It’s not often that a perfume’s inspiration parallels memories in your own life. Dior’s flagship headquarters at 30, Avenue Montaigne, and the famous “Dior Grey” were big parts of my childhood and teenage years. As a small child, I spent endless hours in the beautiful, grey-white mansion: I often sat on one of the large, grey, stuffed and studded, round banquettes in the vast, rectangular room on the second or third floor with its wall of tall French windows as I waited for my mother to try on clothes. I would sit and stare at the floor, looking for dropped pins in the light grey carpet as one of the elegant seamstresses would flit around my mother, making alterations. I became a little pet to a few of them who were always amused by my efforts at “helping,” and by my unsolicited opinions on the outfits in question. And Dior Grey — that special, elegant twist on dove grey that is the signature colour of the house — became a favorite of mine, to the point that I often wanted to have a room in that colour. And, eventually, I did.
Later, the third or fourth time I lived in Paris, I was a teenager and our flat was two blocks away from the flagship store. Monday through Friday, I would wait for the school bus to take me to my high-school in St. Cloud, and the pick-up location was exactly catty-corner or on a diagonal line across from the store. I spent countless mornings, staring at that beautiful, elegant facade from afar and trying to see inside the windows. As an adult, Dior Grey remained one of my favorite colours. And, right now, my bedroom is done to approximate the interiors that I remembered from childhood: the walls are painted Dior Grey, the furniture is silver, mirrored or white, and the room is filled with silver and black touches.
Having been imprinted with Dior from childhood, much like one of Konrad Lorenz’s ducklings, it was virtually impossible not to have high expectations for a perfume that is meant to evoke both Dior’s flagship headquarters and its trademark colour. In fact, I knew that nothing could possibly live up to that weighted mental baggage, so I intentionally and explicitly tried to wipe them all from my mind when I tested Gris Montaigne.
It is brand new, just released, and the latest member of Dior‘s prestige La Collection Privée line of perfumes. (The line is sometimes called La Collection Couturier, but I go by the name used by Dior itself on its website.) The Privée line consists of thirteen perfumes that are exclusive to Dior boutiques (only one in the US, in Las Vegas) and to its website. (It would have been fourteen, but Gris Montaigne has come in to replace the glorious Mitzah which has essentially been discontinued — to justified howls of horror from perfumistas across the world.) Like the rest of its siblings, Gris Montaigne was intended to illustrate and celebrate key moments in the life of its founder, Christian Dior, and was created by François Demarchy, the artistic director and nose for Parfums Dior.
Dior describes Gris Montaigne in a way that brings back a flood of childhood memories:
And if grey were a perfume?
The olfactory signature of the Couture House’s legendary location, 30, Avenue Montaigne, has become a reality. The perfumer’s response to couture, this sophisticated chypre fragrance is a bold interpretation of the Dior Grey. The Couture Grey featured in the collections since 1947, the Grey Emotion of Christian Dior’s family home in Granville, Pearl Grey like the facade of the boutique on Avenue Montaigne.
Colour becomes a perfume: a burst of citrus, a floral heart of Turkish Rose and Jasmine Sambac from the Indian region of Tamil Nadu, followed by a woody note heightened with Indonesian Patchouli set against an ambery backdrop of moss.
The notes for the fragrance, according to Dior, are simple:
Essence of Calabrian Bergamot, Turkish Damask rose, Indian Jasmine Sambac, Indonesian Patchouli, and Absolute of Macedonian moss.
Gris Montaigne opens on my skin with a light citrus note, followed immediately thereafter with florals headed by rose. The bouquet sits atop a patchouli base that is, initially at least, beautifully flecked by soft amber, creamy sandalwood and the lightest sprinkling of powder. The rose is infused with quiet inflections of bergamot, while the patchouli adds a subtle warm and fleshiness to the very delicate note. There are also subtle touches of oakmoss in the base; it doesn’t feel like pungent, dry, arid, almost mineralized oakmoss, but it doesn’t feel completely bright green and fresh, either. The prettiest part of the perfume in those early minutes is the sandalwood. It’s nothing like real Mysore sandalwood with its distinctive spiciness, richness and depth, but the synthetic version used here has a lovely softness, creaminess and smoothness.
In its very earliest moments, Gris Montaigne is lovely. The light sprinkles of powder — combined with the very subtle oakmoss — make the perfume feel both classique in inspiration and a modern, neo-chypre in type. It’s a delicate, feminine, refined scent and, call me crazy, but it actually does evoke both the colour grey and the Dior rooms at Avenue Montaigne. For all that I tried to ignore the name and its associations, for all that I went into testing this perfume with the express plan of considering this an unnamed scent (“Just consider it Perfume ‘ABC’ from House XYZ,”), somehow, I can smell those rooms. The reason is the clean, floral, feminine, restrained, gauzy aroma. It’s almost a little sterile in its grey softness. But that word seems unfair because of all the negative connotations, so let’s say instead that Gris Montaigne has a touch of the restrained, aloof, professional, endlessly feminine, floral and slightly powdered feel of those coolly muted, elegant rooms.
