Sometimes, you just have to experience something, and forget about all practical considerations. That was the thought that drove me to the very exclusive environs of JAR Parfums in Paris. JAR is a perfume brand that is often spoken about in hushed tones, and which reeks of inaccessibility. The perfumes are the creation of one of the world’s most expensive, famous, secretive, and idiosyncratic jewellers, Joel Arthur Rosenthal, who simply goes by his initials as JAR. To really understand what the JAR perfume experience is like, you have to understand who JAR, the man, is first.
Forbes’ Magazine has a piece entitled The Cult of Jar which explains some of the jeweller’s mystique and legend:
[The] creator is a secretive, eccentric artist called, by Diane von Furstenberg, the Fabergé of our time.
This jeweler certainly knows how to make his products sought-after. Born Joel Arthur Rosenthal, he affects to be known, in the manner of Prince or Christo, by a single name: JAR (no periods). His shop in Paris’ Place Vendôme has no display window, no regular hours. It does not advertise and opens its doors to only a select few, including Elizabeth Taylor, Elle Macpherson, Barbara Walters, Ann Getty, Mary Pinault and Jo Carole Lauder (and reportedly Marie-Josée Kravis, Marella Agnelli and Princess Firyal of Jordan). [Gwyneth Paltrow and the philanthropist, Mrs. Lily Safra, are clients, as well.]
The craftsmen in Switzerland and France turning out his creations produce only 70 to 80 pieces a year, each of them one of a kind and many designed with a particular buyer in mind. He reserves the right to refuse to sell an item if he doesn’t think it would look good on the intended wearer.
That last sentence is actually not an exaggeration. I’ve heard a lot about JAR’s refusal to sell millions of dollars worth of jewellery if he doesn’t think it would suit a buyer’s personal style. In his defense, he has been quoted as saying, “I am not arbitrary. If you happen to have ideas and defend them, people make you into a dragon. Getting the right things on the right people is part of making those things[.]” I’ve heard that his refusal to sell his extremely exclusive jewels (apparently only about 250 women in the world own one of his pieces) can result even from such small matters as his disapproval of a client’s fragrance.
It may be hyperbole, and part of the whole mystique, but one thing is for certain: Joel Arthur Rosenthal has very definite ideas on perfumery. He began his line in the 1980s, with the motto: “JAR does not believe scent can be rationalized. Fragrance is an emotion.” The blog, Style Sight, quotes more of Mr. Rosenthal’s perspective in an article that focuses specifically on the New York Bergdorf Goodman store:
[It] is in a hushed alcove at Bergdorf Goodman in NYC [… and] so hidden that many Bergdorf employees don’t even know of its existence. There, the seven perfumes are displayed with a price tag of up to $380 an ounce. Although he has never revealed the notes in his fragrances, they contain the finest high-quality materials and are exceptionally concentrated to extend the wear on the skin. “It’s fragrance the way it was originally meant to be experienced way back when,” explained our JAR specialist. The perfumes do not contain the typical top, middle, and base notes. Rather, they blend together for an unpredictable release. The Bolt of Lightning fragrance takes 10 minutes to develop on the skin.
Inside the boutique, a specially trained JAR representative takes you on a fragrant journey, offering a series of lidded glass containers from which the scent rises. They are instructed not to sell, and just guide visitors through the JAR experience. “Part of the pleasure of perfume,” said Rosenthal, “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.”
I was hesitant to enter his Paris perfume store because, frankly, his fragrances (which can be far more than $380) are outside my budget, but when there are only two places in the entire world which carry a particular line, and you are standing mere feet away from one of them…. well, it seemed damn foolish not to give it a try. I pushed open the heavy glass door to JAR at 14, rue Castiglione (a few doors down from Jovoy), and thought to myself: “Well, here goes nothing.” I had no expectations for what I was going to experience, except that I had been told that you can’t sniff the perfumes at will, you can’t put it on your skin, you can’t sample them, you can’t take photographs, and… well, basically, you can’t do anything but submit to the experience that JAR wants you to have. To my surprise, I had an absolutely lovely time that engaged me on a very intellectual level. Ironically, for the most part, JAR is all about the senses, and not about the mind. Intentionally so.
So, what is it like? From the outside, the boutique doesn’t even appear to be a perfume destination; the discreet facade barely proclaims its presence at all, let alone the fact that it is the passion project of one of the world’s most exclusive jewellers. As you push open the heavy, glass door, you enter a small, narrow room decorated in purple velvet and mirrors. It’s not imperial Roman purple, nor a true eggplant purple, but more of a dusty plum-mauve. The velvet coats the walls and all the tables, creating an elegant, opulent cocoon where all sounds are stilled and hushed. Mirrors hang on the three velvet walls, while overhead is a crystal chandelier which hangs low from a painted ceiling. It’s a fresco of a dark, stormy sky, marked by a large bolt of lightning. Your overall impression is a plum, velvet jewellery box decorated with crystal and gold.
Right below the chandelier, in the center of a room, is a table with two or three plum, velvet, straight-backed chairs, and whose surface is covered with an array of glass cloches. There are six, round, glass coverings in a circle, each lying over a glass plate that contains some sort of fabric (silk?) infused with perfume. In the center of the circle is a seventh glass bowl containing a small, oval bottle with a pink, jeweled lid nestled in a pile of tiny, dried, crimson rosebuds. It is the very first JAR fragrance, called Golconda, but I’m afraid I can’t recall how it smelled beyond the central rose note. Speaking of my memory, I’m afraid it’s rather hazy on quite a few of the JAR perfume specifics, as I was not able to take notes. (Much more to the point, I had arrived in Paris after partying in the South of France, with perhaps a maximum of 12 hours sleep in four days, if even that.)
Upon my arrival in JAR’s hushed, elegant environs, the manager came out and greeted me. As I later learned, his name is Jozsef, and I think he was quite key to my JAR perfume experience. Jozsef is a tall, courteous, handsome, very serious man in his early 40s (I think) with dark hair, elegantly chiseled high bone structure, a quiet smile, and beautiful, piercing, sensitive, blue-grey eyes. I told him that I knew of the JAR rules and that I was in his hands, but I also informed him up front that I was a perfume blogger who wanted to write about the experience.
