Crème brûlée vanilla infused with the darkness of smoky woods. That’s the essence of Serge Lutens‘ Un Bois Vanille, which seeks to turn the gourmand category on its head through the contrast of devilish woods. To quote Uncle Serge, “both the devil and vanilla like black.”
Un Bois Vanille is an eau de parfum that was created with Lutens’ favorite perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, and released in 2003. On his website, Monsieur Lutens speaks about the perfume’s character in allegorical terms:
To paraphrase Freud, it’s not the evil who are full of regrets, but the good. Both the devil and vanilla like black.
No sentimentality here!
Within each of us, this mellowness grows stronger and more refined thanks to contrasting wood notes.
Serge Lutens never provides the notes for his fragrance but, according to Fragrantica, they probably include:
sandalwood, black licorice, coconut milk, beeswax, bitter almond, musk, vanilla, benzoin, guaiac wood and tonka bean.
Un Bois Vanille opens on my skin with burnt sugar and caramelized vanilla, all infused with dry woodiness. The main triptych of notes is lightly flecked by a fresh, bitter, green anise note, a hint of coconut milk, and clean, white musk. It’s all very sweet, with a caramelized sugar aspect that takes it far beyond a mere sugar cookie.
Something about the scent is very acrid on my skin, and it comes from the guaiac wood which is a big part of Un Bois Vanille. The wood can sometimes turn very wonky with my chemistry, and, here, it smells exceedingly sharp. As you will see later, that issue is not limited solely to me. It’s hard to describe the precise aroma because it goes beyond the sort of smokiness that comes from burning a huge pile of autumnal leaves. It’s also more than the mere smokiness that you’d find with badly burnt wood. The only way I can describe the way it appears on my skin is “acrid,” like the scent you’d detect after a fire, and that quality impacts all the other notes.
The sharp, biting smokiness prevents Un Bois Vanille from being a mere dessert of extremely sweet sugar cookies and crème brûlée vanilla. If there had been more of the coconut milkiness, it might have softened the vast amount of sugar, as well as the smokiness. Unfortunately, the coconut is very muffled and faint on me. It also fades very quickly, retreating within mere minutes to the sidelines, then dying altogether after another 15 minutes.
Both from afar and up close, Un Bois Vanille is primarily a bouquet of sugared, caramelized vanilla and burnt, smoking woods, all lightly flecked by musk. Less than 20 minutes into its development, Un Bois Vanille turns even drier and smokier. The sharpness of the woods feels, I’m sorry to say, synthetic. The anise has turned from a fresh, green note to something darker and more akin to melted licorice. It dances about, weaving its way back and forth, but frequently stays in the shadows. Another 20 minutes later, it disappears completely.
Serge Lutens fragrances are famous for their twisting, morphing character, especially amongst the exclusive Bell Jar line. Un Bois Vanille may be the most linear Lutens that I’ve tried. For the first few hours, it doesn’t change at all from its mix of heavily sugared vanilla, acrid smoked woods, and synthetic sharpness. There are small fluctuations in the degree or character of certain notes, but Un Bois Vanille is primarily dominated by three notes that don’t vary enormously.
One of the most few fluctuations occurs at the end of the first hour. Un Bois Vanille turns softer, the notes blur into each other, and the vanilla turns smoother. It really is akin to taking off the caramelized, thick crust on a crème brûlée, and scooping out the silky, heavily sugared vanilla that lies below. The degree of sweetness is now outweighed by the sharpness of the burnt woods on my skin.
Un Bois Vanille remains that way until the middle of the 4th hour. At that point, the notes turn more abstract in nature and lose their individual, distinct shape. To my surprise, the vanilla starts to fade on my skin, and retreats to the sidelines where it hovers like a nebulous haze. Taking its place is the clean musk that grows more prominent. It adds a soapy quality to the base which I find unappealing. Un Bois Vanille is now primarily an abstract woodiness with smoke, dryness, a suggestion of soft vanilla, and soapy musk. The vanilla continues to grow weaker as time passes. By the start of the 6th hour, Un Bois Vanille is merely woodiness with a touch of sweetness and soapy musk. It dies away in the same way, just under 7.5 hours from the start.
I have very different memories of my first encounter with Un Bois Vanille. About 2 or 3 years ago, I purchased a batch of the Lutens black sample vials from eBay. The boxes were a little battered, so they looked like they might be older than something produced in 2012 or 2011. I loved Un Bois Vanille then. It was a perfectly balanced, smooth, and utterly delicious blend of sugar cookies and caramelized crème brûlée infused with very pretty smoked woods. There was a lovely, though subtle, amount of creamy, smooth coconut milk, as well as a small streak of chewy, tasty black licorice that lasted for quite a while. There was also a hint of beeswax, but it was never waxy or so prominent as to turn the scent into something resembling a cheap Yankee Candle.
I have rather a decent scent memory, especially for fragrances that I like, so I cannot emphasize enough just how perfectly balanced the scent was. It was never acrid nor painfully, excessively sweet. It also never smelt synthetic. The dryness was countered by the vanilla’s smooth silkiness and by the milkiness of the coconut. The latter smelled fresh and sweet, but it was never like gooey, tropical suntan oil or synthetic in nature. The smokiness of the woods was not sharp, and certainly not acrid. I am honest enough to admit that I am less clear on the nuances and contours of the dryness, but I am pretty sure that I would never love a scent with soapiness and white musk.
