Thursday, February 7, 2013

Perfume Primers: On Classifying Chanel No.19 & fragrance review

Chanel in-house perfumer Jacques Polge recounts a story surrounding the creation of No.19 and its appeal. In 1970, the 87-year-old Coco Chanel (who would die the next year) was wearing Chanel No.19 when she was stopped in the street by a young man.
“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?”

I'm lucky my significant other loves Chanel No.19 on me too!

Although the feeling exuded by Chanel No.19 aesthetically approximates the one given off chypres (i.e. inedible, perfume-y, aloof, sophisticated, the antithesis of the "blonde bombshell airhead" cliche), the famous Chanel fragrance stands as exhibit A why perfumery appreciation can't be merely a subjective, aesthetic viewpoint but in many ways forms a technical matter demanding a deeper knowledge of the nuts & bolts of its craft. No.19's building blocks are not tabula rasa; in fact they belong to pillars already covered on these pages, but they merge in such a novel way that the result is something altogether unprecedented. This composition by perfumer Henri Robert, with its hint of fresh green stems cut with scissors to fit a vase, its powdery radiance and its cypress impression with lots of woody vetiver, embodies sophistication at its best.

At the time of creation (1970, the perfume was launched in 1971), the formula contained a superior grade of Iranian galbanum with natural bergamot, lemon and ylang ylang. The heart of No.19 is built on lots of rose (15% of the formula in the vintage edition, a significant amount of which is comprised of natural rose absolute of Rose de Mai, i.e. Rosa centifolia), even more lily of the valley (20%) together with a jasmine "footnote". Up to this point nothing unheard of. The lily of the valley segment with the rest of the florals harkens back to the structure of Madame Rochas, the green feeling is analogous to Vent Vert a "green" floral perfume with its fingerprint dose of galbanum. The small inclusion of a carnation and sweet spice (pimento) "chord" recalls the great spicy florals of which L'Air du Temps is a prototype.

Three factors however make Chanel No.19 unique and unparalleled:
1) the predominance of orris however (the essence rendered from the dried rhizome of iris flower), here elevated from the supporting player status it enjoys in most perfumes
2) the overdosage of Hedione (around 25%) which diffuses the rest of the notes and gives that odd freshness and
3) the backing up with around 12% of a woody vetiver accord.
The floral elements (really, the rose) are supported and balanced by the woody notes, guiacwood, sandalwood, cedar (in the form of cedryl acetate) and the above mentioned vetiver. The bridge between the woody materials and the orris is methyl ionone, at a significant percentage. Methyl ionone itself is a molecule used to render violet-orris notes in hundreds of perfumes.

The wonderful richness of the vintage versions (in either parfum or eau de toilette) suggest that trace materials could have been used, as well as (probably) tinctures of musk, civet and ambergris, all but eradicated in the onslaught of perfumer regulations answering to animal rights concerns and allergens restrictions. Today's eau de toilette is boosting its vetiver and cedar notes over a fresher floral core, making a woody floral echoed in the denser version of the extrait de parfum, while the eau de parfum remains the rosiest of the three concentrations available. The predominance of orris means that it is an expensive formula to maintain, as natural orris price skyrocketed in the decades following No.19's creation. The main constituent of orris, the molecule irone, exists in isolation, and recent production of iris in China cut down the maturation process that orris demanded from 3-6 years to only 3 months (resulting in the Year of the Iris, a few seasons ago, when every perfume house, niche and mainstream, was issuing their own "iris perfume"). Nevertheless, the performance of the traditional natural orris is hard to emulate.

Up till this point, a clear case of a "woody floral". It is the inclusion of oakmoss and a leathery impression (rendered via isobutyl quinoline, with its sharp green fangly aspect) which complicate things and give a mossy character, recalling chypre perfumes to many perfume fans. However Chanel No.19 does NOT contain that third pillar of the true chypre, labdanum! (And certainly that would be applicable for a perfume that came out decades before the recent "nouveau chypres" which changed the territory due to technical exigencies). In fact No.19 is notable for what it does not contain as much as what it does, thanks to analytical gas chromatography work performed on it: little to no aldehydes, no synthetic musks (in the vintage version), no patchouli, no vanillin and no salicylates (more on which you can read on the link).

