Friday, December 12, 2014

The Queen of Green: No. 19 (Part One)

Variously described as 'beautiful' 'haunting' 'icy' 'green' 'elegant' 'feminine' 'complex' 'haughty', 'classy' 'graceful' 'soft', No. 19 (which comes in three perfume concentrations each with its own unique style) can be all of these, and in Part One and Two I'm going to compare these different versions of my all-time favourite perfume, No. 19 by Chanel.

Today I'll introduce a little about the history of No. 19, then describe the Eau de Parfum and Parfum versions, then in part two I'll explore the Eau de Toilette and latest flanker - Chanel 19 Poudre

(You can skip straight down to reviews if the history part sounds a bit tedious!)

No 19 was my first perfume love, and although it was only later on that I began to collect perfume through my interest in Prada's Infusion d'Iris, it's true to say that Infusion d'Iris actually owes a lot to No 19 - in that style of elegant green/iris/vetiver perfumes.

The first Chanel I wore (back in the 80s) was Coco, and while I liked its luxurious scent, given its bombastic 1980s style it really wore me rather than the other way around. I was a creative type, not aspiring to be a high-powered business woman! I tried various perfumes, and on some level I knew that none were right, until in my mid-twenties I discovered Chanel's No. 19.

The strange thing is, I can't remember how it was that in the early 90s I came to be in possession of a 7.5ml bottle of pure No. 19 Parfum. Nowadays this costs around £95 for 7.5ml  (roughly about two teaspoons-full of concentrated perfume).

I wore this as an art student, along with paint-stained, charity-bought clothes, and didn't appreciate what luxury I was dabbing on! I definitely did appreciate the perfume though. I remember its haunting drydown - like the softest perfumed wood-ash, wafting from my hair on a summer's night.

It expressed my love of nature, the peace of forests and meadows, but with something elusive and tantalising, which seemed just on the edge of the perfume. Now, at the age of 47, I'm absolutely aware that green spaces, the countryside, or wilderness, are essential to my peace of mind. It's what I paint about - trying to see beyond the layers. It's also how I earn my living, and this peace is what No 19 Parfum said, and still says to me.

But getting back to the more prosaic matter of that price though - £95 for 7.5mls! I know that those not as obsessed with perfume as I am might be expressing cynicism at this point - aren't we just talking about cleverly marketed branding? Yes and no..

Take No. 5 for example, everyone wore this during the 40s and 50s, Chanel realised that it was becoming ubiquitous and promptly signed up Marilyn Monroe as the 'face of No 5'. In an interview she was asked - 'What do you wear to bed?',

'Chanel No. 5' she replied (although in real life she mostly wore the appropriately fleshy tuberose perfume; Fracas by Piguet). Bingo! The price went up and No 5 became a Chanel exclusive luxury once more.
(update to text, she wasn't paid or signed up by Chanel but did make the remark, which caused sales to boom)

Although marketing does manipulate the human desire for things that are rare or difficult to find, this is not to say that Chanel didn't use the best ingredients, or have the best perfume composers (or 'noses' as they're called).

Chanel own their own fields in Grasse, France, where they've perfected the growth and extraction of perfume staples such as rose and jasmine - both of which feature in the heart of No 5 (giving that perfect alabaster cool balance of clean aldehydes and rose with underlying civet and heady jasmine suggestive of heated skin which No 5's aficionados know and love!).

Coco Chanel in her Paris apartment
As for Coco Chanel herself, No 19 (which refers to her birth-date of 19th August) was created for her by Henri Robert, just one year before her death. In an interview at the age of 86 she told this story about No 19;

Coming out of the Ritz, I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder and I turned around to see an unknown face. I was just about to tell him off in no uncertain terms, when he said to me, with an American accent: ‘Excuse me, I am with two friends who want to know the name of your perfume.’ To be stopped in the street by a man at my age, that’s not bad, is it?

Apparently she occasionally gifted No 19 to a favourite client or friend, but it wasn't released to the public until after her death. And although it never became as popular as No 5, it's always had its devotees. No 19 isn't everyone's cup of tea; on opening especially its notes are green, it lacks vanilla or musk, or any of the ingredients that traditionally make a perfume 'sexy', or typically feminine. It's often described as an 'ice-queen' or 'bitchy boardroom' perfume.

