THE BELOVED VOL II: : CHANEL NºI9 VINTAGE PARFUM (I970)

 

coco-chanel-closeup

 

The perfumes I consider to be my holy grails are quite hard for me to approach in writing. How to do them justice. How to capture their invisible power over me in the right words. I do not want to botch the job, nor drown out their subtleties with my standard, over-enthusiastic, effusions. There is enough hyperbole out there already in perfume; all that hype and purple ‘prose’, most of which becomes so laughable in the face of the actual perfume that it’s an almost constant case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

 

Before I go any further, I should probably also say that this perfume is probably unique for me in that it is a composition I cannot describe in metaphor or with allusions the way that I might usually do, with the visual, the psychological, the literary or the musical (as I have done with Vol De Nuit, Calèche and Arpège, for instance), the reason being that, unlike many others, this perfume does not actively remind me of anything, nor send me into reverie.

 

No.

 

Nº I9 is not what it evokes, but what it evinces. It is beautifully functional, a smell. A deceptively simple, beautiful, but mysterious composition of such imaginative and (anti)intuitive technical accomplishment that you wonder just how it could work: how the various elements – all essential – could slot together in such an apparently effortless way; how an exquisite vetiver/leather base could meld so fluidly with a pure and plaintive, iris-filled heart;  that orris, which in some batches can be almost heartbreakingly coldly fluid and beautiful  (at one point this was apparently the most expensive perfume in production due to the quality of its ingredients); how that cool, sublimely removed green iris rose could yet then be transfused through a more overtly sensual, brighter floral aperture of vivid neroli and sweet, fervent essence of ylang ylang (sheer genius), but then have its iced heart credentials sealed once again, with that taut, difficult, and spine-tingling, galbanum.

 

 

*

Yes.

 

 

So even though I undeniably do have memories and associations – through other people who have worn her, and they have, over the years (my sister, my mother, close friends both male and female) –  I have yet conquered this perfume so many times in my own way, in my own lifetime now, that all other connected memories are almost obliterated. It is a living entity for me, this perfume, rather than some short-lived, tearful flashback, and, providing I can still get my hands on it, I can quite easily imagine wearing it until I die.

 

 

In parfum, the way I wear Nº I9, this androgynous Chanel masterpiece – created the year I was born – is strong, unapologetic, and virile (at times actually verging on too masculine for me in certain moods; ironic (or perhaps not), given that it was supposedly created for the exclusive personal use of Coco herself – that twentieth century ‘exterminating angel’ of mind over matter and art over people , Gabrielle Chanel, who wanted Henri Robert to create a private, inimitably elegant blend that only she could use (it was released to the public after her death). Like the formidable Chanel herself, this perfume in vintage feels self-assured, supercilious, arrogant even, but there is something quite melancholic and regretful in there also. I remember walking into the apartment of a very beautiful and dignified Italian diplomat, Francesca, in an upscale area of Tokyo, one night, and being amazed by her reaction to this scent; she was beside herself – mama mia che buono, che buon’odore –  as she hugged me to her and smelled me up close. I don’t know if her sexuality was relevant, but it did seem that we were both dabbling in unconventional gender conventions, she with her beautiful and expensive dandyish vestments; me in my carefully applied Chanel, and that the poignancy, but seduction, of the perfume I was wearing did seem to transcend some kind of barrier.

 

 

*

*

 

 

Cambridge, far in the past now,  was a maelstrom of sensations and exquisitely, indulgently strung out stresses that have been quite stirred up by Nina’s recent visit and our delvings into some of its powerful emotions and recollections during our late night conversations –  something that D and I seem to have avoided for quite a few years.

 

 

It wasn’t just the overwhelming work load – French translation, Italian language, read Flaubert by Monday, write an essay by Wednesday, it was the cultural shift of going from my background of standard comprehensive school education and suburban, lower middle class’normalcy’ and being caterpulted into the rarified private school world of the rich; the ultra-privileged, the literally aristocratic, and being expected, as a green and innocent eighteen year old, to just somehow be able to take it and absorb it; learn to live alone (in impossibly beautiful surroundings; too yearnful for a stripling like me to even function normally, let alone excel academically);  to adapt to this sphere of being I had had no idea existed.

 

Muddling through the passions of a term or two and making some friends on the fringes, though, I did eventually settle into something like a stride and found myself doing quite well in the Italian department, where I had started anew like all the others and so was at less of an obvious disadvantage, and where I also met a Franco-British, velvet-voiced siren by the name of Kira (who my friends from home just hated: “Is the princess of Paaa-ris still there??” they would inquire sarcastically before coming to see me in my room) but I was still intrigued by our differences, by this new world; would listen patiently to her rich-kid melodramas and ignore her invites to just ‘pop on over to Paris to the weekend’ (er, Kira, not everyone has your kind of money you know…..), but would still sit flagrant, and wide-eyed, and receptive, as she doused herself, as she did constantly, in Chanel NºI9 eau de parfum, the old, rectangular bottle in silver grey and the only perfume she had ever worn – and the only scent she ever intended to ever wear in the forseeable future.

