Chanel Bois des Iles – sampling all the vintages

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.

  • DJ says:

    I don’t get Chanels. I want to, though.

    The husband recently gave me the parfum of Coco Mademoiselle (I had mentioned Coco, but at least he tried) as a gift. He chose it himself, which was lovely, but having lived in Paris, when I wear it I just think of all the ever-so-tasteful ladies of a certain age wafting it down the pavement. Which is fine. But it isn’t very me, although it smells good on me and husband likes it.

    Men actually like Coco Mademoiselle a lot.

    I keep trying Coco (edp). It gives me a headache. It is almost a scrubber on me. (in the same family as FM Noir Epices, for me)

    The others, except for Un Fleur (I bought it for my mom, but love it–I know it is fluffy and pale but I knew that since my mom wears Diorissimo, she would love it as a lighter alternative), don’t connect and I actually dislike Chanel no.5!

    I find the this all disconcerting.

    Bois de Iles, on paper, sounds like something I would like. But with my track record, who knows.

  • 2scents says:

    Chanel worshipper here. Love Bois del Iles; I think I have decants of the current version and the one just prior. Love them both. A friendly MUAer sent me some parfum; now that, I ADORE. My heavy rotation includes Cuir de Russie, Coromandel, vintage Coco edp, No. 19, Eau Premiere and Bois del Iles. I guess I fit the profile because I don’t think I wear any perfume for others’ enjoyment, solely my own!

  • Abyss says:

    Never tried Samsara but the LE version of BdI is the definition of fleeting on me. I love the opening but then it swiftly tuns into a very flat, soapy sandalwood before disappearing completely only a couple of hours later. Real shame as I was expecting something luxurious and plush. I’d love to try it in parfum one day.

    I’m another fan of 31RC and the proud owner of one of those monster 200ml bottles. I like Chanel in general, would love some Cuir de Russie and Sycomore next.

  • Catherine says:

    It took a long time for me to warm up to Chanel fragrances. I even think it’s the last of the big houses I started an affair with. Over 15 years of wearing perfume before a gorgeous woman (from MUA, of course!) sent me a bit of La Pausa and 31RdC for me to try. They took their time grabbing me, but once they did…! I don’t think it hurt that I was going through big changes in my life, so I was looking for a new direction in everything, including scent. That’s when the love happened. What’s so fabulous is that they are clearly my boyfriend’s favorites. No. 22, especially. I was so surprised–I mean, isn’t it SO traditional? SO “perfume”?

    All this talk about Chanel is going to send me over the edge. Eau Premier still calls me. Drat. :d

  • Lindsey9107 says:

    Hey March! I am so with you on Jasmine. When I want jasmine, I usually want JASMINE. The exception is probably Le Maroc Pour Elle, which I love even though there’s more going on than just the jasmine.

    Also totally agree on Chanels being the sort of scents you wear because YOU like how they smell.

  • Tara C says:

    I still like the current version of BdI edt. I have a parfum too, from probably 5 years ago, that I enjoy as well. It’s all good in my book. In fact I like that it’s not too heavy, for those days when I just want a waft of something woody down my front. 8-|

  • AnnieA says:

    A few years ago a friend passed along a jar of Samsara skin cream and I rather enjoyed in that format.

    I think of a lotion or shower gel as the perfume equivalent of Books on Tape, that is, something I would not want to have in full format, but don’t mind as an abridgement. Just finishing a bottle of Sira des Indes lotion and have even acquired some Burberry Brit Sheer lotion, which I am never never buying as a perfume…

  • Josie says:

    Even in the bad, old eighties I didnt like Samsara, it always had an oily smell to me. On the Chanels, why can’t they make the exclusifs in EDP? I think alot of people would like that.

  • Disteza says:

    Not to be a hater, but the cult of Chanel has passed me by–even after smelling a bunch o’ the vintage stuff, it just doesn’t do much for me. Only thing I ever bought an FB of was Sycomore. If they ever lean towards that end of the spectrum again, I may change my mind about the house.

