Bois Noir by Chanel (1987)

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Some will say Chanel Bois Noir (1987) was truer to a male equivalent for Chanel Bois des Îles (1926) than Chanel Égoïste (1990), or the superior version that should’ve never been changed into what we have today, and others will say it was simply a plainer and less-exciting prototype that is over-hyped due to it’s rarity and expense in the second-hand market. Both arguments are the result of the “haves and have-nots” conflict found in any hobby based on collecting luxury goods, since the means to play such a game is determined entirely by one’s surplus of disposable income or lack thereof, and such an argument would really not even exist if Bois Noir wasn’t such a now-famous flop. Bois Noir required renaming, Chanel’s biggest-to-date ad campaign, and another year or so of retooling in order to salvage the years of R&D money dumped into its original incarnation. Such quickly-discontinued famous flops are invariably collector’s fodder, and when the name Chanel is attached to them, even more so, making the Bois Noir a Maltese Falcon of sorts in the online fragrance community. The truth about Chanel Bois Noir is far less glamorous than the mythos zealous fans and hardcore collectors have built up around the short-lived ultra-rare masculine pillar release, and it is thus: Bois Noir was a radical departure at the time from anything anyone had released under the auspices of a fragrance marketed to men, so it was afforded a dry run as a limited release through boutiques in France then the US. When it failed to sell well and was pulled at the end of 1988, Polge was given the opportunity to revise it based on feedback and that’s how we got Égoïste (1990). It’s a miracle Chanel even allowed the stuff a second chance at all rather than forcing Polge to create something else, or even bother with a soft launch on untested product. I can imagine some folks reading this have never smelled Égoïste, so I’ll give a full breakdown of Bois Noir, but for those coming here armed with seasoned knowledge of Égoïste, I’ll start off with what’s different.

Change out the top of Égoïste completely and make it sweeter, darker, rounder with a bit of smokey birch. Add lavender to the heart to make it feel more masculine than rose and coriander alone could manage, then make the base mildly boozier with bourbon vanilla in place of the standard variety in Égoïste, pairing rosewood with sandalwood in the base, toning down the ambrette seed, and letting the sandalwood do the talking, giving the whole composition more of an oriental feel. For everyone not versed in how Égoïste smells, Bois Noir feels sort of how you might expect a high-quality masculine woody oriental to feel today if you’re dealing with a house that uses a mix of naturals and good synthetics. You get an opening of sweet mandarin and birch smoke that quickly sinks into a lavender/rose heart, sort of dandy in tone but not quite so dandy as say Guerlain Habit Rouge (1965), spiced with a dose of coriander and then smoothed out by a healthy amount of plush creamy sandalwood. Rosewood and ambrette seed join to make the woody oriental aroma deeper and muskier, while bourbon vanilla adds almost a boozy sweet tone that rounds the sandalwood. Bois Noir is pretty unisex to me, but the pendulum does swing a little closer to the male side of the spectrum than Égoïste. Wear time is 8 hours and sillage is close to skin after 1 hour like Égoïste, with the best time to wear Bois Noir being in evenings or fall due to it’s warm romantic character. It isn’t a fair comparison to put Bois Noir up against current Égoïste either, if only because it had real sandalwood and rosewood in place of the compound Polge erected to replace them when natural supplies were poached to near-extinction. If you compare the wrong vintage of Égoïste to Bois Noir, you may mistake the latter as some holy grail it really isn’t. I’ve smelled mid-90’s batches of Égoïste before such a compound had been perfected, and the other more-standard sandalwood replacements being used in Égoïste get the effusive qualities of sandalwood down pat, but are much drier to the nose. The creaminess Égoïste is known for didn’t return until much more recently, but even then, nothing will ever smell deeply of real sandalwood nor closest to Bois Noir as the earliest versions of Égoïste also containing it.

This is one area where I’ll concede to sometimes hyperbolic and solipsistic vintage purists who try to gatekeep what is or isn’t “proper Égoïste”, since to understand how close Bois Noir and Égoïste really were early on, you’ll have to smell deep vintage examples of the latter or really over-spray the modern and let it dry to build up layers of Polge’s admirable but thinner synth sandalwood compound. After having done either of these, you’ll reach the conclusion I have that Bois Noir was aptly named, and is just a darker, matte-finish and marginally “manlier” version of what became Égoïste; a fragrance that feels less lively in the top and heart and less unique until shedding such trappings in its revision. Removing the smoke and moving the rosewood to the top, using a brighter tangerine in place of mandarin, and focusing on the rose and coriander without lavender or faint booziness adding obligatory masculinity makes Égoïste blur gender lines, but also makes it more ostentatious as its name suggests it should be, while still living up to the Chanel promise of discrete elegance with the soft way it dries down (something Antaeus arguably failed to do). Sadly, the 1990’s wasn’t really the best time for a scent like Bois Noir or Égoïste, and after “fresh” fougères became the new vogue for men, Polge was forced to semi-replace his pet project after all, issuing a flanker called Platinum Égoïste (1993) which is a more-conventional scent that ended being more like the pillar in the long run. Once the internet connected enthusiasts, and discussion was sparked about Bois Noir being a sort of “alpha build” for the cult-status Égoïste, it’s legend grew (as did it’s price), and here we are. I’m glad I got to smell this, because it brings some closure and debunks some of the claims surrounding it. Bois Noir was a woody oriental for men that didn’t fully commit to it’s own concept, hiding behind the “darkness” of legacy masculine perfume notes in the process. Égoïste is the same scent freed from those shackles, and while perhaps more challenging to some, is also a tad more memorable for it. Thumbs up.

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