Jozsef removed the first glass jar covering, starting with the one around the front center left side of the circle at what would be the six o’ clock mark on a clock. The cloche had a name etched in the glass, but I didn’t see it as Jozsef extended it to me, inverted, for me to take a sniff of the aroma molecules coating its interior. I’m someone who has difficulty in getting to the core essence of a fragrance on the blasted paper strips, so this was even more elusive for me. For someone who loves details, facts and analysis, it was a bit frustrating, I must admit. I remember giving Jozsef my impressions, but he said nothing, neither confirming nor denying the notes that I suspected. It is not the JAR philosophy. He then gave me the perfume’s name; I cannot recall it, but I do remember that the perfume left me largely unmoved. As did the next two.
I think it was around the third glass cloche that we had the discussion which really made JAR a memorable part of my Paris perfume visit. In essence, it was a vigorous debate on what should be the perfume experience, about two extremely polarized perfume philosophies, and what constitutes honesty versus PR/marketing. There are few things I enjoy more than a spirited, intellectual discussion, and Jozsef (speaking on behalf of his employer) made me — temporarily at least — really question the essence of what should be the perfume experience, or one’s approach to fragrances.
It began when I told Jozsef how the JAR experience was completely antithetical to my personal approach as a blogger. My goal is to dissect a perfume down to its notes, hour by hour, or minute by minute even, and arming my readers with absolutely every single piece of information that they may possibly find useful. From my personal breakdown to the quoted assessment of others, my reviews are intended to avoid generalized, purely sensory generalizations or impressions. I want to be as detailed and comprehensive as possible, giving you a starting point from which you can then explore more. I think it does a reader absolutely no good at all to talk about abstract emotions or fanciful stories, without also giving you the specific details of what the hell the perfume actually smells like, from the first minute to the very last one.
JAR represents the exact polar opposite of that philosophy. In fact, I don’t think you could find a more singularly contrary perspective to my own if you tried! After I had explained to Jozsef the reasons for my approach, he countered with his own (or, to be precise, with Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s) rebuttal: perfume is meant to be a sensory experience and a highly personal, subjective, emotional one at that. Moreover, it’s dishonest for some perfume houses to lead you by reference to such factual details as notes. For example, if you go to a store and tell the assistant what notes you like, you are directed to certain fragrances and — in the JAR philosophy — that’s rather limiting. Why not explore on the basis of your senses and without prejudgment? Is it in fact honest to direct you like sheep to certain things through marketing, names, a list of notes, and a factual context, when it may condition your responses to the scent?
Intellectually, I can completely see his point. Perhaps JAR’s philosophy respects the client more, by giving them free will and believing that they have an unlimited potential to like different sorts of things. There is no doubt that perfume is all about the senses, and where a particular fragrance will transport you is very personal. I think we all agree on that. So, is JAR actually giving people and their instinctive ability to respond to aromas the greatest amount of respect by not limiting clients to predetermined little boxes?
While I was impressed by the theoretical implications of all this, I was wholly unconvinced on a practical level. The simple reality is that I just don’t like certain notes. You can tell me until kingdom come that I should be open-minded to go where the aroma takes me, but the truth is that I wouldn’t like something like synthetic, clean, white musk (let alone that hideous ISO E Super) if you put a gun to my head. Plus, I’m not one who enjoys a lack of control, especially not at niche perfume prices. As a former lawyer with some obsessive-compulsive issues involving details, I demand facts, and I need to have some (very precise) idea of what on earth is going on.
Still, JAR is not about trying to convince you that you like something you don’t; JAR is merely telling you that you should make up your mind for yourself. Sniff something without preconceived notions, and then make up your mind from there. If you love it, great. If you don’t, then that’s fine too. But at least give things a chance without the influence of specific notes, detailed facts, or a sales assistant’s hard sale to sway your perspective.
Honestly, JAR may have a point. And, I’m afraid to say, Jozsef concretely proved that precise point later on in the visit. As he extended one of the glass cloches, I inhaled deeply at the inverted glass, and murmured, “grassy, earthy notes. A damp forest with green notes, then a floral.” I smelled that cloche at least twice, if not perhaps three times, and the primary thing I detected was a green, almost earthy, damp forest floor smell. The floral aspect was always secondary.
You know what that perfume turned out to be? Jardenia (which may be written as JARdenia, perhaps), a fragrance that some consider to the epitome of a gardenia scent. Now, granted, gardenia doesn’t technically have a true aroma of its own and is often reconstituted from other elements. And, at least one Fragrantica commentator noted that JARdenia has a grassy, earthy, almost “mushroomy” scent similar to what I detected from that glass covering. Still, the real point is that I would never have thought “gardenia” as the immediate, automatic aroma of that fragrance when smelled blindly. Upon hearing the name, however, my mind did immediately connect to the flower, and translate the molecules that I sniffed into what my mind has registered or programmed as “gardenia.”
It rather proves Jozsef’s point. Had I known the perfume’s name prior to sniffing it blindly, then I would immediately have made a mental association between the obvious olfactory note, and what I detected. However, when free of all preconceived notions, I primarily detected something else. I was not mentally transported to a hot-house with lush, blowsy gardenias, nor did I visualise a languid, sensuous 19th-century courtesan whose pillowy, white flesh reeked of opulently indolic flowers (as I did once in the past when it came to a white floral fragrance by Grossmith). No, instead, I smelled the green earthiness of a forest first and foremost.
Think about all those people who dread the richness, potency, or indolic nature of white florals like gardenia. They immediately eschew a fragrance when hearing it is centered upon that note. However, as my experience may suggest, perhaps they are inherently limiting their options and boxing themselves into unnecessarily narrow, predetermined categories of taste by making such judgments. Perhaps the JAR philosophy is far from being rigid, and is actually more freeing at the end of the day? At the very least, I think it is an intellectual approach that is worth debate, instead of merely rejecting it as the eccentric, difficult, possibly cantankerous rules of an incredibly wealthy jeweller who has made perfume his passion project without concern for the traditional, conventional system.
