Chanel’s Cristalle came to me later in life; my earliest Chanel “love” (for myself) was No.22, which I still love and wear, then No.19, also still a strong love and in regular rotation on my skin. I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover Cristalle; I probably thought my need for a green Chanel was fully met by No.19. Regardless, I first tried Cristalle a few years ago, and yes, it’s love. I wear Cristalle on days when I need a good snap of green but No. 19 feels like overkill. Both were created by perfumer Henri Robert: No. 19 in 1970, and Cristalle in 1974. (I refer to the eau de toilette; Jacques Polge created an eau de parfum version for Chanel twenty years later).
The two share some notes. Cristalle‘s notes are: Top notes — Sicilian Lemon and Bergamot; middle notes — Hyacinth, Brazilian Rosewood, Honeysuckle and Jasmine; base notes — Oakmoss and Vetiver. No.19‘s notes are: Top notes of Galbanum, Hyacinth, Bergamot and Neroli; middle notes of iris, Orris Root, Rose, Lily-of-the-Valley, Narcissus, Jasmine and Ylang-Ylang; base notes of Oakmoss, Vetiver, Leather, Cedar, Musk and Sandalwood. No.19 was launched the year before Coco Chanel died; it seems to be the last fragrance that she personally approved.
Although Fragrantica doesn’t list galbanum among Cristalle‘s top notes, to my nose it is clearly there, and other reviewers have listed it too. The opening is very green, and you don’t get that with just lemon and bergamot. It may be that the galbanum top note is more apparent to me because I have a vintage sprayer of Cristalle and the top citrus notes have faded with age, as they do. Many people experience Cristalle as a hyacinth fragrance. While I understand that, and I do pick up some hyacinth, I wouldn’t call it overall a hyacinth-focused fragrance. Rather, that note blends with and extends the greenness of the galbanum, and acts as a bridge between that and the other floral notes in the heart phase.
Cristalle is one of those fragrances, like other Chanels, in which the floral notes are so well-blended that one doesn’t really smell them separately (or at least I don’t). To my nose, the floral phase is like a green honeysuckle/jasmine, but it isn’t clearly “honeysuckle” or “jasmine.” The greenness carries through to the oakmoss and vetiver in the base. Cristalle is perfectly named — in the eau de toilette formulation, it gives an impression of clarity and even sparkle, which I often associate with aldehydes, but Cristalle doesn’t include aldehydes. Luca Turin classifies it as a “citrus chypre” (and gave it five stars) while others like Neil of The Black Narcissus blog call it a “green floral chypre.” Turin does have one of the all-time best summaries of Cristalle, after saying that it evokes an “unusual morning (possibly morning-after) feeling: “There is a business-like briskness that suggests waking up from a night spent with a gorgeous stranger and finding her fully dressed and made up, ready to leave after nothing more than a peck on the cheek, leaving only a cloud of Cristalle as a contact address. Beautiful, and a little scary.”
And I bet Turin’s Cristalle was wearing stilettos, too. Neil calls Cristalle “very Parisian” — the adjectives he uses in his book Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent are “crisp, pretty”, “diamond-cut and delicate.” It reminds me a bit of 4160 Tuesdays’ Meet Me On The Corner, another citrus chypre, but MMOTC has more warmth. To me, Cristalle EDT evokes a morning at Paris’ Marche’ aux Fleurs, the open-air flower market on the ancient Ile de la Cite’, with all its greenery and fresh flowers in bloom, which I discovered when I spent a summer working in Paris in my 20s. I stayed in a large studio apartment on the Quai Aux Fleurs, with a long narrow balcony overlooking the Seine, and on my first day off, I walked over to the flower market and bought flowers to plant in the empty planters I found outside my apartment windows. In writing this post, I’ve learned that the flower market has been renamed in honor of Queen Elizabeth II, who visited it in 2014 with chic Parisienne Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
I think the word “chic” perfectly captures Cristalle. It’s fresh but not sweet, elegant but not formal, light and bright. I had feared that it might have been discontinued in favor of what Chanel calls its “successor”, 2009’s Cristalle Eau Verte, but one can still buy the original (any reformulation aside) on the Chanel website. I have a large bottle of. the vintage eau de toilette in addition to my sprayer, so that’s plenty for me!
I’m glad that Chanel is keeping Cristalle going, as well as No.19, and offering younger customers the options of Cristalle Eau Verte and No.19 Poudree. I’ve tried and enjoyed both, but my heart belongs to the original eaux de toilette.
Have you tried any of the Cristalles?
Featured image by Pascal Poggi on Flickr.