Bois des Iles, originally released in 1926, has for decades been The Reference Sandalwood fragrance, and is still a favorite of many perfume fans. Robin at Now Smell This calls it “the epitome of understated elegance.” Victoria at Bois de Jasmin calls it “beautiful from any perspective.” Marina at Perfume-Smellin’ Things calls it “miraculous, smooth, soft, infinitely wearable.” Tania Sanchez, in Perfumes: The Guide, calls it “timeless” and “basically perfect.” She describes the Chanel scents as “a series of Little Black Dresses,” and Bois des Iles as “the one in cashmere.”
But I didn’t know any of that when I first smelled Bois des Iles, which was one of the first fragrances to captivate me when I began my sojourn into PerfumeLand. I had started, you see, with a “Pick Four Chanel EdTs” sampler pack from The Perfumed Court. I wanted to smell the classics first, and I knew No. 5 already, so I chose No. 19, No. 22, Cristalle, and Bois des Iles.
I tried Cristalle first, and was not moved – except that I recognized the drydown as the smell of my mother’s best friend when I was a kid. No. 19 came next, and I liked the topnotes, which I described to myself as “old-fashioned,” not really knowing what galbanum was. Then I found that I had my wrist glued to my nose, and from then on we were best buds, No. 19 and me. No. 22, which I’d identified from the notes as the one most likely to please me, was instead a sugar-bowl nightmare, with a powdery-crunchy texture that I disliked from the get-go.
Bois des Iles, from the first minute I put it on, was beautiful. It reminded me a great deal of Mom’s No. 5, and then developed a texture so unusual and so lovely that in describing it to myself, I pulled up an old memory.
When I was fourteen, my family went to Florida on vacation. We went to Disney World, and Daytona Beach, and Weeki Wachee Springs, and Fort Augustine, and we also went to Sea World. My brother, then four, was fascinated with the shark tank, but the experience that stayed with me was petting the stingrays. In a long but shallow pool, Sea World had several rays which had had their stings removed, and visitors were encouraged to pet the rays as they swam past. The rays didn’t seem to mind all the hands, at times appearing to seek out a patting hand the way my cat will arch her back under a piece of furniture, so I stuck my hand into the water as a ray swam past. It felt amazing – like wet velvet. Like wet, living velvet, really, because I could feel the ray’s body flexing and arcing as it moved its propelling tail, and it was warmer than the water surrounding it. My parents had to practically drag me away from the low pool so we could see the killer whale show, and I still wish I could go back and pet the rays again.
Bois des Iles feels like the texture of the ray: soft, velvety, warm, but with a solid, flexible frame underneath.
So what does it smell like? Well, as I mentioned, there are those aldehydes to begin with, much lighter than in No. 5, but with that sparkly-powdery-soapy brightness that says Proper Perfume to me. As the aldehydic veil lifts, you notice the floral blend floating past, and it too is reminiscent of No. 5, with that rose-jasmine-ylang heart. The florals always go by more quickly than I expect, and then we’re down into the deep heart-and-base that lasts a long time. This, like Chanel says, actually does smell like gingerbread: a spicy warmth that’s just a bit sweet, with that wonderful bitter edge of molasses. If you’re worried about the vanilla, fear not – it’s neither the sweet gourmand cupcakey kind nor Guerlain’s patented TarNilla, but rather, like really expensive vanilla extract behaves in a yellow cake, it gives the scent a roundness and depth without being identifiable as vanilla. BdI is definitely a Chanel, too – the identifying Chanel iris is present, noticeable mostly as that satiny texture that iris seems to give a fragrance, while itself disappearing, like the vanilla, into its surroundings. And then there’s that sandalwood.
It’s beautiful, and nearly indescribable. As it is, I can only come up with adjectives without really telling you what real sandalwood smells like: creamy, tangy-sweet, complex but in a completely natural way, floral yet astringent with a clean “bite.” Once I’d smelled it here, I was then able to start picking it out of other fragrances – it seems particularly noticeable, and lovely, in vintage scents. My 1960s Arpege extrait has an enormous quantity of sandalwood in it, and although it is accented differently in Arpege, with oakmoss, patchouli, amber and musk, it’s unmistakable. I also have a small vintage bottle of Prince Matchabelli Stradivari, where the top and heart notes have been irretrievably damaged by age, but the drydown is a stunning harmony of sandalwood and cedar.
