A Warm Island in Winter: Bois des Iles

Vogue Cover from the 20s

Vogue Cover from the 20s

Chanels are challenging perfumes for me.  Not many people share my  prejudice, Chanel is one of the top selling brands in the world, but if I had to choose a Chanel I would take their cologne and Bois des Iles.  It’s not as though a whole lot of thought would have to go into this selection.  You are either one of those people who love No5 or you aren’t, you have to be a lady to wear No19, by which I mean a woman who knows how to say no gracefully. (If you can never say no I suspect No19 will not suit you)

Bois des Iles is far more easy going though.  Being one of those people who in Henry James’ phrase try to take things easy rather than hard, I appreciate this quality.

Bois des Iles has a densely upholstered warmth to it that is difficult to resist.  This is a perfume to sink into gratefully after a long hard day.  However Bois has endured since 1926 partially because it contains a paradox.  Although it’s listed these days as a woody oriental by such perfume sites as Fragrantica, in the past Bois was classified as a floral aldehyde along with its sisters No5 and No22.

Chanel Advertising

Chanel Advertising

Supposedly inspired by Ernest Beaux watching The Queen of Spades at the Opera, the more likely inspiration was Caron’s 1922 hit Nuit de Noel, which like Bois, is largely based on Indian sandalwood. Bois is more floral with a heart that packs orris and iris, lily of the valley, rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang, and lilac into a generous arrangement.  The dry down which is this fragrance’s glory is filled with vetiver, opoponax, benzoin, musk and amber and that sandalwood. Older sources mention fewer and more natural notes than modern ones do.

I’ve smelled some changes over the years.  During the 90’s the base was  almost dominated by vetiver, and in the mid aughts when white sandalwood was nearly unobtainable, Chanel switched species  and I smelled the substitution and was saddened by it.  I’m happy to report though that as of last week when I smelled old Bois again, the right sandalwood was back, though not as high a grade as they once used.  The slightly sweaty quality of the wood was evident, and that is not in the very best quality sandalwood.

The wonderful beginning of the fragrance which pops like champagne, full of spice and citrus, coriander and aldehydes was still there and the impression of gingerbread, though not too literal a gingerbread, was there as well.



As compared to Nuit de Noel, Bois smells much more natural to me.  Nuit is a very odd perfume that fails to enchant many people, though it has charmed millions.  I suppose I realized hopelessly late in the day, that Bois is a perfume about being warm and indoors on a cold night, while Nuit de Noel is about being outdoors and cold and watching the snowflakes come down silently around you.  It’s this contrast, coziness against cold, that demarcates the one creation from the other.  You could easily love both or either and I do love both, although perhaps I am an open air person in the end.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes want to come in from the cold, especially on a cold Christmas night.

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6 thoughts on “A Warm Island in Winter: Bois des Iles

  1. How acute you are to be able to smell the tweaks in the formula! And isn’t it heartening when a formula actually improves! So often it’s a one way street.

    Unfortunately I can hardly smell Bois des Iles after the first minute or so. Makes me so sad. And its modern reply, Champagne de Bois, smells like bitter chocolate to me, and I don’t like bitter chocolate. Doube sad.

    Anyway, there are lots of other things to enjoy! Merry Christmas, and thanks for another lovely year’s worth posts. ?

  2. Thanks so much for reading, and Happy Holidays!

    So sad about Bois des Isles being un-detectable to you so quickly. I have that same problem with some amber perfumes. There seems to be a synthetic amber I can’t smell so some things other people simply love are blanks to me, like Ambre Russe for instance. But as you say there’s lots out there to love.

  3. Christmas Eve, and I think many perfumistas will be wearing Nuit de Noel today. I haven’t decided, still in my pj’s. You suggested the connection between Nuit de Noel and Bois des Iles a few days ago, prompting me to do a side by side test. My NdN (a well preserved vintage extrait from sealed black bottle) easily trumped my BdI (a modern EDT decant, probably not the recent one that you find improved), so not a fair comparison. (Note to self: try some better BdI.) Leaving my wan BdI aside, the complexity and development of my NdN amazes me. It has everything,..civet, flowers, moss, woods. Not sweet, but austere, as you say. Enjoy the holidays! Your blog is fantastic, by the way. No shilling, just perceptive and witty perfume criticism.

    1. Thank you, and a Happy Holiday as well.

      Funnily I think most people who know both perfumes these days would like BdI better than NdN, but I still find the latter one of the very best and most fascinating perfumes out there though I don’t have the wonderful advantage of the extract (lucky you!) just old edt from the eighties. I STILL get it. Great stuff.

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