My current sample of Un Bois Vanille was ordered a few months ago from Surrender to Chance. I have to assume it is from a recent batch, as the site does a very brisk business and Un Bois Vanille is a very popular scent. I am sure that the decanting service sells more than a mere 50 ml of the perfume each year. So, I have to assume that the sample I obtained is more recent than the 2011 manufacturers vials that I bought from eBay. And I suspect that something has changed.
Either it’s a question of personal skin chemistry altering with time (always a possibility), or Un Bois Vanille has been reformulated. It wouldn’t be the first time for a Serge Lutens fragrance. I’m thinking of Fumerie Turque in particular, but Chergui, Bois de Violette, Feminité du Bois, and several others have also been the subject of such reports. Reformulation is my best explanation for why Un Bois Vanille is so different than what I experienced before. I’ve even tried my new sample in colder and hotter temperatures to see if that may recreate the version that I enjoyed so much before, but no. It is always the same thing that I’ve described here. And I’m afraid I don’t enjoy it very much.
People’s reactions to Un Bois Vanille generally seem to fall into two categories: those who love it as a fantastic, grown-up vanilla scent thanks to the darker, woody elements; and those who find it unbearably excessive. For the latter group, the problem is usually that Un Bois Vanille is painfully sweet, though one or two people on Luckyscent seem to have had issues with the dark smokiness instead. If you look at the reviews there, they are generally positive with raves about the vanilla, but some detractors say that Un Bois Vanille smells too much like a “holiday candle” or sugar cookies.
On Fragrantica, it is really the same story. The vast majority seem to adore Un Bois Vanille, but there are negative reviews that fall along the same lines that I’ve described above. Some examples of the contrasting opinions:
- Usually I’m a big fan of Mr Lutens and vanilla in general (especially in Autumn), but this one is seriousy overrated and overpriced. On me it smelled exactly like Body Shop vanilla, apart from the chemical bit. It’s nice but not worth the money.
- If you could somehow make a pillow and mattress out of my grandmother’s angel food cake instead of out of Temperfoam, and then sleep under something warm and light, like a down comforter in a white cover, you would get this scent. Delicious and comforting.
- A mouth-watering, honeyed, milky gourmand. The vanilla-coconut-honey accord is piercingly sweet and backed by woody incense. This is in contrast to a cloying gourmand like Pink Sugar, where the sweetness is enveloping, comforting and infantile.
- I think it’s really great. I love the vanilla an liquorice combination, it’s very sweet, sticky and caramelised. The coconut adds a subtle creaminess, too. It reminds me of Pink Sugar, but this is a kind of more sophisticated version of it. It’s deeper and has more facettes than the flat and over the top sweet Pink Sugar. Very well done!
- I just adore this one. It is all those things I like- vanilla, but with depth and sultriness. It still manages to be light, though, somehow. The wood and spice adds oomph to the soft vanilla, and makes it sexy rather than girly. It isn’t just another boringly sweet, bland vanilla bomb. It’s complex and layered, and beautifully balanced. The wood notes come out more strongly later. [¶] It lasts only moderately well on me, and the sillage is quite light. You won’t annoy anyone with this scent.
- What bothers me most in the scent is that underlying smokey /boozy vibe, like burned wood, with sweet marshmallows on top of it,like Lutens likes to mix different even opposite notes, might work for some, not so much for me I admit. There are other vanilla scents I find more harmonious, and overall more wearable.
- I didn’t like this fragrance at all. It smelled plastic like and burnt, but not in a good way, and unpleasant all the way through. To me, the coconut smelled synthetic and was way too pronounced. I also love vanilla fragrances and was so looking forward to this one, but I was so disappointed. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this certainly wasn’t it. I would not wear this again. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
One thing I should warn you about is that Un Bois Vanille’s sillage is not enormous. and I’ve also read complaints about the perfume’s longevity. Several people mention a lifespan of 3-4 hours, though the majority of votes on Fragrantica (64) put it as “long lasting” which is defined as 7-12 hours. The sillage, however, receives mixed reports, judging by the votes, with the largest number (76) choosing “moderate.” On me, Un Bois Vanille’s projection started at moderate before becoming soft after the first hour. It turned into a skin scent after 2.75 hours, but I think it is a rather sheer, light scent when taken as a whole, and you won’t face problems at work if you wear it.
If you are a serious gourmand lover and like fragrances in the style of the Pink Sugar mentioned above, then Un Bois Vanille may be for you. I think the Lutens differs from Pink Sugar, thanks to the woods and smoke, but the two scents definitely share an abundance of sweetness with a synthetic touch. For everyone else, however, Un Bois Vanille is one to test, not buy blindly. Perhaps it won’t be the”burnt wood and molten sugar,” or the “unsophisticated” sugar cookie scent mentioned on Luckyscent, but perhaps it will. It’s really going to come down to both your individual skin chemistry and your personal threshold for sweetness.