Profile: Patricia de Nicolaï & The Guerlain DNA

Patricia de Nicolaï, via her own website.

Patricia de Nicolaï, via her own website.

I thought it might be nice to take a look at a very talented perfumer whom I deeply respect, but whose scents frequently seem to fly under the radar. It is a little surprising to me, given who she is. Patricia de Nicolaï of Parfums de Nicolaï comes from the Guerlain family, is a grand-daughter of the house’s founder, Pierre Guerlain, a niece of Jean-Jacques Guerlain, and a niece or cousin to the famed nose, Jean-Paul Guerlain. She is a pioneer amongst female perfumers, and has won prestigious honours from both her perfume peers and from the French government itself. Yet, even die-hard Guerlain lovers aren’t always intimately familiar with her works. I hope to remedy that in the upcoming weeks, but I thought I would first start with a look at the woman herself. 

Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: manager-magazin.de

Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: manager-magazin.de

Patricia de Nicolaï fascinates me not only because she is a trail-blazer in some ways, but because she seems authentic, down-to-earth, passionate, warm, and wholly unpretentious. Though she has the Guerlain genes in more ways than just mere chromosomes, let’s start with Madame de Nicolaï’s genealogy. She is closely related to Jean-Paul Guerlain who is both the current family patriarch and the last Guerlain who creates fragrances for the house.(Several sites call her his niece, but Patricia de Nicolaï says her mother was his cousin, so wouldn’t that make her Jean-Paul Guerlain’s second cousin?) Jean-Paul Guerlain is legendary for his creations. According to Guerlain’s Wikipedia page, he made such legends as: Vétiver (1959); Habit Rouge (1965); Chant d’Arômes (1962), Chamade (1969), Nahéma (1979), Jardins de Bagatelle (1983), and Samsara (1989), along with Héritage and Coriolan in the 1990s.

Madame de Nicolaï grew up surrounded by the Guerlain culture. As her website explains, she “spent her childhood in the Guerlain family home in Paris. A home in which she has been in contact with 4 generations of Guerlain.” She elaborated a little further to the The Daily Mail newspaper:

“I grew up surrounded by people who were fascinated by smell. My parents had a beautiful 18th century manor house in Burgundy with a lovely garden where the rooms were scented with Pot Pourri de Guerlain. Neither of my parents were noses but they had a vineyard and my mother was a famous wine taster. I think my love of fragrance was unconscious – I grew up with it.”

Vintage Shalimar ad. Sourc: caviardujour.com

Vintage Shalimar ad. Sourc: caviardujour.com

CaFleureBon has a superb, detailed interview with Madame de Nicolaï where her warmth, charm, and wit shine through in great abundance. I recommend reading in full if you’re interested, but I’ll quote my favorite part involving her memories of her childhood, her mother, and Shalimar. The quote not only creates the image of one, big family filled with strong characters who were all completely crazy about perfume, but also really underscores the powerful impact that one’s parents (and their fragrance) can have on a person’s olfactory development. As Madame de Nicolaï explained:

I lived within the Guerlain Parisian ‘Hôtel Particulier’ for the first 20 years of my life. We had – and we still have – a very big family and we all had our corner in this wonderful spot. I could tell loads of little stories about my childhood but if I had to take one moment, it would be when I was waken up every morning by the powerful and spellbinding Shalimar that my mother used to wear. I did not need an alarm clock in that time! The Shalimar scent was my morning wakeup call! And I loved it! My mother’s room was situated underneath mine and the scent came through my window which was always open, because sleeping with an opened window is in fact very healthy. You can trust my grandmother on that!

My mother loved Shalimar , it is true, but she really liked to be the first one to ‘test’ all the perfumes created by Jean-Paul Guerlain. She was the tender ‘guinea pig’ of her beloved cousin.

Source: .beauty-mekka.de

Source: .beauty-mekka.de

As an adult, Madame de Nicolaï attended the perfume school, ISIPCA, at Versailles, and then was employed at Quest, which later turned into Givaudan. During the late 1980s, she spent a few years working alongside some famous “noses,” like Maurice Roucel. There is also Sophia Grosjman whom she assisted on Lancome‘s very popular Tresor.

