Counterpoint: Un Bois Vanille

Counterpoint: Un Bois Vanille

Happy Monday! Today is May 15, and this is another “Counterpoint” post from me and Portia of Australian Perfume Junkies.

This month’s Counterpoint fragrance is Un Bois Vanille, from Serge Lutens. Launched in 2003, the perfumer who created it is Christopher Sheldrake. It is one of several offspring of Feminité du Bois, created in 1992 for Shisheido by the team of Serge Lutens, Christopher Sheldrake, and Pierre Bourdon. It seems that after FdB, M. Sheldrake explored the innovative woody accords in different directions, including Un Bois Vanille, Bois de Violette, Bois et Musc, Bois et Fruits, Bois Oriental,  and Un Bois Sépia.

Bottle of Serge Lutens' Un Bois Vanille
Un Bois Vanille by Serge Lutens; image from Portia.

Un Bois Vanille is a complex scent that plays off the botanical origins of vanilla, most familiar to us as the sweet ingredient in so many baked goods. Vanilla extract comes from beans that grow in pods on vining orchids in tropical rain forests. The vines climb up trees in their natural habitats; in cultivation, they are often grown on wooden supports. Wood, then, is a suitable companion to vanilla, and they are well-partnered in Un Bois Vanille. The green aspect of vanilla vines is evoked by an anise accord; other notes include coconut milk, beeswax, sandalwood, tonka, almond, benzoin, guiac, and musk.

  1. How did you first encounter Un Bois Vanille, and what was your first impression?

Portia: I’m not sure exactly but it could have been while sniffing with friends in what was our most glamorous Sydney department store David Jones. It also might have been through an early Serge Lutens sampler from Posh Peasant. Maybe around 2010? Yeah, I came to you all quite late. It was a very solo perfume journey for me till finding the scent blogosphere. I liked it early on but it didn’t compete with some of the more outrageous scents in the line. At the time I was all about pushing boundaries, being daring, shocking and pushing every fragrant envelope to its farthest shore. Since those heady days I’ve come to love many of those outrageous perfumes but the ones i tend to wear are much more comfortable.

Old Herbaceous: I came into possession of Un Bois Vanille a couple of years ago, when I found a tester online at a very reasonable price. Since I was, and am still, in the process of educating my nose, I knew I wanted to try some of Serge Lutens’ fragrances, and I had read in many places that Un Bois Vanille was one of his most approachable fragrances, easier to appreciate and enjoy than some of his more innovative scents. So I bought the tester, and it was the start of a small Lutens cluster in my collection. My first impression was that it is a sophisticated vanilla while remaining sweet, but it is never sugary. The beeswax and coconut milk give it a smoothness that I find quite soothing, and I enjoy the anise accord.

2. How would you describe the development of Un Bois Vanille?

Old Herbaceous: To my nose, the vanilla is obvious right away, with a milky undertone. It remains dominant throughout, with anise emerging, followed by phases that smell woody (sandalwood, tonka, almond), then resinous and warm (guiac, benzoin, musk).

PortiaUn Bois Vanille doesn’t have an enormous range through its development when I wear it. It opens hot vanilla caramel bakery, fresh from the oven. As it moves through the heart the nuttiness dries it out but we don’t lose that warmth. Even in dry down when the woods have taken over vanilla heavy amber reigns supreme.

3. Do you or will you wear Un Bois Vanille regularly? For what occasions or seasons?

Portia: Honestly, I’m lucky if Un Bois Vanille gets a wear annually. Vanilla, woods and amber make up a large percentage of my perfume wardrobe. There are a few favourites that are in easy reach, on the grab tray or on my mind. Since my Serge Lutens bottles grab tray got repurposed in the revamp of the perfume/dressing/office room and they are all in a box their wear has reduced a lot. In the 10 years I’ve owned this bottle it has probably only had 10 wears. Hopefully us writing about Un Bois Vanille at the start of the cooler months here in Sydney will rejog my memory and I’ll give it a few more outings. Wearing it the last couple of days, once for bed and today for work, I’ve really enjoyed it. Though it’s not important a couple of people have asked what it is I’m wearing and if it’s still available. So that’s nice too.

Old Herbaceous: I don’t wear it regularly, though I like it whenever I do. Since I’m on the other side of the planet from Portia, we are entering our summer months, and the vanilla fragrance I like for summer is Vanira Moorea by Berdoues. I will try to remember to pull out Un Bois Vanille this fall, though, because I agree with Portia that it is very suitable for autumn and winter.

