Apricot dunes; the glow from a studio-lit, ochre trompe l’oeil sunset; seagulls on the soundtrack; the glistening ‘ocean’ beyond. A seasoned French actress, distractedly reaches down into the pillowing sands and scrutinizes, with her smooth cream hands, carefully placed pebbles, starfish and seaweed.




On the beach, pensive, to a backdrop of golden, solar rays…



















It is probably quite hard for the perfume youth of today to imagine how exciting – and rare an occurrence – it once was when one of the great ‘houses’ – Guerlain, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Givenchy, Christian Dior – released a new scent. They were like monuments, fortresses, designed to be aesthetically pleasing but also infallible, made to last. Perfumes that, naturally, were not designed for everyone, but once, if they did catch your senses and made you hers, would then become your perfume, to buy again and again, your signature: huge money-making engines for their parent companies, who relied desperately on these gleaming olfactory colossi to line their coffers for couture.




Rather than the constant floods and inundations of scent that we are treated/subjected to now, ever intrigued but over and underwhelmed, we were almost starved of new perfume back in those days. What you saw was all there was, and if you were bored by what you were smelling you just had to wait. A long time. Many years would pass between the launch of one major scent and the next, and to budding young perfume obsessives, always on the look out for new perfume adverts in fashion magazines like Vogue, the arrival of a long gestated new perfume always felt like a real, magnificent, event.




The concept for Dune had apparently already been thought out and worked on behind the scenes at Dior back in the 1980’s, but it was presciently decided that the next project, the purple hearted, bullet shocker Poison, was more scandalously fitting to the Joan Collins times (and their instincts were most certainly right in that regard), with the result that the project was somewhat put on a back burner for a while until the radical explosion of all things ‘natural’, pared down, marine and ozonic occurred in the following decade, when Dune then suddenly emerged as if out of nowhere: a heavily, but immaculately, made-up Venus, transpiring from the foaming waves of luxeful Perfumia to claim her crown.





At the time, I myself was a second year university student, back home for the summer, working, believe it or not, on a golf course. Although I am the last person on earth to play golf (those pastel colours; checked trousers, all that ‘gear’…….) it was, in many ways, the ideal job for me at the time: entirely solitary, surrounded by trees and nature in my wooden hut, just listening to music, looking at the sky, and finally having definitively enough time to properly read the long novels I had always wanted to read as the hours of green and blue stretched on before me ( I have great memories of losing myself entirely for days on end in great big nineteenth century tomes such as Anna Karenina). There, with the kettle boiling quietly, the birds in the trees, the occasional customers coming for a round of mini golf – I merely had to collect the money and hand out the tickets, and then take the flags down at the end of the day – passing the summer quite nicely, saving enough money to set myself up in Rome that November: I was immersed in aloneness, literature, music and perfume, and, more importantly, the great and exhilarating unknowingness of an upcoming Italian future.





Dune was released during that summer. It was a period in which samples were given out more freely at the department stores, and, as usual, I managed to get a lot of them, vials and vials of the scent which I would try on my hand while sitting outside, or even soak the cassette liner notes of the tapes that I had in the hut with their contents, to make the scent last longer, to be opened and experienced at will, so that in this way Dune formed an almost permanent scented backdrop to that carefree period and is seared in my memory as such (maybe that’s why my Prokofiev Violin Concertos I+II tape went all funny – the very reels of music themselves were drenched in sea broom and soft burnished powder of mollusc).





Although I was never entirely sure if I actually liked this scent – and certainly never wore it beyond the confines of my golf cabin – despite the fact that there was something too full, opulent and strangely off-putting about it, I knew that I was extremely fascinated by it: that weird combination of ambery, salty warmth, and floral, quite definitely duney seaness that all felt so peculiar and uneasy, yet new; compelling. It had a certain thrall. I had simply never smelled anything like it before.





Yes, this rather groundbreaking perfume, which felt, almost, as if it had come from another planet, had been proudly announced by Mothership Dior to be the very first ever‘floriental oceanic’, a very unusual concept at the time, when anything that reeked of the sea simply didn’t seem suitable, somehow, for a fragrance. It was a forceful, clinging floral amber scent with top notes of sea broom and lichen, peony and lily, immersed in a smooth marine compound, edged with rich and salty flowers, benzoin, ambers, and musks. Desperately original and popular when released, I later soon got sick of smelling it in Rome, where, together with the ultra-swimmingly sweet Trésor, it blotted the air all around it with its comeliness, the women of Rome taking it to their commendable, tailored bosoms (these women were always just so deeply perfumed ; profumatissime) with an overly great abundance of maquillaged enthusiasm.




