Imagine If Proust Had Known About Jean Naté

floral-fragrances
Photo by  Sang An

[Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Real Simple.]

I mean, maybe I’ve never had a really, really good madeleine, but I find them a bit, shall we say, subtle. How that delicate taste could evoke such a strong reaction in Marcel Proust is beyond me. Or maybe it just substantiates why he is one of literature’s greats and the rest of us aren’t.

But Jean Naté, oh my. Jean Naté is my madeleine, and if I were to smell it now (really, how many years has it been?), I would be transported back to the long, narrow upstairs bathroom in my parents’ house with the print of the three cows on the wall above the racks where my sisters and I hung our towels. That bathroom was where the teenage me carefully prepared for all of the Amazing, Super-Important, and Fantastic Things that were sure to happen at, well, any moment.

The editors at Real Simple had so much fun planning this month’s cover story, in part because it allowed us to use valuable work time to just sit in my office, nearly misty-eyed, and conduct our own little Remembrance of Beauty Products Past. We set out to produce a story about the virtues that guarantee a product a spot in the beauty Hall of Fame and ended up undertaking a highly unscientific look at American culture in the last half century.

I am now convinced that you can measure the course of your life not just by the friends you’ve collected or the good deeds you’ve performed but also by the beauty products you’ve loved.

By that measure, Jean Naté was nearly as important to my development as anything I learned in high school. To the teenage me, Jean Naté was remarkably grown-up, the logical, sophisticated next step after my Love’s Baby Soft and Bonne Bell Lip Smacker phase. Our love affair lasted for years.

When you read “The Best Beauty Products of All Time,” you will no doubt find a few old friends. Writer Jenny Jin interviewed literally dozens of pros and came up with amazing facts about some of the products that have shaped your life. (Did you know that tubes of ChapStick were used to conceal microphones during Watergate?!) Most important, you’ll find 26 icons that have endured and thrived because they work, and they are unique, and they are loved.

Ever since we began working on this story a few months back, I have been slightly sad (in a silly, girlie way) about Jean Naté. I combed my house for products that I’ve been using for decades, just to have a whiff. However, they’re all odorless. (Thanks for the memories, Vaseline.) But then, the other night, I opened a new jar of Shiseido face cream, a kind I had never used. And, oh, the scent! Suddenly I was back at the Shiseido counter at Macy’s in the Christiana Mall, circa 1981, when my mother took it upon herself to overhaul my beauty regimen. I remember two things: (1) the saleswoman’s belief that shampoo should never run over one’s face when one is showering and (2) the smell of the face cream my mother bought for me. I had not thought about it for 33 years. And then I opened that new jar in my bathroom and it all came rushing back.