Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A Trio Of Bonkers Trips: No 2 (Belgium & France) - A "Drowned And Out In Paris" Sniffathon: JAR Parfums

I hope everyone had a good Christmas - the festivities passed off without incident here - well, apart from Mrs Bonkers Senior's and my failed attempts to saw off the turkey's legs with a paring knife mid-way through the roasting time. I am pleased to report that the bird did cook in the end, despite its semi-severed and floppily obstructive limbs, and Charlie Bonkers enjoyed the twin seasonal treats of cold turkey on demand and a warm slate floor in the conservatory. Unfortunately, the husband of one of the dinner guests was ill with the most virulent form of man flu on Christmas Day, so this morning - in my capacity as a one-woman "Soupe Sans Frontières" - I drove over to their house with a tupperware of leftover turkey and sinus-clearing spicy soup.

Now I feel as though the holiday is barely underway, but reluctantly I have to go back to work tomorrow. So I thought I would write up the penultimate instalment of the sodden Parisian sniffing report while the going is good...


After my chance discovery of the Fragonard Museum, I decided to seek out the Paris branch of JAR Parfums, the super-exclusive line founded by jeweller Joel Arthur Rosenthal in 1986. I was aware that Olfactoria had sniffed the range on her recent trip to New York, and as there are only two bricks and mortar sales outlets in the world, felt that I shouldn't miss the chance to try these perfumes myself, especially as JAR is widely considered to have created the "reference gardenia" scent.

I had jotted down the name of the street (though crucially not the number) from Denyse's walking guide to Paris, and clocked that it was just off the Place Vendôme. I headed for Rue Castiglione, and walked the entire length of it without spotting the store. So I popped into a shop called Valmont at No 8, which sold a Swiss brand of anti-aging cosmetics and the Il Profumo line of perfumes. I asked them if they knew where JAR was, and though the store was only a few doors down at No 14, they directed me to the Maison Kurkdjian boutique a couple of streets away, who promptly sent me back to the street I had just come from.

The reason I missed the JAR store is quite simply because it doesn't look like a shop. On close inspection you can just make out a single perfume bottle on display in the window, but it is small and easy to overlook. And then the plush, softly lit interior looks like a cross between a small salon at Versailles and the Sistine Chapel (the ceiling was covered in a large fresco of the sky shot through by a bolt of lightning). There was no till, no counter, no desk to speak of or shelf fixtures. The main items of furniture were a table in the centre of the room and a few ornate Louis XIV-style chairs (or one of the Louis's, certainly). On the table were a half dozen or so glass cloches arranged in a circle, and under each cloche was a scrunched up chamois leather impregnated with one of the JAR scents.

As I entered the store - or "perfume induction room" as it should perhaps more properly be known - a tall man got up from his chair at the back of the room and greeted me. I decided to come clean right away and explained that I was a blogger and that I was curious to try the line and take advantage of the fact that I happened to be passing one of JAR Parfums' only two branches anywhere!

"The gentleman" (I will call him that as I couldn't possibly refer to him as a sales assistant - his demeanour was more akin to that of a museum curator) invited me to sit down and take part in this highly ritualistic perfume sampling experience... He lifted each cloche in turn and I would trustingly stick my nose right inside it. In one or two instances he deliberately held the cloche further away from my nose, warning me that it might be too overpowering at close quarters. JAR famously doesn't publish the notes for its scents, and the gentleman remained pokerfaced as I wittered on regardless, telling him what I thought I was smelling. Most unexpectedly, he complimented me on my French. I thanked him, wanting to add that my French was really rather rusty at the moment, but didn't, because I could only think of the German word for "rusty" ("eingerostet"). : - )

NB I had deliberately not re-read Olfactoria's impressions of the range, so I really did enter into the experience with no preconceptions, other than an expectation that one scent would smell mindblowingly like gardenia... : - )

My off the cuff comments on the day are as follows:


"Dark", "sinister". It conjured up dank, disused cupboards and mould.

Verdict - Not A Perfume


"Luxury soap."

BOLT OF LIGHTNING (as per the painting on the ceiling!)

