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Madame Rochas is a real grande dame of perfume which has, like many classic scents, gone through two editions: the original 1960 formulation came first, commissioned by Helène Rochas (the actual Madame Rochas!) and created by Guy Robert. There was also the second 1989 edition, which is widely available now and the one I am reviewing here. The new edition was created by perfumers Jean-Louis Sieuzac (creator of YSL's Opium in 1977) and Jacques Fraysse, and it's technically classified as a floral-aldehyde scent.
Unlike some modern bottles and boxes which look as if they've been designed in five minutes as an afterthought, there's really a lot of history behind the packaging of Madame Rochas. The box is nice enough, plain white with "Madame Rochas" in red writing, but it's the bottle that's has all the history to it - designed by Pierre Dinand, it was based on an 18th century Cristalleries de Baccarat crystal bottle in Helène Rochas's collection. It's columnar, fluted and tapers to a smaller base, topped with a gold cap concealing a spray, while the label is thin, white and goes around the top of the bottle. Overall it's not a flashy or showy kind of bottle - in fact, it's deliberately archaic and understated. It's not really sexy at all (it doesn't look as if the kind of perfume you'd get in it would be young or feisty) but it does have a certain class and charm of its own.
THE PERFUME ITSELF
Madame Rochas opens with strong aldehydes and a definite kick of citrus, but it's oily bergamot rather than zingy lemon. It's got a lot in common with the opening of Chanel No 5, if only because of the aldehydes giving the whole thing an almost soapy edge which quickly takes the edge off the citrus and turns it into a much softer freshness altogether. The top notes are quite a clean smell overall, not heady or rich but very "well-scrubbed" and elegant in a streamlined kind of way. Perhaps because of the aldehydes, the whole thing is cool and very clear.
Things start to change after about half an hour when the middle notes begin to appear. The citrus gives way to a much headier combination of very pronounced rose and jasmine - Madame Rochas turns very floral all of a sudden, losing the initial freshness and gaining a bit more depth. The jasmine isn't heavy or oriental, nor is the rose overly sweet or cloying; in fact, the effect is a little powdery. After a while, some lighter floral notes start to show through the heavier rose/jasmine base, something like lily-of-the-valley or perhaps freesia which lightens and brightens it a bit. Apparently, there's tuberose in the mix too, which I find difficult to pick out, as to my nose there isn't anything artificial-smelling or rubbery about the middle notes (the smells I tend to get with tuberose) - just a clean, flowery accord.
The base notes start coming out after a good 4 or 5 hours, making this a very long-lasting offering, especially in the EDP formulation. Madame Rochas loses a little of its cleanness at this stage, developing a lovely sweet warmth from tonka beans and a kick of dry, resinous cedar. There's sandalwood in the mix somewhere, which to my mind always smells a little bit, well, unclean, but coming after so many clean scents it just adds a little depth rather than making the perfume as oriental or musky as it can sometimes do. The base notes linger for about an hour and a half before becoming almost undetectable and vanishing away altogether.
There's a lot to like about Madame Rochas. It's classy and clean, a well-groomed kind of perfume with a huge amount of history behind it. It certainly doesn't smell cheap or run-of-the-mill pink vanilla sweetness; it's complex and develops well with definite stages which hold your interest. Its downsides are certainly that it's not the most inventive scent out there; it does what it does well, but perhaps can't compete with some more modern perfumes just on intrigue value.
So really, I can appreciate how beautiful Madame Rochas is, but it's too old for me. It's got a lot of similar notes to Chanel No 5 and also to Lanvin's Arpege, but I'd put it in the same category as the latter rather than the former - it's comforting, classy and elegant, but perhaps also a little staid and old-fashioned with it. I can see why people associate it with older women or perhaps a comforting older relative, which is definitely no bad thing. For me, however, it doesn't have enough zing, pizazz or intrigue factor to make me want to wear it.
PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
I've seen this everywhere, but actually your best bet is to try discount shops like TJ Hughes, or smaller chemists. It's usually about £11 for 30ml EDT and £40 for 100ml EDP, so not a bank-breaking scent.