The 1971 launch campaign (which I don't remember as I was only 4 years old!) promoted the idea of an emancipated up-front sort of woman who's ditched her corset (as indeed Coco's fashions famously encouraged women to do). It was seen as the opposite of a demure wallflower - men of a traditional or gentle disposition might even find the woman who wears it intimidating, the adverts seemed to imply.

Coco Chanel in the 30s
Tanya Sanchez (who co-wrote the blockbuster perfume book with scientist Luca Turin - 'Perfume: The Guide' ) famously describes 19 as 'wire mother' as opposed to a more 'snuggly' mother. She adds that it's for 'women who have ever wished to know what it is to be heartless'. (on reading this I imagined a great fluttering of paper across the globe, as women everywhere threw their copy of 'Perfumes; The Guide' across the room in disgust while from the grave Coco puffed angrily on her cigarette)

It's an amusing, if slightly strange summary of a classic by a perfume critic, who would be aware of the different versions of No 19 - from the slightly icy and bracing Eau de Toilette (perfect for a hot summer) to the soft, classic floral EDP, and on to the deeper, more haunting pure Parfum.

Perfumers past and present are often indebted to 19, or inspired by it. Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, who creates perfumes for the world's top perfume houses, describes his first reaction to it:

The very first memory was when I was 16 years old, when I left my province and I went to Paris. At that time I met a girl who became my girlfriend. She was a student like me and she was passionate about perfumes. She wore Chanel No 19, a beautiful fragrance and I was completely amazed by this fragrance on her skin. Until then I had no interest in perfumes or any kind of scent. 

As mentioned, Chanel's No. 19 is in three very different concentrations which, amateur though I am, I'll now describe to the best of my ability. If you were so inclined you could probably spend a lifetime exploring the various vintages, but for our purposes I'm focusing on those available today (which are definitely reformulations with less oakmoss since that's been increasingly restricted since the late 80s).

The question is, which 19 would suit you?!

Generally the strength of perfume depends on how concentrated the perfume ingredients are, in percentage to alcohol and water, i.e.:

EDT (Eau de Toilette) Up to 15% perfume
EDP (Eau de Parfum) 15 to 20% perfume
Parfum (Perfume Extract/Parfum Extrait/Elixir) 40% perfume

Chanel No.19 Eau de Parfum
As mentioned, any perfumes created post-1989 have been reformulated due to restrictions on oakmoss. So one of the first things I notice up close in the Eau de Parfum is the idea of oakmoss. Perhaps they've used a little of the real thing here, but there's also a synthetic version - it's twiggy, dry and crackling like oakmoss, but it's a little more salty and has less of those subtle smoky facets of oakmoss.

Other than that, the main difference between EDT and EDP of No. 19 is that the EDP uses a large amount of Rose de Mai, or May rose. In this post-80s version of the EDP it's soft, dewy and slightly sweet (not vanilla sweet but it has a sweetness).

Oliver Polge (current 'nose' for Chanel) reformulated the EDP in a way that's faithful to the original, but I'd say this version is softer and more floral. Instead of the drydown to oakmoss, there's more vetiver and the iris is subtle.

But it's still No. 19, with the classic green, slightly powdery and astringent notes thanks to iris (which smells quite 'powdery'), galbanum (a resin with a bitter green quality), vetiver (a lemony/smoky/dry scented grass root which has an astringent quality) and leather, most likely a combination of birch tar notes and synthetics to resemble a clean leather (i.e. not suede-like).

There's a complex floral heart of hyacinth, rose, narcissus, lily of the valley and ylang (this probably varies in different formulations) but the main floral note is rose. As mentioned it's a dewy slightly sweet rose, which softens the perfume considerably. (it's possible this is due to the synthetic aroma chemical hedione which lends a moist quality to perfumes, opening up floral notes).

The feeling is still green though, lightly woody (cedar, sandalwood) and softly floral. Into dry down I notice iris more with its starchy inky, perfumed tones. I don't think anything in perfume expresses elegance so much as the combination of leather and iris.

