"Did you go to JAR yet?"

"Have you tried the JAR fragrances?"
"What do you think of Bolt of Lightning?"

Et cetera, et cetera....these questions were commonplace throughout my Sniffapalooza weekend in October, 2006 and sadly, I had to reply that I indeed had heard of JAR - mostly because of the price tag, secondly because of the "unique" nature of the scents, and not at all due to the designer himself, famed jeweler/artist, Joel Arthur Rosenthal - but had not yet experienced them.

So after a relaxing lunch with Beth Terry, one of my favorite New York perfumers, and a quick intro to both Lionel, the man that IS the Bergdorf Goodman's Men's fragrance bay, and the exquisite new fragrances of Dr. Vranjes, I decided to stop over at the new JAR boutique in the main store across the street and see...er, sniff what all the fuss was about.

2:00 PM - I enter what used to be the Guerlain boutique, now relegated to what used to be the Jo Malone boutique. It's a bigger, brighter space for Guerlain and I'm happy they've been able to spread out. The old Guerlain space has been re-designed and it seems smaller, somehow. The walls are a matte plum color with lighting dimmed, and the room is furnished with just the basics - a couple of glass tables, a few chairs, a side table, and some sconces. Sidenote: A sconce is a fancy word for a light mounted on the wall. When one is at Bergdorf, one must use the appropriate terminology, mustn't one?

A woman sits at one side of the table to my left, seemingly immersed in her olfactory experience, while a handsome, blonde, and definitely tall gentleman assists her. A saleswoman stands by with her hands in front of her eyes repeating "Ferme les Yeux." The woman seated, who is now producing a credit card, repeats, "Ferme les Yeux."

"That's right," offers the saleswoman. "Ferme les Yeux," the customer repeats. "Ferme les Yeux," repeats the tall blonde. "Ferme les Yeux," I think and close my eyes in response, unconscious of the fact that I'm doing so.

I feel as if I've entered a Cocteau film and repress a snicker of delight. A gentleman approaches me. I explain that I'd like to "experience" the line (we no longer use the word "smell" when testing fragrances that are only available at Bergdorf Goodman, are not able to be tested via a sample vial, and that must be presented to a potential customer by a trained linesperson). He offers me a chair and the blonde tells me he'll be right with me.

I glance up at the ceiling and see that it is a mural of a bolt of lightning in a stormy grey sky. I turn to my left and notice the earrings under glass domes. They look like silk flowers, jasmine petals, but are a blush pink that coordinates with the decor of the room. They look like something that might be purchased at a local craft fair. That is, until I look more closely and see that they are actually sculpted metal or porcelain. Interesting.

I'm surprised that I can't actually distinguish any specific aroma yet. I remark to myself that the scents must not be presented in atomizers. I'm a little giddy with excitement as I remove one of my business cards. I listen to the exiting customer and her saleswoman repeating "Ferme les Yeux" as I glance over at the blonde. He invites me to sit down and apologizes that he has a meeting and must leave. His name is Franz and he is indeed tall.

2:12 PM - I'm introduced to Robert who I soon learn was once a sommelier or at least I think that's what he said - his affable personality and quiet, gentle manner seem appropriate for the mood of the JAR boutique. We both take our seats, ready for the experience to begin. I let him go into his shtick as he quizzes me about my knowledge of the line, the jewels, and the man behind it all.

I explain that I know a little about the fragrances and would love to see some examples of Rosenthal's work. I think about his name again - Joel Arthur Rosenthal - and consider that I have a cousin somewhere in New Jersey with the same name. But that Joel sells shoes at Macy's, and so I quickly dismiss any possibility that we could in some way be related. Robert produces a book of photographs and begins to tell me about Ellen Barkin.

WHAT? Ellen Barkin? What does she have to do with $400 perfumes?
Apparently Ellen is a jewelry addict and apparently she was successful enough at one time to acquire a whole lotta jewels and apparently she has recently auctioned part of her collection. The book is the companion to her auction and I take a look at the jewels. Robert explains that these are not the fanciest of the pieces and that Ellen has simple taste. Simple? If these are simple, I can only - whoaa! Look at that! I turn the page. Look at THAT! I turn the page, Ellen is pictured looking better than I had ever remembered her. I try to decide which is more stunning - Ellen or the jewels.