    The current Samsara EDT is some vile stuff on me, BTW. I never smelled such a hateful jasmine and skunky sandalwood. #-o

  • sweetlife says:

    Very interesting, your characterization of the Chanels. I understand it, and feel that way too, except when I don’t. Because, Coco, she is a manslayer. And BdI is like an upscale Theorema for me–so, so, beautiful, and yet effortless and comforting, too. BdI is Chanel in that it’s always “correct,” but not by being minimalist and restrained, simply by being perfect.

    Even No. 19, which can be so chilly, blooms under the right circumstances into something quite tender…was just making some notes on this idea this morning. If you don’t believe me, I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t have believed me two years ago.

    • Shelley says:

      *I* believe you, Sweetlife. ♥ the morph that is No. 19 on me…

      • sweetlife says:

        Oh, thank you for saying so! 😡

        I wish I got the morph all the time. For me it has mostly to do with weather and mood. But after the first time it happened I never did go all the way back to my previous impression…

        • Musette says:

          I get that morph from Mitsouko EdP. It’s always a bit chilly but it turns into that sort of scary lady who deigns to give you a quick little smile that smites your innards for a minute. Very nice.

          xo >-)

          ps. emoticons attack! :-

  • k-scott says:

    My aunt wore Samsara in the 80s and the smell of it is so “her” to me… it was her signature scent. I cannot smell it without thinking of her (which is nice since I adore her). It is definitely a strong scent- even her cat used to smell like Samsara! 🙂

  • Dane says:

    I was once aloof with BdI as well…but I recently bought the 200ml jug and am loving it. Agreed, it’s a toilet water in every sense of the term…if you want to smell it, you have to spray it until your lose control of the muscles in your fingers. I rather like the light concept of the Exclusifs, but I tend to prefer subtle scents anyway.

    Samsara…well…not for me.

  • ScentRed says:

    When I first sampled BdIles at the Chanel boutique it didn’t grab me. But later that day, I found the sandalwood drydown so compelling that I couldn’t stop smelling my wrist. I ordered a decant and powered through it in record time. A couple of weeks later, I splurged got me a big old vat of the EDT for my BDay. For several weeks I wore it exclusively, it felt second-skin and “just right” through much of the fall. I must admit though, that I don’t love the first few minutes of the opening and if I spray too close it comes off a bit harsh initially. I sometimes dab a bit of Tam Dao to coax along the sandalwood and balance the first 15 minutes. I’m a bit afraid to try the vintage for fear that it will take away from the solid committed relationship we current enjoy (and I have 200 freakin’ mls!);-)

    • March says:

      Hey, you are following the tried-and-true soak-yourself-approach. And why not if you’ve got 200 mls? If you’re happy, I am happy. And is that new or older Tam Dao you’re using?

      • ScentRed says:

        Sorry for the late reply. I think it’s newish, but I’m not sure. It was a 15 ml bottle that was an original manufacturer’s bottle that I ordered from TPC about a year ago.

  • sherobin says:

    I’ve been really enjoying my little sample of BdI extrait (current version), and can’t wait to explore the scent in all of its iterations. It seems to me that the EDT might be useful as a way to sort of cover yourself in the scent, if you’re like me and parfums tend to stick a bit too close to the skin for you to fully enjoy.

    BdI is kind of a miracle to me. The cold perfection of the Chanels appeals to me greatly as a sort of protection against letting it all hang out, if you know what I mean. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, so it seems the last thing I need is an unctuous perfume to drown in. The Chanels are great “get it together, girl” scents. Not to say they don’t also appeal to those who are already perfect….But, back to BdI, the downside to some of the Chanels, imo, is a lack of richness. BdI is opulent and intense and glowing, but in the controlled manner one expects from Chanel. I also agree that one wears Chanel for oneself, not for others, and there is a great divide between those who wear perfume as a form of communication, and those who wear it as a message to oneself.  Ok, enough of my 2 cents. Curiously, it doesn’t come across as a sandalwood scent for me. I get all aldehydes and gingerbread and almond and ylang ylang and a melange of woods and iris. For me, this made aldehydes approachable for the first time.