4. Who should/could wear Un Bois Vanille?

Old Herbaceous: Un Bois Vanille is definitely a unisex scent. Apparently, the genesis of its forebear Feminité du Bois was to show that a woody fragrance, traditionally associated with masculine fragrances, could be made more feminine. Almost every time I wear any vanilla-centric fragrance, I get more compliments than with almost any other scent, usually from men. So it clearly works well as a feminine scent! Conversely, I would find this very appealing on a man, and I need to find out what it smells like on my husband!

Portia: When I spritz Un Bois Vanille it always feels like a rich dessert or cocktail. A fountain of molten vanilla, caramel, coconut and nutty biscuit. Lavish, delicious and playful. It works from slouching in front of the TV to elegant awards nights. While cool weather is my preferred wear time, I can also imagine it working for spring weekends and sensual tropical evenings. Smelling good enough to eat, but in a sophisticated way, is always a winner. Unisex but leaning towards what society expects women to smell like. I say go for the subversive guys, wear against the grain. I can only imagine how amazing this would smell on some beefy hunk of a tradesman as he turns up to fix your power box.

If huge stories float your boat, then Un Bois Vanille might be a little boring for you. On the other hand, if you love to smell good. You like a hefty, rich, not too confectionary oriented gourmand that lasts all day and into the night then you might just have found a new grand love.

Please add your answers to one or more of the questions above, in the comments!

Scented Advent, December 1

Scented Advent, December 1

Happy start of Advent, perfumistas! Even if you don’t celebrate Advent, you can still enjoy the festivities. Here at Serenity Now: Scents and Sensibilities, we love Advent, and we love a good Advent calendar, with all the little drawers or doors that hide surprises or treats. I continue to be astonished by the many high-end luxury Advent calendars now available in the beauty world, from brands like Chanel and Jo Malone London, as well as calendars with assorted teas, or jams, or other goodies. (Note: while some are now sold out, others are now on sale).

As I did last year, I am using fragrance samples I already have to do my own homemade Advent calendar, and I’ll try to post about them daily as a “Scented Advent” feature through December 24. This year, I am the happy recipient of a dozen samples of Guerlain fragrances from my autumn visit to the Guerlain boutique in Las Vegas, so I’ll alternate those with other samples. I’ll preserve some element of surprise by reaching into my Guerlain goodie bag every other day and pulling out whatever comes to hand.

My first Guerlain sample is Oeillet Pourpre, which means “purple carnation”. It is described as a new fragrance that was launched in 2021 as part of the collection “L’Art et la Matière”, created by Thierry Wasser and Delphine Jelk. However, several close observers of Guerlain, including Neil Chapman of The Black Narcissus blog, have noted that it is a slight reformulation of Guerlain’s 2017 Lui. (I”m actually glad to know this, because I had thought I’d like to try Lui, which has been discontinued, and now I won’t feel I should seek it out). Fragrantica lists these notes: Top: Clove and Pear; middle: Benzoin and Carnation; base: Smoke, Vanilla, Leather, Woody Notes and Musk.

One thing about Oeillet Pourpre that intrigues me is that it has smelled slightly different on me each time I’ve tried it. The first time, it reminded me a lot of two carnation-centric fragrances I have and like: L’Artisan’s Oeillet Sauvage, and Lutens’ Vitriol d’Oeillet. Today, it smells smokier than either of those, in a good way. I don’t usually gravitate to smoky fragrances, though there are some I like, so that’s a pleasant surprise. I do like carnation in fragrance, which I know some people dislike, and I like it here. Oeillet Sauvage is more floral, but it shares Oeillet Pourpre’s notes of resin (benzoin) and vanilla as well as carnation.

Much as I do like Oeillet Pourpre, and it lasts and develops well on my skin, its retail price means I won’t be buying a full bottle, especially as I already have full bottles of Oeillet Sauvage and Vitriol d’Oeillet. Fragrantica comments are full of frustration that the more reasonably priced Lui was renamed and moved into the L’Art et la Matière collection, where it is priced at $360 for 100 ml and smaller sizes are not available. I’m very happy to have received this sample, though, as it has allowed me to try it on different days and see how each wearing differs.

Do you have any thoughts to share about these fragrances, or L’Art et la Matière? Do you have an Advent calendar this year?

Refillable wooden Advent calendar
My fragrance Advent calendar
May Melange Marathon: La Vierge de Fer

May Melange Marathon: La Vierge de Fer

Today’s floral is Serge Lutens’ La Vierge de Fer, which means “Iron Maiden” in English. The Iron Maiden was a notorious (though possibly apocryphal) medieval torture device, an upright metal box shaped like a person, in which spikes were set into the interior of the opening, which, when closed, would pierce a prisoner locked inside the device. Lovely.