I think to myself that I am looking at the next Faberge, so exquisite are JAR's creations. Robert shows me a photo of a jewel-encrusted and white-enameled butterfly broach. "Eh", I think to myself. After all, my mother did have a jewelry store for a good 10 years during my adolescence. I've seen it all, from the showrooms of Alexis Kirk, to the convention halls of Jacob Javits, to the minaudieres of Judith Lieber. How many 10 year old boys do you know who could explain the meaning of vermeil and recite a full list of designers in the 385 5th Avenue building? And I'm not even from New York. Robert offers a sly "But wait!" He leans in as he says, "The front of the broach is for the viewer, but the back of the broach," drum-roll please, "is for you." "Me?" I think as the page is turned to reveal that the broach is as exquisitely finished on the back as it was on the front. This tells me that Rosenthal is both a perfectionist and lover of details.

I am now acquainted with JAR, the jewelry line, and am waiting somewhat impatiently to move on to JAR, the fragrance line.

2:27 PM - I look down at the table and notice 7 glass domes all with etched names...that is, all but one. One dome merely has a lightning bolt where the name should be. I glance at the mirrored wall in front of me, behind Robert, and spy the reflection of the mural on the ceiling. "Ah-hah," I mutter, now understanding the mural. Of course I knew about all of the scents from reading the accounts of other bloggers but just now am putting it all together. Inside the glass domes, or dishes with domes actually, sit some kind of fabric that looks like either hair scrunchies, or something that Angela from this past season of Project Runway might have made. I quickly conclude that these must be the scent carriers. The dishes are arranged in a purposeful ellipse across the table. The actual fragrances themselves sit perfectly lined up at the right of the table, all positioned at an impeccable 75 degree angle, on matte plum velvet pouches.

Robert goes into his shtick about the fragrances - all one ounce bottles, "We don't do samples because we believe that these are works of art and that they should be introduced and presented to potential customers." I understand that this is not the Calvin Klein counter at Bloomies. "We don't reveal the notes of the fragrances, and we don't believe in samples." If Robert wasn't such a nice guy, I might feel slightly put off by all of this "we don't" business, but I'm beginning to understand that there are Dali posters that college students and 20-something straight men hang in their apartments, and then there are the original paintings that hang in the Met. Why should fragrance be different?

Robert and I discuss his background with wine (he is indeed a sommelier) and why this current career is so perfect for him. Working with JAR fragrances and a Bergdorf clientele is akin to showing the best millesimes to wine aficionados. I decide that I like Robert and his metaphors of wine and scent and ask him some additional questions. I discover that there is very little publicity, no e-commerce store, the scents cannot be ordered over the phone or by email, and that the bottles are all hand-made glass (simple teardrop-shaped decanters with gold-plated screw-on caps embellished with the JAR monogram).

2:39 PM - Let the smelling...oops, sorry! Let the experience begin! We start with, of all things, Ferme les Yeux, or in English, Eyes Closed (or literally, Close the Eyes). The dome is removed from the dish, the scrunchy is now in full-sight and I think of Carrie and Berger arguing over the use of the word scrunchy (Carrie and Berger were characters in Sex and the City...yikes, must I explain everything?). I immerse my visage into the dish and am startled.

I pause to ask Robert if I may take notes. "By all means," he replies. I open my deluxe, faux leather, yearly planner that I purchased from embarrassingly, the Dollar Store (hey! I'm a starving doctoral student!) and begin to take notes. It's times like these, writing about JAR at Bergdorf Goodman in a $1 planner that I think I could have splurged and gone to Wal-Mart and bought the $2 planner:
Ferme les Yeux - Ivoire de Balmain...oakmoss...ylang....lily? sweet almond...something green....galbanum? leather?

I mention what I think I smell. Robert smiles and reminds me that the olfactory pyramid is a secret. He returns the dish to the table. I ask to smell it again. I peer into the scrunchy as if it will reveal some hidden clue. Naturally, I have to close my eyes for a moment. I can't say that I particularly like what I smell. It is unusual. It is complicated. I don't dislike it either. I have to admit to myself that I'm not used to this kind of aroma.

