RARE BLONDE: Ivoire de Balmain (1979)





One Sunday morning, Duncan and I went to a Cassavetes retrospective in Tokyo. Although it was something of an effort to get up so early to be at the cinema by 10.40am, I knew it would be worth it. Having seen ‘Opening Night’ (1977) twice before, but never on the big screen, I knew that it would be a rare opportunity to gaze at the mesmerizing face of possibly my favourite actress, Gena Rowlands, who, as the character Myrtle Gordon – a confused, emotionally flailing star, plunges willingly into a masochistic rabbit hole of self-doubt, hallucination and tragedy in the pursuit of theatrical technique and authenticity.


The first time I saw the film I was alone. It was Autumn, about twelve years ago, and I had never even heard of Cassavetes. I had just randomly picked the film from a video shop in Fujisawa, and sat down on the tatami to watch it as the crisp October sun dappled on the garden outside. A shadowy melancholia was present already in the room, and this set the mood perfectly for a film that had me wide-eyed in love: I had never seen anything so seamless, and while stylized and oddball, so real. It was the ultimate ‘star gone mad’ film, and somewhat tediously and obviously perhaps on my part perhaps, I reached out for my vintage miniature of Ungaro’s Diva (a gorgeously rich Turkish rose chypre), this forming the scented backdrop to the film (eyes on the screen, back of hand attached to nose: a frequent pose in my cinematic viewing).  I have forever associated its rich complexity with Ms Rowlands ever since: this WAS the smell of Opening Night for me.The character – glamorous, chic, fiercely intelligent and feeling, but troubled and angry (and rightly so), I imagined would wear a scent that is full bodied and carnal at heart, yet with an unpenetrable enamel of enigma at surface.


Watching that day, enraptured by the beauty of this film and totally unable to take my eyes off Gena Rowlands: the flick of those hard-hitting blue eyes, her thick, blonde-curled hair, that alabaster skin, another perfume suddenly floated up into my consciousness, particularly in the scene where she is about to ascend in the elevator with Ben Gazzara in a long cream fur coat…..


IVOIRE. Yes! Ivoire de Balmain, that deep, feminine creation from another age when scents were orchestral and beautiful, and embraced the full female corporality, rather than the one-note pink sex bunnies we too often get these days. Thinking about it now, though both perfumes came out after the film, and Diva seemed perfect at the time, the Balmain somehow wins out. Diva is too joyous, too throaty. Ivoire is more brittle and vulnerable, yet so attractive, out of reach.


Yes, this is how she would smell.


Also because this scent truly strikes me as being a perfume made for blondes. Although I bought it for my (brunette) mother over twenty years ago (having spent an entire day in Birmingham department stores trying out scores of different perfumes to find the ultimate scent for her birthday), she found it too sweet. Too something. Not quite right. And thus I soaked a pale-leather diary I took with me to Rome that year (it still vaguely smells of Ivoire), and everytime I wrote about any experience there, on the train to the coast, on the streets of Testaccio, this scent would waft up and mingle with my associations.



I first encountered it, though, at Cambridge when I was nineteen. A friend of mine at Queen’s, Dawn – a sybaritic, self-indulgent History of Art student with blonde honey hair who lazed about half the day in shiny cream satin pyjamas – wore this (or the divine Courrèges in Blue) and she always smelled incredible. Quite dazzling. Sweet, soapily fresh, sensual, yet somehow out of reach. Divine. She would send us out for cigarettes and sandwiches on blustery sunny days and for some reason, like idiots we always complied, possessed by the feeling in that room.


The composition of that scent is complex, yet as smooth, and cool, as marble. Rich and full: yet cold, the departure a fresh, green aldehydic sheen of galbanum, bergamot, mandarin, violet, and lily-of-the-valley, blended effortlessly with a lushly creamy heart achieved with an interesting juxtaposition of flowers and spices: Turkish rose, ylang ylang and jasmine overlayed with a dusting of nutmeg, cinnamon and berry pepper (the scent has something in common with L’Air Du Temps and Fidji in this respect: those ethereal spiced garlands that encircle the flowers and lift them up higher to the heavens). Then: a slow, langourous base of labdanum, sandalwood (which dominates), vetiver, tonka bean and vanilla.


The concept of ivory is realised around the intense binding of all these ingredients together so we experience at once a smoothness – the scent as clean and fresh as a newly laundered blouse in tulle – yet underlying it all a buttery, emotive decadence…..