Madame de Nicolaï always forged her own path, in part because she was not allowed to work at the family business and, in part, because 30 years ago, perfumed doors were closed to women. In fact, there is an interesting article in the Edmonton Journal which talks about the glass ceiling faced by women perfumers:

When she graduated from ISIPCA, the perfumery school in Versailles, de Nicolai initially sought a job as a junior perfumer but doors were closed. “Because I was a woman. Even if the manager said yes, the chief perfumer didn’t ever want to have a woman on his team.”

She was never allowed to work at the family business. (To be fair, the family sold it to luxury goods behemoth LVMH in 1994, but still.)

“A lot of people ask me that,” de Nicolai shrugged, diplomatically, before adding: “You should ask that to the Guerlain family!” A couple years ago in Paris, when Jean-Paul Guerlain handed in the reigns of house master perfumer and LVMH brought in the first non-family member Thierry Wasseur, I had done just that. [¶]

Did he not believe that women could be good perfumers? I asked. Monsieur Guerlain, then 71, waved his hand dismissively and muttered something about de Nicolai being a woman who made scented salts and candles.

Jean-Paul Guerlain via The Telegraph.

Jean-Paul Guerlain via The Telegraph.

To put it as politely as I can, Jean-Paul Guerlain seems to have … er… issues… with a number of social groups, beyond just women, as evidenced by his attitude towards minorities and immigrants. I am doing my utmost to refrain from commenting further.

Patricia de Nicolai in 1989 with the prize for best international perfumer. Source: CaFleureBon

Patricia de Nicolai in 1989 with the prize for best international perfumer. Source: CaFleureBon

Still, Madame de Nicolaï had talent that other people couldn’t deny or so easily dismiss. In fact, she seems to have had the last laugh. In 1988, she became the very first woman to ever win the “Prix International du Meilleur Parfumeur“, an award given to the best international perfumer from the French Society of Perfumers (SFP). According to Madame de Nicolaï’s Wikipedia entry, Luca Turin reportedly called her  “…one of the unsung greats of the fragrance world.”

In 1989, Madame de Nicolaï founded her own company, alongside her husband, Jean-Louis Michau. I suspect she did so in part because there were not a lot of other options open to her. As she stated in the CaFleureBon interview, her uncle (Jean-Paul Guerlain presumably) had told her that she had “to improve [her] skills and then ‘we’ll see’. This ‘we’ll see’ never happened.”

The Parfums de Nicolai website merely states that she

started ‘NICOLAI, parfumeur-créateur’ … to continue the prestigious family tradition of perfume creation. The concept was to emphasise the role of the perfumer. A perfumer free in his creative choices and free to use the best quality ingredients available.

With an impressive number of creations, Patricia de Nicolai has succeeded in building one of the largest collections of fragrances in the contemporary perfume business.

She is in charge of the creation of the fragrances as well as the purchase of the raw materials and the making of the concentrates.

In all these creations her personal style appears, giving a real signature imprint. Patricia de Nicolaï’s creations are identifiable, original and elegant reflecting the high Parisian ‘parfumerie’ and ‘Le luxe à la française.’ […][¶]

She is also the only independent woman perfumer to have her own fragrance company. [Emphasis in the original, not from me.]

In 2002, Jean-Paul Guerlain retired from the family business as Guerlain’s official nose. Many assumed the mantle would pass to Patricia de Nicolaï. Well, apparently, that glass ceiling is alive and well at Guerlain, even under LVMH ownership. Madame de Nicolaï was passed over entirely for the role of in-house perfumer, a position that eventually went to Thierry Wasser in 2008.

Thierry Wasser and Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: ellecanada.com

Thierry Wasser and Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: ellecanada.com

I find it utterly astonishing that a talented, much admired and respected nose who is an actual member of the Guerlain family was brushed aside. I simply can’t wrap my head around it. Guerlain’s Wikipedia page states: “With no heir from within the Guerlain family to take over, the role of master perfumer is no longer tied to family succession.” But there was an heir! An heir who was an actual nose, and who had received international recognition from her peers at an extremely young age! A 100+year family tradition was broken simply because Madame de Nicolaï was a woman??! It’s bloody outrageous.

Today, Patricia de Nicolaï runs her personal company, but is also the president of L’Osmothèque, the famed perfume museum at Versailles. It has become the main guardian of what is left of many of the legendary perfumes of the past, perfumes from Houbigant, Coty, and the like, perfumes that have now vanished from existence except for the tiny quantities that Osmothèque keeps in a Fort Knox-like vault. (You can read all about the fascinating place in a Fragrantica article, if you’re interested.) Osmothèque’s importance is just one of the reasons why France awarded Madame de Nicolaï its greatest honour when it made her a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2008.