We move on to Diamond Water:

Diamond Water - clove...sandalwood, almond, birch tar, shalimar, nutmeg, tonka? smoke, musk, leather?

Again, I am startled. This one is not quite as odd as the previous. I think I like this. Robert tells me that of course the scents smell different when applied to the skin. I nod in agreement. He adds that they also change over time, making a face as he says this as if to add a sense of astonishment. Next is Jarling, which immediately reminds me of a scent that I've sadly never smelled, Diorling. I suppose with a monogram like JAR, the play on words was inevitable:

Jarling - musty, powdery, aldehydes? cold cream and white Tic-Tac candies...lily, anisette, heliotropin! more powder, sweet, interesting progression...lilacs or wisteria? Rhododendron?

I'm beginning to sense a theme among the fragrances. I readily admit to Robert that they truly are unusual. I smile and look down at the table adding "I have to say, I'm pleasantly surprised that they are as interesting as everyone has said they are." Immediately after saying that I think about Comme des Garcons fragrances. I think that although I really enjoy smelling almost all of them, I have yet to meet a CDG scent that I have truly fallen for. Moreover, just because they are interesting doesn't mean that I actually want to wear them. Next comes the scent that has been placed in the center of the ellipse of dishes. Bolt of Lightning:

Bolt of Lightning - ..................what is that?.....wet cardboard...dampness, soil...potting soil...a hotel room air conditioner. It's the Best Western over on Route 954...here come the flowers - rose? mimosa? a little powder...stale ice cube trays...a wet shirt after coming in from the rain...nail polish remover - acetone?

I definitely don't like it though I do find it intriguing. I ponder the fact that I don't like it and wonder if it is a reflection of my middle class tastes. I feel anything but posh at the moment. "Who the heck would choose to wear that?" I ask myself. I have to smell it again. I admit to Robert that it reminds me of the smell in the air during a thunderstorm, just after a bolt of lightning slices through the atmosphere. I wonder if Kawakubo-san had anything to do with these scents.

The next three fragrances are Shadow, Jardenia, and Golconda. These are the least unusual of the group, or at least I think this initially:

Shadow - I like it. Annick Goutal Duel...bergamot, tea, clove, iris....what's that...that musty....that odd earthy note? Truffle? White truffle oil?
Jardenia - the whole darn bush, petals, leaves, stems, branches...a gardenia for the guys wouldn't be afraid to wear, very green, not too sweet, I wonder if my friend Becky would like this?
Golconda - ah, carnation and clove, leather, musk, amber, warm woods...smoked whitefish salad on a bagel, tomato leaves.

3:02 PM - Having now experienced all seven of the scents from scrunchies in glass dishes, Robert asks me which scent I would like to experience on my skin. "What a ridiculous question! All of them!" I think. Of course, I don't actually say that. I don't want to seem too eager. I gaze at the dishes, taking my time, reminding myself that I'm not buying a used car, and decide that Shadow will be first. I offer up a wrist, pulling my sleeve up as if blood was about to be drawn, and Robert gently applies fragrance to the back of my right hand.

I toss my hand through the air, back and forth, with a devil-may-care attitude, not wanting my eagerness to sniff to be too apparent. After 30 seconds, which feels like an eternity, I inhale deeply, noting that Robert hadn't been the least bit selfish in the application, and am immediately reminded of Duel, or Duel's mainstream cousin, Givenchy pour Homme. Please understand that Shadow does not “smell like” these two, but that they are merely what I was reminded of. I'm somehow relieved to learn that 1 ounce of Shadow, and I should add that all of the fragrances are pure parfum, sells for a mere $325 US. It is the least expensive of the seven scents and likewise, perhaps the least complex….The least complex, but definitely not the least interesting.