    • nozknoz says:

      I love the idea of Chanel as a magical “protection against letting it all hang out” – thanks for this insight, sherobin!

  • Olfacta says:

    Someday I’ll have to try BdI in parfum. The sample I ordered a couple of years ago was like barely scented water. And I have a mini EDP of Samsara, which is just kind of icky on me — again, need some vintage perfume. But, good heavens, have you seen the prices lately on fleabay?!

    I loved Cambon. But now I’m wondering what the reformulation boys are going to do to it.

  • mals86 says:

    I still haven’t smelled Samsara, but I don’t feel inspired to seek it out. (Me + jasmine = Not Friends. Exception Shalimar Light, which is not really about the jasmine anyway.)

    I was terribly disappointed in my decant of LE BdI – it smells as emaciated as if it had been on a two-week hunger strike. I now follow the “spray myself wet” technique for that one, which helps a bit. And I DO tend to like classic Chanels, partly for that aloof intellectual cast they have. I agree, they are not friendly, romantic scents!

    I love the sandalwood-heavy drydown of vintage Arpege extrait. It’s just a struggle to get through the Big Ripe Florals stage and into the base.

    • Louise says:

      Oh, those vintage Lanvins! The sandalwood in Scandal is the smoothest of the crew…if you can hunt some down, it’s a must-sniff 😉

  • Your first description of the Samsara EdT brings to mind Sue Collini from Californication. Ever seen that show? She’s a pretty amazing character and the actress who plays her is just incredible.

    I agree with you about Chanels not being Romantic – that’s something I find more in say, Amouage Lyric or a Patou…or Lancome’s Mille et Une Roses.

    • Also, I wanted to add: I feel like Guerlain’s EdT vs. EdP thing is the opposite of Chanels – I prefer most Chanels in the EdT, whereas Guerlains in the EdP. What’s with that?

      • March says:

        The Chanels (the classics) in their various concentrations can be subtly different — Cristalle EDT is rather different than the EDP, for instance. But one never feels “cheap” or shoddy compared to the other. To me, the current Guerlain classic EDTs mostly, at this point, smell so rough that they no longer do their names credit. To me, that’s the difference.

  • Louise says:

    I have a mixed relationship with Samsara-can only abide the old version, and mostly in the far drydown-which for me (in the EDP) is several hours off-and the stuff lasts 24 hours on me. I prefer the parfum-less prickly on the jasmine (not my BFF, anyway), quite silky after a bit. It’s all definitely an “occasion” perfume /:)

    Bois de Iles is a joy-but I find the modern thoroughly gutted. This is a case in which I sometimes wish I never new the older (EdT)-because there is no comparison. And sadly, my older bottles are starting to fade….the modern parfum, though, is quite a delight. I haven’t yet found a bottle of the vintage that’s not gone off 🙁

    I love your woody posts, March 😡

  • DinaC says:

    I received the big bottle of Bois des Iles edt for Christmas this year…love it. I haven’t been lucky enough to encounter a vintage sample or a perfume sample yet — sounds like something to look forward to.

    I liked your characterization of Chanel-lovers as those who wear scents for their own pleasure. I fit right into that category, and I love a long list of Chanels. I think their woody-iris base that shows up in several things pushes all the right buttons in the pleasure center of my brain, so I come back to these again and again.

    Just recently found out that my stepmom-in-law’s favorite signature scent is Samsara. She has the mistaken idea that it’s discontinued. I’ll have to search out some perfume for her.

    • March says:

      Oh, no, you can definitely get her Samsara. But it sounds as though the Mysore sandalwood situation may leave her feeling as though it smells quite different.