Madame de Nicolai at Osmothèque.

Madame de Nicolai at Osmothèque.

Madame de Nicolaï is passionate about the cultural importance of perfumery. As the Edmonton Journal article makes clear, she believes perfume

it is part of the French cultural heritage, as important a cultural and economic export as fashion (which, in the aftermath of the Second World War, saved the country’s economy thanks almost entirely to Christian Dior’s New Look). “It’s a notion of art, and when in the middle of the 19th century synthetic molecules appeared and perfumers were not only chemists or apothecaries, they became really creators,” de Nicolai said.

“Perfume is probably the most sophisticated creation to make,” she added; “it’s very intellectual. It’s the most valuable product of our spirit.” More important than gender, she said, is that each creator has what in fine art is called la patte d’un peintre — the hand of the artist. “You recognize Beethoven, Mozart immediately,” de Nicolai said, and so too the signature of a perfumer.

Her own olfactory signature admits to certain genetic tendencies. “I am influenced by my family!” she admitted with rueful laugh. “Growing up Guerlain was always only nice perfumes, something you could recognize from afar, the sillage, and you would know it was Guerlain. I wanted to have the same approach.”

Source: Now Smell This.

Source: Now Smell This.

I respect Madame de Nicolaï for her character more than for anything to do with Guerlain. It’s not only her passionate commitment to the art of perfumery, but what seems to be to be something that I can only describe as integrity. She puts her head down, and quietly creates what she thinks is beautiful. Fads or popular trends be damned; it’s beauty and elegance which matter.

In fact, as she told CaFleureBon, one reason why she left Quest (Givaudan) was because she was fed up “by the practice of creating fragrances based on focus groups and marketing questions. I was very frustrated and I wanted to be free!” Her desire to be true to her own beliefs helps explain why it has taken Madame de Nicolaï years to put out a fragrance with oud. She did so finally in late 2013, only after intensely studing the character of the wood. As she said in her CaFleureBon interview, “I did not want to be trapped by trends. I am a free woman, free to create my own perfumes the moment I want to, regardless of any marketing concepts.”

I can’t tell you how much I respect all that. I’m a sucker for quiet intellectuals who also seem to be very down-to-earth, funny, humble, self-deprecating, warm and kind — traits which all the interviews demonstrate that Madame de Nicolaï has in abundance. Really, CaFleureBon did a stupendous job with their interview, and it is a stellar read from start to finish. It’s also quite funny in parts. I laughed like mad at Madame de Nicolai’s confession that she would have loved to make a perfume for Margaret Thatcher… because of how challenging it would be.

Source: rd.hu/A_parfüm_titkai

Source: rd.hu/A_parfüm_titkai

Apart from the three interviews linked up above, The Smelly Vagabond also has an account of an evening which a London perfume group spent with Madame de Nicolaï last year. It has lovely personal anecdotes, like how Madame de Nicolaï’s daughter suddenly “gets the flu” whenever she’s required to smell perfume. Or the key role played by her very supportive husband who urged her to begin her own perfume house:

At that time I had to take care of my children. My husband told me that if I stopped working in the perfume industry I would never be able to come back to it. Working for other companies was not an option because there is not enough freedom for the perfumer, who is under the whims of the marketing team. There is competition not just within the company but outside as well. So my husband told me that if I made the perfumes, he would settle the rest of the business.

As for her perfumes, well, there is one that I instantly liked, and liked so much that its memory stayed with me for months after I tried it in Paris and I ended up buying it. That will be the subject of the next review. The rest of her line isn’t always very “me,” however, as I find that many lack the sort of bold, opulent heaviness that I enjoy. However, I respect them a lot, appreciate their very classique feel, and can see the technical skill behind them.

"New York" via Luckyscent.

“New York” via Luckyscent.

