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.
Layering with strong notes contrasts and brings out the delectable sweetness. The anisic licorice in the opening, for instance, highlights the plush vanilla character, which emerges in full glory. A mélange of oriental notes, including amber, musk, benzoin, and tonka bean, accompanies and enhances the main theme. There are also plenty of interesting twists in the layers from waxy, lactonic coconut and roasted almond to the floral touch of jasmine.
However, the duel between the luscious sweetness of vanilla and the leathery animalic amber is its most distinctive quality. It suggests something delicious, but also dark and mysterious. The accenting layers, then, serve to emphasise the curious nature of its vanilla. 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.