Sillage-wise, I notice when I smell this on others how gentle it is in feel. I think it's the most approachable perhaps of the versions of 19. It's the most obviously feminine, in the sense that its texture is soft, powdery, and as mentioned slightly dewy in feel.

The longevity is quite deceptive, you may feel it's faded, but others can still smell it many hours later - an effect I've often noticed with iris and vetiver.

In summary, this is the softer, more feminine version of No 19 the rose is gorgeous and while it feels elegant and classic, I personally don't think it could be described as 'cold'. 'Proper' might be a way to describe it. In which case, considering that the original was meant to show a hint of daring - 'the up-front Chanel' perhaps it's debatable that this reformulation holds the original character in its entirety!

Chanel No. 19 Parfum
This too has slightly changed in reformulation, again there's more of a floral quality than I remember, but it has the unmistakable No 19 personality - it is slightly haughty and elegant, yet lovely, and into dry-down (thanks to the quality of ingredients) it feels natural. I find that this blends with skin, or lingers on clothes beautifully.

I can't remember if it was No.19 Parfum about which someone said 'this is how Galadriel must smell', but that would be a perfect description! The most obvious opening note to my nose is iris, or orris - which, as it's derived from the bulb of the iris plant, has a starchy quality. (I've described iris in some depth in a previous post Here). Iris tends to feel slightly haunting, or poetic, and there's been a resurgence of this note  in perfumery since around 2008.

Where the EDP is soft and dewy, the Parfum is more lean in feel, more distant perhaps. I sense more vetiver,, lily of the valley and possibly narcissus. In general, the feel is of timeless elegance. Into drydown that lovely perfumed forest quality that I know and love emerges, No 19 reveals its gentle side at this stage; a gentle mossy quality

To summarise (since I've already mentioned elves!) where Arwen might wear the EDP, Galadriel would undoubtedly favour the white and green aesthetic of No. 19 parfum - it conjures up morning light filtering through a canopy of trees, the scent of perfumed wood smoke lingering in the ashes of yesterday's fire, lily of the valley beginning to emerge from the mossy roots of an ancient oak. Peace and silence reign in the forest.

In Part Two, I'll explore the Eau de Toilette and the most recent flanker - No 19. Poudre


  1. I need to revisit No 19 EdP but so far my favorite version is EdT closely followed by the parfum.

  2. Hi Undina, It's been a long while since I wore the EDT, but as part of this No 19 fest I've ordered a bottle, also a sample of Poudre. So I'll report on those soon!

    What I'm finding is that each batch of the EDP and Parfum is subtly different, even those post 80s! All lovely though.

  3. These posts have made me so happy, and your prose makes me feel peaceful and cocooned. I have been exploring all the currently available versions of no. 19, but unfortunately we don't get the pure parfum in Greece.
    The EDP is pure heaven at the top, but the rose de mai really ruins it for me a few minutes later. Too floral, too sweet.
    The EDT is what I am now saving up for. Galbanum running right through, and much less florals. Crisp, green, clean.
    And, of course, no. 19 Poudre, which is my signature, closely rivalled by Infusion d' iris. No. 19 poudre is - obviously - powdery, elegant, chic. A modern classic in my opinion, although it has been bashed with fervour by bloggers and perfumistas. Oh, well, more for us.

  4. Hi Ellina,

    Thanks so much for your kind words!
    I agree the EDP can feel too rosy and romantic, it depends what you're looking for of course. I too love the EDT, with its cool elegance, and I also love Infusion d'Iris and No 19 Poudre - they all have a beautiful grace. Can't think why anyone would criticise No 19 Poudre - I think it's Chanel's best release in years!

    I bought the pure parfum on Ebay in an auction, so that's always a possibility, it's a bit pricy to buy blind if you've not tested it though!

    Thanks for dropping in, have a great weekend in lovely Greece!

  5. Marilyn Monroe was never hired or paid by Chanel to endorse No. 5, she casually mentioned it on an interview.

    1. True, I got the wrong facts on that, so will update the text. Her off the cuff remark definitely made an impact on sales though!