 

In that vintage edp form, quite different from my more secretive and wise parfum, my new acquaintance smelled quite resplendently standoffish and exhilarating…. I used to adore the way she smelled and  I can still smell her in my mind’s eye by the river at Trinity; a green, biting, iris-clad nomenclature; callous; dry; acerbic, French, floral and bitchy but also with vivacity – that glorious, dismissive self confidence that came both from her upbringing; a private education; the dreadful and total obliviousness of it all, really, but also from the perfume that, at the heart of its unsweetened and brilliantly constructed fleuri boisé bouquet, was really nothing to be trifled with. And neither, ultimately, was she.

 

 

*

 

That was probably that, then, for that perfume then, just a memory, a perfume I liked, until one fine day, probably fifteen more or so years later, when I was in Motomachi, Yokohama, here in Japan – hot; sunny; mid summer – a dinkily chichi boutiquey and upscale shopping area near the bayside where the big ships from abroad come in; just moseying about, and walking around, when I came across an expensive-ish but affordable parfum spray of N°I9 in a second hand brand designer clothes shop. Although I would never consider buying the vaporisateur format of the vintage now (don’t do it: there’s some chemical that must have been put into these so-called ‘natural sprays’ that significantly deteriorates the delicate balance within and renders the blend strange, with a white, vegetal note that prevents you experiencing the perfume in full. What you want, ideally, is the parfum in bottle form; wax sealed; box-within-box, in that heavenly, fetishistically matrushka manner; untouched and protected by thick, white, paper ( although I bought one of these recently from somewhere only to find that although unopened, and there had been no trickery; there was nothing inside the expected flacon the contents mysteriously evaporated…).

 

Still….those unappealing top and middle notes notwithstanding, I soon found as I walked along the streets towards the hill overlooking the bay that the scent had melded with my skin in a way I had never before experienced. I remember walking along upwards, up along the confines of the beautiful Yamate Foreigner’s Cemetery, a place of dappling leaves, weeping angels and Russian crosses, and becoming gradually aware that I was smelling something beautiful.

 

This, then, was my first experience of what I would never have found if I had not on a whim bought that parfum: that hauntingly sinuous end accord that I now so cherish. The extract of this perfume, so much more concentrated, but so much less effusive and mischievous than the more girlish, vintage edt, has the most insistently withheld but yet affecting iris/ vetiver / leather dry down that I have ever encountered, grave and sonorous as a cello.  Pinched and held back by a superb note of citrus, while suspended in blanc nimbuli of delicate, Parisian powder, the scent hovers unhesitantly about your person through the day and long into the night, accompanying you but never intrusive, there, but semi-consciously.

 

The perfume isn’t always right; it can go too powdery and clogged if I slap it on overzealously like aftershave as I am prone to do when I come across a big vintage bottle here and think to myself why not. This, though, doesn’t ultimately detract from its beauty. If a perfume is so easy and comfortable that it is always suitable- your Dolce Light Blue, your citrussy Jo Malone, then odds are you are probably dealing with a scent that in itself is just fresh and unthreatening, unobtrusive – bland even, which is probably why it can just fade into the background beyond your daily consciousness and you can wear it, day after day, unthinkingly. With vintage Chanel NºI9, however,  we are talking instead about an intuitively crafted, deep and abstractly stunning piece of olfactory art that is what it is – serious; profoundly aromatic, and best of all, enigmatic, so austere and supremely elegant that it simply will brook not shallow miscalculations on your part. To wear the parfum on a day to day basis like a mere quotidian toiletry would just be too frivolous.

 

This perfume, precious now that the supplies of the vintage will be inevitably dwindling (and they really are – I can feel the difference here in Japan where it used to pop up all the time and now only rarely does), wills you to choose the right moment carefully, or otherwise leave it alone. But then, when that moment is right, as it has been these last few days,  it just lets you sit back and forget, while just subtlely taking over your aura like a twin, lending a grand yet gently dignified atmosphere that yet hints of sex, and shadows.

 

*

 

 

I knew I was onto a winner in those first months those twelve years ago or so when I first fell for this perfume on a night out with Duncan. Standing out there on the street in Shinjuku and having ascertained that the skin and the perfume had fused in exactly the right way, I  then asked him then to lean in close and smell me.

 

A person of great understatement, not given to great effusions of praise nor of compliments, Duncan’s one-word reaction,

 

Swoon

 

made me then realize that my instincts about this scent had certainly not been misguided, and many years and bottles later my love affair continues.

