donna, such a lovely and moving post. I'm so glad that you are able to wear the perfume you bought for your mother, which she obviously treasured even if she herself didn't wear it. That Depression-era mindset...I understand that because it very much affected my grandparents, and considering what we are going through in our own economy today, I understand it that much better.

Also, to Beth: my thoughts and prayers are with you, lovely lady, as you tend to your mother.

9:49 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wore Demi-Jour as my signature scent from 1991-1994. Every time I would go to Paris to visit my fiancé, I would purchase a bottle--so I must have gone through six or seven or eight of them. I can still smell it after all these years. Luckily, I acquired a new bottle of edp through a swap. It was like being barely twenty-years-old again. At this point in my life, however, it is a little too sharp at all stages of its development for me to wear. But one of my sisters discovered it when visiting this spring, and she took it home. It will get the love it continues to deserve. Demi-Jour is a marvelous fragrance. Enjoy it and the memories it holds.

10:47 AM EDT  
Blogger priscilla said...

Donna, thanks for this review! I have been checking every day for this since you mentioned you were working on it. I wore this back in the early 90s (in my early 20s--I am pretty sure I bought it because I loved the bottle, and the pretty box), and I remember I loved it...but I cannot remember how it smells. Still, your description is wonderful! I have been afraid to buy it, for fear that they've turned it into something awful. At least through your review I know the original is as lovely as I like to think.

10:57 AM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

What a beautiful and touching post. Thank you! I'm so glad she got to go perfume shopping with you - I'm sure she must have treasured that experience even if she didn't wear the scent. Demi-Jour sounds like a lovely scent and, like you, twilight is my favorite time of day, so I'm predisposed to like it, if only for the associations w/ the name. I am definitely going to be looking for a vintage bottle of the EDP.

12:11 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a moving and beautiful post. I am beginning to love more traditional perfumes, so I will try to get my hands on a sample of this one to try..

Beth- Sending all the warmest thoughts and prayers your way. And hugs.

1:39 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that was a truely moving post. It captures everything we feel about scent and memories that scent conjure up.
I hope your Mom gets better.

1:43 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Tom, and Bandit is definitely a good choice for anyone to wear!

3:41 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Chaya, I am very happy to have shared it with you.

It is still hard for me to resist the urge to save perfume for the "later" that never comes, but I am determined not to do it anymore.

3:44 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Dear Beth, I am so sorry about your mother! I will be thinking of you both today. Somehow all the little irritations I am feeling about my own life seem pretty small right now. I am humbled that I could help bring you some comfort at this time.

3:49 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

SS, that is very kind of you.

3:52 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Suzanne, thank you so much. I remember that my own grandmother was even more reluctant to use the "good" things than my mother, whether it was the table china or perfume - in fact I don't think she even owned a bottle. If I could go back in time I would buy her something nice and tell her it's okay to actually use it.

3:55 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Catherine, you had excellent taste for a twenty-something! This is one of those sleeper scents that never got any press in the USA, but if you actually try it you will find out how lovely it is.

3:58 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Greeneyes, thank you, this piece was a pleasure to write. I think you will really like my next one...


4:02 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Elle, thank you, it was indeed a special memory for both my mother and myself, especially since the shop we went to was, of course, The Perfume House.

I am almost afraid to try a brand new bottle in case it has been redone, but I really should.

4:06 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Lavanya, it's really worth it - both this scent in particular and traditional scents in general. It's the best way to get to know what quality is, and then you can measure the edgier scents aginst the classics to see how they compare. And by "classics" I don't necessarily mean that they have to be vintage - a modern scent like Lady Caron, for example, is very traditional even though it has not been around all that long. I was drawn to it as if by magic, as I just love that style of perfume.

4:13 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Bella, thank you kindly. The power of scent memory never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

4:14 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Flora, yes- thats what I meant- kind of traditional in structure not necessarily vintage. My recent perfume crush- FM's Iris Poudre falls (sort of) in that category..
And I've simply *got* to visit The perfume house..:)

6:45 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Donna, thank you so much for this beautiful post!
I admire so much everything from Houbigant and always wonder why, why, why there is so few interest in it, why there are so few reviews. The perfumes of Houbigant deserve to be remembered. Some of them is still in production, like the wonderful, soft, amazing, multi-faced, million - coloured Quelques Fleurs l'Original, and Demi-Jour itself, better than anything, perfection, which is still available under the brand of Houbigant, in the fantastic glass-cut bottle.
Once again - BIG THANKS :)

7:10 AM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Isabeli, thank you so much, and I am very hqppy to know that it is still being sold under the Houbigant brand, and has not been "dumbed down!"

(My next review will be another overlooked Houbigant, stay tuned!)

1:18 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

Your mother obviously had good taste and class! Demi-Jour has been one of my favorites since I was a teenager (the bottle seemed so "french") and glad you have your bottle as a reminder of your much loved mom.

6:45 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Lisa, thank you, I have been pleasantly surprised that so many people have worn Demi-Jour when they were very young. It's never too early to develop a taste for fine fragrance!

2:00 AM EDT  
Blogger JeanCillian said...

What a beautiful story. It is gret that nowadays there is so much more variety in scents. The downside to this is there is so much more bland smelling things out there e.g. all Paris Hilton scents

11:37 AM EDT  

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