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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Royal Decadence: Jean Desprez Bal á Versailles

By Donna

A few weeks ago I took a friend to my local “palace” of fragrance, The Perfume House. She was in search of a new perfume suitable for colder weather. Knowing some of her preferences from sharing samples with her, I made a master list of classics for her to try as a baseline and I threw in a few others in the styles I thought she would like. We went through Mitsouko, Femme, Indiscret and many other time-tested scents as well as the newer Serge Lutens and Montale perfumes. My friend prefers woody, mossy and green notes, so my selections included plenty of those, and in fact she ended up liking on of my own favorites best: Jean Louis Scherrer’s original scent, a gorgeously deep woody chypre which I had actually worn a lot many years ago and which I still love. However, one of her other “finalists” was Bal á Versailles, the legendary 1962 scent from Jean Desprez. I fell in love with it all over again myself in the course of nearly four hours of trying on scents. Well, the perfume gods were smiling on me, because I just had a birthday, and my friend surprised me with a bottle of it – have I mentioned that she is a very good friend?

In our family we have a jokingly vulgar tradition of teasing whoever has just put on perfume to go out by saying “You smell like a French wh**e!” Well, in the case of Bal á Versailles, I really do smell somewhat like an, ahem, courtesan, hetaera, gentleman’s companion, or whatever you want to call it. (In a good way, of course.) When I first tried it out of the bottle, it had been many years since I sniffed it, and in the interim I had discovered Balmain’s Jolie Madame. The first thing I thought of was: Wow, this is Jolie Madame’s naughty sister! BIG hit of “grown-up perfume” right off the bat; an impressively indolic jasmine and orange blossom opening paired with a rather sticky rose, a deliciously dirty animalic base note combination of civet, musk and ambergris and lots of sweet spicy amber. I was too young to handle this when I first sampled it years ago – and now is the time for me to embrace the authority of this big, powerful iconic perfume. Oddly, considering the notes involved, once it develops on me it never gets really huge sillage like say, Fracas, but rather it stays closer to the skin. It is very strong, yes, but it does not operate in attack mode, it just smolders and simmers and keeps it up for hours. (Mine is only the EDT and I can’t imagine what need I would have for a stronger formulation, though EDP and Parfum are available.)

This is one of those bold Floral-Oriental style scents that walks the fine edge between classy and a bit too much, and I think it does that perfectly. Naturally, one must choose a scent carefully as the occasion warrants, and I would not personally wear it to a job interview. However, though it is clearly intended to be an evening perfume, I have worn it for day and I did not feel that it was too much. I would refrain from wearing it if I were going to be in a very small room with other people, unless that room happened to contain candlelight and wine and a dark-eyed handsome man.

Bal à Versailles is also one of those perfumes that brings back a lost world for those old enough to recall it, a world of where going out at night for a special event meant putting on red lipstick and jewelry and your best dress, and your man wore black tie or at least a really nice suit, and perhaps opera gloves were even involved. (Am I the only one who wishes that the latter were not relegated mostly to the realm of stage costumes or dominatrix porn these days?) Putting on a strong “statement scent” like this that makes you feel more than a little bit dramatic can almost make you think those days never went away. Of course, there is really no such thing as “the good old days”, but parts of them were worth keeping. I have been to gala concerts in very nice halls where people in the audience wore flannel shirts and jeans and even brought in boxed pizza. Is it really that hard to make an effort to look nice, or behave as though something special is worth one’s complete attention? For me, wearing a perfume of this deeply womanly style makes me want to live up to it somehow. Yes, I wear fragrance for myself, and I frequently wear it even when I am home alone, but when I am getting dressed for battle, so to speak, it helps to have the right armor. Bal à Versailles fills this role to perfection – slinky yet elegant, highly civilized yet with a feral undertone, it’s for women who know who they are and what they want, and if that includes vamping it up in a sexy dress and your very best come-get-me shoes, so much the better. Okay, so I don’t actually own a pair of shoes like that, but wearing this perfume makes me feel as though I do.

