Chanel No. 19 was composed by Henri Robert to commemorate Coco Chanel’s eighty-seventh birthday on August 19. Although its strange coldness has prompted many reviewers to conjure up the somewhat sexist image of a ruthless businesswoman who would wear this "in 3 inch stilettos and pencil skirts" (Tania Sanchez in Perfumes: The Guide), to me, its earthy, rooty notes suggest a witch in an enchanted forest rather than a bitch in a boardroom.
I won a mini bottle of the vintage stuff, and expecting something bright, green and fresh, I put it on only to turn my nose at its oily, dusty rootiness. Back to the pile of perfumes for later inspection. Something's off, I thought. There's galbanum in this — why isn't it tooting its horn? Unlike Vent Vert, whose galbanum was flanked by an entire orchestra of notes to make it sing, Chanel No. 19 lurks quietly in dark woods.
Top notes: galbanum, neroli, bergamot
Heart notes: jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, iris
Base notes: vetiver, sandalwood, leather, musk
Woody, oily, and vegetal, with muted florals and a hint of fresh cut leaves and watery cucumber, Chanel No. 19's song sounds like piano notes played with the damper pedal down. This is a perfume that manages to seem both light and dark at the same time, like the moss, damp leaves, and mushrooms on a forest floor shaded by a canopy of trees. It is luxuriant, but not dazzling or bright, like semi-precious stones before they're polished, when their opacity hints at their rawness.
Chanel No. 19's minimalism reminds me of Jean-Claude Ellena's perfumes, what one reviewer called a nouvelle cuisine of perfumery. Instead of fresh or sunny notes, as there are in his Bulgari creation Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, Chanel No. 19 has a diluted, earthy, vegetal transparency like freshly sliced root, or moss that has just been unmoored from its base at a tree. It doesn't release its scent right away. (I wonder if Ellena was inspired by Chanel No. 19? They seem like similar fragrances, Au Thé Vert the sunny, happy fragrance and Chanel No. 19 the melancholy, poetic one.)
I can't wait to get my reference Iris fragrance — the legendary Iris Gris by Jacques Fath. Although it imparts a dusty, rooty smell and by nature is rooted in the earth, Iris always manages to smell a little uncanny, otherworldly, moody, and even spooky, hence all the references to enchanted forests and witches.
In an interesting way, it's what Chanel No. 19 holds back — comforting sweetness, melody, and light — that is its virtue. You wouldn't ask atonal music for a melody, an herbal tincture for sugar, or a fairytale witch for kindness. It's what we deem missing (what is, in fact, its restraint) that makes this a haunting fragrance. From a pure scent standpoint (as you can see, it is easy to get lost in its connotations), the disquieting nature of the top and heart notes subside into a dreamy, comforting base of incredibly subtle leather and woods. From what I've read, it's this last part that is missing in the reformulation. It is hard to imagine this fragrance being true to itself without the woods and leather.
Although I dismissed Chanel No. 19 at first as disturbing, the more I think about it and let it breathe on me, the more I love it. It's just hard to imagine when this scent would be appropriate; perhaps if I were casting spells and reading tarot cards. This is the Empress card, or the evil witch from Snow White. Cold, poetic, beautiful, bewitching.
UPDATE: THIS is why you need to try different concentrations of perfume...I won a vintage EDT Chanel No. 19, and I really pick up the leather and vetiver in this. It's even more beautiful than the EDP I originally based this review on! Wonderful multifaceted green combined with salty, scratchy vetiver. One thing is reconfirmed from trying this concentration: Ellena definitely had 19 in mind when composing Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert. The Chanel No. 19 EDT version is like a ray of sunlight in the dark, damp EDP forest...So beautiful I could cry.
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"[P]erfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence." — Luca Turin, Perfumes: The Guide.
I feel this is the place to address this arresting quote from Luca Turin (written in a review of Issey Miyake's Le Feu D'Issey). Chanel No. 19 was a similar fragrance for me, astounding me with its suggestiveness, its intelligence, its moods, its significations. I pondered this perfume as deeply as a film, book or song that moved me. It's been one of the many revelations for me in discovering perfume in this sensual/cerebral manner that there is, in fact, a limbic intelligence that we don't cultivate enough. Perfume is the perfect vehicle for exercising this intelligence and articulating what it has to tell us.
Here are thoughts from others on Chanel No. 19:
From Fragrantica: "Merges aggressive green note of galbanum and woody dusky note of iris as a harmonious bridge between delicate floral heart and leathery-woody base."
From Basenotes reviewers: (1) "I divide perfumes in categories by characters...Mothers- Chanel 5, Lovers (Agent Provocateur, Fracas)), virgins (Blush, Daisy). "And then there are business women, or bitches, as I prefer (Chanel 19, Cristalle)...the kind of women who always look perfect, wear suits, and give orders. They are indepedent and cold. They don't need anyone, including men." (2) "I find it harsh, sharp, and annoying, like something rotting, plants in a forest."
Tania Sanchez: "Striking and admirably dissonant portrait" "from the silvery hiss of its nail-polish remover beginnings to its poisonously green floral heart. It now lacks its former leathery chypre intensity and instead what it does now is peter off in clean vetiver. For all its springtime references, white flowers and leafy greenery, it keeps you in a boardroom in 3 inch stilettos and pencil skirts. Haughty and immune to sweetness, with a somewhat antiseptic air, this extraordinary perfume appeals to anyone who has ever wished to know what it is to be heartless."