I don’t follow Serge Lutens very closely although I have and appreciate several of his fragrances, and I would love to visit his boutique in the Palais-Royal in Paris some day. So I don’t really buy into the self-consciously arcane descriptions of his fragrances, but here is what the brand writes about La Vierge de Fer:

Let there be light! And darkness no more. He who wishes does not have a black soul! “I will come as a thief …” said Christ; certainly in silence and probably, for him, wearing shoes. To deserve his title, the Thief must act under the wide-open eye of the absent owners. In this case, it is not that tenuous eye with which Cain stares without regret, but another, which in some way will make an accomplice of Abel. If the fetishes, idols and charms of the Museum of Man, in Paris, had not met the 20th century, everyone would have missed that incredible mockery of Eros which The Young Ladies of Avignon certainly is. “The Negros had understood that everything which surrounds us is our enemy”, the wizard Picasso said to his paintbrush. Who, if not one of them, decided on life, by death, would dare, to unclench the teeth of this sex of the world: fear. Since it is the fruit of our entrails, it must be elevated. For that, not fearing incest, we will embrace it. In this way, she will give birth to our most beautiful monsters. That is how, a little rusty by dint of doubts, my steps have rejoined La vierge de fer (the Iron Maiden); that lily amongst the thorns.

Continue reading
Perfume Chat Room, March 26

Perfume Chat Room, March 26

Welcome to the weekly Perfume Chat Room, perfumistas! I envision this chat room as a weekly drop-in spot online, where readers may ask questions, suggest fragrances, tell others their SOTD, comment on new releases or old favorites, and respond to each other. The perennial theme is fragrance, but we can interpret that broadly. This is meant to be a kind space, so please try not to give or take offense, and let’s all agree to disagree when opinions differ. In fragrance as in life, your mileage may vary! YMMV.

Today is Friday, March 26, and we’ve just had some of the worst thunderstorms I can recall, all night last night. The thunder and lightning were truly epic — as in, my whole garden was lit up like a fairground every time the lightning flashed. Fairgrounds are on my mind, because I’ve been sampling Serge Lutens’ Bapteme du Feu, and that is apparently what it is meant to evoke, with its offbeat combination of gingerbread and gunpowder. It’s actually very intriguing, and I’m going to order a discounted tester.

The vaccinations continue apace; my son is now eligible, and he will get his first shot tomorrow. I’m very relieved, although it appears he must have had COVID-19 already in 2020 — we had him tested for antibodies when he came home from college for winter break, and he had them! He and we still have no idea when he might have had the virus, as he never felt unwell or showed symptoms, or tested positive under a regular screening program once he was at college. Anyway, it’s a great relief that he’ll get the protection of the vaccine and also help protect others by having it.

Spring has truly sprung in my part of the world; if it doesn’t keep raining this weekend, I plan to go out and take many photos of all of blossoms, including the spectacular pink azaleas with which my garden was blessed by long-ago owners. Their only flaw is that they aren’t fragrant. What are your plans for the weekend?

French fairground carousel
Carousel in Nice, 2019
Perfume Chat Room, February 12

Perfume Chat Room, February 12

Welcome to the weekly Perfume Chat Room, perfumistas! I envision this chat room as a weekly drop-in spot online, where readers may ask questions, suggest fragrances, tell others their SOTD, comment on new releases or old favorites, and respond to each other. The perennial theme is fragrance, but we can interpret that broadly. This is meant to be a kind space, so please try not to give or take offense, and let’s all agree to disagree when opinions differ. In fragrance as in life, your mileage may vary! YMMV.

Today is Friday, February 12, and here in the USA, Monday will be the Presidents’ Day holiday. Sunday brings us Valentine’s Day, and today is the official day of Lunar New Year. We are officially in the Year of the Ox! Now Smell This has a community project this week to wear a fragrance that evokes the traditional qualities of the Ox: dependable, diligent, reliable, etc. That had me stumped until my eye fell upon a Serge Lutens sample of La Religieuse, so that’s my SOTD. I know others have had less positive experiences with nuns, but I went to a Catholic school in Brussels for two years, run by nuns, and they were lovely, so I have positive associations with “les religieuses”.

I’ve just found out about a new documentary that follows perfumer Francois Demachy, called “Nose.” I look forward to seeing it! Do any of you have special celebrations ahead for any of these holidays or other festive occasions? Any special fragrances in mind for them?

