I was planning to post my first Fragrance Throwdown result today, but I found that I had so much to say about No. 19 that it was necessary to do a full review of it first before comparing it to something else.
No. 19 was one of the first fragrances I tried upon getting interested in perfume late in 2008. My first sample purchase was a set of four classic Chanel fragrances. I thought Chanel was a good place to start – I was already familiar with my mother’s No. 5 and my sister’s Coco Mlle, and I’d smelled Coco (hated it) at the counter at Belk’s. I tried the four samples in reverse order of how much I thought I’d like them, and No. 19 was first up. It was pleasant but so dignified as to be, sort of, you know, boring (this was my first experience with galbanum, mind you)… until it began to change on me. I didn’t know what I was smelling, but I felt compelled to keep sniffing my wrist, until it disappeared. I wore that sample until it was gone, falling more in love each time I tested it.
I promptly started picking up mini bottles of No. 19 on ebay… a tiny parfum half-full, a little bottle of edc, and two edt’s. Was surprised to find out that one of the edt bottles held a yellowish liquid, and the other a greenish one, and when I investigated and went on to try both, I found that the green was the modern formula – and while it’s perfectly acceptable, the version I love is the vintage, which has leather in the base. Turns out, too, that No. 19 is full of iris and vetiver. Both of those notes are iffy for me; I’m not going to see a new vetiver fragrance and fall all over myself to try it, the way I would, say, a new tuberose. There are very few iris-focused scents I like (Prada Id’I, PG Iris Taizo, PdN Odalisque), and the ones I don’t like, I really hate. I mean, I really hate them. You could probably torture me successfully with Iris Pallida, for example. But somehow, No. 19 gets the two notes just right, and I would actually say that No. 19 is primarily an iris fragrance, with a green attitude.
Notes for No. 19: Galbanum, bergamot, neroli, hyacinth, rose, jasmine, narcissus, muguet, ylang-ylang, musk, sandalwood, vetiver, oakmoss, leather, cedar.
There’s a lot of galbanum; there are smaller touches of hyacinth and narcissus. The classic rose-jasmine pairing shows up, but the focus is iris. It persists even into the drydown, which is largely sandalwood-vetiver, with a wisp of oakmoss and a caress of leather. You’d probably peg it as a Chanel even if you had no idea what you were smelling.
What No. 19 really feels like to me is a fabulous pair of leather boots. You can stomp all over town in them, you can kick butts in them, they make you feel ten feet tall and invincible, and – oh yeah – they are so hot they’re practically smokin’. No. 19, along with Jolie Madame, is my invisible armor. It makes me an Amazon. I love it.
Here’s Tania Sanchez of Perfumes: The Guide on No. 19 (and an aside from me – I strongly disagree with TS on the general feeling of this scent, but I will say that this is one of my favorite reviews ever, a real gem, although I’ve cropped it in the interest of space):
In the history of feminine perfumes, there seem to be two recurring motifs of femininity: let’s call them the cloth mother and the wire mother, after Harry Harlow’s famous experiment… the wire mother is angular, unkind, tough, and cold – scary and handsomely hollow-cheeked. Of the wire mothers of perfume… No. 19, first released in 1971, may be the cruelest. It’s said that Henri Robert composed No. 19 for Gabrielle Chanel when she was in her eighties, and a striking and admirably dissonant portrait it is, from the silvery hiss of its nail-polish-remover beginning to its poisonously beautiful green-floral heart… For a fragrance with so many springtime references, all white blossoms and leafy greenery, No. 19 never lands you in any Sound of Music meadows. It keeps you in the boardroom, in three-inch stilettos and a pencil-skirt suit. Haughty and immune to sweetness, with a somewhat antiseptic air, this extraordinary perfume appeals to any woman who has ever wished to know what it is to be heartless.
Incidentally, I’d like to know what scent Ms. Sanchez finds appropriate for a trip to the DMV, or a negotiation with the contractor who’s building the addition onto one’s home, or a job interview. Maybe she doesn’t need Seven-League Boots. Maybe she spends less time being in touch with her Inner Cloth Mother than I do, and needing a change from it. I’ll leave it there before I get snippier – I already said I love this review. I just don’t agree with it. (And who says there’s no place for a boardroom fragrance, anyway? If I want Alpine meadows, I’ll wear Chamade, or Miller Harris Fleur de Matin, soft little things that they are. Or Climat, for that matter.) I love it that No. 19’s florals have some backbone.
I feel pretty lucky to have identified, in my first ten samples, a fragrance – and a genre, the green floral – that I still love nearly four hundred samples later.
A word about formulations: No. 19 has been reformulated in the last couple of years; the new version lacks leather in the base, and is possible more rose, less muguet in the heart. How to tell the difference? Easy in the edt – the new is quite green, the vintage more yellow-green. I don’t think there was quite as much change in the edp, which was apparently rosier to begin with. About the parfum, I can’t say. The parfum is more powdery than the edt, and possibly has a higher percentage of iris. My favorite version is vintage edt, although the edc (no longer produced) is nice too, if fleeting. The edt tends to last about 3 1/2, maybe 4 hours on me, while the parfum lasts about 6 hours. (I don’t own any edp, and can’t remember the staying power on that.)
Look for an upcoming Fragrance Throwdown, where Annick Goutal Heure Exquise challenges No. 19. Image is from fragrantica.com sorry, my mistake – it’s from seller “flaconetti” at ebay.com. I did have a pic up from fragrantica, but decided I would rather have one of the bottle. I repeat, the picture is NOT from fragrantica.