Chanel : No. 19

Created by : Henri Robert

Date : 1971

Genre : Green floral (iris)

Concentration : eau de toilette

In the early 60s, Gabrielle Chanel was determined to create one last great perfume.  Not since 1931 with Ivoire (name since used by Balmain) had she launched a women’s fragrance and so she badgered Pierre Wertheimer, the president of Parfums Chanel.  Unfortunately, both he and Chanel’s distribution company were convinced that a new fragrance would sink No. 5.  Not the President’s exact words, but he was clear, “over my dead body.”  So… Chanel left and waited.

When Pierre Wertheimer died in 1965, she returned and collaborated with perfumer Henri Robert on a fragrance that critics have since called “poisonous”, “strange” and “exquisite”.  I wondered which descriptive was the most accurate so I tested it and the answer is simple… Chanel No. 19 is poisonous and strange and exquisite.

Bette Davis famously said that old age was no place for sissies and the same applies to No. 19.  This is hardcore juice.   But if you’re looking for a fragrance that is at the purple end of the olfactory spectrum, this extraordinary eau de toilette might be for you.

No. 19’s top notes are laced with galbanum… that bitter green resin that single-handedly made Balmain’s Vent Vert a critical success but unpopular because it was too aggressive.  Wanting to avoid the same fate for No. 19,  Robert balanced the galbanum with expensive iris butter, innovative Hedione (from a molecule found in jasmine absolute) and May roses.  It worked.  The floral notes tamed the harsh resin but be warned… for the first 30 minutes it feels more like a discord than a balance and that’s where the poisonous descriptive comes in.  However, the rest of the story is sublime and worth the wait.

No. 19’s heart is floral… irises, roses, narcissus and ylang-ylang.  But don’t expect the springtime feeling of Diorissimo or the fresh pink bouquet of Yves Saint-Laurent’s Paris.  The dominant floral note here is iris (or rather iris root)…powdery, woody and nostalgic.

As a statement, No. 19 is best compared to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies… visionary, courageous and impressionistic but with a clarity only a grand master at the top of their form could pull off.  Monet did.  And so did Chanel.  Her last project completed, Chanel died less than 6 months after No. 19 was launched.

Literally, Chanel No. 19 reminds me of Van Gogh’s blue and purple irises with leaves that look like twisted metal instead of supple greenery.

When I wear No. 19, I can’t help but wonder what Gabrielle Chanel felt about her final perfume masterpiece.  Perhaps the initial topnotes reminded her of her early years… unsettled and competitive.  The veiled beauty of the iris heart might have made her re-examine her unrivalled accomplishments… a life devoted to fierce battle.  Victorious?  Yes.  But at what cost?  And, the drydown… balanced, more harmonious… a balanced symphony of spring flowers that you wish would go on forever.  It’s hard to believe that the same perfume could emit such a variety of scents and emotions that both men and women can wear.  For me, this is perfumery at its best.

When compared to today’s scents, Chanel No. 19 fits right in because it was ahead of its time when it was launched.  One only has to look at the popularity of iris today and the recent rise of minimalism.  No. 19 has both… but it’s been around since 1971.

As a last thought, Chanel No. 19 is not as beautiful as Chanel No. 5  and there are lovelier irises.  But there are many days that only Chanel No. 19 will do for me.  No other perfume in my collection even comes close.

Image : Irises (May 1980) by Vincent Van Gogh

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