I recently obtained a mini of vintage Dioressence eau de toilette, in a blue-marbled box with a small, squarish splash bottle that resembles the vintage houndstooth bottles of other Dior fragrances from the 1980s. It is so well-suited to the current fickle weather we’re having in mid-February! I love all my spring floral fragrances but I don’t yet feel ready to pull them out again, other than an occasional spritz of Ostara to remind me that the daffodils are on their way. We’ve had weeks of cold and rain, though I’m thankful to have missed the deep freeze and unexpected snowstorms that hit other parts of the country this month. But Dioressence feels right today, as the sun shines brightly over a still-chilly landscape and my garden, where I have new raised beds that are full of soil but not yet planted.
The version I have dates from the 1980s, and it is a 1979 rework of the original, done by Max Gavarry, who worked with Guy Robert to create the original in the 1960s. I love the story of its origins, as told by Luca Turin to Chandler Burr and described in Burr’s book “The Emperor of Scent.” Apparently Guy Robert had been tasked with creating a new scent for Christian Dior that would launch with a new collection of Christian Dior ready-to-wear furs, and the brief was to create something very animalic but related to earlier Dior fragrances like Miss Dior while also contrasting with them. He was wrestling with this problem when he went to a broker’s office in London to assess some real ambergris for potential purchase. Turin’s recounting, via Burr:
“In the middle of this, someone in the industry calls him, and they say, ‘There’s a guy with a huge lump of ambergris for sale in London-get up here and check it out for us.’ Ambergris is the whale equivalent of a fur ball, all the undigested crap they have in their stomachs. The whale eats indigestible stuff, and every once in a while it belches a pack of it back up. It’s mostly oily stuff, so it floats, and ambergris isn’t considered any good unless it’s floated around on the ocean for ten years or so. It starts out white and the sun creates the odorant properties by photochemistry, which means that it’s become rancid, the molecules are breaking up, and you get an incredibly complex olfactory result. So Guy gets on a plane and flies up to see the dealer, and they bring out the chunk of ambergris. It looks like black butter. This chunk was about two feet square, thirty kilos or something. Huge. A brick like that can power Chanel’s ambergris needs for twenty years. This chunk is worth a half million pounds.
“The way you test ambergris is to rub it with both hands and then rub your hands together and smell them. It’s a very peculiar smell, marine, sealike, slightly sweet, and ultrasmooth. So there he is, he rubs his hands in this black oily mess and smells them, and it’s terrific ambergris. He says, Great, sold. He goes to the bathroom to wash his hands ’cause he’s got to get on an airplane. He picks up some little sliver of dirty soap that’s lying around there and washes his hands. He leaves. He gets on the plane, and he’s sitting there, and that’s when he happens to smell his hands. The combination of the soap and ambergris has somehow created exactly the animalic Dior he’s been desperately looking for. But what the hell does that soap smell like? He’s got to have that goddamn piece of soap. The second he lands in France, he sprints to a phone, his heart pounding, and calls the dealer in England and says, ‘Do exactly as I say: go to your bathroom, take the piece of soap that’s in there, put it in an envelope, and mail it to me.’ And the guy says, ‘No problem.’ And then he adds, ‘By the way, that soap? You know, it was perfumed with some Miss Dior knockoff.'”So Guy put them together, and got the commission, and made, literally, an animalic Dior. Dioressence was created from a cheap Miss Dior soap knockoff base, chypric, fruity aldehydic, plus a giant cube of rancid whale vomit. And it is one of the greatest perfumes ever made.”
And that is how a knock-off of Miss Dior, combined with ambergris, gave M. Robert the start of the fragrance that would become Dioressence, “le parfum barbare.”
The version I have is described as follows by Fragrantica: “Top notes are Patchouli, Green Notes, Aldehydes, Bergamot, Fruity Notes and Orange; middle notes are Geranium, Cinnamon, Carnation, Orris Root, Rose, Ylang-Ylang, Violet, Jasmine and Tuberose; base notes are Oakmoss, Patchouli, Benzoin, Styrax, Vetiver, Vanilla and Musk.” The wonderful blog “Bois de Jasmin” has a great review that compares all three major versions of Dioressence. When I first apply my version, I smell the aldehydes right away, as is normal for that note. To my nose, aldehydes are like the opening trumpet of a vintage perfume, the announcement that real perfume is in the house. As the aldehydes fade, I smell the fruitiness that includes bergamot and orange, plus the “green notes”; I think those come from galbanum, which I love. I do smell patchouli but not strongly; that is what lends an earthiness to this opening stage.
The middle phase of Dioressence is spicy/floral, with notes of carnation, geranium, and cinnamon. The orris root continues the earthiness I smelled at the start, and the other floral notes blend together in a soft layer of flowery sweetness, but not too sweet. This stage is remarkably well-blended and balanced — it’s very beautiful. I love carnation in fragrances, and the presence of carnation and geranium contribute to the unisex nature of Dioressence, which many commenters have noted. The green notes have stepped into the background, but I sense them lurking, maybe via the violet note. To my nose, the dominant notes in the middle stage are carnation, geranium, and orris root, followed closely by ylang-ylang and jasmine. I’m glad that cinnamon and tuberose are mostly undetectable, at least to me, as I don’t favor those notes, but I’m sure they are adding to the overall beauty of the heart of Dioressence.
The base is, as it should be, the backbone of Dioressence, with real oakmoss leading the way (yay!), patchouli again adding an earthy note together with vetiver, and the whole warmed by the resins, vanilla and musk. The oakmoss dominates the final stage, which makes me very happy because I love oakmoss. This is the phase when to me, Dioressence smells the most “masculine”, but not harshly at all. It is warm but elegant in an underdressed, “I woke up like this” kind of way. Think Robert Redford in his prime.
I think Dioressence appeals to me right now because it evokes this particular season, when in my climate we get sporadic days of warm sunshine heating up the bare earth, where a few hardy green shoots are peeking out but the air still smells of the wet pinestraw and pinebark mulch on my garden beds, dampened by recent rains, with occasional whiffs of sweet floral fragrance on the air from winter-blooming trees and shrubs like mahonias, wintersweet, and hamamelis. Those plants are very fragrant, but their scents carry on the breeze, coming and going with vernal fickleness.
Do you wear Dioressence? Which version(s) have you tried?