Ten minutes later, the perfume starts to change. Cedar starts to rise to the surface, adding a quiet dryness to the floral notes. Unfortunately, the patchouli also starts to become more dominant, turning Gris Montaigne into a distinctly fruity-patchouli rose atop that base of dry, peppered cedar. Purple patchouli is not only my least favorite kind, but it’s also a common note in a lot of commercial, inexpensive, fruity-floral fragrances today — and big reason why I can’t stand many of them. There is something about its character in Gris Montaigne which reminds me of Chanel‘s Coco Noir, except the Dior is drier thanks to that cedar note and isn’t so clobbered by the fruity-patchouli (which I thought verged on the bullying in Coco Noir). Despite that, from the 30-minute mark to the 90-minute one, the purple patchouli and the dry cedar battle for the rosy heart of Gris Montaigne. The trio always rests above that light oakmoss base flecked with the smallest touches of amber and sandalwood. I wish the sandalwood were as noticeable as it had been initially but, alas, there isn’t much of it.
Gris Montaigne, like the rest of its siblings in the elegant Privée Line, is a beautifully blended perfume. Like the newly redesigned, revamped Paris headquarters, it’s light, airy and filled with bright touches from that fruity-patchouli whose almost syrupy sweetness seems to dominate for a good portion of the second hour. God, there is so much of it! At other times, however, especially right after the end of the first hour, it feels as though cedar has almost taken over. Increasingly, Gris Montaigne has an abstract element to it as well. One sometimes has the impression that it’s nothing more than an ordinary, common, generalized, nebulous, fruity-floral patchouli perfume. Even when jasmine joins the party, around the 90 minute mark, it doesn’t do much to transform the scent or to give it greater nuance.
And Gris Montaigne goes further downhill from there becoming softer and hazier with every passing hour, with only the purple note really standing out as something distinctive. (Oh so much purple patchouli!) By the start of the fifth hour, Gris Montaigne is a sheer, bland, floral-patchouli scent infused with some spicy dryness atop some light amber. There is a small modicum of relief in the eighth hour when the sandalwood re-appears. It actually works well with the patchouli, creating a spicier, richer version of the note than what flickered at the start. But the sandalwood is just a small touch, and it really doesn’t change what is the sole note left in Gris Montaigne at this point: fruity patchouli. The rose is a whisper, there is no jasmine, the powder vanished after the first 10 minutes, and the cedar threw in the towel a while back. In its final moments, Gris Montaigne is a simple note of abstract, sheer, general sweetness, and nothing more.
All in all, Gris Montaigne lasted just under 10.75 hours on my perfume-consuming skin. It became closer to the skin about 90 minutes in and had minimal projection, but the forcefulness of that patchouli made it definitely noticeable if you brought your arm anywhere near to your nose. Gris Montaigne didn’t become a skin scent until the fifth hour and, like all the Privée perfumes that I’ve tried, it has surprisingly enormous longevity given the moderate-to-low sillage.
I hate to say it, but Gris Montaigne feels extremely generic for most of its lifespan. It’s a refined take on a thousand similar fruity-floral scents, but not much more than that. You may be wondering how much of my assessment is due to my personal baggage involving that name and the perfume’s inspiration. It’s a fair question and the answer is: my assessment is absolutely tainted by it. Because, without those strong personal associations, I would rip this perfume to shreds, especially over the patchouli. The sole reason I’ve being half as kind as I am is because of the beautiful opening minutes and because of my nostalgia. The bottom line is that, in my opinion, Gris Montaigne is far from being a worthy successor to Mitzah, even though the planning and development of Gris Montaigne meant it had to be in the works long, long before the decision to discontinue the other fragrance.
In placing Gris Montaigne in the context of its siblings, I realised two things. First, Gris Montaigne seems to reflect a desire to take advantage of the modern, mass-market hunger for and profitability of fruity-floral scents. Second, it also symbolizes a shift in the colour spectrum of Dior’s Privée Line away from the darker, richer, orange-brown labdanum glory of Mitzah, or the amber-coloured hues of similarly spicy, deep fragrances like Ambre Nuit and Leather Oud. With the discontinuation of Mitzah and Vetiver, the arrival of Gris Montaigne seems to turn the hues of Dior’s Privée Line into something much more floral, pastel, and light in colour. It may be an unfair assessment, and it’s probably wholly off. Yet, I can’t help feel that Gris Montaigne marks a move towards something more pale, more bland, and more commercially… er… fruitful. (Pun intended.) Bottom line, Gris Montaigne is pretty, but in a way that makes it like any number of commercial scents out there, from Chanel’s Coco Noir to…. well, take your pick.
All my criticisms notwithstanding, I do think there are a lot of people who will like Gris Montaigne, especially if they keep their expectations low. For one thing, it is a very easy fragrance to wear, the sort of thing one could just spray on and go. Everyone needs a versatile perfume that is uncomplicated and could fit a variety of situations, from the office to a child’s playdate to a dinner date. Gris Montaigne would absolutely work for that. It is also a scent whose very feminine nature and restrained sillage will make it practical for those who prefer more unobtrusive scents while still keeping an elegant and refined edge. I think it will generally be a little too feminine for the average guy — but I also don’t believe in gender lines in perfumery, so if you can rock it, wonderful!
I did my best to be fair to this scent, but if you think I failed in that endeavour, I wouldn’t blame you. Sometimes, it’s hard to let go of the past, and it makes the nature of a review even more subjective. But I’m convinced that — if I were given Gris Montaigne to smell blindly — I still wouldn’t like it and my bottom line would still be the same: it’s nothing special.