Perfume Review: Chanel No. 19

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.)

Review Report:  Bois de Jasmin, Perfume-Smellin’ Things, Pere de Pierre, The Non-Blonde, Yesterday’s Perfume, and Chicken Freak’s Obsessions 1 and 2.

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.

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30 thoughts on “Perfume Review: Chanel No. 19”

  1. you may provide link to fragrantica.com when you already use their photos. You obviously know how to do it because you use links in your post.

  2. I first purchased 19 in the early 80s when I was in my early 20s. I didn’t not like 5 (and as I find out later, it’s because of the aldehydes) but I really liked 19. I wanted to wear a Chanel!

    I have no idea if is was EDP, EDT…but the experience of going up to the counter, and purchasing it on my meager 400/month salary is something I’ll always remember.

  3. I would love to love no 19, but for me – it’s just the smell of my Mum. I can’t admire it when I get beyond the familiarity etc. But I fear that despite it’s beauty it’s never going to be a fragrance that I can wear.

    1. Ah, the smell of our mothers… I understand. Sometimes you never get past the emotional connection with a particular scent. (My own mother wore No. 5 when I was little, and it was decades before I considered wearing it myself – and then only because I found a bottle of vintage parfum that is one of the most stunning smells on earth.) To this day, Opium smells of disappointment, helpless rage, and nausea to me, and I’ll never wear it.

  4. “Inner Cloth Mother”– Ha and Ha!! Yes, I, too, wish Brother Turin might come up with connotations for scents that appropriately reflect our real lives…

    (In quiet voice) Do you ….still… hate “Coco”? (Never mind, forget I asked…)

    Great review– really fun– I love the idea of scent as your “invisible armor.”

    1. Actually, I do still hate Coco. Tested it a couple of months ago at the teeny Chanel counter at Belk’s, just in case my nose might have changed. Answer: Get that cr*p away from me! (I’ve identified my issue, though: tolu balsam + patchouli = DEAR GOD, NO.)

      I love my invisible armor. I’ve heard of so many scents that people use for that purpose, and they all seem to be chypres (Mitsouko, Bandit, vintage Jolie Madame, etc.).

      And yes, I finally figured out the nested-reply feature. Pretty cool. WordPress is good, particularly with the apparent ease of commenting. I find myself wishing for more formatting options (fonts and type size), and better control over pics. I can’t put more than one picture up without endlessly futzing with it, whereas multiple pics in Blogger were very easy.

  5. Huh. Good to know– thanks. I’d like to start a blog with a message board, and it looks like Blogger doesn’t do it at all, but the nested comments in WordPress look ideal.

  6. My previous comment was vaporised in a power cut as I was about to hit “Submit”, but I was just going to mention that I have come late to Chanel No 19, and only know the bright green version. It is another good example of invisible armour that I didn’t think of earlier. I like the sound of the vintage one too, as I am not averse to a bit of leather, as long as it is not too “saddle-y”.

    I do like Coco, as it happens, but I can totally understand why someone wouldn’t. How are you with Opium Fleur de Shanghai?

    1. Flitter, the new version still has more character than a lot of the stuff on department store shelves these days. I daresay I’d like it more if I’d not already fallen in love with the vintage (which I didn’t know was vintage when I tried it)…

      Basically, reformulations suck. Can *anybody* think of a reformulated fragrance that they like better than the original? Oh, wait… I don’t think I’d have liked the original Cuir de Lancome at alllll. Dang. Disproved my own point.

      Haven’t tried any of the Opium flankers. Honestly, I can’t imagine something that even kinda-smells like Opium wouldn’t slam me with the big tolu balsam shillelagh.

  7. Sigh … you do realize that I only got halfway through this review before I ran off to eBay to hunt for some No. 19 – I haven’t hit the buy button yet, but I’m watching some stuff.

    I do love Coco – but I like balsams and even patch if it isn’t too strong. Of course, I love orientals period and have been known to still whip out the Obsession upon occasion.

    Coco Mlle., on the other hand, is just vile on me.

    1. Oh, no… bidding competition! 🙂

      Coco Mlle is not nice on me either, but my sister does something wonderful to it. It’s not harsh at all on her; it’s very woody-floral. None of the schizoid is-this-a-man’s-scent-or-not? angle.

      One of these days, you never know, I may learn to love tolu balsam… but probably not.

    1. Hm. Hmmmm. I’m considering it.

      Terribly generous of you to offer to brave the post office for me… What a fantastic post you did on the issue, BTW. At the moment I’ve got about six swaps pending, and I’d like to get those off the slate first, but do let’s talk in a month or two! I have in the past said that I’d rather ship US only, but I’d brave the USPS for a friend.

  8. I love No.19 since I was a child!!! 30 years later, it is still my HG . It smells of old-world elegance. I was very surprised to learn when I was older that the perfume was made in the 1970s (ehem which was when I was a kid) because it never smelled “modern” to me. I was always puzzled by marketing phrases that described No.19 as modern?? Perhaps back in the era of Amelia Earhart…

    No.19 says – I am not really concerned how this perfume is perceived by others. I am not bothered by preconceptions of what is a “proper” femme scent should be. I am who I am, a meld of the slightly odd and idiosyncratic yet feminine. This perfume is not worn for other people, it is worn to please oneself.

    In short, No.19 is not a coquette but a duchess (to quote Turin out of context).

    1. Hi, Tangbel! I think you’re right, No. 19 really does not care what you think of her, because she is just perfect. She doesn’t have to please anyone. Isn’t that wonderful, that you met her when you were young?

      1. I feel very comfortable in No.19, it reflects my personality well – the oddness and art deco hues. Interesting how we adopt a scent that suits our personality traits!

        Going off tangent here. The long story is No.19 is very similar to another unknown perfume of my childhood. I can’t list that “anon” perfume as my HG. There was only 1 bottle and it was mysteriously nameless (my deep never-ending regret).

        The “anon” perfume is the most PERFECT perfume I’ve met. The hauntingly beautiful, lush sillage with a presence that lasted and lasted and lasted. My reaction is a purely visceral one. I’ve never smelt any perfume remotely close to it, except perhaps No.19.

        The bottle is styled like a Chanel bottle, a gift from my dad to my mum in the 70s. My dad had worked for a company that may have released a couple of fragrances as a side-line experiment. Sigh, dad can’t remember any details.

        I kept the empty bottle in vain hope (the scent is still there). Apparent Turin said it is a daunting task even for experts to duplicate a scent from scratch.

        Don’t mean to start any rants, but I wish those EU regulators would quit messing with our perfumes. I do know No.19 nowadays is not the same. I crossed paths with YSL Rive Gauche recently, I think they messed with the formula as well.

        Someone said iconic fragrances are like art masterpieces, I agree. Stop defacing them please!!!

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