  • zeezee says:

    I have a small sample of BdI extrait kicking around – no clue if it’s current or vintage – and I keep coming back to it once in a while in the hopes that I get it now. I fear I’m simply not sophisticated enough for Chanel *anything*. I get heaps of aldehydes on a gentle, almost soapy base embossed with a huge Chanel logo. The promised seventh heaven of gingerbread and sandalwood keeps eluding me, frustratingly.

    • March says:

      The BdI definitely varies from bottle to bottle. The two I was sniffing were probably not that far apart in age, but smelled quite different. It sounds like it’s just not your thing, though.

  • Fiordiligi says:

    My love for “proper” Guerlain knows no bounds, but I am one of those for whom “proper” Guerlain ended with Samsara, which I absolutely loathe. I subscribe to the conspiracy theory that it was not composed in-house, no matter what the publicity blurb says. Horrible, sorry.

    On the other hand, I have always adored Bois des Iles (despite not being that much of a Chanel fragrance fan) and would love to know what happened to the bottle of extrait I bought in Rue Cambon in the 80s….I am positive it was never finished. Oh well. I’m subsisting on decants of the extrait these days and it is a very fine fragrance indeed. I thought I hated sandalwood because of Samsara but no, I was wrong. I just hate Samsara.

  • hongkongmom says:

    i LOVED samsara when it first came out…recently i purchased a new bottle and it is definately not the same stuff…
    i love the bois de isle exclusive…use it a lot, but it is definately a tease…i have an older bottle of the parfume…but have not yet opened it..i am still waiting for a special moment to do that.
    i think i need to revisit the vintage samsara:)

  • March, I believe that Chanel vibe you’re getting from Bois des Iles could be that aldehyde-iris thing that seems to go on in all of the older ones. I have a large decant of the Exclusives version and enjoy it, but I am told it’s changed quite a bit over the years by someone who has a vintage parfum.
    Samsara I couldn’t get into when it was launched and haven’t seriously smelled since, but at those volumes of production I doubt there’s still any Mysore sandalwood in it, except perhaps in the parfum. The jasmine content won’t be affected by IFRA standards though, I hear back from Guerlain.

    • March says:

      Well, I won’t be crying my eyes out over the Samsara, which simply isn’t “me.” And as much as I enjoyed the BdI experience, and your aldehyde-iris explanation makes perfect sense, in some way that one isn’t me either!

  • Helge says:

    I’ve only tried the new EdT of BdI, but I fell i love rather quickly.
    Whereas you say it doesn’t remind you of anything, two perfumes sprung to my mind when I wear it: Chanel Égoïste in the beginning, and a soft Jicky later on.

    I hope I get to try the perfume, though, I can only squeeze a small amount of smell out of the EdT.

  • Flora says:

    I found a mini of Samsara parfum in my sample stash last year. I had forgotten about it, as it was in with some unrelated things. I loved it, but my sister loved it even more, and she finished it. I bought her a bottle of vintage EDT on Fleabay after that. The new stuff does not measure up, and once again, I have no idea what they are using for “sandalwood” now but it is definitely not the same stuff.:((

  • carter says:

    “wonderful” and “cuckoo” ~:> although “coo-coo” might actually be better, accidental though it was.

    • carter says:

      Oh, geez! I’ve been collecting Roberta di Camerino handbags for too long and it has short-circuited my tiny brain :-b . Make that “RC” not “RdC.” It has sooo NOT been a good night in Carter World

  • carter says:

    Most of the Chanels just don’t float my boat. I do like vintage Cristalle and vintage No. 19, and Cuir de Russie is undeniably wonderfull, but it isn’t my favorite leather, and at that price it would have to be for me to mess about trying to get my paws on some. RdC is lovely, but fleeting, and I dunno, unexciting? Uninspiring? I guess I just don’t do pretty all that well, and the fact that it’s gone in a flash is thoroughly irritating. So no, I’m not too coo-coo for CoCo


    I have a large sample of BdI EDT and I’m placing it squarely in the same pigeonhole as RdC: a beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying tease.