3: 22 PM - It's 20 minutes later and I now have all 7 of the aromas on my two arms and am in rapture as they all begin to dance on my skin. The compositions are all turning and twisting, offering glimpses of notes I hadn't noticed 5 minutes ago. Golconda is beginning to beguile, while Shadow seems to be just that, slowly fading to an almost-second skin aroma…faded but definitely not forgotten. I have totally dismissed the gardenia fragrance as it is too familiar and doesn't require any intellectualization. I'm on a hot pursuit of trying to figure out what exactly the notes for all of these scents are and there are bigger puzzles to solve. Perhaps at noticing my disinterest in the Gardenia, Robert applies a dab to his wrist and then chooses a second scent to layer it with - I can't recall now what that second scent was as I was in somewhat of a shock that Robert would do that; I'm definitely not a layerer (hey, when no other words fit, perfume necessitates new ones), and the scents are so puzzling on their own that I couldn't imagine what would happen when combining two of them! I sniff, sniff again, and calmly announce that I need coffee beans. I sniff, sniff again, re-visit the gardenia combo, and am just too interested in going back to the individual scents themselves to appreciate the experiment.

Bolt of Lightning is undoubtedly the most intriguing, but I'm perseverating on the hotel room air conditioner and wet t-shirt metaphors. Jarling's sweet vein is a candy-cane stripe of creamy seduction, unusual and interesting, but ultimately not for me. Ferme Les Yeux is equally intriguing but I'm ready to dismiss it as well.

With 4 of the scents now crossed off my list - and I write this actually meaning that there were three others that required more of my attention and time - I need a break, I need to breathe non-JAR-ified air and excuse myself before calmly walking to the men's room to wash off my least favorite of the group and to make room for applying a few more drops of the three scents I'm vaguely considering purchasing.

3:31 PM - As I walk back to the JAR boutique, I think to myself, “I've now smelled, (darn! I did it again! I meant to have written “experienced”) the JAR fragrances. I feel as if I have just completed some rite of passage. I'm now one of a select group of the initiated few who have considered shelling out a month's rent for an ounce of elixir.” But let's get back to the fragrances…

So, now I'm left with Diamond Water, Golconda, and Shadow as my three favorites. I decide that it's time for the question-and-answer portion of our session and get to know Robert better. This chit-chat allows time for the scents to unfold on my skin. In between questions, I ask for re-applications of the three scents. While we are chatting, a young man approaches me; I had removed the sandalwood and glass beads that I customarily wear on my right wrist and placed them at the edge of the table, facing the small fragrance area where the Carons and Clive Christians are displayed. This man asks me where he can purchase my beads (I usually wear 6 or 7 strands at a time, mostly honey-hued sandalwood form China and Japan, and a strand of black tiger's-eye) and I explain that they are mine but that perhaps the store would have something similar upstairs in the jewelry department. I consider that I might need to receive commission or perhaps sell a strand or two so that I might better be able to afford a bottle of JAR. I turn back to Robert and sniffing my left wrist and right arm once more, declare Diamond Water to be my favorite. Golconda is stunning and Shadow is, well, shadowy, but there is something slightly smoky about the dry-down of Diamond Water that I find very appealing and quite unique. I also imagine that there is a strong sandalwood note present in its composition, definitely my favorite woody aroma.

3:48 PM – After nearly two hours becoming a JAR-aholic, I declare that the experience is nearing a conclusion and begin the final “thank-yous” and “I want this but I need to be able to purchase gasoline for my car and food for my stomach for the next month so I won't be buying today.” Robert puts absolutely no pressure on me and suggests that it's a good idea to enjoy the aromas and see how they develop on my skin over time. He invites me to return to see him again the next time I'm in New York and for a moment I actually consider it, but as I do, I also picture myself pulling a credit card out of my wallet and that is just far too dangerous, and far too easy to do and so try to dismiss the scenario from my mind.

All in all, it's been a great afternoon, educational, scentastic, and a true test for any addict. How I ever managed to show restraint is a true mystery, even to this day. A quick look at the book on the corner of the table proves that poor Ellen B. evidently showed very little restraint. I wonder if she's tried the fragrances. I wonder if she's a fragrance addict like me. I wonder if she still buys new pieces of JAR jewels even though she's auctioned half of her personal collection. I think of some advice for her: “Should your own inner addict ever be tempted again, just Ferme les Yeux, Ellen Barkin, and think happy thoughts.”