18 September 2014

Message In a bottle

 - Saturday, 17 September 2011, 00:00

by Marie Benoit

A perfume is launched somewhere in the world every three days. But in the ferocious fragrance market not even one in 10 survives. Some 90 years after Coco Chanel gave us No 5, still the all time bestseller, Chanel unveils its new scent: No 19 Poudré.

In Paris, as one of the top fashion talents of her time Chanel was in a position to diversity into newly challenging and lucrative spin-off trades. In 1921 she launched her first perfume, Chanel Nº 5, reputedly her lucky number and the first perfume to bear a couturier’s name on the label.

The making of the first Nº 19 has a story. One day having ordered labels with the name Coco on them, she realised that it didn’t work for that fragrance. And so she called it Nº 19. Why Nº 19? Not long before her death, Coco explained why to her friend and confidante, Carmen Tessier. “It is the day of my birthday, 19 August. I was born under the sign of Leo – the lion. And I am just like the lion: I will bring out my claws to protect myself against being hurt. But believe me, it is harder for me to lash out at someone than to have someone lash out at me.”

So in 1970 Nº 19, a new number entered the world of perfumery; a symbol that has imprinted elegance into the collective unconscious for over 40 years; a green fragrant trail with distinctive hints of iris, worn religiously by thousands of loyal women. Created by Henri Robert, at the height of the women’s revolution, Nº 19 is a bold fragrance. The last fragrant masterpiece from the rebellious Gabrielle Chanel, it is still aimed at women who have a taste for all things avant-garde and exceptional.

Of Nº 19 Poudré which was lauched recently and created by perfumer Jacques Polge he says: “I wanted to underline the importance of iris at Chanel, while giving a new facet to Nº 19. Although clearly less green Nº 19 Poudré diffuses an incisive freshness on first contact with a zesty sensation of Grasse neroli and mandarin. Then iris pallida appears, clinging to the dry swirls of Haitian vetiver root, bringing hints of powder cases and lipstick wax, archetypes of noble femininity. Iris fully expresses itself, enveloped in comforting and velvety white musk. A light almond impression from tonka bean gives the musk an even cosier feel. And then there’s that irresistible sensation of a cloud of scent on the skin. Iris absolute, the epicenter of chic, can be found in all of the versions of Nº 19, from the Eau de Toilette launched in 1970 by perfumer Henri Robert to the new Nº 19 Poudré.” He continues to explain: “Ground iris rhizomes were long used to powder the hair and face. This gave me the idea of adding another type of powdery note to the formula and using the new generation of musk that is available today.”

Of all the iris varieties, Chanel chose the pallida variety once commonly grown in Italy. The part of the plant used is the rhizome, which holds molecular treasures upon reaching maturity after three years. Once harvested, it must be peeled and then dried to reveal its famous irones, which give it its olfactory power. It takes thirteen tons of fresh rhizomes to obtain eight tons of dried roots, ready to be steam-distilled and transformed into ‘iris butter’, then iris absolute. This phenomenal quantity of rhizomes yields just one kilogram of precious nectar.

Unfortunately, the problems related to its production discouraged many Italian farmers. Some began to change the quality of the original absolute by mixing rhizomes of different botanical varieties. “We were faced with the same problem that we’d had with Grasse jasmine,” Jacques Polge explains. “So we decided to create a living laboratory by replanting pallida rhizomes in Pégomas.” This huge risk required enormous investments and much patience: “First, we had a great deal of trouble finding iris pallida,” Jacques Polge states. “When the plants began to grow, we realized that there was iris germanica mixed in, which we had to separate from the iris pallida.” In order to obtain an impeccable quality, Chanel decided to reproduce precisely the traditional production methods, without trying to speed up the harvest or drying process. It will take three or four years before the final result of this endeavour can be enjoyed.

“Fragrance,” says Jacques Polge, “is a form of poetry. It doesn’t speak but it gives so much.” A definition that might be considered as a self-portrait.

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