Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille: Ceci n’est pas une vanille.

…because you can’t stuff it!

This perfume reminded me immediately of Magritte’s question: is it a pipe if you can’t stuff it? Is an image of a pipe the same as a pipe? The treason of images…

Vanilla fragrances are not on my radar because gourmand fragrances are not easy to wear in warmer climates and vanilla is the queen of foody notes. But like many Serge Lutens releases this one takes the path more ironic. It opens with a note half way between coconut and butter and it is a sweet opening. What comes in next is a counter-intuitive note of immortelle. I happen to believe that immortelle has a wide range of nuances (bacon, liquorice, coffee, curry, and the undefinable core of El Attarine) and here the aspect used is that of caramelized coffee. The effect of roasted coffee mixes with the buttery coconut to create an impression of caramelized coconut. And actually this is where Jeux de Peau started. Un Bois Vanille is obviously the seminal idea that was reworked to give birth to this more recent release. The difference is that Jeux de Peau decided to become a gourmand while Un Bois Vanille chose the difficult path of using gourmand notes to create a non-edible flavour. Christopher Sheldrake uses a woody note, what smells like guaiac wood to my nose and just a hint of saffron to cut through the foody stuff and add a dangerous, almost toxic accord to the mix. Saffron for me is the smell of freshly polished leather. So imagine the mix of caramelized coconut, dusty guaiac wood and bitter leathery saffron. So where is vanilla? Vanilla is there, right from the beginning. It runs like the creek hidden under deep foliage: you know it’s there but with so much else happening it is hard to focus on it. Once again Sheldrake chooses to develop a note by expanding and developing each minute fraction of peripheral characteristics, like he did with tuberose and carnation, creating a prismatic view of vanilla. The creaminess of vanilla is exacerbated by the coconut, the warmth is echoed in the coffee. The woody complexity is translated by guaiac wood and the dark, deeper nuances are mirrored by the leathery saffron. Vanilla is still the cause and focal point of al this but it has never felt more explained. In a genius twist at the end of the composition a surreal floral note anchors the base with musk.

My immediate reaction when I first smelled this was: toxic! Olfactoria’s dark review also focuses on the dangerous personality of this vanilla. Although Un Bois Vanille is not the fragrance I would easily wear I am glad I tried it. It is an elegant mind game. Like Magritte’s question about the pipe, it is open to many answers. Is it really a vanilla if you can’t eat it?

Magtitte’s painting via


About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.


  1. Excellent question. I love your review!
    Is it really a Lutens if it is not a bit weird? 😉

  2. Μη σου πω οτι δεν το ´χω μυρίσει… Και ο λόγος ειναι το όνομα του, όσο κι αν σου φαίνεται περίεργο! Πάντα το θεωρούσα μια ακόμα εκδοχή της βανιλιας που κι εγώ δεν πολυσυμπαθω ως κύρια νότα σε ένα αρωμα.

    • Είναι σίγουρα βανίλια και γι αυτό το λόγο το δοκίμασα απί φιλολογικό ενδιαφέρον. Αλλά είναι πολύ ιδιαίτερο άρωμα. Αυτή η τεχνική της διάσπασης μιας κύριας νότας εις α εξ ων συνετέθη είναι τρομερά ενδιαφέρουσα

  3. I tested this perfume only once at a store and all I can recollect is that I was thinking that there was too much of something in it for my taste. I can’t remember what exactly bothered me. It was interesting to read your and Birgit’s (thank you for the link) reviews. I’ll try it again some day and see what I think of it now.

    • Undina it is too sweet and too big. It needs a proper test wearing though. My initial impression from a paper strip was that it was too simple for a Lutens. On skin though it unfolds for hours.

      • I just want to clarify that I did test it on skin: that was a momentarily lapse of judgement when I decided to spray two completely unknown perfumes on two wrists at the store. In my defence I should say that 1) it was Las Vegas and 2) it was one of the last perfume-sniffing stops on my map. And the second one – Feminite du Bois – was a total success.

  4. Christos, what a fascinating examination — and now it makes sense why I absolutely hated Jeux de Peau, because I have never liked Un Bois Vanille either. (It’s a good sign of the diversity of the SL line and the strong personality of each scent in it that I either totally love or hate them … and most of them are in the love category, for sure.) Spurred by your review, I’m going to give Un Bois Vanille another wearing today and see if I can appreciate its genius. Off to read Birgit’s take on it, too.

    • Actually Suzanne Jeux de Peau is a mixture of Un Bois Vanille and Santal de Mysore. What I found interesting in UBV is the way it analyzes the note even if the end result does not come off as a typical vanilla fragrance but rather as a spicy, woody oriental.

  5. It is a strange little perfume but I for one adore it. 🙂 And I really need to get myself a bottle of it…

  6. I love Un Bois Vanille. I noticed the coffee and the caramel, but not the coconut and the saffron. As always, I’m learning a lot from perfume friends.

  7. And yeah, sure it is! Vanilla pods are the epitome of vanilla, but I don’t think people would eat them unprocessed.

  8. Pingback: How I smell: a disclaimer « Memory Of Scent

  9. Pingback: Montale Boisé Vanillé: Ceci n’est pas une vanille, bis « Memory Of Scent

  10. Pingback: Un Bois Vanille by Serge Lutens | Scentsate

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