The Scent Critic has experienced one of life’s little detours, and hereby apologises profoundly for a prolonged absence. The pulse-point on my right wrist, you see – not to mention the rest of the wrist itself – has for some weeks been encased in plaster, my ‘scent-trigger’ finger rendered weak and useless, too, all because of a momentary greengage-and-rain-related slip on my sloping lawn. Which, in turn, led to surgery, six pins and a metal plate. I’m not asking for sympathy. (Oh, if you insist.) But I tell you: it wasn’t quite the summer ‘break’ I’d envisaged, and it sure kept me from the keyboard.
Happily, both wrists are now spritzable again, and to restart this blog I thought I’d look at an audacious twist on an all-time classic: Jacques Polge’s Chanel No. 19 Poudré, which was launched on what would have been Mademoiselle Chanel’s 128th birthday, 19th August. (Hence the name.) Audacious, of course, because it’s always brave to play with a classic, even if there’s an imperative to introduce it to a new (and in this case, presumably, younger) audience.
Now, the original No. 19 was one of The Scent Critic’s favourites: my ‘workday’ fragrance when I was pretty young myself, typing up conveyances in a Sloane Street solicitor’s office, reading magazines rather than editing or writing for them. I thought it was le dernier cri in sophistication, and I loved that it was crisp and green and not too girly.
So for me, this has happy, nostalgic echoes of that No. 19, with the green edges slightly buffed off. There’s less of nose-tingling champagne-like head-rush of aldehydes which is as much a signature of many of Chanel’s scents as that double-C logo, because it heads straight for the sharp green galbanum, such a key ingredient in the original. It’s wet, cool, crisp and intriguing: all crushed leaves and stems in a dark wood with maybe a little waterfall playing somewhere off into the undergrowth onto limestone slabs. And at this point, it’s très, très No. 19, but without the slightly bitter edge that makes that fragrance rather love-it-or-hate-it.
The much-touted ‘poudré’-ness of this, we’re told, is down to orris – that so-precious iris root, and a note that’s become a bit of a Little Black Dress in the perfumer’s repertoire, in the past few years. In reality, orris was always a key element of No. 19. But Monsieur Polge has earned a reputation for himself as an iris-meister, placing it at the pulsing heart of 28 La Pausa, in Chanel’s Les Exclusifs collection. Indeed, having for decades controlled the production of jasmine and rose for their fragrances, in Grasse, four years ago Chanel planted their own fields of iris, which will produce their first harvest this year. Clearly, iris isn’t a ‘moment’ in fragrance fashion, to them, but a key element in scent’s future.
The irony? To my nose, here, it’s used so sparingly that actually I don’t get much of iris’s famous candied powdery sweetness, at all.
That’s not to say that No. 19 Poudré doesn’t soften and warm up, after its flurry of ‘galbanumania’. There’s the merest breath of orange blossom, and the usual garland of jasmine and rose which are the pillars (pergolas?) that support virtually every scent created – but especially so Chanel’s. At this point, to me, it slightly loses its way: goes fuzzy and a bit formless. The heart, to be frank, is a bit ‘so-what?’. (On the plus side, No. 19 devotees will just keep sprtizing, to grab another galbanum fix, and may not be bothered by its lack of heart.)
But do hang in there. Just go about your business and return to your wrists later. There’s enough vetiver in the (eventual) dry-down to keep even The Scent Critic smiling, with a little bit of gentleman’s clubby leather and some tonka. And Polge has also played up the musks, delivering a (very) subtle, sueded sexiness, apparent to anyone withing nuzzling range, that was absent from the original. (At 19 myself, I was scared to death of remotely sexy fragrances: No. 19 seemed almost virginal, to me.) These base notes kick around for quite a while, which makes ‘the missing middle’ even more of a mystery.
The big favour that this ‘flanker’ has done me? It’s reminded me of the glories of No. 19 itself, made me want to go back and fall in love with it again. And one of these days, if I keep up the physio, my right hand may even be strong enough to open the cellophane encasing the box, without help…
The Scent Critic lives in (fragrant) hope.
PS To watch a rather wonderful interview with Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake, Chanel’s resident perfumers, click here.