Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille

Crème brûlée vanilla infused with the darkness of smoky woods. That’s the essence of Serge LutensUn 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.”

Source: Luckyscent.

Source: Luckyscent.

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.

Source: channelnine.ninemsn.com.au

Source: channelnine.ninemsn.com.au

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.

Photo: Jo Van Damme on Flickr. (Website link embedded within photo..)

Photo: Jo Van Damme on Flickr. (Website link embedded within photo..)

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.

Source: seriouseats.com

Source: seriouseats.com

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.

Painting by Moon Beom via lostateminor.com

Painting by Moon Beom via lostateminor.com

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.

Photo: Ramon Espelt on Flickr. (Website link embedded within.)

Photo: Ramon Espelt on Flickr. (Website link embedded within.)

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.

Source: laweekly.com

Source: laweekly.com

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.

Source: thisglutenfreelife.org

Source: thisglutenfreelife.org

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.

Angel Food cake with coconut. Source: recipes.com

Angel Food cake with coconut. Source: recipes.com

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.

DETAILS:
General Cost & Discounted Sale Prices: Un Bois Vanille is an eau de parfum that comes in a 1.7 oz/50 ml size, and retails for $130, €85, or £74. However, you can find it highly discounted at several U.S. and international websites. On Amazon U.S, Un Bois Vanille costs $64.95; Beauty Encounter has it for $63.95 with a coupon; and at Fragrance Net (which ships worldwide), it is $64.95 with a coupon. Serge Lutens: you can find Un Bois Vanille at regular, full price on the Lutens U.S. and International websites, with other language options also available. U.S. sellers: Un Bois Vanille is also available for $130 at Luckyscent, Barney’s, Aedes, and a number of other stores. Outside the U.S.: In Canada, you can find Un Bois Vanille at The Perfume Shoppe for CAD$120, along with a smaller travel atomizer. In the U.K., Un Bois Vanille is discounted on Amazon UK for £53.62. At the regular £74 price, you can find it at Harrod’s and Liberty London. FragranceNet has a variety of discounted country options. If you go to the tiny flag icon at the top right of the page where it says “Currency,” you change it to the one for your area. Some of the countries include Brazil, Japan, Sweden and Denmark, as well as the UK and the general EU. The Euro discount, for example, is €47,86 with a coupon. In France, you can buy Un Bois Vanille from Sephora for €87,50, though it’s cheaper at Premiere Avenue which sells it for €79 and ships worldwide. In Germany, Un Bois Vanille is offered at Essenza Nobile for €82. In Australia, the perfume is discounted on FragranceNet Australia for AUD$69.10 with the coupon. For all other countries, you can use the Lutens Store Locator guide. Samples: Surrender to Chance has Un Bois Vanille starting at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial. There is also a Four Lutens Sample Set for $18.99 where the vials are larger at 1 ml each, and you get your choice of 4 Lutens Export fragrances (ie, not those that are Paris exclusives).

38 thoughts on “Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille

  1. I’m sorry the smoky notes never came out on me. It was a straight up synthetic sugar bomb and I was really disappointed. Fortunately another I have sampled recently – Ambre de Merveilles is a lovely vanilla. It starts out very ambered and IS mainly.an amber but the vanilla really blooms on the dry down and is yummy, not sickening.

    • Urgh, did it come across as Pink Sugar?? Did you get your UBV sample from Surrender to Chance as well?

      I’m glad you’ve found another vanilla to hit the spot in the meantime.

      • I actually got a bit from another fragrant friend and I don’t know how old the original bottle was but it could well have been newer.

          • I think something like Profumum Roma’s Dulcis in Fundo would be your idea of heaven. Knowing your tastes, I really think you’d love that one. Creme brulée, waffle cones, and a touch of bright orange zest!

  2. Weeks into my perfume addiction, UBV was my 1st blind-buy & regretted it. It’s way too sweet & sticky on my skin. I agree with VickiPW that Ambre Des Merveilles has a great, unsweet vanilla. Vanille Absolument is also a great vanilla that is anything but sweet.

    It’s too bad that your experience with the current version of UBV wasn’t like your first-now that sounds like a perfume I would have enjoyed.

    • It was lovely, and so perfect in its balanced parts. Very far from cloying, indeed. :( As for Vanille Absolutement, I’ve heard lovely things about that one. And Le Labo’s Paris exclusive Vanille 44 as well. Pity the latter is so limited in terms of access.

