One day in 1985, a teenager was wandering along the Champs-Élysées when something caught his attention. There was a woman walking briskly in the distance, but he couldn’t see her well enough to know what about her was so captivating. He became aware of a trail of fragrance in her wake. The scent was Poison, one that defined the 80s with its audacity and potency. It had what perfumers call sillage, the quality of floating in the air, filling a room or, in this case, a boulevard with its mix of berries, sandalwood, musk, jasmine, and just about every note you could name. The 15-year-old was mesmerized.

Francis Kurkdjian conjured up that memory when he faced his first challenge as the perfumer at Dior: to reimagine J’adore, the blockbuster fragrance that’s been on best-seller lists since its introduction, in 1999.

J’adore is big in every way, and if you doubt that just look at the advertisements over the years. In the original, a model takes a dip in a pool of gold, telling us how she can’t resist temptation while Barry White hums and groans in case we missed the point. Later, we enter the Charlize Theron era, where she marches on stilettos through a series of rooms, ripping off her earrings, necklace, and dress and declaring something no one pays attention to because, well, just look at her. Theron later gets an upgrade to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and pulls herself to the ceiling on a silk sash, making fools out of anyone who struggled with the Presidential Fitness Test.

Can you imagine trying to top that? Kurkdjian didn’t even bother.

“When you create, you have to think about destroying what has been done,” he tells me. “When it’s your own production, you have to dislike it. When it’s not your own thing, you have to find a way not to like it. If you put things on a pedestal, it doesn’t work.”

“You lose the envy to beat, to compete, to fight, to create something better. And the reason why I keep going is because I believe I can do better and better and better,” he says.

His aim was to make a scent that’s “irrelevant,” he says. Wait—that can’t be right. He pauses and tries the word a few more times. “Irrel … irrev … ?”

“Irreverent?,” I offer.


Between irrelevant and irreverent lies his new fragrance, called L’Or de J’adore Dior, a tongue twister to challenge even a Duolingo student on a 99-day streak (me).

Kurkdjian is an irreverent perfumer. He describes himself as an “enfant terrible.” He’s allergic to anything that’s neatly symmetrical and proper. Dior Sauvage and its “well-balanced masculinity,” for example? “Too perfect for me.” His successes include Baccarat Rouge 540, Narciso Rodriguez for Her, and Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male.

I met with Kurkdjian at his studio, in Paris, in March 2022, when he was deep in the creation of this new Dior fragrance. Something was clearly bothering him. “I’m a bit lost for now,” he told me at the time.

What unlocked his mind was an exhibition of Damien Hirst’s cherry-blossom paintings at the Fondation Cartier. The splats of paint, rendered with a fat brush and sometimes flung from a stick, turned the traditionally pretty blossoms into an abstraction. “There’s something almost tacky about them,” Hirst told an interviewer.

“That idea of pixelization, of zooming right in with a magnifying glass, that helped me,” says Kurkdjian. The Hirst paintings have a pointillist quality, except his big brush “gave me the idea of stretching my ingredients.”

The gold of L’Or de J’adore also inspired the perfumer. “To get the quality of gold, you have to heat it up, make it liquid, so the impurities evaporate. So I tried to mimic that idea. If the unnecessary goes away, what’s left?”

Kurkdjian goes through a purification process of his own when he’s creating. He starts his diet on Sunday, eliminating garlic, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, za’tar—all the Middle Eastern spices. Because the body’s chemistry changes slightly every day, so does the way something smells on the skin. “If I like [the fragrance] on Monday, but on Tuesday, because I had garlic, I don’t like it anymore, it’s not going to work. You have to make sure that your life doesn’t change too much.”

He spritzes each sample on his arms—about 150 versions in all—sometimes four at a time. “And I have long arms.”

He also wears a uniform of sorts: black shirt and jeans for his days at the Dior offices; white shirt and jeans when he’s in the Maison Francis Kurkdjian studio. “The less I have to think about things, the better I feel.” He keeps an extra shirt in each place.

One sticking point in the creation of L’Or de J’adore was the way the perfume adhered to the skin, something Kurkdjian needed to fix. “The key factor of success of a perfume is not even its personality—it’s the diffusion,” says Kurkdjian. “How bold the perfume is in the air. And that is very tricky to get.”

He needed the quality of the Poison-soaked woman on the Champs-Élysées, where the fragrance permeated the atmosphere. “This is the only way to get success,” says Kurkdjian. “Because basically, even if people don’t like what it smells [like], if it’s diffusive, there are enough people on the planet so you might find someone who is going to like it.”

The difficulty in conveying a fragrance lies in its invisibility, and the necessity to make it perceptible. “The only way to see it is to smell it. So the diffusion is the key.”

The most successful fragrances have that diffusion. Shalimar, Opium, Poison, Angel—all are big fragrances that occupy a room long after the wearer leaves. In the 80s, those powerful wafting perfumes drove restaurateurs mad, and some tried to ban the biggest offenders. But that didn’t make a dent in their popularity.

“I mean, perfume is expensive. You spend like a couple hundred dollars on one bottle,” says Kurkdjian. “You won’t buy it again if no one, from the doorman to the taxi driver, to your best friend, to your daughter, sister, whoever, tells you that you smell good.”

While the original J’adore holds close to 94 ingredients, L’Or has far fewer. And the ones it contains don’t announce themselves individually. What is detectable are voluptuous white flowers that blur together, the way Hirst’s blossoms coalesce. “It’s minimalistic in the composition but very opulent in the sensation,” says Kurkdjian. It’s also not the least bit timid. “I want to bring back boldness … And a new kind of sexiness. Something more like desirability.”

Now that the perfume is finished and poured into a long-necked bottle sheathed in a metal that looks like molten gold, Kurkdjian can exhale. But he has no intention of inhaling, or at least not inhaling L’Or de J’adore. After wearing all those samples on his arm, he’s “fed up,” he says. “I don’t like wearing perfume. But I love when people are scented.” One would hope. “It means you take care of yourself.”

Whether it’s irrelevant or irreverent now lies in the nose of the beholder.

Linda Wells is the Editor at Air Mail Look