Real sandalwood from the Mysore region in India has been overharvested, and although some quantities of oil from santalum album from a government-sponsored plantation in nearby Tamil Nadu are available, most perfumers have gone one of two routes in replacing it in their compositions. Option 1 is synthetics. Several aromachemicals which mimic sandalwood are available: Polysantol, Javanol, Sandalore, Ebanol, Sandela, probably some others. However, the word is that none of these are excellent substitutes, just available ones. (Guerlain Samsara is famous, or perhaps infamous, for its proportion of Polysantol.) Option 2 is essential oil from real wood, produced somewhere else. This option includes the aforementioned Tamil Nadu sandalwood, or essential oil produced from santalum austrocaledonii, a similar species, in Australia, Vanuatu, or New Caledonia. Supposedly the New Caledonian and Vanuatuan sandalwood oil is very good, albeit lighter and a bit more astringent than traditional sandalwood. The kind grown in Australia is more plentiful, and priced lower, than the island versions,  but it is brighter still, with more bite and less creaminess. Option 3, of course, is a mixture of naturals and synthetics.
I have no way of knowing, of course, but if I had to guess, I might postulate that Chanel is still getting its hands on at least some of that Tamil Nadu sandalwood. If anybody can afford it, it’s Chanel! However, it’s possible that they’re supplementing with the Australian. I notice that my decant of Bois des Iles, from the Les Exclusifs line, is clearly thinner than my original vial of BdI from TPC. Even “sprayed wet,” it is hardly smellable from a yard away, and by the time the gingerbread accord shows up, I can only smell it by hoovering my arm.
Other people have said that their LE version of BdI smells just fine to them. Maybe it’s me. Maybe my decant was the first sprayed out of the bottle, and the alcohol had floated to the top. Maybe that particular bottle, so kindly ordered from the Chanel boutique in Washington, DC, and so kindly split by hand by the Queen Enabler, Dear Daisy, was insufficiently macerated (see FlitterSniffer’s post here at Bonkers about Perfume, on how a coveted decant of Guerlain Plus Que Jamais was so different from the way that it ought to smell that even the SA acknowledged it). My Les Exclusifs decant does have the right smell – it’s just faint, as if it had been diluted by half.
For this review, I wore both my own decant of Les Exclusifs Bois des Iles, and an older sample of edt from The Perfumed Court. The LE decant lasts about four hours, with the final two – my favorite part, of course – clinging very close to the skin. The TPC sample lasts about five hours, and even dabbed from a vial, projects better and lingers longer. A parfum version is available in Chanel boutiques and certain high-end outlets, but I have never smelled it. (I should.)
Notes for BdI: Aldehydes, jasmine, damask rose, ylang, bitter almond, gingerbread, iris, vanilla, sandalwood, tonka bean, vetiver.
Dear Daisy also sent me a sample of Sonoma Scent Studio Champagne de Bois, saying, “You like Bois des Iles, right? Try this.” And she’s quite correct – CdB, while not a dead ringer for BdI, is undeniably in the same vein, and could conceivably be labeled an homage to Bois des Iles. Certainly perfumer Laurie Erickson has smelled Bois des Iles, and I’d betcha money she loves it.
Since my small vial of CdB was nearly exhausted, I ordered a larger sample from SSS recently in order to test for this review. My padded envelope came in the mail, and the samples I’d ordered were further encased in a small plastic envelope – yet I could smell the Champagne de Bois the instant I opened the larger mailing envelope. A tiny bit had leaked out of the spray vial, and it immediately perfumed the air.
SSS fragrances are fairly concentrated, I’ve noticed before. My favorites, Tabac Aurea and Velvet Rose, are so strong that one spray lasts for hours. This is true for Champagne de Bois as well. The SSS website notes that the fragrance concentration ranges from 20 to 24%, which makes all these scents essentially parfum strength. (I nearly overdosed on Tabac Aurea once. If you’re considering three sprays – well, take it from me, it’s a bad idea. Seriously, don’t.) A drop of CdB lasts about six hours on me, and when sprayed, eight to twelve hours.