As for the rest of the perfumes, some were my cup of tea, and some weren’t. Two of them, however, made me sit up and blink. The first was JARling which Fragrantica classifies as an Oriental Vanilla and which it says includes “star anise, spices, vanilla and heliotrope.” I can’t recall the exact aroma, but I really liked it.
It was nothing, however, as compared to the next one which Jozsef informed me had no name. There was, however, a bolt of lightning on the glass cloche and the fragrance is often referred to as such. I asked Jozsef if he had heard about the new American television series, Hannibal, which focuses on Hannibal Lecter’s early life and which had a whole dinner scene devoted to the beauty of JAR’s Bolt of Lightning. He smiled, and said that someone had told him about it the week before. He also pointed to the painted ceiling of the room where a large bolt of lightning streaked across a darkened, stormy sky.
As I’ve said a number of times in the past, I struggle with a perfume’s smell on paper strips. I simply can’t get at the essence or notes unless the perfume is actually on my skin. JAR never gives samples,but Jozsef was kind enough to put Bolt of Lightning on my arm, and it took my breath away. It was very different than what I had smelled in the cloche, and so much more beautiful. Immediately, I detected white flowers that were somewhat mentholated from heavy indoles. To be specific, I thought I smelled orange blossoms, but looking now at Fragrantica, Bolt of Lightning is a floral oriental that supposedly features tuberose. Given how JAR never releases the notes, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were orange blossoms in there too, but perhaps my nose is merely broken. Either way, it was gorgeous. In fact, the perfume almost brought me to tears, and that has never happened. Simply exquisite, whatever the hell its specific notes may be.
Naturally, however, my favorite perfume also turns out to be THE most expensive one from a house that is hardly cheap to begin with. If I recall correctly, Bolt of Lightning retails for €600 or $825 for a single ounce of parfum. There is a reason why Bolt of Lightning is on all the magazine lists of the most expensive perfumes in the world (per ounce). Other JAR fragrances are much cheaper (though we’re talking about the absolute wonkiest scale of relativity here), but Bolt of Lightning surpasses them all. If I had the money, I would absolutely buy it but, as I had made clear to Jozsef early on, I certainly could not afford it.
My experience at JAR left a mark on me in a few ways. I continue to think about the idea of preconceived notions. It is something I had previously explored a bit in my satirical courtroom review of Etat Libre d’Orange‘s notorious Secretions Magnifiques. As noted in that review, I suspect that a small, tiny portion of people filter what they smell through the lens of preconceived notions, the fragrance’s notoriety, and their existing knowledge of its notes. For some, the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve smelled far more horrid fragrances, and I have to wonder what the result would be if people approached Secretions Magnifiques in the JAR way, blindly.
Another thing I ponder quite a bit is Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s unique position as a perfumer. This is a man who has the good fortune, metaphorically and literally, to make perfumes his way, to paraphrase the old Frank Sinatra song. He has chosen to approach them as art, without concern to their saleability or accessibility. If you like them, can afford them and buy them, great. If not, it doesn’t matter because he’s doing it for himself. He ostensibly creates them without the help of any trained nose, without regard to the usual rules about perfume pyramids and structure, and without giving the smallest damn if he sells any at all. You could call it a “vanity project,” or you could argue that his approach perhaps meets the purest definition of art as art. There isn’t a single commercial consideration involved. Instead, it is all entirely personal, and a creative extension of himself. Does it really matter what the perfumes are like, or what their specific notes are, when the original impetus is pure individualism and self-expression without submitting to what others may think or do?
Very few people are lucky enough to be in Mr. Rosenthal’s position, and I think we’re all probably a little envious. Wouldn’t you want to be able to create your own perfumes, without concern to financial cost or profit? I certainly would. I think it helps to approach JAR’s perfumes in that light, and with an understanding of the underlying philosophy, as opposed to how one would approach regular, normal fragrances. JARling, JARdenia, Bolt of Lightning, and its siblings are not intended to be something like a Dior or Guerlain perfume. On some levels, they’re not even actually intended for you. They’re the love child of a man who has the total freedom to express himself as he wants, and the rules be damned.
Everything about JAR is a different world, and that’s what made it so fascinating for me. It is an absolutely unique perfume experience from start to finish. And I cannot thank Jozsef enough for all of it. There were a few people who came in as he was walking me through the seven or eight cloches on the table; each time, with incredible courteousness, he made them feel welcome and attended to, but without leaving his demonstration for me or pushing me out the door. Instead, he asked them if it would be possible for them to return in 10-15 minutes so that he could devote himself to them fully. He spent a considerable amount of time with me, debating the finer points of the JAR philosophy, and even sharing some of his own perfume tastes. (He loves vintage Opium, which pretty much sealed the deal for me in terms of how fabulous I thought him to be! And, a long time ago, he used to wear one of my favorite, comfort scents, Karl Lagerfeld‘s Lagerfeld cologne.)
Jozsef gave me permission to photograph the store, which is an incredibly rare privilege. Unfortunately, as I’ve stated numerous time by now in writing about my Paris experiences, my bloody camera seems to have chosen this time in which to die and seemed to have a particular neurosis about taking crisp, non-blurry photos of perfume in specific. I am rather horrified by how terrible my JAR photos turned out to be (even the few that weren’t wholly unusable and which I’ve included here), so I can only apologise to Jozsef. By the way, I was even allowed to take a picture of Jozsef himself, but I was informed that he would hunt me down and throttle me if I posted it. He gave a small grin as he said it, but obviously I will respect his wishes. I will say, though, that I thought he looked like an extremely intellectual, serious, distant cousin to Jim Caveziel, and that’s a compliment.
All in all, I think JAR is something that every really serious perfumista should experience. It’s not about the perfumes and their price; it’s about the completely unique philosophical perspective that Mr. Rosenthal brings to the perfume discussion. It’s about reconsidering how one sees one’s own perfume tastes, the basis upon which we make our judgments, and the very theory upon which perfume is presented or marketed to the general public. It may be a very abstract discussion triggered by a man who is not subject to the common norms or to the practical considerations of the usual perfume house, and none of it may be very realistic for the average perfume buyer (as opposed to a hardcore perfumista), but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss his opinion without giving it a chance. Mr. Rosenthal has a very original voice to match his unusual fragrances, and a philosophy that I found that worthy of respect. The ultimate irony, however, is that the man who wants us to stop thinking analytically and intellectually about perfumes impressed me precisely because he made me think….
