Mademoiselle Chanel once told the press an anecdote of how a stranger had stopped her on the street outside the Ritz, where she lived, just to inquire what her amazing perfume was. ‘Not bad at my age,’ thought the mademoiselle. She was eighty-seven years old, and the perfume was Chanel N°19 (1970) named for the date of her birth.
Chanel N°19 deserves its classic status, not the least of which is its quality materials that range from Iranian galbanum, Florentine iris, to May rose and jasmine from Grasse. More importantly, however, it is the way perfumer Henri Robert creatively explored the brilliant ideas of his contemporary, namely in Cabochard (Grès, 1959) and Aramis (1965), that gave birth to a milestone in perfumery. He created an object of fascination and contemplation even amongst perfumers.
The piercing verdancy of galbanum, tinged with bitterness, is a hallmark of Chanel N°19. This addition of galbanum to the chypre structure is perhaps a reference to the green galbanum opening of both Cabochard and Aramis. And, despite the non-aldehydic nature, it still feels like being splashed with a pail of cold water.
As Chanel N°19 develops, a rich bouquet of rose and lily of the valley unfurls. A hint of rich jasmine absolute dallies with the floral heart. These are backed by as much as 13% Hedione so that the florals diffuse and come to life. Interestingly, orris butter at 1%, especially noticeable in the extrait de parfum, provides a contrast of soft rooty powder to the sharp galbanum. Moreover, it is backed by ionones. Together they sweeten the chypre accord of Chanel N°19 and act as a bridge between the floral heart and the woody fond.
The dry down of Chanel N°19 is a dusky combination based on the woody-musky 12% Vertofix Coeur, vetiver notes, sandalwood, and guaiac wood. There is also a spicy carnation accord. These are darkened by a rough-hewn accord of oakmoss, mossy Evernyl, and a bit of leather based on isobutyl quinoline. In addition, the use of animal tinctures such as natural musk, ambergris, and civet in trace amounts probably provides the sumptuousness in the vintage composition. The chypre dry down recalls those of Cabochard and Aramis — leathery, mossy, and woody.
Chanel N°19 certainly has a striking character. Its leathery chypre is atypical of feminine perfumes. And, whilst its florals and woods may recall a floral aldehydic perfume, the abundance of galbanum and orris, the oakmoss, and the overdosed Hedione beg to differ. Interestingly also, its chypre accord contains little or no patchouli and musks. It also has little or no aldehydes, floral salicylates, and vanillin. These alone are perplexing.
And through the imaginative use of such materials and structure, perfumer Henri Robert cemented the classic signature of Chanel N°19. The verdancy of galbanum is set against the soft powder of orris, contrasting the texture. The green of galbanum also contends with the dusky woods. This potent ménage à trois of galbanum, orris, and chypre in Chanel N°19 is so original that few perfumes can remotely be considered as successors of this style. And, by a stroke of ingenuity, he added a large dose of Hedione, setting the composition aloft and diffuses its florals — it was the highest dose of Hedione used at the time since its introduction in Eau Sauvage (Dior, 1966). The result firmly established Chanel N°19 amongst the great milestones.
Of course, Chanel N°19 has been reformulated over the years since its creation. With its galbanum, for example, sourcing from Iran was problematic in 1979 when the revolution erupted. Natural animal tinctures that used to give Chanel N°19 its complexity have been excluded from the composition. The rich floral absolutes are now reserved only for the extrait de parfum due to the rising costs. Even the source of its orris is different as Chanel now uses the rhizomes of both Iris pallida and Iris germanica grown in its own fields in Grasse instead of the Iris pallida traditionally sourced from Florence, Italy. Despite all of this, Chanel N°19 is still recognisable and easily puts many modern creations to shame.
Its originality and quality are so enduring it deserves a hall of fame. And, the words of perfumer Christopher Sheldrake reaffirms that notion: ‘Chanel N°19 is a perfumer’s perfume, a connoisseur’s fragrance, it is a great tribute that so many people have been inspired by it’.
A note on the concentrations: The richest formula of Chanel N°19 is no doubt the extrait de parfum. Here, the galbanum is round and complex, with green and musky notes. The richness of roots and dusts in orris is palpable throughout the development. The florals are sumptuous with the luscious confit note of May rose absolute and fresh lily of the valley complex competing for attention. The dark mossy woods, the vetiver, and the leather accent buried within feel round and mellow at first, but gradually become dramatic. The interplay of verdant galbanum, rooty iris, and dusky woods is sublime, not only because of the dramatic contrasts, but also with each part unveiling subtly its facets and complements. The extrait is incredibly rich and complex it deserves a place on the pedestal of classics.
The eau de parfum formula created by perfumer Jacques Polge in the 1980s is the most diffusive, with sharp floral notes and rough woods. The verdancy of galbanum is penetrative, but short-lived. The floral heart is bright and diffusive, but not rich and buttery as in the extrait. The lack of orris is certainly felt. The fond features a rough-hewn accord of leather, vetiver, and mossy woods. The emphasis falls on the juxtaposition between verdant florals and dusky woods.
The eau de toilette follows the development of the extrait closely, save for its more radiant style. The sparkling green of galbanum is bolstered by the freshness of citrus. The floral components fuse into a well-blended accord. The dusts of orris is noticeable – even more so than in the eau de parfum. The leather accent is also buried amongst subtle vetiver and mossy woods. Overall, the eau de toilette feels balanced and substitutes the brightness for the richness in the extrait.
Sources: chanel.fr, savoirflair.com, faz.net, vanityfair.com, Scent and Chemistry The Molecular World of Odors, Perfumery Practice and Principles, SweetspotQC’s videos