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 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).
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)
|Coco Chanel in her Paris apartment|
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.
|Coco Chanel in the 30s|
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:
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).
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!
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