To me, Dune always felt self-satisfied and overplenished somehow, more a performance than a perfume, with several acts, all perfectly balanced (the original formula was extremely complex): warm, emboldening and luminescent, but still, always that unsettling contrast between those sandy, decaying seashells whitening in the sun, and the more demure and feminine flowers and balsamics lurking beneath, an aesthetic tension which, when all is said and done, makes Dune the enduring creation that it is.

















In a old and crowded box, dusty and thrown in together like trash, I recently retrieved a vintage parfum of Dune – the one you see in the picture – for a dollar at a fleamarket as you know I always do, and for that price I thought; well, why not. I was quite intrigued to smell this perfume again, to be able to reappraise its flaws, and its charms. And besides, I had never smelled it in extrait.




As you might expect, the current formula still on sale worldwide at Christian Dior counters is said to be a rather unsatisfying reformulation of the original perfume that was released, which was bolder; more detailed; a more extreme and delicate arc between the marine notes, the florals, and the sandalwoody ambers (these new versions of the Diors seem more like snapshots, somehow). This little bottle I got in Tokyo, a considerable amount of which proceeded to spill all over me when I eventually got the stopper off coming home on the train, was unboxed, the label worn off as well, but the perfume inside, dense and full, rich,was still fresh, intense, and rather pleasing. This smell is at once entirely familiar to me: stamped in my brain, nostalgic, comforting, even, yet still retains that inherent strangeness that the original formula always had and that made it distinctive: that insistent, almost sickly amber that also inhabits the base of Cartier Must parfum (a scent I adore); the emotional component coming I suppose from that sense, beyond the immediate, concentrated perfume essences in the heart of the perfume, of an enlivened, agoraphobic dream vista; a beach stretching off for miles and miles, and miles and miles, into the distance.


















Filed under amber floral musks, Oceanic, operatic

27 responses to “SHE SELLS SEA SHELLS…… DUNE by CHRISTIAN DIOR ( 1991)

  1. Your descriptions make me nostalgic–even with perfumes I did not particularly relate to, but in that era one could still appreciate and marvel at the originality of those houses. Now we must resort to a few niche perfumeries to find the gem, if we are lucky.

    • Definitely. I never actually loved this perfume, but as you can tell from my experiences here, it affected me nevertheless. I like this idea; like music that we hear at the time, even music we don’t like, it forms a backdrop that becomes a part of that period’s time texture. I don’t think I am overly nostalgic, but sometimes it is quite fascinating to find yourself cast back, if you know what I mean.

    • Incidentally, have you found any gems recently? I would like to know.

  2. Cotton Red

    I have the vintage Dune parfum that comes in this cute “rechargeable” matte gold sleek bottle inside a black velvet pouch. In that concentration, the scent is hard for a guy to pull off, but in (also vintage) EDT I find it gender neutral esp. in the dry down. On the right guy, I imagine it could smell downright enigmatic (esp. if no prior association with any golf course- j/k). I’d read somewhere that the peculiar aspect of Dune partly comes from its playing off certain aspect/facet of ambergris. I’m hoping to find a quality ambergris tincture sample to be able to experience its complex notes directly as I’ve been very fascinated by it ever since having read “Floating Gold” by Christopher Kemp. Have you ever smelled pure ambergris yourself, or perfumes confirmed/verified to contain the real stuff? If so, kindly share your impression.

    • Interesting. Ambergris actually did float into my consciousness while writing this, and I did smell it for the first time recently, actually. An ambergris tincture that Mandy Aftel includes as a ‘kit’ with her book Fragrance.

      To be honest, it smelled repulsive; like a faecal, attenuated clay. I couldn’t handle it on my skin, but then I decided to use her cinnamon oil (the best I have ever smelled). I got some Diptyque l’eau de l’eau, poured in the cinnamon oil and the ambergris, and had THE. MOST. DELECTABLE smooth, ambery spice. Sexy. Definitely one to be undetectable.

      Thanks for the Shalimar offer by the way. So kind of you. I worry it will just be too much of a hassle though to send at that time of year. THe post office is a nightmare these days, and then as I won’t be there it might get returned. Nothing more vexing!

      Agree that Dune could smell absolutely fine on a man. It smells pretty androgynous to me now.

  3. Katy McReynolds

    I do not remember this from it’s initial launch. My nasal passages having been completely burned out by Poison and all her raucous companions(Obsession and Cristalle come instantly to mind). I think the Cristalle of the 1980’s was far more potent! My first experience of Dune was at the bookstore, where my brother in scent, Mykel, insisted I follow a divine smelling woman about the store and find a graceful way to ask her what she was wearing. Well, it was Dune. I have a small vintage stash, I wear it infrequently but am fascinated by it when I do. Here in Southeastern Virginia, I notice women wearing Gucci Rush, Coco Madamoiselle and Chance and really low quality Patchouli oil. I am sure people wear other fragrances but those are so unmistakeable I notice them. Dune was a breath of fresh! A beautiful review of an unsettling but never dull perfume.

