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 Girl, The Alembicated Genie, Eau La La, Undina’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”:
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:
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?