Chanel Bois des Îles (1926): An Unadvertised Flanker to Chanel No.5 {Perfume Review & Musings}


 Noire et Blanche by Man Ray, 1926


Bois des Îles is the Chanel perfume which has inherited of the most Baudelairian of names in their catalogue. Just by reading the phrase, a French speaker, especially one who has studied within the hexagon's educationoal system where Charles Baudelaire is a central part of the curriculum will be transported in imagination to those exotic, seafaring places that the poet experienced in the Indian Ocean and that he smelled in Paris in the bosom of his lover in Parfum Exotique. Where Coco Chanel privilieged numbers and short and sweet descriptive names, this one stands out like a poetic effort of evocation...

The name means Island timber or Island wood or better still, woods of the islands. The name is sing-song-y and conjures up mysterious, distant lands filled with adventures. It explicitly hints at the trade for precious wood essences. On the ambivalent side, it conjures up the era of colonialism and even further back, esclavagism - the fragrance launched in 1926.

This is because slaves were nicknamed in French "bois d'ébène" (ebony wood) as they were considered to be trade commodities to be likened to the exchange of valuable goods. Is this the reason why Chanel when they created the masculine descendant of Bois des Îles - Bois Noir (1987) - and it flopped, decided to rename it Egoïste when they relaunched it in 1990 to be on the safe side? Exoticism and colonialism are sometimes close bedfellows.

The brand encourage us to travel in mind but also to reminisce about the period which saw the birth of Bois des Îles,

"This is an invitation to travel

1926, Paris. Art Deco imposes itself, exoticism fascinates, jazz unleashes passions. One dreams of faraway lands and precious woods."

They cite the craze for Africa, the Bal Nègre - which Byredo more recently preferred to call Bal d'Afrique - and Josephine Baker.

The Surrealists - and André Breton in particular - then collect African tribal art and are fascinated by what they term "primitivism" as they look for ways to escape the strictures of Western rationality and logic. Philippe Soupault writes a novel about an African-American jazz drummer in 1927 using the N-word without any complexes and writes about the inscrutability of tap-dancing as being "a mystery at home". Exoticism has been imported and is in the process of being domesticated through increased familiarity and a movement of cultural reappropriation. 

According to Chanel, Bois des Îles is the first woody perfume for women; it depends on what you mean exactly by that since nowadays notes such as patchouli and violet, which are now considered woodsy, were certainly in vogue in the 19th century, before the launch of Bois des Îles.

What we have in Bois des Îles are woods that smell the way the cello plays. They are not just about an "odor" that recalls a log of wood or a material with woody nuances, but try to create a sense of resonance which can be especially well conveyed by the woodsy olfactory range. Bois des Îles is not very naturalistic about the woods motif. The woods are streamlined and tamed as those Chinese coromandel screens that Coco Chanel felt an affinity with. The woods are made to feel sophisticated; they are lacquered by the varnish of aldehydes, and are like olfactory signs for a sense of elegance which appropriates the exotic woods motif for itself. If you compare it with Féminité du Bois by Serge Lutens (1992), then it would be more accurate to say that Bois des Îles is the first aldehydic woody perfume for women. Ernest Beaux who created it, along with No.5, weaved into it the signature of the house. 

Bois des Îles opens up on a mild and very urbane evocation of exoticism. The spray of Chanel aldehydes - the olfactory diamonds of the brand - are unmistakable. Their smell oscillates between sparkling bubbly and mustardy Raifort nuances, the latter a Russian taste incidentally (Beaux was from Russia). The shadow of Chanel No.5 hovers elegantly in the background. The promised woods are perceptible but take almost second place to the aldehydes. While the aldehydes seemed quite the sophisticated accord in the beginning, they now come across as charged with primal energy so insistent is their stance. Really, this exotic timber has been drenched in Champagne and is being dreamt upon in a luxurious Parisian tea house behind a smoke screen of blasé cigarette-dragging rather than transporting you body and soul on an island in the Pacific. 

As the perfume mellows down however, the picture changes slightly thanks to warmer and more humanity-oriented smells. The discrete spiciness of cumin evokes hot, sweaty skin. The warm and round accents of wood amplify. The vanilla adds its exotic inflection. The iris had come in much earlier adding a velvety finish. While the cold, metallic tang of aldehydes does not abate, creating a cold facet to the scent, it now feels like the tweed-clad and pearl-enclasped Chanel woman might have stepped outside her Parisian confines and got lost in an island jungle although the edge of it is not too far and the beach within sight, ready to bring her back to civilisation. 

What is remarkable about this composition is how aldehydic it is in spite of its woody name and theme. The sourness of aldehydes plays the part of conveying the tailored look of Chanel in olfactory form. They literally tame the wildness of woods and sandalwood in particular, which in this recent state of formulation ca.2012 smells of curried, spiced-up sandalwood. One sees a link here with Santal de Mysore by Serge Lutens which is overseen by perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, one of the two, then now three main perfumers at Chanel

The spirit of the fragrance however is unmistakenly Chanel. The sillage is the best part as it feels more complex, multivariegated, but also discrete. It is more subtle than impressive. The extrait might be more materially satisfying as the eau de toilette is a bit wan ending smelling like body dusting powder.

This composition to some extent, can be considered to be an unadvertised flanker to No.5. In Bois des Îles, there is less an effort at capturing the bewildering scents of island otherness as the wish to tame them and make them fit inside a Chanel couture pattern. It reaffirms a house ethos. 

Fragrance notes: aldehydes, bergamot, petit grain / ylang, jasmin, cinnamon, clove, lilac, peach, rose / sandalwood, iris, opoponax, vetiver. 

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