  4. Nocturnes

    I left an extremely long comment and then it disappeared…frustrating!
    Yes, I miss the days of limited releases, all the mystery and anticipation (when we could only surmise the notes, when the perfumers were unknown) and the abundance of FREE samples that were handed out readily without us having to shell out hard earned money! I cannot tell you how many full bottles I purchased based on the ability to sample freely (Byblos, Joop! for Men, Joop! for Women, etc) And yes, when a gem was found, you stuck to it! (as I did with Cristalle, Nocturnes, Calyx, etc) Nowadays with all the releases it is impossible to keep up with trying them all so I have just about given up…make and use my own blends and carryon sniffing my vintage vials when the mood strikes me!
    Since you brought up Must I am hoping one day for a review from you….a young woman several years my senior wore it as her signature scent…a gift from her married lover….I adored it (partially for the scandal behind it as she revealed intimate details about their affair to me). She insisted that I only buy the perfume (not EDT, as I understand it was a different formulation?). Quite expensive for a teeenager but worth every penny…..came in an odd plastic container that looked like a fat cigarette lighter, remember?

    • Nocturnes

      …encased in a burgundy leather holder…..

      • Nocturnes

        Must parfum was supposed to be inspired by Shalimar and Aliage (hence, the top note of galbanum….which is an essential oil I am really going crazy with these days)….and there is civet ……some call it an odd scent…I thought it was divine…please do a review one day!!!

    • Oh yes I do. And I can certainly see how it could be an adulterous fragrance, so thick and rich and carnal.

      Nocturnes, Cristalle and Calyx…… gorgeous trinity, incidentally.

      • Nocturnes

        I purchased them all when they first came out….the reformulations are nothing like the originals!
        And in my very long original comment which disappeared I also mentioned that years later I discovered that the perfumer who made Must was a client for the firm I was working for…..he used to gift all of us ladies perfumes in simple glass bottles unlabeled …Red Door, Giorgio Red, etc……every time he came to visit our office… was like the Chandler Burr Scent Series….no hype, no name, no fancy bottle……just the juice, plain and simple….for me it was free perfume which I accepted graciously!


        i have a very personal tale to tell with that one…

  5. Nocturnes

    I know…RED was NOTHING like the original Giorgio and, similar to Sinan and Nocturnes, was sadly overlooked…but it was gorgeous….and I will now anxiously await your personal tale in a review!!! (and if you tell me you paid a dollar for the vintage bottle of RED I will faint)

  6. Oh goodness, such a fabulous review and a walk down memory lane. Was it not just such a glorious era back then, when a fragrance launch was a huge event. The banners in the stores, the fabulous displays, the copious sampling they did, it was such a great time to experience fragrances.
    I Agree with you about Dune, while I admire and enjoy it, I most definitely could never pull it off well. It just seemed too different on me.
    One little bit of info that is intriguing. Dune was very similar to an early 20th century release by Coty. The scent was Ambre Antique and if you smelt it and imagined a bit of oceanic quality to it…voila you have Dune.
    I am smiling here, thinking of you spilling Dune on yoursel while opening it on the train. How did that fare with your fellow travelers? Not exactly a soapy clean smelling scent, it must have made for an interesting ride.
    I truly enjoyed this piece, really I did.

  7. Every bit of this is satisfying to read. Your own memories of that time in your life, the way perfumes were launched — rarely, with great anticipation and fanfare; god, I loved all that, and miss it — the composition of Dune. I’ve never seen it described as accurately before, and it isn’t an easy one to capture. For some reason it seemed not to have been on my radar when it was first released, which is odd. I do have a vintage bottle, and it seldom calls to me. It seems paradoxically stuffy, closed-in, for all its beach-y expanse. Must de Cartier has the amber, but in that context it seems more right, less odd, suitably urban and urbane.

  8. Grayspoole/Maria

    Hello again! I had not read this lovely post before so I was glad to see it. Not as nice as your golf course gig but I had a summer job in a law firm once that required me to do nothing more than sit at a desk. I read all of George Eliot’s novels that summer! I am now wondering if I need to try some vintage Dune, just to learn about it. Was Dune the first major perfume focused on that modern ambery, sweet, sueded stuffiness? I get this feeling from so many of the bottles that I sniff in the stores now: it’s like putting rosin in my nose (an odd description, I know, but that’s how I think of it). I have some samples of aromachemicals, and I think this effect comes from layering powerful, clinging modern musks such as Timbersilk with sweet stuff (ethyl maltol, vanillin, etc). It’s a seductive effect, a bit comforting…at first…(and I can just SEE those beautifully put together and perfumed Roman ladies wafting clouds of Dune in the 1990’s from your description) but I soon find that I need air!

  9. Recently sampled vintage Dune and it is lovely….still awaiting what you have to say about Red and Must…..

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