An experience indeed. What a trip! And your saw your friends!
And, there was French cheese in abundance! 😉 Definitely quite a trip indeed. In all honesty, I still haven’t recuperated from those 2 weeks. lol
Although I’m a fan of note lists and names I do agree that they alter your perception before you even try things. I think it’s that way with a lot of things. Nail polish even. What sounds better, Plum frost or When Stars Collide? I totally bought that polish because it was pretty but that name was fabulous. I wish JAR scents were more accessible but that would take the magic away wouldn’t it? Sometimes it might be nice to just sit back and enjoy the ride instead of staring at the GPS. I’m glad you got to experience this place and share it with us. I’m baffled as to how you’re finding time to write because you should be making up with the Hairy German for leaving him for all that time.
I agree on the preconditioning elements that some information can provide, but I still struggle with just HOW much control is taken away during the whole perfume process. Well, up to your choice to give your credit card, it seems. lol. I keep going back and forth on parts of the JAR philosophy in terms of the reality of the experience. Perhaps I simply don’t like seceding so much control, or perhaps I’m simply too OCD. Intellectually, however, I can see his perspective, and I respect both its uniqueness and the fact that he follows his own drummer. As Frank Sinatra said, “I did it my way.” There’s something to be said for that fiercely independent, personal, untrammeled vision, even if most people can’t afford that luxury.
In answer to your last comment, it seems that Grumpy Germans can be bribed, so, thankfully, I’m no longer living with Kaiser Wilhelm. 😉 I swear, he was quite an aloof child for a while.
Just to clarify, I’m with you on the wanting to try what I want when I want and at my own pace but I do think the whole JAR thing is probably interesting. Its not how I would choose to buy perfume. At all.
It’s definitely interesting, as a one-time experience, and I truly do love how it made me think. So, JAR is very much worth a trip, in my opinion, even if one can’t afford the perfumes. Plus, on a completely shallow note, Jozsef was ….. 😉 lol.
That sounds really interesting, but the JAR experience and philosophy sounds a bit exhausting to me. I found this a little, I don’t know the right word to describe how it made me feel, but perhaps frustrating would be the closest: “For example, if you go to a store and tell the assistant what notes you like, you are directed to certain fragrances and — in the JAR philosophy — that’s rather limiting.”
I would almost buy that, except a huge part of the JAR philosophy is about luxury to the point of inaccessibility and retaining the right to refuse a customer for incredibly superficial reasons. The way they have designed their shopping experience, for better or for worse, does not actually allow the customer to really explore on their own terms.
In general, I find their marketing (and I would argue this is more of a marketing technique than anything else, but I’m sure they would vehemently disagree) ploys more than a bit irritating and haughty, but I suppose their within their right. It obviously hasn’t hurt their business.
With all those grievances aired, it does sound like it was an interesting and worthwhile experience for you and I’m glad you were able to share it with your readers, because it was quite interesting to read! It must be tough to walk into a situation where you don’t have much of a choice but to experience perfume testing in a way that is antithetical to your own process! I suppose a little challenge now and then is a good thing. 🙂
I think a few of the inaccessibility elements that you’re picking up pertain more to the jewellery end of things than to the perfume one. I mean, they’re not going to refuse to sell a customer a perfume, the way that Mr. Rosenthal may one of his diamond brooches. You don’t have to make an appointment to sniff the perfumes, the way you do to see his jewels. And Jozsef was courteous to let me explore the JAR experience even though I had stated that I couldn’t really afford them.
On the other hand, you’re absolutely right that the customer cannot explore at will and on their own terms. It is one of the frustrations that I had too. (And “frustrating” is quite an apt term for what you were describing in your comment.) I don’t think there is haughtiness underlying that approach, but there is a fierceness of convictions that is quite implacable, unwavering and rigid. Mr. Rosenthal is doing things his way, whether you like it or not. It’s his right, but it does make one feel rather helpless as one perches on that chair and obediently sticks one’s nose into the cloche to sniff. The very fact that I couldn’t touch them to sniff at will or in the order that I wanted was limiting. And I don’t like feeling helpless.
So, as you can see, the intellectual side of me and my brain are at war with the rest of me on this. So much of the whole JAR approach, right down to the small details, is contrary to my very essence and nature — from the lack of factual details right down to my having to submit to someone else’s dictates on how I should enjoy a hedonist experience. Chefs do it when they present you a set tasting menu, but at least you can SEE and therefore tell what you’re eating. It’s not like being blindfolded, and told to eat without any idea whatsoever.
Despite all that, I do think JAR has a point, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be handled quite so strictly in terms of the experience? Perhaps we should be able to sniff it at will, and not have to submit with such docility on a chair like a child being shown what it must do? Hm, that last bit sounded testier and more irritated than I had intended.
It’s definitely his right, but I think it’s a fairly alienating approach. Not that it matters, I think in some ways this approach probably *does* benefit their business model, because whether or not the perfume has the same level of exclusivity to it (and your point is well taken that it’s not NEARLY to the same degree as the jewelry) – I think the experience is probably as much an adherence to a personal philosophy as it is cultivating this experience of exclusivity and that the customer should be considered fortunate to even smell this amazing creations. Granted I’m feeling cranky and cynical today, but something about it rubs me the wrong way – but I can admit a lot of that is due to the issue you mention of diametrically opposed philosophies on what the experience should be like. It’s fair to say we’re both fairly rigid, so I don’t expect either of us to move much. LOL. 😛
I think your last paragraph sort of exemplifies my main issue, which I hadn’t been able to elucidate before. There’s something about the experience which seems very much like a customer can’t possibly be trusted or know whats in their own best interests that’s pretty off-putting to me. With all my criticism of the model aired, I would absolutely be willing to subject myself to that experience to broaden my horizons, but I’m glad this isn’t the typical approach to perfumery.
