We describe something colloquially as ‘vanilla’ when it is considered ordinary, standard, and possesses no specialities. In the same vein, the warm, sweet effect of vanilla, though universally appreciated, can be just as plain and unexciting or even downright cloying, especially when it is used ad nauseam, as has been the case in many recent launches.
But when used judiciously, vanilla is one of the most versatile and powerful tools in perfumery. In large quantities, it provides much of the sensual warmth to the base of Jicky (Guerlain, 1889) and forms the classical oriental accord à la Shalimar (Guerlain, 1925). In small amounts, it can still provide great effects by highlighting the character and increasing the impact of a composition. For instance, it lends a warm touch to the cold aldehydic accords in Chanel N°5 (1921) and Arpège (Lanvin, 1927) and smooths out the rough-hewn quality in chypres like Ma Griffe (Carven, 1947) and Miss Dior (1947). Vanilla in perfumery can thus be thought of as salt in cooking: it brings out the flavour, but too much of it and the dish becomes unpalatable.
In the case of Un Bois Vanille (Serge Lutens, 2003) by perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, there is the challenge of focusing solely on vanilla, but without succumbing to the cloyingly sweet cliché. In other words, the challenge is akin to using a lot of salt and giving it character without rendering the dish inedible. To that, I think of my favourite salty food like anchovies and dried seaweed; their marine tang best matches the sea salt, with which they are prepared. Likewise, the solution to the composition of Un Bois Vanille is a classical one: an oriental accord with vanilla at the centre.
By layering vanilla with strong oriental notes, Un Bois Vanille puts the richness of this delectable raw material into perspective. Vanilla is not just sweet here; it is, in fact, multi-faceted. The anisic liquorice in the opening contrasts with and highlights the plush vanilla that soon emerges in full glory. A mélange of oriental notes, including milky sandalwood, benzoin, tonka bean, and musk, accompanies and enhances the main theme towards the dry down. There are also plenty of interesting twists in the layers, from beeswax and lactonic coconut to roasted almond.
The orchestration of Un Bois Vanille gives the luscious vanilla its surreal, distinctive quality. The spicy, creamy, and balsamic accents along with the layers of notes emphasise the curious nature of vanilla. They suggest something delicious and unapologetically decadent. And, the waves of its warmth hover around me from dawn till dusk. Such is the quality, for which I most crave in the bleakest of winter days. Un Bois Vanille is an interesting vanilla that is anything but… vanilla.