"Carnal Flower, end of."


"Refined spices."


"Blue cheese!!!" "Bleu des Causses!" "Bleu d'Auvergne!" "All the Bleu d'-type cheeses!"

At the moment of smelling this one, I had no idea that it was in fact the famous gardenia replica, while all I got was blue cheese. The gentleman was fascinated by this, because in his experience only the French get a cheese note here, while other nationalities of visitor do "read" this as a floral. Well, I studied French at uni, lived on The Riviera for a year as a student and used to work in a cheese shop, so maybe that predisposes my nose to have a Gallic take on Jardenia. : - )

Verdict - Not A Perfume

GOLCONDA (the original JAR perfume)

"The dentist!" "Evil clove!"

Verdict - Not A Perfume


"Falling into a bed of roses and being scratched by thorns." "FM Noir Epices".

And now that I have committed my thoughts to paper, I can afford to google a few reviews by others to see if they chime with my own reactions, and it seems I am in good company...first up is Luca Turin writing in the NZZ Folio:

"Gossip led me to expect something weird, and weird is what I got. JAR fragrances are uniquely shocking..."

And here's Robin of NST on Ferme Tes Yeux, the first perfume I tried, albeit I never got beyond the opening in this "ambient cloche environment":

"The top notes are downright unpleasant; it does improve as it dries down, but I found wearing it a somewhat disturbing experience."

And now finally I have been back to Olfactoria's New York report to see what she made of the line. Overall, she is much more positive, but then as we established at our recent meeting in Austria, she has "magic skin". Which presumably also applies to the skin on the tip and interior of her nose, given that she was also just sticking it inside the cloche and not testing on the usual sites of wrist and hand.

"My favorite was called Diamond Water, I also liked Shadow and Jarling. Golconda (Joey’s favorite) and Ferme tes Yeux were very interesting and I’m sure, given the chance to get them to know better, I’d love them too. I didn’t particularly care for Jardenia and the nameless, symbol only, one..." (Bolt of Lightning)

In looking for images to illustrate this post, I stumbled upon a fan page of JAR Parfums on Facebook, which quoted Rosenthal speaking of his distribution strategy:

"Part of the pleasure of perfume 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."

Well, I agree with that up to a point - a very little point - not up to a two-sales-points-in-the-world point", for sure. But what troubles me more than the rights and wrongs of creating such an aura and mystique around its range in a bid to justify the high price tag**, is the stumbling block of the JAR range being so uncommercial in the first place. There's distinctive and original, and then there's downright weird. For me, at least three of the seven fall into the latter category and I only vaguely cared for two (Jarling and Bolt of Lightning), but I readily admit to not having a particularly discerning nose, plus I didn't try them on skin.

I do like the look of their jewellery though - which if anything is even more ultra-exclusive and -expensive. I spotted some nice pieces in the shape of a butterfly, an iris and lilac blossoms, but also this curious zebra, which on reflection sums up the JAR range for me.

(**I believe it is in the region of 320 euros per ounce for the pure parfum - the gentleman and I didn't broach anything as vulgar as the topic of price tags! Why, I did't even notice any bottles in the room, though there must have been some tucked away somewhere).

Photo of Rue Castiglione from flickr, photos of JAR store from yelp.com, Facebook and francescocatalano.it, photo of JAR bottle from boomerank.com, photo of cheese from keldelice.com, photo of JAR poster from thelondonseason.com, photo of JAR butterfly from culture24.org.co.uk, photo of zebra from tumblr.


Anonymous said...

So, you didn't really fall in love with JAR, did you? Lol!
I did actually test Diamond Water on my magic skin and feel therefore free to authoritatively declare my approval. ;)

What I like about JAR is that aside from the exclusivity and the smelling ritual hullabaloo, the perfumes are unique and distinct and not just another bunch of the same old, same old.

I'm glad the turkey was a success! I am proud of you, you are a living example for overcoming cooking unwillingness, you set a shining example and I will strive to emulate you from now on, eau d'onions and all.

lovethescents said...