Roses de Mai Marathon: La Fille de Berlin

Roses de Mai Marathon: La Fille de Berlin

Serge Lutens’ La Fille de Berlin is a straight-up Rose with a capital R.  The first hint of what you’ll smell is the color of the juice in the bottle — a deep, purply red. Continue reading

Thunking Thursday: Vitriol d’Oeillet

Thunking Thursday: Vitriol d’Oeillet

Happy Thursday! This week I thunked my sample of Serge Lutens’ Vitriol d’Oeillet. Full disclosure: I don’t mind at all thunking it, because I bought a full bottle for my husband, who has so often bought lovely fragrances for me. And it smells marvelous! Lots of carnation, just like the classic original Old Spice. I love a good carnation fragrance, like L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Oeillet Sauvage. Do you like carnations in fragrances? Which are your favorites?

Red carnation boutonnieres on gentlemen's white dinner jackets or tuxedoes

Red carnation boutonnieres; image from A Gentleman’s Row


Scent Sample Sunday: Vitriol d’Oeillet

Scent Sample Sunday: Vitriol d’Oeillet

I have a sample of Serge Lutens’ Vitriol d’Oeillet that I finally got around to trying this weekend, for one simple reason: it was available online as a full bottle for a reasonable price, and I wanted to decide whether or not to get it. Luckily, I’ve been wondering about it for a while and already had a sample from Surrender to Chance, so I was able to make an informed decision!

I had been intrigued by Vitriol d’Oeillet because I really do like the scent of carnations and other dianthus flowers like Sweet William. Vitriol d’Oeillet has often been translated into English as “angry carnation” but I don’t think that is quite right. Vitriol can refer to anger or fury, but it has a nuance of acidity, and can also refer specifically to a sulfate of various metals. “Oil of vitriol” is concentrated sulfuric acid, according to Merriam-Webster.  Maybe a better translation of “vitriol d’oeillet” would be “sulfate of carnation”. The blog CaFleureBon review of Vitriol d’Oeillet plays off this contrast between the naturally fresh, floral spiciness of carnations and the suggestion of sulphurous fumes.

Luckily for me, from my sample I get mostly flowers and spice, and no sulfur (usually described as the smell of rotten eggs). The notes are listed as: nutmeg, clove, pink pepper, pepper, paprika, carnation, wallflower, lily and ylang-ylang. Here is the description on the Serge Lutens website:

 – “What is it, Doctor Jekyll?”

Listen, my child, and I will tell you everything. Take a carnation and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne pepper. Firmly drive it into the very center, using the “nails” of a clove. Before committing the final act of violence, let wallflower throw in a few punches.

Yes, our collective leg is being pulled. Vitriol d’Oeillet is neither hellish, nor acidic, nor sulfurous, nor violent. It is a warm, spicy, fresh carnation, and it reminds me of the original Old Spice aftershave and cologne. I like it very much, but not for myself; I think I would love it on my husband! Have I mentioned yet that I ADORED the ad campaign for Old Spice that featured the tag line “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” and actor Isaiah Mustafa:

On my own skin, Vitriol d’Oeillet opens with a blast of spice, most prominently cayenne pepper and clove, but with a sweet floral note underneath right from the start. As it dries down, the spice lightens up and it becomes a bit soapy as the florals become more evident. It is very appealing! I think many of the traditional men who wear Old Spice because their fathers and grandfathers did may not realize that the scent they (and we women) often associate with solid, old-school masculinity contains some of the notes traditionally included in women’s fragrances: heliotrope, aldehydes, even jasmine. They are not the dominant notes, though; they provide a background for the more dominant spices, wood notes and base notes like ambergris and musk. The dominant floral in Old Spice, and in Vitriol, is carnation — a flower associated with gentlemen since the dawn of the boutonniere.

Red carnation boutonnieres on gentlemen's white dinner jackets or tuxedoes

Red carnation boutonnieres; image from A Gentleman’s Row

In fact, the association of carnations with distinguished men goes back centuries, as portrayed in many Renaissance paintings like this one:

Renaissance portrait of nobleman holding carnation by Andrea Solario

Portrait of Man with Carnation by Andrea Solario

As Vitriol d’Oeillet dries down even more, the floral notes fade and the spices come back to the fore, including pink pepper. I happen to like the scent of pink pepper, although I know others do not, so I welcome its return together with the cloves, Cayenne pepper, paprika and nutmeg. At this stage, the nutmeg is more prominent than it was at the start, so Vitriol closes with a certain dry sweetness.

In sum, I like Vitriol d’Oeillet a lot, based on this sample. I won’t be buying a full bottle for myself — but I might get one eventually for my husband!

Pink pepper or baie de rose berries

Pink pepper; image from CaFleureBon