I get the sense that there often seems to be one single Nicolai perfume that wrap its tentacles around you and becomes “yours.” Take, for example, Luca Turin who loved Madame de Nicolaï’s New York cologne so much that he wore it for a whole decade. In Perfumes: the A-Z Guide, he gives New York his highest 5-Star rating, and writes :

If Guerlain had any sense they would buy Parfums de Nicolaï, add her range to theirs, trash fifteen or so of their own laggard fragrances, a couple of de Nicolaï’s, and install owner-creator Patricia in Orphin as in-house perfumer. She is, after all, a granddaughter of Pierre Guerlain and genetic analysis might usefully reveal the genes associated with her perfumery talent. As a control where the genes are known to be absent, use the DNA of whoever did Creed’s Love in White. Smelling New York as I write this, eighteen years after its release, is like meeting an old high-school teacher that had a decisive influence on my life: I may have moved on, but everything it taught me is still there, still precious, and wonderful to revisit. New York’s exquisite balance between resinous orange, powdery vanilla and salubrious woods shimmers from moment to moment, always comfortable but never slack, always present but never loud. It is one of the greatest masculines ever, and probably the one I would save if the house burned down. Reader, I wore it for a decade.

Amber Oud. Source: CaFleureBon

Amber Oud. Source: CaFleureBon

I have samples of a few Nicolaï scents to test in the upcoming weeks or months, including Luca Turin’s beloved New York. It’s a nice, masculine fragrance which contains some of the Guerlain DNA, as it opens with a very superficial similarity to Habit Rouge before turning into something very different and wholly chypre-like in nature. I also have the oriental Maharanih (which I may skip reviewing as it has been discontinued in favour of the new Intense version), and the new Amber Oud whose notes include everything from lavender and thyme, to cinnamon, saffron, cedar, styrax, musk, castoreum and amber.

First up, though, will be the scent which I fell for and bought for myself, Sacrebleu Intense, a fragrance which I find to be a darker, non-powdery and possibly more unisex, modern take on Guerlain’s legendary masterpiece, L’Heure Bleue.

The Guerlain DNA, indeed. Better still, it’s from a really lovely person.

Review En Bref: Guerlain Spiritueuse Double Vanille

As always with my Reviews En Bref, I’ll give you a summary of my impressions of a perfume that — for whatever reason — didn’t seem to warrant a full, exhaustive review.

Guerlain SDVSpiritueuse Double Vanille (“SDV”) from Guerlain is a lovely, cozy fragrance. Created by Jean-Paul Guerlain and released in 2007, it was once part of Guerlain’s “Exclusive” range but is now available outside of Guerlain stores. It is an extremely unisex fragrance, despite being labeled as a perfume “for women.”  

On its website, Guerlain describes the scent through a quote from Jean-Paul Guerlain:

If a colour or fragrance were to be associated with each day, like the planets were in ancient times, sandalwood would be the Sun, saffron would be Jupiter, and without doubt vanilla would be Venus.

Guerlain SDV 2The notes in the perfume are:

  • Head: Pink Peppercorn, Bergamot, Incense

  • Heart: Cedar, Bulgarian Rose, Ylang-Ylang

  • Base: Vanilla Bean, Benzoin

Spiritueuse Double Vanille opens on me in a way that is really true to its notes. There is an immediate burst of rose, bergamot and incense, followed quickly by pink peppercorn. The bergamot isn’t like Earl Grey tea but, rather, more like petitgrain: the woody-citric distillation of twigs from a citrus tree. The rose is heady, sweet, rich and dark. A definite damask rose.

There is obvious vanilla throughout, strongly evoking long, freshly sliced Madagascar beans or concentrated vanilla extract. It leads to a very boozy smell, tinged with florals and some incense notes. The latter is particularly lovely, as the smoke is not bitter or smoky. Rather, it’s sweet and rounded. It’s a perfect counterbalance to the rose.

Ten minutes in, the rose fades just a little, leaving a definite impression of an apple pie soaked in vanilla ice-cream with rum sauce. Twenty minutes in, a subtle, quiet cedar note emerges. It’s not camphorous, but fresh and dry, like a new cedar chest of drawers. Despite the subtle wood note, the overwhelming impression is of apple pie and hookahs (or water pipes).

And that is why this is such a short review. I feel as though I’ve been down this road before: Spiritueuse Double Vanille reminds me almost exactly of Hermès‘ 2004 Ambre Narguilé. There are a few, very small, extremely minor differences but, all in all, I feel as though I could essentially just repeat large chunks of my review of Ambre Narguilé here, and be done with it. They are both incredibly boozy, rich scents with fruity tobacco and swirling incense, smoke notes that evoke a hookah. I’m hardly the only one who has noted the incredibly strong similarity. Birgit from Olfactoria’s Travels said the same thing, and there are numerous Basenotes threads comparing the two (along with Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille).