Its advertising image has always relied on its green character: witty, confident, a bit "sporty" even, in tweeds. "The unexpected Chanel". "The outspoken Chanel". Fronted by Christie Brinkley, Princess Mara Ruspoli, Rene Russo and other models of the time.

The comparatively small commercial appeal of Chanel No.19 -and other similarly bracing "green" fragrances- does not mean it has lost its importance in perfume lineage. A dedicated cult following has maintained its status and kept it in production. In Greece for instance, surely a very small market, Chanel No.19 has never known any shortage of availability and it enjoys pride of place on the counter at all times, contrary to many other classics, exiled on the bottom shelves of department stores. Its continuous presence (also in the sillage off women on the street) has aided a recalibration of what we consider "classy" regardless of fashions and it has influenced directly at least two perfumes: the intensely green Silences (1979) by Jacomo (which is Chanel No.19's offspring to be sure) and Beautiful by Lauder (1986). In the former the same powdery green, liquid emeralds presence is felt, with perhaps a fruity accent via cassis, while in the latter the abscence of mossy and green notes kicks it more surely into the woody floral mold.

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Chanel No.19 and Heure Exquise by Goutal: A Tale of Two Sisters, Perfume Primers, Silences by Jacomo review, Iris: perfumery raw material


  1. I adore Chanel no. 19 EDP. I've yet to try any vintage no. 19 though. Believe it or not, I am considering getting a backup bottle.

  2. I smelled #19 for the first time in the early 70s on a trip to Chicago with my family. Part of going to Chicago always included a trip to Marshall Field's on State Street which was, to me, the last word in elegance. I fell for #19 immediately and begged for a bottle for Christmas; my mother made sure I got one. It remains one of my favorites and the perfume that most smells like "me" to my nose.

    1. My first job in Chicago was at the women's perfume counter at Marshall Field's State St... It was one of the best experiences of my life not only because of the enjoyable work environment and some really lovely colleagues, but the exposure to and knowledge gained about fragrances from having worked there... I could write a book about the inside knowledge I gained but suffice to say... No 19 is one of few fragrances I seek out (in vintage formulation of course) not to collect, but to break those wax seals and wear as often as I can... it is a MASTERPIECE... I'm happy to hear your experience to this perfume is tied to such a perfect purveyor of fragrances... RIP Marshall Field's...

  3. Anonymous18:48

    I am not to fond of Chanel's fragrance but will have to give this on a try.

  4. I really think this is Chanels best scent .

  5. anemariec03:55

    It's wonderful to read a post that puts Chanel No 19 in context with such precision. I've been wearing it for years and never tire of reading about it (or wearing it it). I'm a member of the cult!

    I chuckle sometimes at the early ads for No 19. The ones with the women in suits hiding in men's clubs conform to the idea, rather dated now I'd say, that you have to look like a man to compete in a man's world. And several of the others, including the TV ads, show women grasping men around the neck and kissing them. Women are seen being controlling and dominant. Look at that clenched fist in the ad you have included with this post!She may be preparing to punch the smile off his dial after she's kissed him.

    A far cry from the advertising we see associated with so many new releases today.

  6. Miss Heliotrope06:37

    I love greens - and have been enjoying sampling this one during the warmer weather.

    My parents are passing duty free soon & offered - the EDT is top of my list.

  7. Thank you so much for this great article. I'm a big fan of No.19 - we'll be celebrating our 5th anniversary soon. I love every concentration and even like Poudré a lot, but my favourite is the EdT (1st buy was a 75ml rechargeable sprayer). Four years ago without realizing my luck I bought a 100ml rechargeable Edt and noticed after a while the strong oak moss note in the base which had not been present in the bottle I emptied the year before. But the new formula has its advantages too, so I got myself a 50ml Edt with the "built-in-sprayer" a few weeks ago. After using it a few times I became suspicious because there are differences in the head and in the base and perhaps even in the heart. To get it straight: I mean it differs not only from the vintage but also from the "new" formula!!! In the base there is much more vetiver and in the head there is the iris used in Poudré!!! Maybe I should add that all my No.19 bottles were bought in Germany. Here the situation seems to be similar to Greece. Which means you get the hole No.19 range in any bigger department store.

