Scent Semantics, September 5

The word for this month’s Scent Semantics posts is “misanthrope.” If you haven’t read one of these posts before, “Scent Semantics” brings together a group of us fragrance bloggers in a collaborative project called “Scent Semantics“, the brainchild of Portia Turbo over at A Bottled Rose. On the first Monday of each month, we all take a word — the same word — as inspiration for a post that has some relationship to a fragrance, broadly interpreted. There are six participating blogs: Serenity Now Scents and Sensibilities (here), The Plum GirlThe Alembicated GenieEau La LaUndina’s Looking Glass, and A Bottled Rose. I hope you’ll all check out the Scent Semantics posts on each blog!

One definition of “misanthrope” is “someone who dislikes and avoids other people.” Now, I am not normally a misanthrope myself, although I am definitely an introvert (and if you’ve never seen author Susan Cain’s TED talk on the subject, click on that link — it’s a treat!). However, I think we’ve all become a bit misanthropic during the last two and a half years of a global pandemic — we were forced to avoid other people starting in March of 2020, then we disliked many people because of their varied responses to the pandemic. Layer on top of that the American elections of 2020 and their aftermath, so full of rage, and I think it’s safe to say that many of us, misanthropic by nature or not, have been slowly emerging from a phase of misanthropy.

My semantically matched fragrance this month is vintage Chanel No. 19 eau de toilette. I’ve been wearing it almost daily for the past week as my green armor at work, due to the difficulties I’ve encountered leading up to a long overdue personal leave (which started this weekend, yay!). No. 19 always makes me feel that I can be tougher than I actually am; it stiffens my backbone. Some might say that it helps me set and keep healthy boundaries, lol!

Why? I think it’s because of the hefty dose of galbanum that heralds its arrival: a bitter, green opening chord that announces, as the Chanel website says, a “daring, distinctive, uncompromising composition.” Perfect for setting boundaries! The other top notes reinforce the lack of compromise: astringent bergamot, assertive hyacinth, aromatic neroli. All have a distinctive tinge of green supporting the star of the show, the galbanum, which Fragrantica sums up as an “intense and persistent bitter green .” Indeed. If galbanum were a person, it would be Bette Davis playing Margo Channing in “All About Eve”:

“All About Eve”, 20th Century Fox.

If you’re not familiar with the movie, it is about a star actress who is turning forty, fears for her career, and is manipulated and ultimately upstaged by a much younger woman. Fittingly, No. 19 was the last Chanel fragrance created while Coco Chanel herself was still alive, in her 80s, though I don’t know that anyone ever succeeded in either manipulating or upstaging her. Master perfumer Henri Robert put the finishing touches on the formula in 1970, Chanel died in early 1971, and No. 19 was released the same year.

The blog “Olfactoria’s Travels” has a wonderful review of No. 19, referring to it as a “magic cloak”. The reviewer takes a more benevolent view of No. 19 than Tania Sanchez did in the guide to perfumes she co-wrote with Luca Turin, where she compared it to the wire mother monkey in a famous experiment about nurturing or the lack thereof. Blogger and author Neil Chapman, of “The Black Narcissus”, is famously a devotee of No. 19, scarfing up vintage bottles of it in all formats from second-hand stores in Japan, where he lives. You can read all about it in his amazing book, “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent”, available in the UK and the US, and elsewhere in other languages, which I highly recommend!

Luckily for me, since I adore green fragrances, on my skin the greenery lasts and lasts, joined in the heart phase by some of my favorite floral notes: iris, orris root, rose, lily-of-the-valley, narcissus, jasmine and ylang-ylang. The green astringency of the opening notes is carried forward by the lily-of-the-valley and narcissus, while orris root adds earthiness, iris adds powder, and jasmine and ylang-ylang add airiness, sexiness and warmth. My sense of No. 19 as “armor” is aided by my vintage spray, a refillable, silvery, aluminum canister that has protected its contents for many years.