There are some differences, though they are subtle. The Guerlain is slightly denser and richer, and a tiny bit less airy than the Jean-Claude Ellena concoction for Hermès. The latter has faintly more fruity undertones, especially to the tobacco, while the Guerlain is more fruity-floral. Also, the tobacco in the Guerlain fragrance turns from that of sweet pipe tobacco into something a bit dryer, earthier, in its dry-down, more akin to actual tobacco leaves. The Hermès perfume screams out “rum, rum raisin, rum, more rum, and amber,” while the Guerlain’s chant might be “rum, vanilla, rum raisin, vanilla, rum and vanilla, and vanilla.” Honestly, though, those nuances are not strong enough to warrant buying bottles of both. If you have one, you don’t really need the other. (That said, when has actual “need” ever figured into perfume purchases?)

As noted up above, Spiritueuse Double Vanille is often compared to Tom Ford‘s Tobacco Vanille. I have not yet tried the latter (though it is becoming increasingly apparent that I need to move my sample up on my list of things to review), but, again, there are supposed to be differences. This time, however, the differences are said to be quite stark. From what I’ve read on Basenotes and elsewhere, Tom Ford’s perfume is supposed to be brash and assertive — Spiritueuse Double Vanille on steroids, if you will. Guerlain’s perfume is said to be perfect for those who find the Tom Ford to be too much. As a side note, I’ve also read of a third perfume to which the Guerlain can be compared: Bond No. 9‘s New Haarlem. I have no familiarity with that one, either, but, if you’re interested, you can read a discussion comparing all four scents on Basenotes.

Luca Turin gave Spiritueuse Double Vanille a less than stellar review in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. Calling it “bad vanilla,” his snarling two-star review is as follows:

Anyone who has bought vanilla in pods knows that they do not smell very good up close, with dissonant fruity, rum-like notes that make you feel like skipping lunch. Guerlain obligingly magnifies all the negative traits of vanilla in this pointless, loud, and misconceived confection.

(As a point of comparison, Luca Turin gives Ambre Narguilé a three-star review that is slightly more flattering and positive.)

On Fragrantica, the criticisms of Spiritueuse Double Vanille seem to fall into two, related camps. First, that it is a linear scent of simple, boozy, vanilla extract. Second, that it is too expensive for what it is. Spiritueuse Double Vanille comes in only one size (2.5 oz/75 ml) and costs $250. I think price is, ultimately, a very subjective, personal thing, so I won’t comment on that. With regard to the other criticism, I don’t think SDV is a one-note scent and, on me, it’s certainly more than just plain vanilla extract. But, even if it were, I believe linearity is only a bad thing if you absolutely hate the note(s) in question.

The sillage and longevity of Spiritueuse Double Vanille is impressive. There was a scent bubble for about four hours, after which it became closer to the skin. All in all, it lasted about 8.5 hours on me. On others, it is said to last all day, though it is not the “beast” that is Tobacco Vanille.

If you like comforting, warm, sweet and boozy scents, I think you should give Spiritueuse Double Vanille a try. It’s not earth-shattering, but it is very cozy and I suspect some may find it wholly addictive.

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: Spiritueuse Double Vanille costs $250 for 2.5 fl. oz/75 ml. It is available at Guerlain boutiques, and on its websiteIt is also available on the Nordstrom website and, apparently, in the store. It is shown on the Neiman Marcus website (where it is priced at $225), but there is a note saying that it is not available; the same story applies to Bergdorf Goodman. (I don’t know if it is available within the stores themselves.) For all other countries, you can use Guerlain’s Store Locator on its website. If you’d like to give SDV a test sniff, you can get a sample from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $4.99 for half of a 1 ml vial.