God, yes, can you imagine if every perfume house followed this same system? As I just wrote to Susie now, I would lose my bloody mind! It’s giving me anxiety merely thinking about such a nightmarish scenario, where there are never any notes, testing, samples, given names, and nothing but a very systematic, “stick your nose here and sniff” approach. People with obsessive tendencies involving facts and control would probably have a heart attack alongside me.
I think I shall go de-stress and compensate by spending a little bit of time on Fragrantica, looking up notes and details just because I bloody well can! Heh. 😉
I know i will never be able to visit JAR myself but thats ok- felt as if i was their. I love it when someone creates for themself without restriction. I too never get a much from a fragrance sniffing from the bottle. The best part is finding out what it smells like on your own skin.Thanks for sharing your experience with us.
You’re very, very welcome, Patricia. I’m glad I could transport you there and let you live it a little through my eyes. I hope one day that you get to experience it for yourself, whether in New York or Paris. 🙂
Well JAR sounds right up my street!
That is my absolute favourite way to experience perfume, to go in with your eyes closed and then see where it takes you. I’m all about whimsical description and fanciful stories, that is just how scent appeals to me. I do think it’s useful and interesting from an intellectual perspective to have a breakdown of notes and a comprehensive description of a perfume’s development, which is exactly why I read your blog dear Kafka. Your obsessive attention to detail leaves no scented stone unturned. There is no better blog than yours when it comes to detailed perfume analysis.
For my own experience with a perfume however, I would rather garner a few details on the type of fragrance it is, then go and lock myself in a velvet walled room and let it speak to me in its own voice. Then when I’ve made up my mind what I think of it, I’ll go and read other bloggers reviews. As a blogger myself (with a very different approach to you) I want to make sure my opinions on said perfume are as much ‘my own’ as I can manage, and they are often very emotional and instinctive, as is my approach to most things.
I think it’s very true that a preconception of a perfume or a particular note can lead people to discount a perfume that they might otherwise have enjoyed. I also think it’s very important that should a person want to find out all about a perfume in detail, there are blogs like yours out there for them to seek out.
I was interested to read how your experience at JAR made you question how scent should be experienced. I believe that at the end of the day we cannot change our essential natures and for you understanding the structure and development of a perfume is what makes it enjoyable for you. For me it is the emotion and imagery that a scent provokes that most moves me, I am not so fussed with what it contains. Thanks for a thought provoking glimpse into this plum velvet jewellery box 🙂
First, thank you for your kind words, Susie, on the blog and my approach. As for your own, I’m curious now as to what sorts of details you are willing to be exposed to before you lock yourself in your metaphoric, velvet walled room? In other words, what is the bare minimum necessary for you to have the perfume speak to you instinctively and emotionally?
As you were replying, I was writing an answer to Kevin that outlined some of my practical, very small difficulties with the process. The main aspect was just how limited my control over it all. Which brings me to your system. I think the JAR approach strips things down even further than what you go through when you test something. You do it on your own terms, in your own way, in comfort and with what suits your personal approach best. But, with my JAR experience, though I appreciate the theoretical aspects of Mr. Rosenthal’s perspective, the reality is that you have to submit and strip yourself of almost ALL control. I didn’t like that. In other words, you chose your methodology because of how well it works for you. It is your personal choice, but one doesn’t have a similar freedom of choice with JAR.
So, intellectually, perhaps the client is freer at the end of the day in terms of not being confined by specific perfume TASTE into boxes, but the actual process itself isn’t very free at all. I don’t know, maybe I’m just too conflicted by how alien all of this is to me. Still, I appreciate how much he’s made me think, and that doesn’t always happen with perfumery. (Even rarer still is to make me feel so damn conflicted on something. lol) At least it is just a process limited to JAR. I can accept that as a one-time, unique experience. But if all perfumers tried to do the same thing, I think I would lose my bloody mind! *grin*
Sometimes it is very hard to avoid being exposed to a lot of different opinions of a scent before I get a chance to sniff it myself, especially if it is a current favourite on FFF and on the fragrance blogs. If I think I would potentially like to review that perfume then I stop reading about it until I’ve had a chance to get hold of some. If it is one of your reviews that has piqued my interest then, do forgive me, I stop reading before you get too detailed and only go back to it when I’ve written my own thoughts down.
This is something that I started to do after several experiences where I had a strong preconception of the scent before I smelt it and I felt that my writing suffered because of it. I doubt that I would worry about avoiding reviews if I wasn’t going to potentially write about that fragrance myself as it is both fascinating and useful to experience other people’s reactions.
I think maybe the JAR experience appeals to me so much because I am still very wide eyed about the whole perfume world. I am less certain whether I would enjoy it if I felt very controlled and restricted by such strict rules. As Tara mentions below, I would HATE to have my hand slapped for trying ‘too many’ perfumes by a controlling SA. I think I would be more open minded about a trip to JAR because it is the whole experience that makes it what it is, from the decor to the unnamed perfume to the cool, disconnected charm of the staff. I’m glad that this is not common practice too, I’m just excited by the unique concept 🙂 over excitable in general really 😉
LOL. May you always, always, ALWAYS have that bright-eyed, passionate excitement about perfumes, sweetie. Never lose it, I beg of you. It’s one of the things that makes you very special. *hugs*
I visited JAR with Neela Vermeire back around 2005-2006. If I had not been with her, I am sure I would never have known about this boutique, nor would I have had the courage to push the door and enter. It was a very intimidating experience, but the woman who helped us was extremely gracious. I think the material inside the cloches is a piece of suede chamois, at least that’s how it appeared to me. I didn’t really care for any of the perfumes, but found Jardenia to be so foul that for a moment I thought I would have to leave the boutique and go outside for some air, it really turned my stomach. It smelled like rotting organic matter, just vile, not in any way like a gardenia flower. I am grateful to have had the experience though, it was quite interesting and different from any other perfume experience I have had, then or since.
On that same trip, I got scolded at the Frederic Malle boutique in the rue du Bac – the saleswoman was very controlling, she would not allow me to touch any of the bottles and told me I would not be allowed to smell more than 3 fragrances, as I would not be able to smell them properly if allowed to just grab the bottles and sniff away to my heart’s content. Since there were at least 10 fragrances in the line at that time and I was only going to be there for a week, I figured I would have to go to the boutique every day to smell all their perfumes… fortunately at a different boutique they were more flexible.
