Two of the fragrances that came up repeatedly in comments when I mentioned exploring sandalwood as a perfume note were Guerlain Samsara and Chanel Bois des Iles
Guerlain Samsara is a fragrance many people love to hate – it’s identified as a big 80’s office-ban-type fragrance (although technically I believe it’s from 1979) and (quoting here from The Guide): “Samsara felt to many like an irreversible break with tradition, confirmed by the subsequent (awful) releases of Mahora and Champs-Elysees.” Although please note The Guide still gives it four stars. Notes are jasmine, ylang, sandalwood, narcissus, tonka, iris, vanilla, although most people would identify it (accurately) as pretty much jasmine and sandalwood. Guerlain fan though I am, I couldn’t even remember what Samsara smelled like, except: a) not Guerlain and b) not me.
It was clearly time to reconsider.
My first stop was at Saks to sniff the current EDT, which – predictably for a Guerlain – I hated. Seriously, if you’re just dipping your toe in Guerlain, at least smell an EDP if you’re talking about a classic Guerlain. They get so much better. “Vintage” – something even five or ten years old – is likely to be that much better. Anyhow, current Samsara EDT smelled very much not me in that it smelled like the overpoweringly sweet, aggressively woody fragrance that would best be worn by a deeply tanned woman wearing a lot of shiny gold fabrics and with a smoker’s rasp to her voice. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I am not that woman.
The thing that kept me curious was the occasional whiff that skeezy Samsara on the back of my hand – jammed inside my leather glove for the rest of the day and kept at a distance … well, it was really pretty. More investigation was called for.
So I hooked up with two different versions – a vintage EDP and a vintage parfum. While I won’t argue with the rest of the notes listed, most of what I get is jasmine and sandalwood, with the vintage EDP being a little more aggressive at the top, and the parfum (naturally) smelling much more seamless. Both of these feature the old sandalwood that Samsara lovers are familiar with.
And both of them … well. Here’s the thing. Samsara, on me, is heavily jasmine, although, yes, I can smell the sandalwood just fine and it’s gorgeous. And I like jasmine very much, but it’s a difficult note for me to ignore. If I want jasmine, I want something nice and indolic; I have a bottle of Montale Jasmin Full, a very ripe jasmine (faint hints of banana, diaper and rotting garbage), a few sprays of which would probably clear most normal people from a room. Also I quite like the Donna Karan Jasmine Essence. If I want jasmine, I want JASMINE, and I wear one of those.
Moving on to Chanel Bois des Iles, which dates to the 1920s, and notes via Basenotes are jasmine, Damask rose, ylang-ylang, bitter almond, gingerbread, vanilla, tonka bean, sandalwood, vetiver. (Here’s a different list from Fragrantica: aldehydes, bergamot, neroli, peach, jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, woody iris, ylang-ylang, vetiver, sandalwood, benzoin and musk.) More recently it was reissued in Les Exclusifs in the 200ml bottle, and I think (?) production ceased on other sizes except parfum.
That new Exclusifs version Chanel Bois des Iles – meh. I wish they’d made it twice as strong and stuck it in a 100 ml bottle. It’s just too tenuous, and that’s me talking – I don’t often complain about things being too light. The original EDTof Chanel Bois des Iles I’d tried years ago was no powerhouse, but it was stronger than that.
So I tried two pre-Exclusifs EDTs of Chanel Bois des Iles. The first, interestingly, is doing that Chanel Bois des Iles thing, and I’m taking a survey – has anyone else had the problem with their Chanel Bois des Iles sort of reducing itself to expensive scented water? Vintage Coco EDP tends to collapse in on itself, as if it were a walnut and someone ran over it in the driveway. Vintage Chanel Bois des Iles in the EDT concentration seems to lose much of its smell.
The new Chanel Bois des Iles parfum was, predictably, stunning, although I can’t help but wonder if it would smell different if I bought a bottle now, right this second, with the Mysore sandalwood situation rearing its ugly head – I have no idea what Chanel uses for sandalwood. The Chanel Bois des Iles parfum starts out much more sandalwood, where the EDT that’s still good is quite gingerbready and aldehydic on me. BChanel Bois des Iles is a much more complex smell than Samsara, although other than the sandalwood, iris and gingerbread I’m hard pressed to pick out individual notes. But it’s more of a kaleidoscopic fragrance, with different aspects seeming to reach out over time. The EDT and parfum both smell very “Chanel” if that makes any sense. They both smell expensive and dry and not overly sweet.
While I am blathering nonsensically I will say that No. 22 and Coco and No. 5 and most of the classic original Chanels smell not-romantic to me, by which I mean: they smell smart and opinionated and are the sort of scents you buy to wear because you like the smell, not to woo random strangers around you with your flower-like (or cupcake-like) sweetness. If your beloved happens to like the smell of Cristalle or No. 19, well, lucky you, but I can’t imagine picking a classic Chanel as a man-hunting scent, Marilyn Monroe’s pulchritude notwithstanding. This is obviously my opinion and yours might be quite different.
Paradoxically, if the whole Cult of Chanel leaves you cold – if they all strike you as bitter or aloof or too man-in-drag: I still think you should try Chanel Bois des Iles. Maybe it’s because the scent construct itself is so old that it feels timeless; I find it mysterious. And there’s something heartbreaking about the luminous florals next to that woodsy base. Chanel Bois des Iles is singular, it reminds me of absolutely no other perfume.
Notes on sources: new Samsara EDT tester at Saks; vintage EDP and parfum, private sample. Two different vintage (pre Les-Exclusif) bottles of Bois des Iles EDT and one new BdI parfum, private sample.