No. 19 has had many “faces”, my favorite being English model and iconoclast Jean Shrimpton. And guess what? Based on her own words, she may actually have been a misanthrope, having walked away from her superstar modeling career and life of celebrity in her 30s, becoming what she herself described as a recluse running a hotel in Cornwall. Although the photo of her below is not an ad for Chanel, to me it captures the spirit of No. 19‘s opening — inscrutable, distant, mingling shades of green, white, and earthy brown with the unexpected intrusion of purple:

Model Jean Shrimpton sitting on an ancient tree root.
Jean Shrimpton; image by Patrick Lichfield for Vogue, 1970.

As No. 19 dries down, to my nose the galbanum never leaves, though it recedes into the distance as the oakmoss enters the glade. Because I have the vintage EDT, the base includes oakmoss, leather, musk, sandalwood, and cedar. It is a true chypre, a genre I love. It reminds me of the Jackie Kennedy Onassis of the 1970s: elegant and even haughty upon first appearance, with a warmth that reveals itself over time to the patient; breaking free from the fashion conventions she mastered so skillfully and embodied in the 1950s and 1960s, and far from the cold “wire mother” of Tania Sanchez’ imagining while retaining an aura that commands respect.

I’m choosing to adopt Laura Bailey‘s interpretation of No. 19, which she described in Vogue at the height of pandemic lockdowns in 2020, as the scent of new beginnings and dreams of future adventure:

No 19, the ‘unexpected’ Chanel, the ‘outspoken’ Chanel, created at the height of the first wave of feminism in 1971, and named for Coco Chanel’s birthday – 19 August – is, for me, the fragrance of freedom, of optimism, of strength. (And of vintage campaign stars Ali MacGraw, Jean Shrimpton and Christie Brinkley.) The heady cocktail of rose-iris-vetiver-jasmine-lily-of-the-valley remains shockingly modern and original, bolder than any sweet fairy-tale fantasy.

If you had to relate a fragrance to the word “misanthrope”, which would you choose?

Ad with perfume bottle of Chanel No. 19
Chanel No. 19 ad; image from chanel.com.

14 thoughts on “Scent Semantics, September 5

  1. I totally agree that No 19 is misanthropic! That galbanum is something. The true green chypre is something that is so out of fashion for mainstream perfume wearers – which makes me like it all the more. A great contrast to the fruity florals. I have a No 19 travel spray of indeterminate age, I don’t wear it often but sometimes it’s exactly what’s required.

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      • Lost big on Saturday – non conference and a really good opponent. James didn’t play, but he started the JV game on Sunday and even though they lost that as well, they played hard and looked ok at times. Was just happy he got to play – there are only 4 JV games.

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  2. Chanel No 19 gives me backbone too, although I don’t imagine it’s off-putting to anyone else around me when I wear it. (Mine is the current EDP, so it’s probably much softer than vintage EDT, which I haven’t smelled.) Now that I think about it, I’ve likely subconsciously hoped that it would fill others with confidence in me as well.

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  3. Choosing a single scent for ‘misanthrope’ to quite tough for me I love greens & chypres but they read to me as whip smart rather than armour.

    Ooowww just thought of the ideal one. Onda by Vero Profumo both the EdP & Extrait!!!
    Both stank on me. Smelt of dank cellars with green slimy walls. How anything with all those fruit notes & florals can create something so misanthropic. Of course, the Law of Biology that any fragrance which makes the wearer feel physically ill will have the half life of Chernobyl cockroaches applied. Short of amputation I just had to live with what was left after scrubbing & alcohol (vodka on cotton wool). I felt utterly misanthropic towards both Vero & all those that loved it & influenced me to waste money on samples

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  4. Misanthropic scents, hmm, two come to mind! Tyranosaurus rex by Zoologist and Bat by Zoologist. Although both of these are brilliantly done and achieve the smell and ambience of these featured creatures very well, they would repel most people, and therefore, they are perfect perfumes for a misanthrope. My misanthropic fragrance is Dana Tabu Vintage. I love it and so does my husband, but it could probably topple tall buildings. It’s a beast and it is the perfect fragrance to keep unwanted people at bay….

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  5. OH I love your writing. What a perfect representation of and for MISANTHROPE. CHANEL No 19 is a fave of mine too. It doesn’t get the wear much around here though because Niki de Saint Phalle, Silences and Futur are all on my grab tray. When I get my new shelves done I think I’ll rearrange that line up and put No 19 out.
    Portia xx

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