 

I might not wear this perfume all the time, I might go for six months for a time or even a year without putting it on, but Chanel NºI9 vintage parfum, is, in all probability and despite its ‘difficulty’ –  for its sheer olfactive precision, and unparalleled atmosphere, my ultimate holy grail.

 

 

 

36 Comments

Filed under Antidotes to the banality of modern times, Exquisite Perfumes, Iris perfumes, Leather perfumes, Vetiver perfumes

36 responses to “THE BELOVED VOL II: : CHANEL NºI9 VINTAGE PARFUM (I970)

  1. Holly

    Oh, be still my heart. It is as certain as anything can be that I will never smell the vintage parfum unless I win the lottery.
    Thanks for giving us a glimpse of this beauty, and of your memories of days gone by.

    • It’s a bit of a mess, actually. I just wrote it on the way home on the bus and train and want to keep editing it but have to go to bed as it is almost 4am.

      Thanks, though. I do find it hard to articulate my feelings about this perfume. It doesn’t tug on my emotions or imagination the way Guerlain does, but it just smells so damn good in the right circumstances that I love it for that reason alone. It confers elegance on a messy, clumsy and inelegant creature, and that, in a way, is pure magic.

      Incidentally, vintage bottles REALLY vary. From batch to batch. In terms of the iris. If I come across a perfect one I can send you a decant.

      • Holly

        Thank you. That’s an astonishing offer, and I sincerely appreciate that you would consider it.

      • No problem. It takes me an eternity to get these things sorted out (and I don’t actually have a pristine parfum at the moment, I am wearing a mix), but I will let you know. I have my eye on some parfums I have seen in a shop in Yokohama.

      • Holly

        Neil, the thought really does count. I certainly hope that I’ve let you know how extraordinary I have found your writing to be.

      • Don’t make me embarrassed. The only problem with sending people things from Japan to America is that you aren’t allowed and things get sent back once I have posted them, something I find extraordinarily irritating. If it was just a sample in a vial, though I could probably conceal it within something else.

        I don’t have a suitable one to send anyway though at present. .

  2. I have a bottle of it and can’t wait to get off work and smell it again!

  3. KimB

    What a lovely piece about No 19! Despite being a long time Chanel fan girl, I didn’t sample the parfum version until a few years ago – there was no going back after that!! I long to smell it in the vintage.
    Agree fully with “so austere and supremely elegant that it simply will brook not shallow miscalculations” – it is not a perfume I can wear daily without thinking like I can No 5 !!

    • I think of the current parfum as an entirely different perfume that I can appreciate in a different way, almost like a Vetiver Extraordinaire type perfume or something. Much tighter, very sharp vetiver (but no leather, and that is the problem), and with far less iris in the heart. WHen you buy a really good vintage parfum what astonishes me is how NATURAL it smells. In fact it doesn’t always gel together at first. When you break open the strings around the wax, you get a burst of fresh galbanum that is slightly too strong, very prominent neroli and ylang ylang oils, and all swimming in this gloriously grey and wistful smelling iris extract. It’s all so strong and real. I find the new version just so pale, yet with the extra synthetics that must be in it, hard and tenacious.

  4. Nancysg

    I recently received an earlier formulation of the eau de toilette of No 19. It is everything I love in a scent. The green rushing towards a chilly metallic wood. I can’t imagine that a steel wood scent exists in the natural world, but it has great appeal for me in a bottle of perfume. Thank you for lovely thoughts on this Chanel….the only Chanel I own.

    • It IS a steel wood scent, definitely. I don’t really like woody perfumes usually but in this scent all the notes are in such balance that none ever really dominates, I think.

  5. Glorious piece Neil, simply glorious. I am in total accord with how you feel about No 19, it is truly a masterpiece. I am lucky enough to have a bit of the vintage EdP left and on special nights when the mood is right I revel in it.
    That being said, this is a scent that has to be worn on the right occasion. When I have tried to wear it on a not so perfect day, well it has made me feel a little out of sync with the world. it just seems to have that effect on me. Love the orris in it though, it just sings on me, literally a full fledged aria… one from Norma even.

  6. Exactly! Just like sunlight sparkling on the surface of a lake or pond. Almost ethereal.

  7. Another brilliantly written review that makes me want to go and try No.19.
    You are quite the enabler, you know that? Iris (orris), leather, ylang ylang are some of my favourite notes. I fear though that the current EDT available at the counter will leave me disappointed, so I’ll hold on until the day I can find and smell a vintage EDP or maybe even parfum, hoping that it will be as astonishing as you describe it.

    • There’s not point even trying the current version except for the general effect, which at the beginning is similar.

      The whole perfume is bitter and green, but the iris shimmers it out in noble fashion. There is no leather in the current version.