  8. Eld,

    back ups of anything you love are ALWAYS a good idea.

  9. Oh and I forgot: I do like the reformulation of No.19 as well as the vintage; it's still pretty awesome, even if it is more vetiver-focused these days.

  10. R,

    what a ravishing story! Thanks for sharing with us here. Makes for a wonderful memory, doesn't it. And you do smell unique, as I bet No.19 nowadays is like a secret handshake; few but dedicated wearers who wouldn't leave it behind for the world. :-)

    I think No.19 is one of those perfumes that have to "click" a certain way. If one just smells it without these magical elements, they find it difficult.
    It used to be among my grandmother's favourite scents, alongside Madame Rochas (her signature for many years) and Vent Vert. If you think about it, and in view of what I wrote, it makes total sense!

  11. Jojo,

    I suggest you try it in the following order of "kin" scents, so as not to get a shock (it can be jarringly different). Progress in your sampling in the order suggested, you'll see...

    Prada Infusion d'Iris >Chanel No.19 Poudre (the newest "flanker" )>
    Chanel No.19 original in eau de toilette

    Hope you find the experiment interesting!

  12. M,

    between Sycomore and the extrait of Bois des Iles (which I both also ADORE), I think you have an excellent point!

    Hope your weather has broken. :-)

  13. AMC,

    such a lovely club of people who know instinctively what it's about :-)

    Excellent point about the advertisements. I think it has to do in part with the feminist movement being on the rise during the heyday of those ads, the 70s. Women weren't tolerating being seen as merely ornaments anymore and therefore the ads are empowering (in a fun, upbeat way). I like the suggestion of women taking the initiative in the man hunt too, in those images (and the commercials).
    What strikes me as especially funny is how No.19 is both retro (so much powder) and very fresh/lively/dynamic (all that slicing greenery); almost a simile for the place of women in a changing world!

  14. C,

    I honestly think this is one of the best things for a heatwave. I always couple it with something stark white and silver jewelry to reinforce its cool aspect. (This is also true for Bandit EDP; I wear it in heat waves with no problem)

    Hope you get your bottle soon!

  15. Martha,

    thank you for the amazingly astute observations presented!
    I think it has gone through multiple "tweaks" in the formula, I might be left a bit behind re: the very latest, but I do recall that the last batch I tried a couple of seasons ago was very vetiver-heavy (not a bad thing!) and the iris was more metallic. I think you have an excellent point that it might be the same as in Iris Poudre (and makes sense from a production point of view; companies use essences that are produced in bulk and become "perfumers' currency", as I mentioned in a previous article)

    I believe all the European bottles are of the same production factory, Chanel does have a different one in New Jersey for the USA needs/market, so perhaps there might be a tiny difference between Euro and US versions (as some readers have voiced in the past), I can't totally renounce that and would need solid data to back it up.

    It's heartening to hear it's doing so very well in Germany! It's a loyal market from the little I have observed in my trips and it makes sense, even though I assume that the colder climate would tend to bring on the more aloof (rather than warm) elements to the fore. But aloof can be a good thing too; one doesn't buy No.19 to project a bubbly, fun, approachable image anyway.

    Thanks for stopping by and offering your insights! :-)

  16. Anonymous17:01

    This is, through and through, a wonderful article!

    I am wondering:

    I often think of No.19 as sharing personality with my fave Gucci Envy. Technically speaking is there a similarity that gives them (to me) a similar subjective impression?

    - Lily

  17. Anonymous17:41

    #19 is one of those fragrances that is classy, sophisticated, floral, green and transparent. I have a sample of the edt and I may even get a full bottle. This is a scent that you can wear all year long with no problem whatsoever. I'm curious about the other concentrations, flankers as well as vintage stuff, if I can get my hands on it.

  18. I love No.19. I bought it at a discount store at age 17. Oh, how I wish I still had that version! I was the only one I knew who wore it, particularly in the age of Obsession and Eternity! No.19 made me stand out in the crowd.

  19. Anonymous12:20

    It's still my favourite classic perfume amongst all the Chanels and Guerlains. I agree it's in a similar field to Infusion d'Iris. I was really surprised and pleased when that came out - the idea of a perfume that aims for refinement and subtlety, how novel!