Bal à Versailles is widely available in better perfume shops and on the Internet, and comes in Eau de Toilette, Eau de Parfum, Parfum, shower gel, soap and more. It can easily be had for a discounted price. Its exact list notes seems to be a closely guarded secret, though many of them are quite obvious.

Image credits: Bottle from Undated photo of supermodel Yasmeen Ghauri from For The Love of Opera Gloves.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently bought a tiny bottle of this, and it immediately reminded me of traveling in India years ago. I also get a huge dose of bubblegum. To me, it works well as a "hippy" scent more than something more formal. The dry down is very soft and cozy, and I agree that it stays close to the skin (I get almost no sillage). I don't think I'll buy it again, but it's been fun to try.


12:22 AM EDT  
Blogger Honey said...

I love this scent so much. This is one of those that make strangers come to you asking about your perfume.

5:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

God, I adore Bal .......It took me years to forgive her for dragging me through one of the most ill fated (yet delicious love affairs of my life, but happily I wear her again and blissfully. This is my favorite perfume of all.... the walk around Paris in a mink and little else scent for me and although it wasn't Paris, with that I'll let you wonder:)
Such is the power of Bal......

8:36 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

“You smell like a French wh**e!”

That is such a sweet tradition! :)

9:35 AM EDT  
Blogger tmp00 said...

I wish people would dress up a little more for things that are important. That little bit of discomfort reminds you that the event IS important, and to mind your manners.

12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

Happy belated birthday! And what a perfect present! I adore Bal. For me, it's a wonderful comfort scent for cooler weather. French whore, eh? I'm thinking courtesan might not be such a bad thing to add to my resume during this recession if I have to finance my perfume habit. DH has assured me it's fine as long as I get sufficient funds. Very practical minded man. :-) I only have Bal in parfum form. Am wondering if I might actually enjoy layering it w/ the edp. Must check online.
Oh, and am so glad you mentioned the originial Scherrer - it's long been one of my faves and doesn't get nearly as much press as it should.

1:22 PM EDT  
Blogger marchlion said...

Thank you for blogging on Bal. I'm always afraid they're going to kill it off. Wonderful scent, and I wear it when the mood strikes me, even to the market.

4:32 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Suzanne - bubblegum?! Really? I never would have guessed it could come out like that on anyone!

11:25 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Honey, that has already happened to me since I got this, so I wear it as often as I can! ;-)

11:26 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Beth, you should write a book, Sounds intriguing indeed...I really love this stuff too!

11:28 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Le critique - LOL,I know! Class all the way. :-D

11:31 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Tom, I thought you might feel that way too. Now, if someone would just get me those opera gloves, I could really go out on the town.

11:33 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Elle! It was the best present I received by far! it has quickly become one of my go-to scents for cool weather.

Don't you just adore the Scherrer? Now I am obsessed with getting some of it for myself after smelling it on someone else. Pity the parfum is discontinued (sob!) but the EDT is plenty strong.

11:37 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

March, I hope they never do, it's a true classic. I wear it everywhere I can think of. :-)

11:40 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just catching up on my reading, but I wanted to say this is a great review of a beautiful classic. I have a bottle of the parfum, purchased 7 or 8 years ago. It came with a pamphlet stating that they had used the original formula of Jean Desprez, which had been held for a decade by the perfumers at Robertet in France.

Also, it gave a list of notes: Top: Bergamot, Italian lemon, Tunisian Neroli, Ylang Ylang, Cassie. Middle: Jasmine absolute, Rose absolute, Opoponax, Orris. Base: Vetiver, Patchouli, Sandalwood, Vanilla absolute, Oak moss absolute, Cistus, Incense

No mention of the civet that many people talk about.

5:56 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've loved and worn Bal for years and years. I wear it to sleep and, um, to not sleep. Wrote my first blog entry about it, too. When you want to feel lush, like a full-on woman in silk and brocade, there's nothing like it.

Oh, and I just bought a pair of velvet opera-length black gloves, too! Don't know where I'll wear them...but who cares. Sometimes you just gotta go against the flow.

9:44 AM EDT  

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