When you step into the cosmetics vault at the Christian Dior archives in Paris, just a few blocks from the impressive Avenue Montaigne flagship and gallery that the French house reopened this past March, there are two things you notice right away: the black-walled, marble-floored space is pristine—and slightly chilly on a mid-May morning. It’s 18 degrees Celsius, about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, Frederic Bourdelier, director of brand culture and heritage at Parfums Christian Dior, confirms.
That’s the exact temperature needed to preserve the brand’s first suite of refillable lipsticks (from 1953); the first production run of its cult-favourite cuticle saviour, Creme Abricot (1962); and different iterations of the iconic J’adore bottle, derived from Monsieur Dior’s 1949 cyclone dress and rendered here in glass prototypes with factory-cut Baccarat necks. One of John Galliano’s Maasai-style gold chokers from fall 1997, the inspiration for the fragrance’s gold-wire-wrapped flacon, is displayed close by. “Galliano was integral to the creation of J’adore,” Bourdelier says of the white-floral fragrance, which began production in 1996, the same year the British-born couturier took over design duty. “When John started, he didn’t speak French, so he would just say, ‘Oh, J’adore, j’adore, j’adore!’ when he liked something,” Bourdelier recalls. Now, almost 25 years later, the fragrance that helped change the perfume industry is poised for another dose of disruption.
Meet J’adore Parfum d’eau
With its gilded bottle and glitzy ad campaigns (starring model Carmen Kass, and later Charlize Theron, dripping in molten gold ore), the arrival of J’adore in 1999 was meant to turn the page on an era of black-and-white imagery typified by Herb Ritts and Peter Lindbergh, heralding a new era of opulence and optimism for the new millennium. In perfumery circles, its instantly identifiable yet equally indescribable aroma has been compared to pointillism: The formula has so many different white flowers, you can’t decipher one from the other—by design. Its new Parfum d’eau iteration, an inversion of the more common, highly concentrated eau de parfum, is an innovative water-based scent that arrives for a very different moment.
The notes behind J’adore Parfum d’eau
About 600 miles south of Paris, in the lush hillside just outside of Cap d’Antibes, Christelle Archer—a sales director turned flower farmer—tends to a 100-year-old bitter orange tree grove; as part of an effort to increase transparency and focus on local growers for proprietary ingredients, Dior partnered with Archer in 2017 and began using her neroli oil last year. “I sell exclusively to them,” Archer says, picking the last of the flowers from a monthlong harvest. About 1,750 pounds of flower petals yields just a quarter gallon of oil. Maintaining her neroli’s incredibly fresh, just-picked scent—sweet but green, with a zingy kick that can temper stickier jasmine—is part of the appeal of Parfum d’eau, in which water, which is less volatile than alcohol, is blended with essential oils (neroli, magnolia, jasmine sambac, and a hint of rose), helping to preserve their integrity while creating a milky emulsion. But without the alcohol, water-based fragrances tend to fade quickly, making them extremely ephemeral, hard to formulate, and slightly laborious: You often have to shake them before spritzing to combine the water phase and the oil phase, and in the absence of a chemical stabiliser they can feel tacky on skin.
Yet Parfum d’eau is the fortuitous outcome of a nano-emulsion technique that Dior originally acquired from a Japanese lab, which had initially designed the technology for skin-care products. Just water and flower oils blended under extremely high pressure, there is no need to shake the updated, white opalescent bottle, and no need for chemical additives. It sprays on in a soft, cocooning mist that has a different feel than a classic eau de parfum in that it blends into the skin instead of sitting on top, but it’s no less concentrated so it stays on just as long as the original J’adore. It smells noticeably different, though. Seductively heady to some and occasionally overwhelming to others, J’adore can be polarising. But Parfum d’eau’s intrigue is in its softness—and its simplicity—offering a salve of sorts for a weary world seeking a different kind of love laid bare.
This story first appeared on Vogue.com.