    I wore no 19 in my student days which was a totally weird choice for an art student as Chanel is seen as a traditional house. But it really did remind me of natural outdoorsy things I loved, and it's interesting you mention that it's low on aldehydes and ingredients you expect from women's perfume.

    I feel it has that classic thing of being beautifully blended so the outdoors feel is abstract. Thinking about it, this is why I like Ninfeo Mio by Goutal but don't totally love it, it's like the notes are all competing.

    Then I tried Bulgari's Au the Vert, which to my nose is lovely but simple - almost like a cologne. I don't think there's anything to match no 19 as yet.

    I read the review in 'Perfumes, the Guide' and felt quite offended by the take on No 19, which was described as 'wire mother' as opposed to a more snuggly natural mother and it was suggested that it will 'appeal to any women who've ever wished to know what it is to be heartless'. On the contrary, I'd say it appeals to any woman who's ever known what it feels to be at one with nature. Ha.

  20. I love No 19, although I have no idea who is No 19. I mean how does one choose? The vintage parfum is one scent profile, the eau de parfum another, the old eau de toilette another, the new eau de toilette is yet another, the new parfum is just another. So which one is No 19?? Typical garbage from Chanel, and don't blame it on reformulations. This is who they are. Every concentration is an entirely different perfume. It just makes me want to stop buying them out of spite.

    1. Anonymous13:07

      Number 19 in the name refers to the birth date of Coco Chanel, August 19. The perfume was launched in 1970 when Coco Chanel was 87 years old, a year before she died. It was created by Henri Robert, a perfume creator which created many other perfumes of the Chanel house.

      Number 19 Eau de Parfum is a floral-woody-green fragrance, a white and green floral harmony. It is a unique blend of light-heartedness and sophistication, not simply a different concentration, but an olfactory reinterpretation, which is faithful to the spirit and base notes of the original composition. Top notes: green notes and bergamot. Heart: rose and iris. Base: vetiver, oakmoss and leather.

  21. Lily,

    belated reply but here goes:
    Envy is an angular green floral based on lily of the valley. Chanel No.19 is an angular green floral based on iris and rose. Your nose is very correct; they do have similarities. No.19 is more powdery though, in drydown, which I don't recall so much with Envy.
    But like some say, do try all concentrations as they're slightly different.

  22. DKchoco,

    I think No.19 is perfect on a man, especially the EDT. You should (if you haven't already) upgrade to a full bottle! The other concentrations have some differences: EDP is rosier, parfum is richer and closer to EDT. The galbanum in vintage is richer, more acrid but also "fresher" up top and more "inky" as it dries. It's an acquired taste.
    The new No.19 Poudre is closer to Infusion d'Iris in character.

    Hope that helps!

  23. Annina,

    it still does make one stand in a crowd.
    I recall observing a young lady (not a trashy one) sampling the whole Chanel canon locally and wrinkling up her nose only at No.19. That's how much tastes have changed: anything devoid of sweetness is considered anathema. (No.5 is sweet in its own floral and musky way).

  24. RS,

    excellent points all of them.
    I suggest trying out Silcences by Jacomo if you haven't; they have the same green bite. (You might even venture further with the bitter green of Bandit EDP -the proper version reviewed on this blog).

    As to that book, I thought they were being very complimentary in a back-handed way (a compliment that sounds like cuss, a new genre of reviewing). They gave it 4 or 5 stars if I recall correctly, right?
    I suppose they're emphasizing that it's an angular affair, no "easy" plush notes (vanilla, amber, soft florals...) therefore not "loving" (and therefore "bitchier", which is good in my books).
    As to the relation with nature, in our day and age that everything is so removed from nature, one wouldn't be able to come up with a straight answer I guess. It does recall the verdancy of meadows in crisp morning in the beginning, but other than that it's a very indoors sophisticated perfume to me, at least.

    Nice mention of Eau Parfumee au the vert by Bvlgari; you might want to try Koto by Shiseido if you like that one. It's very likable and smells mid-point between green floral and chypre cologne mix.

