Gilded, raunchy, glamorous, voluptuous… Any of these words describe Christian Dior Dioressence, a fragrance that has been marketed by Dior as le parfum barbare, a barbaric perfume. Dioressence is still sold today, but the reason why it ended up among my Long Lost Favorite Perfume series is because the original version is gone. Marika, who asked me to add Dioressence to my list of discussions, said, “I recall it being a deliciously rich chypre, very powerful and tenacious. I liked its balance of earthy depth and elegance. It was my first perfume.”
Fans may complain about Christian Dior causing confusion with their game of renaming and reformulating Miss Dior and Miss Dior Chérie, but Dioressence has suffered the same fate through the years. When I smell the original perfume created by Guy Robert in 1969, the relaunch from the 1970s and the current version, I feel as if I’m wearing three different perfumes—an ambery animalic chypre, a full-bodied spicy oriental and a pale green chypre.
Dioressence : 1969
The story of the original 1969 Dioressence was famously told by Luca Turin, who shared that Guy Robert was commissioned by Dior to create an intensely animalic fragrance that ran counter to the luminous blends that made Dior famous. The new fragrance was to serve as a fragrant accessory to Dior’s collection featuring furs. Chandler Burr captured the story in his book The Emperor of Scent and described how Robert found his inspiration in a lump of ambergris and a bar of cheap soap scented with Miss Dior knock-off. You can see the entire story via Burr’s website, and it’s a fascinating read.
“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,” says Turin. I would add that it was fascinating–Dioressence combined the fleshy ripeness of animalic notes with the autumnal warmth of patchouli and moss. Wrapped in rose and jasmine, it had a glamorous and exotic aura, but even as a timid lover of anything overly raunchy, I found it surprisingly easy to wear.
Dioressence : 1979
Now fast forward ten years to 1979, when Dior decided to reissue Dioressence. The new fragrance was created by Max Gavarry, and it followed the general outlines of the original Dioressence, but it was made plusher and sweeter. The rich glitter of warm spices was enriched, and the dense pungency of ambergris was substantially reduced. Most vintage Dioressence you can find today is from this reissue, and as much as I love the original perfume, this spicy beauty with a green rose top note is delightful. It teases with its spicy warmth, before enveloping its wearer in a cool veil of moss and vetiver.
Dioressence : Today
Unfortunately, as Dior suffered financial hardships in the 1980s, the quality of the formula began to decline, and the version you can find in stores today is a legacy of that period. Little by little the barbaric perfume has morphed into a sheer green infusion of moss and soapy rose. It’s pleasant, but bland, as Angela put it in her review at Now Smell This. Even the current in-house perfumer Francois Demachy admitted in an interview that he also dislikes the current Dioressence, which bears little relationship to either Robert’s or Gavarry’s creations. Some people blame the changing fashions, others point to the severity of current fragrance regulations. Guy Robert only shrugged his shoulders and said, “the fashion now is to be afraid, we used these so-called dangerous ingredients for hundred years, and nothing has happened.”
Apparently, Demachy is currently working on a new version of Dioressence, and I hope that one day we might find this fragrance made with quality ingredients and with at least a hint of a barbaric streak. For now, however, I can only suggest a few fragrances that to me capture some aspects of Dioressence that I loved in its various incarnations. Those who wish to get an idea of Guy Robert’s original should smell Amouage Gold. In all fairness, it’s much closer to Madame Rochas than to Dioressence, but it has the elegant opulence that made his perfume so ravishing.
Lovers of the spicy Dioressence from the 1970s and 1980s would enjoy Guy Laroche J’ai Osé, a sultry blend of rose, iris and ylang-ylang folded into a sweet accord of vetiver, patchouli and incense. It was created by Max Gavarry, the same perfumer who reorchestrated Dioressence and who was known for his sensual compositions. Chanel Coco is another fragrance that has a similar baroque feeling, but it’s much sweeter and more well-behaved than Dioressence. If I begin to miss the spicy flash of Dioressence particularly strongly, I reach for Kenzo Jungle L’Éléphant, which is in the same perfume family as Dioressence but feels modern and paired down next to this full-bodied perfume. Still, its cardamom scented woods are alluring, and the drydown of amber blended into patchouli feels like a warm embrace. My last suggestion is Estée Lauder Cinnabar which is far spicier than Dioressence, but it echoes Dior’s classic in its enveloping, entrance making character. The best part is that it’s readily available and still smells wonderful, reformulations notwithstanding.
Complex symphonies like Dioressence are hard to match exactly, because of their numerous layers and intricate accords. These are only a few personal favorites, and I look forward to your suggestions to help others who miss Dioressence in its former opulent glory.