Myrtle Gordon ultimately triumphs with her voyage to the heart of her instincts.  And backstage, where buckets of champagne lie on ice, she is drunk on her success. The effect would be, I believe, deliciously, heartbreakingly, compounded with Ivoire.




Note: I have two bottles of this perfume. A vintage eau de toilette found in a Zushi recycle shop (how my heart leapt when I saw it!), and a new, reformulated edition from The Perfume Shop in Solihull. The difference is astonishing. What was flat, and disappointing to me (was this really how it smelled? Had I exaggerated it in my mind?) is alive and glowing in the vintage. I hope you have the opportunity to try it.


Filed under Floral Aldehydes, Green

58 responses to “RARE BLONDE: Ivoire de Balmain (1979)

  1. Beautiful review – must smell this scent – and how gorgeous to dwell some more on Opening Night and la Gena x

  2. ginzaintherain

    Thank you Nina. The films have simply obliterated my subconscious this week.

  3. tonkabeany

    I’m inspired to watch the film (on your recommendation watched Gloria previously and loved it) and equally inspired to buy another bottle of the truly heavenly Ivoire which I know well (and in the vintage form) but have not had in my possession for many a year. Love it!!

  4. ginzaintherain

    She is back.

    Opening night was seriously mind-blowing for me. Whereas Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Gloria are exquisite visually, full of art, but have fairly typical-ish stories, this is hard-going: the story is literally just a woman having trouble with an opening night, but it goes so deep that it has churned up my dream life for two weeks.

    And on the big screen, honestly Helen, it was just awe-inspiringly beautiful.

  5. brie

    Now that I am back to blonde I am loving the Ivoire and Courreges…both extremely suitable for me! “alive and glowing” indeed!

    • In what circumstances have you tried the Ivoire?

      For me it is very frustrating in that I find it really exquisite, but it smells so wrong on me that I would rather decant it for you if it works. It really IS a blond perfume for me, this one, as is the Courreges. So…..something I can’t quite put my finger on.

      Please use both freely as I have enough for refills!

  6. AHHHH! Beautiful Gena! Strangely enough, was pondering re-reading the Michael Ventura ‘Cassavetes Directs’ book this afternoon. It’s on the making of Love Streams and is a brilliant insight into G & J’s working methods. I read it a couple of years ago. It’s full of sand from Egypt! Been planning to send it to you for a while. Reckon you’d love it!

    • I would kill to read it….

      • ninakane1

        I’ll re-read it then send it with an Autumn package.

      • No, there’s already one on the way, isn’t there? You spoileth xx

      • ninakane1

        Yes, there is – should be with you in the next couple of days – and I was actually going to include the book in it, but it was too big for this particular box! It’s actually a very belated birthday pressie for you and anniversary pressie for you both, and has been on its way for many months (so with such time scales, when I say Autumn, it’d probably be later anyway…). I spritzed the box heavily with Lyn Harris’ Le Sauvage, so it might smell a bit chest-hairy and intense when you open it, but it’s a great bracing Summer scent and very earthy! I spoileth because you spoileth! And on this note, I’ve been intending to devote the next couple of days to wearing nothing but that vintage Youth Dew so I can write on it…

      • That would be brilliant. Only if it feels right, though. You might find yourself going all twisty and rich- toothed in it.

      • ninakane1

        Been alternating between vintage Youth Dew and the contemporary version exclusivement for a few days now. What a bizarre and sweet n steely scent that is – but am noticing differences in balance between the old and new. Will write on the Youth Dew section soon, but have a whole story going on with it… x

      • Can I put it up as a guest post? Send it me by e-mail.

    • Of course! Will do.x Have fb posted you a pic of the Ivoire I’ve bought – it’s a 7.5ml bottle.

  7. Lilybelle

    I’ve never seen Opening Night. I will look for it. Gena Rowlands was so beautiful. It really is wonderful how the fragrance Ivoire evokes the sensory experience of ivory as a material. It’s so well named. It is a beautiful fragrance, yet cold as you note in your review. I would probably like it today better than I did when I first tried it.

  8. I have a vintage bottle of the parfum and a reformulated bottle of the Eau de Toilette. I always loved this fragrance and am happy to see it written about once again.