  8. Oh how I love this story! Your reminiscences of private school – great. I too have private school in my life. First as student of a private school, not as ritzy as yours sounds, but as the child of teachers at the school, I came from a very modest income home. It felt similar as you describe it. Later I followed the same path as my teacher parents and taught drama at a very expensive independent school. So interesting how a perfume can become forever linked with ones experiences and feelings of chapters and places.
    Beautiful blog. Thank you.

    • Actually, Cambridge isn’t a private university, it was just that so many people who went there had gone to private schools, and there was a seemingly inseparable gulf between me, and my non-private background, and them that it was genuinely shocking to the spirit. You are right, though: perhaps I have internalized some of the feelings about Chanel No I9 because of this and now definitely associate it with poshness. It’s possible also that I almost have some kind of inferiority complex about it, as if I don’t actually DESERVE to wear it or something. That I am am impostor.

      • Oh how interesting – and thank you for clarifying. It’s interesting what a mix of emotions one can have with a fragrance.

        I wonder how many of us feel the “Impostor”. and sometimes we us scent or dress to feel or appear more the part. Sometimes we grow into it, and sometimes it just widens the rift between who we think we are and who we might like to become, or who we are attempting to pass ourselves of as. I think it isa rather common belief…

        Hmmm. Now I’m wondering if the collective unconscious affects how we perceive scent. If we all start believing the same about No19, (poshness) could it possibly affect a person who is new to the scent? What an idea.

  9. David

    I always love your responses to the comments people leave on your brilliant posts. This last response of deserving to wear it…. I feel that way whenever I spray expensive perfumes with abandon. I have to. My skin absorbs everything in seconds. And I love to spray my sheets. And Tuscan Leather in all my clothes drawers. And I still write letters so everything gets a spritz. I miss Japan and its bargain finds in second-hand shops….aging population and all. I wouldn’t feel so guilty. But that’s your territory. Someone commented you are an enabler. It’s a bit true and please don’t stop.

  10. johanob2014

    Oh I love your writings!This is beautiful in it’s unedited haste!Leave it as it is please!!You describe the perfume and associations so beautifully,I feel the need to immediately go and find my No.19!I also have not worn it in years,but it is one of those perfumes that intimidates me,if that makes any sense?Haha!Like Amouage Lyric and Portrait of a lady,I feel they need to be worn with respect,on days when you can really stop and “smell the roses”,looking dashing in some extraordinary outfit,confident in your stride.More of these reviews please!You write what I want to read.x

  11. orsetta

    what a fantastic love letter to a perfume!
    and yes – SWOON…

  12. Putting this up today as I just can’t tolerate just having my autobiographical psychodrama being the main post on the blog.

    This, though, has a similar tone to the Notes On My Notes series, I thought (which I will continue when the mood is right), telling similar tales but through the prism of a beautiful perfume.

  13. It was a pleasure to read this once again and also a reminder to me that I have not worn my No. 19 vintage perfume for quite a while.

    • The mood just has to be right! This is such an uninviting perfume in many ways.

      I am in a heavy Vol De Nuit phase at the moment ( oh my god on a cashmere scarf!) but I have a vintage no 19 soap – it is in the soaps that you can see the difference most clearly with the new version: bright, artificial greenness with no iris or leather, just vetiver, whereas the exquisite vintage soap is so perfumed in just the right way it means a whole day spent with the perfume, which layers perfectly and prolongs it, is just divine. I know there will be a day- perhaps late spring- when this will be the perfect choice.

  14. The usual brilliance, natch. So damn satisfying to read.

    Wow: “Nº I9 is not what it evokes, but what it evinces.”

    Nothing else I’ve read comes close to capturing this scent; not that it is elusive, but just so damn magnificent.

    I only would add that I’ve had good luck with the vintage parfum sprays. I also have the regular bottles, and like the smell of the sprays just as much. As you say, there is, naturally, appreciable bottle variation, but I am quite fussy and haven’t found anything to grouse about with the sprays. One that I have is probably my fave of all the bottles I’ve known. The iris in it, and the vetiver, really soar. Just want to say this, not to contradict you at all, but only because this beauty is, as you mention, getting harder and harder to find and I wouldn’t want anyone to pass over something that could prove “accurate” and enjoyable.

    Oh, and for me, I find things like Light Blue and the JMs distinctly UN-comfortable to wear. I’m trying to think of a clothing or hairstyle analogy but can’t find the right one, but you know what I mean. Something just disagreeably conservative!

    • I mean I am being kind to be polite, but just like you I find such scents to be dross, dreck, functional only.

      Interesting to hear that not all sprays are complete disasters. I have had too many dodgy ones to ever buy one again. Oh no. For me it must be that sealed bottles within the boxes……Heaven,,,,

    • Also think that ANYTHING conservative makes my blood boil like Vesuvius at the moment hence these broiling blurts of fury and public self-evisceratinon. I actually feel like some blunt prosaic reviews next with ZERO emotional impact!

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