Perfume Review: Guerlain’s notorious Mahora (and Mayotte)

normal_guerlain_mahora3-300x225

Elsa Benitez and Ayers Rock in Australia

I have a perpetual tendency to root for the under-dog. And I’m also naturally inquisitive, especially about things that are notorious. Which brings to me to Mahora, the beleaguered, endlessly trashed, and notorious last fragrance of Jean-Paul Guerlain for the House that bears his name.

images

Mahora – the bottle for the Extrait version

Common reactions to Mahora range from “Worst. Perfume. EVER!” to comments about mosquito repellents or suntan lotions. Luca Turin — that endlessly acerbic perfume critic (with whom I often disagree, by the way) — apparently compared this to a $200 plug-in air freshner and called it Guerlain’s worst fragrance. It’s a fragrance sometimes nicknamed “My Whore,” due not only to its pronunciation in certain accents but also, undoubtedly, due to its over-ripe nature. And, yet, there are also numerous raves about its lushness and its heady, fearless, almost comfortingly exotic character. How could I possibly resist seeing what all the fuss was about?!

Mahora

Mahora in the Eau de Parfum bottle

Mahora was released in 2000 in Eau de Parfum form as an homage to the island of Mahore (or Mayotte) where Guerlain has plantations of jasmine and ylang-ylang. It is a tropical, slightly fruity, super floral with an oriental dry-down. It is also the least Guerlain-like fragrance imaginable!

That difference probably explains, in part, why it was a complete and an utter bomb in the marketplace; Guerlain buyers used to things like Jicky, Shalimar or even, Jardins de Bagatelles, were undoubtedly bewildered by such a Hawaiian island fragrance.

Quietly discontinued just two years or so after its debut, Mahora was later re-released in 2006 with a name change. It was now called Mayotte and was included in Guerlain’s images (1)Les Parisiennes collection (supposedly with a significant price increase as a result). You can still find Mahora easily and relatively inexpensively on eBay (where I bought my bottle) for between $15 and $60, depending on size and seller. Mayotte, in contrast, is reportedly available only at the Guerlain store in Paris and at Bergdorf Goodman in New York where it retails for $270. We’ll get to the comparisons between the two fragrances shortly and whether either one is worth a shot.

According to Aromascope and other sites, Mahora’s notes are as follows: orange, almond tree blossoms, ylang-ylang, neroli, tuberose, jasmine, sandalwood, vetiver, and vanilla. What almost none of these official notes include — but which almost everyone can detect — is frangipani. Frangipani is also known as plumeria, a flower common to Frangipanitropical climates like Mexico or South America but also to such exotic islands as Fiji, Tahiti and Hawaii. It has a very heavy, heady, lushly ripe, extremely sweet scent similar to magnolia, gardenia and tuberose. It can also bring to mind coconuts. (All of which make the Australian desert landscape of the Mahora commercial rather odd, in my mind.)

Frangipani is best described as an “indolic” scent, meaning over-ripe, almost to the point of decay. Tuberose is another very indolic flower which is why extremely creamy, ripe tuberose scents can — on some people — bring to mind feces or a cat’s litter box. (You have no idea how many people shy away from anything involving tuberose. If there is any scent that seems to strike fear in the heart of many women, it seems to be tuberose. I should confess that I adore tuberose and it’s my favorite flower in general.)  Indolic scents are not easy one, and combining frangipani with tuberose and jasmine was a brave, brave move. (One which apparently fell flat on its nose, judging by some of the extremely harsh reviews.) I have absolutely no idea why frangipani is not included on the official perfume notes, but there is zero doubt in my mind (and that of many others) that it’s included. In fact, I would go so far as to say that extremely indolic frangipani is the foundation to Mahora.

When I first sprayed Mahora, I did so carefully and gingerly. This is a perfume known to be a powerhouse. It’s been compared to such notoriously heady 80s blockbusters as Poison and Giorgio, or other infamously strong scents like Amarige and Opium. So I gently lowered the rather awkward blue top and gave a few squirts. And what I got was not  the expected orange notes I’d read about but, rather, green notes. Ripe, not crisply fresh, but most definitely green notes. A burst of the vetiver, perhaps? If so, this was like no vetiver I’d ever smelled because the overall result was like dirty water in a vase of rotting flowers that hadn’t been changed in a week. (Perhaps vetiver shouldn’t be mixed with tuberose by anyone but the Piguet perfumers who make Fracas. I love Fracas. This is no Fracas.)

