Earlier this year I owned up to my shameful failure to properly appreciate the classic Guerlains; today, I'll come clean on Chanel. The heavy-hitters from Chanel's back catalog, Nos. 5, 19 and 22, are masterpieces which I admire but have no real desire to wear. I adore Cristalle, but that probably doesn't count, does it? Bois des Iles, launched in 1926, is the only classic Chanel I really love, and I have never understood why it is not readily available at Chanel counters everywhere.
Bois des Iles was created by Ernest Beaux, and was re-released in the 1980s along with Cuir de Russie and Gardénia as part of Chanel's Rue Cambon Collection. The fragrance notes include aldehydes, coriander, bergamot, neroli, peach, jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, iris, ylang-ylang, vetiver, sandalwood, benzoin, vanilla and musk.
The Eau de Toilette opens on a burst of aldehydes and harsh woods; Susan Irvine describes the top notes as "a hardware shop with a smell akin to turpentine". (The Perfume Guide, p. 50) I don't find it as hard to take as all that, but it isn't exactly pretty. The heart is flowers, indistinct and lightly spiced, the base is sandalwood perfection: dry, smooth and creamy, with a velvety finish that isn't quite powdered. The fabled gingerbread accord starts to come into its own after around an hour; it is very soft, but lingers for the duration and adds a gentle warmth to the woods.
All of the aldehydic Chanels basically smell like money to me, from the first spritz to the last lingering breath, and Bois des Iles is no exception, but it is quieter about it than some of the others. It is the epitome of understated elegance, nothing showy, nothing overdone. If you are looking for something very sexy and oh la la, it might not suit.
The Eau de Toilette is simply lovely; the Parfum moves past lovely into stunning: the harsh opening smooths out faster, the woods are deeper and richer, and the floral notes in the heart, which are something of a blur in the Eau de Toilette, are more prominent and distinct. In this case, at least, you get what you pay for.
Bois des Iles is available in Eau de Toilette and Parfum only (wouldn't an Eau de Parfum be perfect?); for buying information, see the listing for Chanel under Perfume Houses.
Update: in 2007, Chanel re-issued Bois des Iles as part of the Les Exclusifs collection; you can see the new packaging above right.