The fragrance starts with sparkly aldehydes, and something that reminds me of Andy Tauer’s distinctive mandarin note, up front, and a jasmine-spice bit shining through the aldehydes. Although it’s not listed, I’d swear there was a tiny bit of rose in there, but just a tad. I love clove and spicy notes, and I think I’d also say there was a bit of some other spice in there with the clove – cardamom, maybe? I don’t know. It does feel more symphonic than clove alone, which can be a rather single-minded, Genghis Khan take-no-prisoners sort of accent.
Champagne de Bois has a lovely sandalwood focus as well. I asked Laurie if she’d be willing to identify her source for sandalwood, and she was kind enough to tell me that she uses a blend of real sandalwood and synthetic. It’s a very beautiful interpretation of sandalwood. The amber, though, tends to take over toward the end, so that the last couple of hours are a little sweeter than I’d like.
Notes for CdB: Aldehydes, jasmine, clove, sandalwood, labdanum, vetiver, amber. (I keep wondering if this is a truncated list, simplified for the Sonoma Scent Studio website because it gives a good description of what’s prominent in the scent. I’m smelling at least three things in there that aren’t listed (orange, rose and spices other than clove). Which may of course be olfactory illusion, and if it is, that’s genius.)
For this review, I performed two serious, all-day, wrist-to-wrist comparisons. The first time, I tried it with a drop of CdB from a sample vial on my left wrist and two drops of BdI from my TPC sample on my right. The second test was two generous spritzes from my BdI decant on my left wrist and one small spritz, what I call a “squidge,” of CdB on my right. There are strong similarities between the two, but a few distinct differences.
Right from the start, CdB has lighter aldehydes, and that orange-citrus note I mentioned before, flowing very quickly into the jasmine and spice phase, while BdI spends a good 15 minutes in the aldehydic stage before changing. The CEO actually prefers the topnotes of Bois des Iles, although I don’t myself, finding them a little soapy. Once the jasmine-spice of Champagne de Bois has settled in, CdB is unusual and lovely, and my family seems to prefer it over BdI’s aldehyde-classic floral blend. In fact, CdB stays in this lovely spicy-floral stage for quite some time, during which the rich wood-and-amber base begins to float up, creating a lovely spice market effect. It’s beautiful and luxurious, and while I know some people like to wear CdB in the summer, it’s too rich for me in the heat.
But during the drydown, as I mentioned before, the amber of CdB tends to take over and skew just a bit too sweet, while the “gingerbread” accord and sandalwood-iris of Bois des Iles becomes more and more wonderful. Restrained – like having afternoon tea with only a single bite of gingerbread left on your dessert plate – but wonderful, subtle, elegant, with those sculpted Chanel cheekbones. My daughter put it this way: “It smells deep. And smooth. I don’t know what it is, but it smells like a fall day.”
So who wins? I still don’t know. (And I still think there’s something wrong with my Les Exclusifs Bois des Iles decant, which is considerably thinner and soapier than my pre-LE edt sample from The Perfumed Court.) I really love the drydown of BdI – it is simply gorgeous, and so perfect that I can’t imagine any way to improve it, except maybe to have it last longer. And CdB really gets too amber-sweet near the end of the ride.
But on balance, I get hours of spicy-woody goodness out of Champagne de Bois. Hours! For cheap, too! At the time of writing, you can buy a 200ml bottle of Les Exclusifs Bois de Iles for about $220, and a 15ml parfum for $160 – but a 30ml bottle of parfum-strength Champagne de Bois will set you back about $60. I know it’s vulgar of me to throw cost per wear into the mix, but hey, I got limited Perfume Bucks. If you’re giving me perfume for free, I’ll take a bottle of Bois des Iles parfum, thanks. But that’s only because I can manage to snag some Champagne de Bois on my own.
(Gee, another Fragrance Throwdown where I have to declare a winner on points, and it gets all nitpicky, because I like both scents… one of these days I’m going to do an Fragrance Throwdown review where one scent just flat-out kicks the other one’s butt. Someday. I promise.)
From Perfume Shrine, Wikipedia, and Eden Botanicals.