  9. Your review really inspires me to try Ivoire! I am no longer blonde, but I will try it anyhow. 😉

  10. What lovely memories this evoked in you! I love it when visuals are given alongside a scent. I tried the old Ivoire and it smelled a bit like sweat on me. The new one was pretty and clean smelling, but not half as interesting as old Ivoire, and so dramatically different from the original that they shouldn’t have had the cheek to use the same name.

  11. Dearest Ginza
    Beautiful writing.
    Knowing and nostalgic at once. Can one be clear sighted and sentimental (on the original sense of the word). I think so and that you are here.
    I only hope the perfume lives up to this bravura performance… I assume the current reformulation is a shadow?
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • I really think this is a perfume you want to smell on another, a woman you love. I know you would get what I mean and not think me hyperbolic if you smelled it in those circumstances. It is familiar, like I say L’Air Du Temps sort of kind of comes to mind, but less innocent, with more satined panache.

  12. Rafael

    Wonderful review! I remember the original. My Mother wore it when it came out. I told her she smelled indecent. “That’s the Idea.” This review reminded me of this quote:“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”
    ― Ayn Rand

  13. Heya,
    I have a vintage EdT of this sitting on my desk smirking at me, awaiting a decant into a spritzer.
    Portia x

  14. Joy of Joys – someone has posted Opening Night on youtube in full! watch and enjoy lovely people. http://youtu.be/7gRCQc9DZoY

  15. My favourite. My only. My Ivoire. Beautiful.

    That said – am I the only who smells sweet yummy raspberries under all this gorgeousness? Referring to vintage…

    • I mean really, on the right person I do think that Ivoire is just one of the best perfumes ever made. I can’t wear it, but ADORE how it smells on the right woman’s skin. The raspberry mirage seems perfectly plausible to me.

  16. jennyredhen

    Well I was thinking a bottle of modern Ivoire but these reviews have put me off. But I am going to watch Opening Night sounds amazing. What else is John Cassavetes famous for ?

    • Difficult, slow, improvised films like Killing Of A Chinese Bookie and the almost unwatchable A Woman Under The Influence.

      Opening Night is not an easy watch either (his films never follow traditional conventions) but it has a real depth to it. He is one of the few male directors who deeply respects women. No patronizing female characters here.

  17. Must smell this after reading your post. Have you ever considered writing a novel?

  18. Renee Stout

    Love this scent!

  19. Yep, you’ve captured her perfectly, and Ivoire too. I’m old enough that I remember buying a bottle of extrait the day it was available in Vancouver. (I loved those days; so few new releases that each one was an capital-E Event.) Instant lust, not a second’s hesitation. Pow, smitten. Then, it cut quite a figure, absolutely distinctive. With all those base/bass notes happening from the start, filling up quite a bit of olfactory space, it wasn’t shrill in the least despite the assertive green intro, and the middle was lively, engaging, seamless. Ahhhh . . .

    • I love this style of perfumery. And the extrait? How exciting. I have a tiny tiny miniature of it somewhere but I can’t quite remember what it was like. I know that on the right skin that creaminess, truly ivory-like, actually, was absolutely gorgeous. Dawn had the most amazing aura about her in this.

      • I can imagine. Aura is a good word for it. I always felt Ivoire was marvellously abstract, an idea or an expression rather than a collection of notes. Back in those days, in my early 20s, there was very little information about perfume and little or no discussion of notes or structure or genre from the sales staff. I had no idea what a chypre was, or that I was drawn to them far above everything else, or that one of the things I loved about Ivoire and many others was that haunting oakmoss as a current under all of them. No clue. That’s one thing I love about now: reformulations might be crap, but we can share our passion and understand and appreciate what we’re smelling.

  20. Marina

    You posted this last week and perhaps three weeks ago my bottle of this arrived in the mail.
    It is unfortunately a reformulated bottle. I would love to absolutely score some vintage!
    I love it and the time that I wore it I received many compliments.

    • Did you get a reformulated version of the old perfume or the brand new (and entirely unrelated) release? What is the bottle like?

      The original Ivoire does smell perhaps a little ‘old-fashioned’ (for people who have boring minds), but it is so alluring that I don’t doubt that you would smell APPALLINGLY good in it.

  21. Tyler

    You have such a gorgeous writing style. I honestly swooned while reading this piece. Thank you so much for sharing your passion.

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