You were scolded at Frederic Malle???!! Haughty, condescending or insolent customer service is one of my greatest pet peeves, and makes me completely see red. But to be actually chastised, scolded, and/or told what to do??! I would have really given it to her. I have absolutely no tolerance for that sort of thing, and I have enough Scorpio in me to have a really sharp sting when I become angry.
I’m glad your JAR experience was positive in terms of their courteousness. It’s just as well that they all are because you’re absolutely correct in saying that JAR is rather an intimidating experience. How interesting about Jardenia! Rotting organic material — fascinating. I can see that in a way because of the earthiness. Gardenia certainly wasn’t the first thing that came to my mind at all!
Jesus, I’m still fuming over your Malle experience. They weren’t exactly warm and fuzzy with me, but they were at least courteous, even if it was in a glacially polite way. I can take French aloof politeness, but not being able to touch any of the bottles and being chastised like an ignorant child??? Wholly unacceptable.
I would feel so uncomfortable there!
The thing about Jozsef (and seemingly the lady before him whom Tara dealt with, as well) is that he makes you feel completely at ease. It’s something I’ve always noted with the very, very highest of high-end luxury stores, particularly jewellery ones somehow: they have a courteous, non-judgmental, smoothness and ease in how they treat clients. They are always solicitous and gracious, never haughty or insolent. It’s a lot more than what I can say about lower-level companies like Guerlain. Anyway, my point is that someone like Joszef would not let you feel uncomfortable, I don’t think. 🙂
Guerlain a lower level company????? :O My jaw dropped to the ground what disdain for my Guerlain 😦 , and they are such a great and old company too, OMG 😦 .
Well, any makeup/perfume/beauty company is going to be, almost by definition, at a lower level than a super exclusive jeweller whose prices for a single item can reach the high six figures. Whatever Guerlain may be in its own category, it’s not a Piaget, Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston, JAR, or Buccellati. It can’t be. Also, for me, a company isn’t automatically great merely because it has age or history.
I’m so glad that you took us along on this rather surreal experience. JAR sounds like a house made for people without an interest in perfume, but whom have tons of money and would not even hesitate to buy several if not all of the perfumes once they go through the “experience.” As their brand is not marketed to the perfumista but instead the uber rich, then this philosophy works fine. My biggest question is did Joszef put a couple of samples in your hand as you were walking out??!!! 🙂
Samples? Samples?? From JAR???? Hahahahahahahaha. Not on your life. I suspect they’ve never had anything so plebian as an echantillon/sample vial on their premises. *grin* I can’t even begin to imagine the handsome Joszef’s face if one actually asked for something so crass. rofl.
You know, for all that you’re probably quite right in saying that JAR is marketed to the uber-rich instead of the perfumista, I’ve read of a number of “average” people who actually own some of the JAR perfumes. It’s often a small amount from a split, but some people on Basenotes also have purchased bottles. Not a lot of people, I grant you, but some. (And, really, Bolt of Lightning was gorgeous!) What is so interesting to me is how incredibly unique it is for someone (in this case Mr. Rosenthal) to be able to create his perfume art without even the slightest consideration to cost, practical realities, profit, saleability, or market appeal. I find that fascinating, because it’s so rare to find “Art as Art” these days; even the top photographers, painters or chefs create their products with an eye to having it appeal or sell. JAR truly couldn’t give a damn.
Thank you as ever for another of your reports from the front line of perfume experiences (your Jovoy article led to my being able to track down two scents I’ve searching for).
As someone who probably leans more towards the JAR way of thinking of fragrance as emotion (and a notorious purveyor of “talk about abstract emotions or fanciful stories, without also giving you the specific details of what the hell the perfume actually smells like, from the first minute to the very last one.” that does “a reader absolutely no good at all”) I think I would probably adore this whole performance.
Because that in part is what it would seem to be to me, an art installation or site-specific work of theatre coerced into the service of commerce. But then I’ve always been of the opinion that there is an art to wearing perfume as there is to making it and the each time we spray on a scent we are taking to a sort of stage.
What thoughts the recollections from Paris are stirring,,, sterling work!
The Perfumed Dandy
Darling, you do include facts in your reviews, even if they are not the primary focus and the notes are at the end. I was not thinking of you (or Lanier) when I was writing that!
Did you actually find two perfumes that you’ve been searching for thanks to my Jovoy post??! Really? Hurrah, I’m so incredibly chuffed by that! May I ask what they were?
Back to JAR, you know, you raise an excellent point about installation art. I think that is a very good analogy. But doesn’t that only work one time? I mean, if all perfume experiences involved installation art, wouldn’t perfume purchases lose all practical convenience, accessibility, and ease? Could you handle something like this all time or whenever you were interested in a perfume?
On the other hand, playing devil’s advocate, the very uniqueness of Mr. Rosenthal’s position makes his message – by definition – something intentionally rarified and outside the norm, so perhaps it’s utterly ridiculous to extrapolate to anything further. One should just sit back and enjoy the ride. Without thought or analysis, as I clearly seem to be doing. My problem is that I’m constitutionally incapable — intellectually and in terms of my character — to give up mental control, and to stop over-analyzing or thinking about things. I’m probably the very last person who is able to go through the JAR experience on a purely sensory basis, and to wholly submit — which is why my visit probably constituted the ultimate clash in philosophies, as well as personalities. And, as you can see, not even Mr. Rosenthal has been able to make me stop analyzing the whole process. *grin*
Yes..you did inspire me to search the Jovoy site for Histoires de Parfums’ trio of ‘Tubureuse’ and also, as serendipity would have it to follow up on a rough tomato scent that The Black Narcissus recommended the other day.
Whilst I will resist the temptation to have them shipped (which was a little steep no doubt due to our ridiculous British roles regarding perfume in the post) it has etched a place for a trip to Jovoy when I am next in Paris, hopefully not too far away.
I must say that I’m delighted you tried ‘the other Grossmith’, I am such an admirer of the work this house has done in returning (an interpretation) of a piece of perfume history to the present day… and don’t they smell (and look divine).