  3. Wow, how sad – I just had a spritz from my bottle which is well over 4 years old and it smells fantastic. Vanilla, coonut, and smooth woods. Sounds like a hideous reformulation issue. So many have been ruined in this line… I treasure my old bottles, knowing they are now irreplaceable.

    • :( You’re going to make me sob in sadness and frustration, because I know JUST what you’re describing. I remember the lovely, beautiful smell so well. I can recreate it fully in my head, and, yes, smoothness was definitely a big part of it. Bloody reformulations. Your own bottles are indeed irreplaceable. I shall be happy thinking that you, at least, smell delicious. lol

  4. I just bought a bottle and I’m thinking about selling it rather than opening it. I love what’s left of an old bottle but from your description, I’m going to be very disappointed by this. So sad.

    • Oh dear, what a dilemma. I wish I had some advice for you. I had hoped another reader could help, by chiming in to say her new bottle of Un Bois Vanille was fine, but she seems unenthused enough to have relegated it to a gym scent. I know she loved her initial sample of the scent, which I believe was from an older bottle, so… :( If you decide to sell your bottle, I don’t think it would hurt your chances on places like eBay or perfume groups if you’ve given it one or two tiny sprays. So perhaps you can take the chance to see if it still works on your skin in its current version? It’s a tough call, and I can understand why leaving it unopened might increase re-sale chances, but then again, would it? Since you have it, it seems a shame not to try it, especially as it may all work out wonderfully for you. You’ll have to let me know what you decide.

  5. i remember finding un bois vanille pleasant enough when i tried it (maybe a year and a half ago) but i didn’t get any coconut (which is just dandy for me, since i hate coconut) or woods, or anything besides vanilla and musk. i do like gourmands, but this seemed rather uninspired compared to most of SL’s other creations. sad to think about all the reformulations even niche lines are going through… :(

    vanillas i like are dulcis in fundo (thanks to your review!) and farmacia s.s. annunziata’s vaniglia del madagascar: both are extrait concentrations that come in 100ml vats (such italian indulgence!) and combine soft citrus with plush vanilla… both are great but as i only crave that level of sweetness on rare occasions, i think decants/20ml sizes will do me just fine.

    • Ohhhh, I have to try the Farmacia SS Annunziata scent! Thank you for the tip, Julia. As for Un Bois Vanille, its reformulation is sad, but I must say that your simple vanilla-musk version sounds particularly uninteresting. No darkness, no woods, and nothing but sugared vanilla with musk…. urgh. :(

  6. On me this was far too sweet so I think I also got a sample of the reformulated juice. I smelled like a bakery, and that is not my thing. A shame, too. I keep looking for a non-cloying vanilla and have yet to find one. The search continues!

    • And ANOTHER one for the “Too Sweet” category! I think Un Bois Vanille may be best suited for those who love SERIOUSLY sugared fragrances, at least given the way the fragrance is now. But better to smell like a bakery than a bakery in the middle of acrid woods after a fire…. *sigh*

    • Definitely too sweet for your tastes, though I do think the earlier version would have appealed to you more. Not fully, but more than the current sugar bomb.

  7. This story of sad reformulations reminds me that soon there will be more reformulations, more ingredients cut, and more synthetics in our future. I am still looking for “my vanilla”. I love Micallef’s Note Vanille, which is actually more tobacco on me, but of course it has been discontinued. I adore Tihota, but I only use it in my diffuser as it completely disappears on my skin. I am still searching…. I was sad to hear how wrong Un Bois Vanille went for you. I have a bottle, and it has been relegated to a gym scent. I had high hopes, and I sure wish It had turned out like the older version you tried, and remember with fondness.

    • A gym scent? Oh dear. I thought you absolutely loved it, Tora. What happened? I know you were crazy about your early sample (which I assume was an older version as it came from a friend of yours), so I am wondering if the bottle you bought ended up being too sweet for you? I had rather hoped you would be able to chime in to reassure another reader (who just bought a new bottle to go with the old version that she loved) that it would be fine. :(

      • I adored my sample. The bottle was not so good. There is a harsh note to it, that hurts my nose. It feels discombobulated. I think of glue when I smell it. I am afraid it smells very synthetic. It does not last long however. A 90 minute workout, no more. This won’t be the first time I bought a bottle based on a one ml sample and missed the landing. Oh well.

        • Ah, I *knew* that the sample you got from your friend had to be the old version. I just knew it. You are not the sort to like a simple sugar bomb, which seems to be what it has become now. And, as you noted, very synthetic as well with a definite harshness. I suspect that was the burnt woods. :(

    • Ah, so you think it’s been reformulated, too, and badly at that. I’m glad I’m not alone. How does it smell now to you?