    • March says:

      I loved the old Coco, from the 1980s, which I wore a bottle of. It used to be spicier, IMO.

    • March says:

      … although, duh, you’re talking about the line. Of the vintages, I’ll take Coco or 22 (although the new 22 is rather lovely as well, more incense.) Most of the rest I admire rather than want to wear.

  • Musette says:

    I love the aloofness of Chanel (parfums – the clothes and bags, not quite so ‘aloof’). 31Rue is Gorgeous, as is BdI – I’ve only smelled the parfum once, alas. Those Les Es don’t quite do it for me, though.

    Samsara…..:-? I am abashed to reveal that I have never smelled it! Isn’t that weird? I think I got scared with the ‘new’ Guerlains and simply pretended they weren’t around (where is whistling guy? He’s never around when you need him). Unless I can find the parfum I don’t see any reason to change my ostrichlike position.

    xoxo >-)

    The ‘walnut in the driveway’ image is =)) thanks for that!

    • March says:

      Whistling guy went AWOL and never came back, which makes me sad, I think you get question-mark guy if you use him.


      Unless you’re a big, rich jasmine fiend, Samsara likely isn’t you.

      You’re welcome about the walnut.

      • Musette says:

        I’m a HUGE jasmine fiend. But I tend to like it more as a soliflore. And since it looks like the current iteration ain’t all that, I’ll just whistle on down the road….

        :-\” – I miss him.

  • Eric says:

    I recently inherited a bottle of 1984 Samsara EDT and, after a few trial runs, I deemed I could not be running around smelling like bread pudding. Now, it is very NICE bread pudding and it definitely resembles the rest of the Guerlains, it’s still bread pudding. I once wore it and my friend kindly told me that she’d rather I smell like week-old cigarette smoke. So now I have a vintage bottle of Samsara for sale. xP

    I’ve been meaning to get over to Chanel and actually skin test more than La Pausa and Rue Cambon (both of which I like, and I’ve slowly worked my way through a full sample and a half of Rue Cambon)but the news of Bois des Iles is kind of disheartening.

    • March says:

      Oh yeah,31 RC! Several friends of that on here today.

      The BdI … well, some folks on here like it. It’s not that it’s terrible, just attenuated.

  • Kimb says:

    Samsara and I are very old friends and Iove her. I will be getting to know BDI very soon thanks to my sample from TPC. BTW, I don’t get much Jasmine and I think that is why I love it so much.

  • violetnoir says:

    I wore Samsara when we went to see “Silence of the Lambs.” Somehow, it never recovered after that, lol!

    BdI on the other hand, is timeless, smart, opinionated, and everything else beautiful that you stated above, my friend.


  • I remember the vintage Bois des Iles. The vintage Bois des Iles was a friend of mine, and the newer one is no Bois des Iles. But it’s no Dan Quayle either (if this makes no sense to you, it’s OK; I’m old.) It has its own charm. But to drift completely off topic, I just got a sample of 31, Rue de Cambon and I am in love as never before.I can get over my disappointment of the reformulated BdI if I can have a bottle of 31 Rue de Cambon.

    Incidentally, thanks for clearing up the mystery of why I didn’t get a lot of dates while I was wearing No. 19. I thought it was something I said.

    • “Incidentally, thanks for clearing up the mystery of why I didn’t get a lot of dates while I was wearing No. 19. I thought it was something I said.”

      Hahahahahahha, this is SO funny 😉

    • March says:

      31RC is beautiful, yesyes? Probably the one I’d take a bottle of if one came my way. Runners up: 22 and Beige (which nobody else likes, I don’t think.)

      • Beige is lovely in the bottle, but my skin says “Feh!” So I have a sample and take hits from it. But 31RC blooms on my skin and loves me unconditionally. And that, I am a sucker for. I have a smidge of vintage BdI in an old bottle, and I have it tightly capped amid the stoles (not fur, ceremonial–it belongs there). Ahhhh.