Very good points about the practicality of JAR’s approach as a means of retailing perfume in general, but I imagine that at their prices they aren’t expecting to shift volume units (to use the awful speak).
As well as an art installation, your description did also remind me of buying expensive jewellery, when one is ushered to a private room and attended on by a ‘vendeuse’ who seeks to guide your choices.
This is only an experience I have been party to on a couple of occasions in my life, and sadly I was not the buyer on either occasion, but the performance was exquisite and a work of art in its own right.
Perhaps it is this experience that JAR have in mind, and the possibly the same degree of value that we attach to gems that they aspire to for their perfumes…
The Perfumed Dandy
Oh and by the way, please don’t ever stop analysing, promise.
The Perfumed Dandy
Thank you, dear Kafka, for sharing your JAR experience. Like others, I enjoyed the visit vicariously as I would NEVER be able to enjoy it personally due to the rarified strata of the boutique and its philosophy. I would be so uncomfortable – rather like visiting a doctor’s office than shopping or sniffing for perfume. Still, you made it sound so extraordinary and I think your photographs are brilliant and your presentation successfully recreates the ambience of the shop and charm of Jozsef to the point of titillation.
I love a good back story to a perfume, however, and I do color the experience I have with preconceptions from that story. For me the back story encourages rather than limits the experience, though, of course, in a directed way; but then I would argue that the JAR experience is as manipulated, if not more controlling and directed, with prompts as carefully staged as those of a Las Vegas magician. Wonderful in the same way as any psychopomp experience, but still…mediated. Regardless, a superb and completely enjoyable and immersive read. Bravo!
Oh, the Las Vegas magician act with the carefully orchestrated (but hidden) prompts! Very apt! The Perfume Dandy brought up something extremely similar: installation art and theatre. I think you’ve both nailed it, especially in terms of the “psychopomp.” Going to JAR does feel a little like one has come to a purple-velvet, holy shrine, and has been asked to go through a quasi-religious ceremony. There is a very definite feel of a ritual in the whole, well-established process of sniffing the cloches, starting with the one at the 6 o’clock position on a clock’s dial, and leading up to the very final cloche in the center with the first, original JAR fragrance.
I must say, for all that I felt very awkward, somewhat uncomfortable, and ill at ease during the process, and for all that I hate not knowing what is going on in a situation or ceding control, JAR’s people make a point of trying to make you feel respected and valued. I admire how they so politely make no judgments at all. None. And they respect wherever a fragrance may take you, giving you the freedom to make up your own mind. I think there is something rather brilliant about the theoretical openness and freedom of the JAR philosophy, and I was truly impressed by the abstract implications of it all, even if the practical realities give me great pause due to my own personality. Poor Jozsef, he ended up with the very last person imaginable who is able to comply with the JAR motto of “Don’t think, just feel.” lol.
You are so lucky to have this type of experiences Kafka 😀 , I would never dare to go in there, it would be too intimidating (not that I would have known about it if it wasn´t for you ) , but really going into such extremely high end stores without the ability to buy anything would be scary. I had never heard of such an approach before, it does sound interesting, to make people experience a scent without giving them any ideas of what it could be, but I can understand that for someone who specializes in perfume like you do it could be frustrating. However, I really do find strange that a jeweler would refuse to sell a piece of his work for millions, only because he thinks it won´t look good on the person he is selling it too? Unheard of for me, really. I´m glad you had a good experience there, but in your place if I had really loved that lighting bolt perfume I would have bought it, even if it meant not buying other things, if I truly adored it, that is. On another note, Kafka are you a Scorpio? From a reply to another comment it gave me the impression it might be the case, I mention this because I´m a Scorpio as well 😛 .
It really is unheard of for a jeweler to refuse to sell items just because he doesn’t like how it may look on someone. JAR is in a league all of his own, it seems. As for signs, I’m Libra with Scorpio rising, and very, very Scorpio at times…. 😉 I get along very well with my fellow insects, so that explains why we’ve always meshed, dear Vicky.
I thoroughly enjoyed your post and I am glad you were able to enjoy it even though the approach is antithetical to yours. I sniffed the JAR perfumes a while ago at their NYC ‘room’ within Bergdorf, and it was a very memorable experience, one that even my ambivalent husband enjoyed. I really want to sniff them again sometime. Like you, my favorite was Bolt of Lightning though I also really liked Diamond Water. I was very intrigued by the Femme one too (‘close your eyes’ is the translation) and will probably like it more now than i did then.
Coming to the philosophy , I can imagine it being frustrating not knowing the notes but it need not feel like relinquishing your control- you are still free to speculate about what you smell..:). Personally, I have mixed feelings about such an approach. In the beginning of my sniffing mania, notes meant a lot to me, as I wanted to quickly find perfumes that I could love (plus I love finding patterns in my tastes). But somewhere along the way notes list themselves started to seem like marketing ploys to me and I started ignoring the details (black rose? really?..lol). Now this is not true for the more indie and the smaller niche brands of course and there I do pay attention.
Of course it is useful to know that I am smelling an ‘iris’ perfume or a ‘rose’ perfume but sometimes I’m not sure if the other details add much. Other times, I do like to know the details and correlate what I’m smelling with what the notes list say. But even more than that I enjoy correlating what I smell to what other’s smell. However, all this dissection can be tricky because the raw materials used can smell different by themselves from how they smell in a composition. Additionally they can smell different from the sources they are from. For example Jasmine absolute (both grandiflorum and sambac) while beautiful, smell a bit (or a lot!) different from the actual flowers, as does tuberose absolute.. Nowadays, because I am at a stage where I am interested in exploring notes that I have previously ignored because they are ‘not me’, I am back to feeling ‘note nerdy’..:)
I guess with all this rambling what I am probably trying to say is that I understand both points of view and I don’t think they need to detract from one another. From a creator or artist’s point of view, I can understand that they may want the consumer to view a composition or work as a whole without dissecting it into parts which in a sense might be meaningless. But I also understand the nerdiness (in many of us) that demands such a dissection. And I see these two approaches as different ways of enjoying the same thing. I enjoy both the visceral impact of a perfume and following the abstract trail that they may evoke, as well as figuring out how the notes work to produce a desired effect.