      • I don’t just ‘think’ that it has been reformulated, I know it as deeply as my own marrow. I had had three bottles: I could hardly get through the fourth. There was no fluffiness: no coconut delectability; no MOIST. It was shocking. And really, really depressing actually, as I had loved it (once I got into it :initially I always thought it reminded me of the scene in David Fincher’s Seven where the skinned murdered victim lay and there were aeons of ‘magic tree’s and I always imagined them to be of the taxi driver vanilla/coconut variety. It was just too…baked and boxed. Too macaroony. Too ‘obvious’, or so I thought. But then I was given it as a Christmas present, and I, and my loved one, fell in love with how it smelled on me. It was……..like a dandelion aureole. Wrong, but right. Woody, but vanillic. And then …..suddenly it had been lobotomized. 100% DEFINITELY reformulated. Babe, we know these things. We know our noses. It has been it. It is a dud .It has been deathknelled.

        • I shouldn’t laugh, really, I shouldn’t, but I’m snorting into my coffee. Your horror and seething outrage are palpable.

          So, is it all highly, excessively sugared macaroons on your skin? I’m curious if the woods are at all acrid on you, or if I’m alone in having that unpleasant side? (And so much of it, too!). Honestly, I found that part far more unpleasant than even the sugar overdose or the synthetics. Speaking of which, Gah, why have the latter been pumped up as well? Synthetics, acrid woods, pure sugar, and a touch of soapiness…. WTF happened?! “Lobotomized” and “deathknelled”… sadly, it’s so true.

          • It’s shit. Nothing but the original, and even that was rather dodgy (but then I bought three bottles…….and used them up in no time). I smell GOOD in coconut..and of the woods, cedar is by far my vafourite.

  8. I really enjoyed it when I tried a few years ago – my sample was perhaps 2011? Cozy. Sweet, yes, but creme brulee rather than straight-up sugar, and there was a distinct woody cast that kept it out of the baked goods aisle. Haven’t tried since, as this sort of thing is really not my favorite.

    I do know what you mean by acrid woods – for me, that effect tends to come up rather often with woody-incense-rose fragrances like Paestum Rose. Could. NOT. Bear. It overwhelmed me with the acrid, bitter, burnt smell of wet fireplace ashes – you know, when it’s been chilly and you’ve had a wood fire in the fireplace, and then the next day it rains before you can scrape the ashes out of the grate? UGH. THat sort of thing has ruined any number of fragrances for me.

    • Yes, “acrid” is quite a bit like those burnt wood remains in a fireplace. It feels particularly sharp here. I don’t know if that is better or worse to have than the simple sugar bomb with white musk described by others. :(

  9. I’m hyperventilating in horror. I *love* my bottle of UBV that I bought about 5 years ago and that now only has about 4 mls left. It is just as you describe your memory scent. I have been thinking recently that I need to buy another one – now I’m mortally afraid :-( as I trust both you and Neil’s take on the recent and no doubt reformulated version. I’m also now regretting the generous dollop I used in my homemade UBV body lotion – at least I have a fair amount of that left.

    • I wish I knew what to say to you, Sally. I’m afraid I don’t. What I experienced before, what you have in your old bottle…. you’re not likely to find that again unless you happen to be lucky enough to stumble on a very, very old bottle. Perhaps on one of the discount sites, and perhaps by examining the font or cover of the boxes. Perhaps that may give a clue as to the age of the box, as some of the much older Lutens had a different font before for some of the scents. (I’m thinking of Fleurs d’Oranger in specific.) Even then, who knows what box they will actually send you? It’s a really sad situation, all in all.

  10. Sadly, I’ve never tried the pre-reformulation BdV – I don’t really know why, since I adored all old(er) parfumes from Lutens and Sheldrake is one of my heroes. I might have been scared off by the “piercing sweetness”, or licorice (which I dread in both, scent & food). Dunno really, it just slipped through somehow. And now, nowI don’t need to try it anymore. I find it absolutely annoying that they reformaled it that way – I wouldn’t have expected and don’t accept it from Lutens. And it’s very disreepecting to Sheldrake too. If they cannot produce it properly they should have discontinued it.
    What’s wrong with Lutens ?!?!?!

    • It’s not the first Lutens that they’ve changed, but I don’t think I’ve encountered one that has been altered quite so badly. :(

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