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Perfume Notes: Chanel Bois Des Îles
by Dain

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533).

I am very fond of a little maxim, from pioneer computer scientist Jon Postel, known as the Robustness Principle: "Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others." Though Postel's Law still operates within its original context of programming, it's also become a colloquialism for model behavior on the internet.

Not since the printing press has there been such a shock to traditional standards of representation and interpretation. The internet has no mercy. At the same time, it also serves as an outlet for creativity, immense in its freedom. If art is anything, it is representation, a feedback loop defined not by the signifier nor the signified themselves, but by the gap that lies between. This gap is inherent in all mechanisms of artifice: paint and canvas represent how the artist sees, not sight itself, and often the stylistic merit lies in conscious distortions. It's that fine line, as we say, between a nude and pornography. Likewise, we translate laundry-fresh musk as 'clean', unaware that musks originally came from the anal glands of male deer, before cheap synthetics like Galaxolide cemented decades of cultural association. It is utterly arbitrary; still, we revel in it. We are apt to say that a certain kind of woman wears Guerlain Vetiver (1961), while she who wears Vol de Nuit (1933) is in another category altogether. To us, this has greater sense than the physical smell.

Most people leave Bois des Iles (1926) with the impression of a bitter opening that mellows, ever so gracefully, into its famous sandalwood drydown. Thus excised of the floraldehydic heart that pegs it neatly between Coty and Roudnitska, Bois des Iles bears a remarkable resemblance to modern niche perfumery, with its adoration of dissonance, its narrowed focus on fully realized aromaterials. At least, hypothetically. Anyone familiar with Bois des Iles will scoff at such oversimplification. This is a magical elixir, the same warm embrace that compels Odysseus home, no matter the tribulations.

Why, then, does the floraldehydic bouquet, the Chanel 'trademark', fade into the background? After all, florals and aldehydes are the physical (though not spiritual) center of the perfume. Unlike No. 5 (1921), where abstracted florals are the main event, in Bois des Iles they play a supporting role, a deliberate subordination. Naked sandalwood is undoubtedly a glorious thing, but it also presents a challenge: traditionally, it is a base note. Even were it not so scarce, it would be difficult for sandalwood to take proper prominence without turning into raw incense or shaving soap. To circumvent linearity, Beaux enlists a progression of florals, as precisely choreographed as a ballet, to delay the final consummation. Bois des Iles smells like Bois des Iles—the highest possible compliment you can pay a perfume.

From the brittle aldehydes and astringent bergamot, Bois des Iles transitions seamlessly into a fizzy neroli, followed by a lush and heady jasmine, lingering prominently on rose, mindful of the floralcy in the sandalwood to come, then sweetening into ylang ylang, and finally a buttery iris, to segue into the drydown. All throughout, aldehydes dart in and out, each movement fluent and seemingly without effort. Most perfumers would have been well satisfied to conclude there, mechanically finishing on a little musk or amber. For the master behind No. 5, this is merely an intermediary.

Bois des Iles' floraldehydic heart builds suspense, enlarging on the sandalwood without upstaging it, to which task aldehydes are especially suited. If your mind is on other matters, there's nothing more than a vague perception of powdery florals, a faintly metallic softness, until the sandalwood emerges. In this way, Beaux manipulates the classic pyramid, which develops sequentially, in order to honor the drydown. (By contrast, the equally wood-centric but entirely modern Féminité du Bois (1992) is as self-contained as a sphere, more chord than melody.) Few forms in aesthetics are as ancient and powerful as the sequence—indeed, the earliest evidence of written language, dating from Mesopotamia, were lists of grain and livestock*—its very mechanics recreate the passage of time. As one word follows another on the page, in the mind's eye one traces the development of character or the convolutions of plot: the experience of interpretation mirrors the human experience. While perfume may not so forcibly represent reality as literature or painting or art, it does gain greater depth the more structured its design.

Almost as an afterthought, the sandalwood itself, the skillful realizations of its many facets. By the time the iris emerges, the sandalwood has already become apparent. Beaux adds vetiver to bring out the clean, meditative quality, the brittle texture of lignin, with coriander for a slightly medicinal pungency. The famed pain épice accord, honey and mellow spices, is more understated in the extrait, where the rose-like floralcy of sandalwood receives equal emphasis, than the eau de toilette. In the far drydown, Bois des Iles picks up a gentle sweetness from a final whiff of benzoin and amber.

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*There is considerable debate where and when written language first originated, a debate that cannot ever be resolved. Still, there is some popular consensus among archaeologists on Mesopotamia. My thanks to Stella J. for helping with fact-checking.

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