Ok- I should stop rambling and get back to work. But I was just recently thinking about this especially in the light of my approach to writing about perfume..:D
I meant others not other’s..:)
Not rambling at all, my dear Lavanya. I found your perspective really interesting, and very well balanced. I also liked how flexible your approach is, to fit what the situation may warrant or adjust to how your interests change. 🙂 As for the issue of control, for me, it’s not merely the loss of notes, but the overall combination of things, as well as the whole sniffing process itself. That said, as a one time thing, it’s a glorious experience that I recommend to everyone. I’m just rather relieved it’s not a common practice across the industry! lol
BTW, I wish you could remember the details of Bolt of Lightning because I’m curious if anyone else found orange blossom in the midst of the white flowers, or if it was all just tuberose?
That’s true- the process would probably be much less enjoyable if it as not the exception.
As for Bolt of Lightning- it was the perfume that struck me as most abstract . The notes in an older blog simply say : “Bolt of Lightning: AAh..and this one changes.. slowly revealing a golden-white heart (tuberose maybe) within its menacing (but intoxicating) dark folds..”
Which is a frustratingly vague description.
I think I attributed tuberose to the golden whiteness that I smelled, only because I might have read reviews that said so, which is why I said maybe. It could have been orange blossom. This was way back in 2007 so my nose was probably less able to discriminate notes. I do remember that it was not the usual obvious tuberose note (the kind in fracas or beyond love) because I would not have liked it this much if it was. It was also not a tuberose note like in Carnal Flower of Tuberose Criminelle (because it would have struck me if it was). I really need to revisit the JAR perfumes, they were exquisite. 🙂
Thank you so much for adding what you recall of the perfume, my dear Lavanya! I had to laugh at your description of that blog summation as “frustratingly vague.” Aha, see, the absence of facts can be frustrating! 😉 😀 I’m just joking. You’re right in your earlier comments that there is value in both sides of the philosophy, as well as perhaps a time and place for factual specifics. 🙂
haha- I think this particular perfume I did perceive it this way which probably accounts for the lack of detail. There was a little more detail for the other perfumes since I could actually place some of the notes :D..Did you find Golconda and Shadow very similar? and did you smell cloves in Diamond Water?
I’m afraid I can’t remember the details about most of the rest of the perfumes. That day was a blur, and things weren’t helped by complete sleep deprivation. I’d had about 12 hours of sleep, if even that, in the preceding 4 days. Five, if you count my 10 hour flight during which I didn’t sleep at all. So, between that, the general elusiveness of the whole JAR sniffing ritual, and the fact that this day was well over 3 weeks ago now, I’m afraid I can’t recall the details of a few of the perfumes.
Wowzers on your experience and eye candy waiting on you hand and foot! I wonder if JAR will be open at Bergdorfs when the Sniffapalooza hoards descend this Saturday? In any case, I have to be in the right mood to do the JAR experience and my perceived frenzy of the event precludes me from being in the mood.
I wonder if JAR hires Jozsef-clones and perhaps the female equivalent clones so as not to taint the experience with divergent SA personalities and demeanor?
ROFL at the Jozsef-clones comment! 😀 Regarding this weekends Sniffapalooza in New York, it definitely doesn’t seem like the right time or atmosphere for the JAR experience. You’re right in postponing it to another time. But since you’re only a subway ride away, I definitely hope you’ll try it sometime soon. I’d be utterly fascinated to see what you think of both the ceremonic ritual *AND* the perfumes themselves!
So I never made it to Sniffapalooza; however, when I am in the mood I can actually just walk to Bergdorfs, about 10-15 minutes depending on how many tourists I have to dodge.
You didn’t go to Sniffapalooze, despite being practically in its backyard?! Oh no! What happened? You can email me if you like, as I want to tell you about my Serge Lutens Precioussssssssssssssssssssss. 😀
You describe the JAR perfume experience perfectly, Kafka. What’s even more interesting is reading about your reaction to their approach, both in your post and in the comments, and I can certainly understand how it probably frustrated you on some levels, even though you surrendered yourself to the experience and wrote about it beautifully. For me, I didn’t mind their approach at all, probably helped along by the fact that when I went (with Ines and Asali) in 2012, it was at the end of a very long day of sniffing and JAR was actually getting ready to close the doors for the day, but Jozsef (I believe the guy who saw us was your Jozsef) agreed to let us in if we didn’t keep him too long past closing hours. 🙂 So I felt lucky that we got in, in the first place, and then once inside, Jozsef did not hurry us at all, but very graciously attended to us in the manner you described. And since my nose was already quite fatigued by that point, I didn’t mind not knowing notes or not having questions answered in that regard. But then, as you know, I’m not terribly analytical in my approach … well, I’m not sure I should say that. I do try to analyze to the degree that I can. 🙂
Btw, I fell in love with Golconda, which to me smelled like a rose-carnation combo, heavily leaning towards carnation. A spicy, clove-ish rose. Jar of Lightning is quite beautiful, and I believe Ines went head-over-heels for it.
It sounds like Jozsef gave you a lovely time, dear Suzanne. (I had to smile at the “my Jozsef” part. Heh.) And how nice of him to ignore the closing time, as well as to let you experience JAR without hurrying you along. I wish I could remember the details of Golconda, but alas, all I remember now is the rose. Isn’t the bottle lovely? And how funny that Ines fell for the one that I did. I’ve often thought that we share some similarities in our tastes. 🙂
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Well done for getting permission to photograph the store – I don’t think I dared even ask, I was so generally overawed by the whole experience (hence the borrowed photos!). Nor did I ask the very urbane ‘perfume induction facilitator’ his name.
My favourite was Jarling I think because it smelt of luxury soap, and there were at least two that had far too much clove for me, Golconda being one. Jardenia smelt of blue cheese and mushroom to me but finally morphed into the most glorious gardenia scent – the most realistic I have ever smelt. But I am not sure I would want to weather the odd opening. Glad you enjoyed the experience – it is a one off, that’s for sure. 😉
Definitely a “one off.” 🙂 I’m glad you found some that you liked.
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