  25. Ramon,

    there are technical reasons for some of the discrepancies : the formula for all the concentrations isn't the same, because the expansion of "notes" via the alchol content isn't the same. So essentially, it's not the same thing supposed to be diluted tenfold, twentyfold, fivefold etc.
    But I do get what you're saying: it's annoying!
    However please bear in mind that as another blogger had said in the past, we can never all smell and write the same thing: that's not only because of personal perception, but more importantly of differences in each single bottle (what I'm smelling today out of X bottle is different from what you're smelling out of Y bottle and even from X bottle at a different occasion...)

  26. That's true, different concentrations require different formulas so that the perfume actually smells the same throughout concentrations but I don't think that's what Chanel does, their different concentrations are truly entirely different scents, it's horrible, you don't know which is the real one, and the reason why they do it is GREED, so that you have to buy them all I guess.

  27. Ramon,

    I don't treat them above some greed, but I doubt a consumer that isn't crazed about perfumes like we are would buy all concentrations. We're in the minority (for better or worse! LOL)

    Thanks for highlighting this aspect though!

  28. eelriverrose susan01:09

    Dear Elena -- you remain one of the most gracious, erudite, rhapsodic yet analytical perfumistas anywhere in the world! I have been off the radar for a few years, which is good, since I had amassed far to many fragrances! I am going to divest some on eBay momentarily, potentially making room for some new must-have. I lost heart when the potentially interesting new introductions started to come at a dozen per month! Years ago, I foolishly swapped away vintage bottles of Joy, Jicky and Vol de Nuit parfums! I have a small refill of Vol de Nuit, probably from the 90s, that I never use, but perhaps I shall regret letting it go. On the other hand, I do prefer vintage Shalimar, Mitsouko and Samsara parfums, and have small bottles of them all. Finally, I come to my question: do you know a way of telling the age of Chanel No. 19 parfum? I have two bottles I got from a lovely MUA member in London years ago. One is 14ml and is in a box that is marked all in French, (except a small Made in France) and has the number 1.200.91 on the bottom left of the box, and T.P.M. in the center of the bottom. I assume it is at least from the 90s. The 7.5ml is in a brighter, newer box. It still says "Made in France" but also the info about the product only being sold at an authorized retailer is in both French and English. The number on the bottom is 120.990 but there is a bar code on the back: 3 145891 209907. The interior box for this item is still sealed, so I cannot compare the fragrance to the larger, older one. I don't need both! I would prefer to keep the smaller and sell the larger, but only if the fragrance is the same. I guess the solution is to open the smaller one, but I just hate to do that if I am going to sell it, and deprive the buyer of the pleasure! On the other hand, I had a back-up bottle of my beloved Attrape Coeur, so I swapped the half-bottle I had. Unfortunately, the sealed back-up bottle had long ago leaked (before it got to Bergdorf Goodman, I would imagine) - it was 1/3 gone and ruined! Well, even so -- these perfume stories are not as heartbreaking as my having sold my absolute soul-mate guitar -- gorgeous, magical, small (perfect for me) Martin guitar for $300 one drastic moment many years ago. It would cost $10, 000 to replace it -- at least! Love to you and prayers that your 2016 is healthy, happy, prosperous and very, very fragrant!

    1. Susan,

      thank you for your most kind compliments. You're awfully sweet. I'm in good company I guess as people do love fragrance and show their love. I do remember you following, so nice of you to come back and share your news.

      I believe the two Chanels are batches for different markets, as indicated by the language? I recall the sizes, in fact I do have a 14ml one back home, let me check. I bought my last one mid-2000s I recall when I was panicking about reformulations. I believe that only if you're wild about the galbanum should you be worried about Chanel No.19 parfum; the newer version is somewhat less acrid in that regard, but the iris and vetiver do nicely support it still.

      That's a tragic story about both the guitar and the Attrape Coeur. :-(

      Hope the year is great for you too!!

  29. tonilyn23:50

    I have a very odd bottle of Chanel 19. it says french corner on it, and has some islamic or arabic writing on it. I cannot for the life of me find anything on this bottle. Have you ever heard or seen anything like it? I dont have the little purple velvet box it came in anymore. All I can offer you is a picture. I can be contacted at


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