You have no idea how relieved I am to read this article. You have saved me money and stress and time! I'd been wanting to sample JARs for a while, but even more so, lately. I'd been starting to seek out samples....not anymore! We often share similar tastes so I'll go with what your nose says. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Ah, JAR-ring for the scents and jewellery, no?

(Crossing blog-posts, it would be fab to see you "North of the Border, up Edinburgh way" sometime in the future.)

Good luck with the Return to Work.

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

I quite agree that the JAR range is very innovative, but they just push the envelope a bit too far for my taste, which does lean more towards the conventional and accessible. Anyone who likes the odder end of the Serge Lutens spectrum might be fine with these, for example.

Diamond Water was a bit clove-y or carnation-y to my nose I think, though not as much as the "dentist's surgery in a bottle" that was Golconda....

In hindsight, I should have asked to try a few of these on skin, though I had run out of suitable sites by that point in the afternoon. As well as your own more positive experience with the range overall, I have now found some other favourable reviews of JAR scents on Basenotes and Boisdejasmin.

Thanks for your kind comments about my culinary efforts. I was pleasantly surprised by the results this year - usually "efforts" is the operative word with my cooking. : - )

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

We know each other's taste very well, so yes, I'd say these probably wouldn't be your thing either on the whole. But at least half of them (the ones I felt still came off as a "regular" perfume) you might care to try if they crossed your path. Which, given JAR's distribution policy, might be a bit of a stretch outside the swap scene... ; - )

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

JAR-ing is the word, haha! The flower jewellery caught my eye, certainly. The zebra not so much....

Yep, will definitely keep you posted if I am headed north of the border. Would be great to meet you and hear you say "cheerio" in person - well, not right at the start of our meeting, hopefully. ; - )

Anonymous said...

What a bizarre experience! :) So glad you got to go, and so looking forward to a time when I can follow suit. I'm glad your holiday came off without any major hitches, and hoping you get more time off around the new year?

Vanessa said...

Hi anotherperfumeblog,

Hope you are settling into your new home! You are a few time zones nearer us Europeans now... : - 0

Yes, it was a very curious experience and I commend it to everyone. For me somehow, the fact of my nose being totally divorced from visual clues of packaging and name pared down the sensory experience to a minimalist level - hence the terse descriptions. Not that my nose is particularly a(cute) when given lots of prompts like a big Chanel No 5 bottle right in front of it, say! : - )

tarleisio said...

OMG!!! Blue Cheese! Loved your take on JAR - not that I've tried them, but I suspect I will in NYC next fall - but I don't know..I'm no stranger to exclusivity, but maybe there is such a thing as pushing it...too far? It sounds like you had an adventure to remember! As for me...I have developed a sudden craving for that zebra...that is SOME...zebra! ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Tarleisio,

I love blue cheese - don't get me wrong - am single handedly demolishing a whole wheel of Blue Castello (from your neck of the woods, no less), but not in my perfume thank you.

I feel I was a bit harsh in my critique of the JAR range, and it could be that my nose is missing a trick somewhere. But as a general rule I think I don't like that high a proportion of things I come across randomly, be they niche or designer.

Do let me know what you make of these when you finally catch up with them - I suspect a couple of them might appeal to your dark side, especially if you are okay with clove.

And that zebra is quite mad, isn't it?!

Undina said...

It was very interesting to read your take on the same line soon after reading Birgit's impressions. I'm thinking... Maybe you've just approached it wrong? I think this is a type of experience for which you need a partner (at least a silently present husband or a non-perfumista friend but preferrably somebody like yourself in regards to perfumes). Not that I've tried any of them myself - just thinking aloud :)

Tara said...

Vanessa, you really did pack in 2 months' worth of sniffing into 2 days - fun though! I never got round to trying the City Exclusives in November so enjoyed your take. Sounds like they based Aldehyde 44 on "Dallas" the TV series! I've only tried Poivre 23 once and really, really need to try again. I feel the same way about P24 as you do. I admire it a lot but don't think I could actually wear it. The SA's routine with the scarf makes sense though.

I'm very happily wearing Labdanum 18 right now thanks to you and it's perfect for a cosy Sunday!