The smell of filthy, murky, green, vase water was soon joined by coconut, sandalwood and what seemed to be almond tree. Not almond tree blossoms, but rather, the woody notes of a slightly moist, aged, possibly decaying tree bark. This too was…. unexpected and off-kilter. And it lasted a good 10 minutes or so, until it turned to a coconut sunscreen effect (mixed with the slightly brackish, rotten vegetal water scent) over a smell of buttered white flowers. Yes, buttered. As in buttered popcorn mixed with very heady tuberose and white flowers. I feel as though I’m wearing a dose of AMC Cinema’s popcorn butter mixed with white flowers and coconut. And, yet, it’s not Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion, it’s not even Bain de Soleil (which I used to love) because of those blasted almond tree, wood, vetiver and green notes!

It’s perplexing. This is nothing like what I expected — which was a giant white floral with tropical elements. The initial scent is off-putting, unconventional and disorienting in the way of niche houses, like Serge Lutens. Just as his Tubéreuse Criminelle turns things upside down and on their head with a camphorous green note to the tuberose, the Mahora is very far from a mainstream, white tuberose scent in its initial opening bouts. It’s even further from most Guerlain fragrances, though I’ve seen some understandable comparisons to Guerlain’s Samsara. I think Jean-Paul Guerlain sought, perhaps, to make a tropical, exotic version of Samsara here. I simply don’t think he succeeded. (That said, I should confess that Samsara is not one of my favorite Guerlains either.)

An hour in, and Mahora is all big white flowers. It’s too exotic and tropical to be compared to Fracas or to some Estée Lauder variation. It’s got too much frangipani to really compare. It’s also starting to fade on me. I speak often of how my body consumes perfume but really, I expected this one to last! All the endless comments about migraines, monster sillage and longevity and I get maybe two hours of full scent before it starts to become closer to the skin. I think that, as the frangipani/coconut recedes and the other, softer white flowers come more to the foreground, Mahora starts to become less brash and heady. It’s calmer now, though I still smell the coconut.

Three hours in, the coconut has finally left the building and the Guerlain signature has entered. Mahora has unfurled into a creamy, vanilla with sandalwood and only a hint of the white flowers. It’s also started to develop of touch of that famous Guerlinade. “Guerlinade” refers to that Guerlain note which is a signature on most of their perfumes at the foundational element and which wafts through the dry-down with a very powdery (sometimes slightly vanilla-tinged) accord. I smell a wisp, possibly just in my imagination, of the jasmine but it’s faint. One thing is clear, however: Mahora has turned into a Guerlain oriental. All in all, Mahora lasted about 5 hours on me, which was considerably less than the enormous amount of time reported for the fragrance by most commentators.

While most commentators say that Mahora and its successor, Mayotte, are identical, there are some who disagree. The experts at CaFleureBon certainly see a difference in an article entitled “Sexy Sadie Thompson of M. Somerset Maugham’s Rain.” Another site, Aromascope (linked up above) compares the two fragrances as follows:

While Mayotte is an ode to ylang-ylang, Mahora dignifies tuberose. […]  I find Mayotte much more Guerlain-like: it possesses the same peachy heft of Mitsouko. Mahora, on the other hand, strikes me as rather aggressive and mutinous. Its sugared, almost oily tuberose seems to defy all things Guerlain, and perhaps that’s the reason the fragrance didn’t do so well. In spite of being much more refined and polished, Mayotte can hardly be called a tame and acquiescent version of Mahora – it bears but faint sibling resemblance and respectfully begs to differ. While Mahora is heady and persistent, Mayotte is soft and enveloping and has won my heart as the best ylang-ylang scent ever created.

Others sharply disagree and say that there is absolutely no difference between the two scents. Still others say that Mayotte is simply a weaker eau de toilette concentration of Mahora, though the fact that both are officially listed as “eau de parfum” seems to counter that theory.

So, is it worth trying? I’ve seen one reviewer argue that, if Mahora had been released now and under the Serge Lutens label, “as a hoity-toity luxury perfume, it would be resounding [sic] a success among sophisticated perfumistas.” I can see the point and rationale. I think I may even agree, particularly when remembering Mahora’s unexpected opening and when thinking about Serge Lutens Datura Noir. I found the latter significantly underwhelming, though it’s been long enough since I last tried it that I can’t recall all the details of why. It certainly shares a similar coconut and tuberose trait, though!

In the end, it’s a fragrance that only a white-flower lover may like and, even then, it’s not breath-taking or particularly special, outside of its history and notoriety. (For purposes of balance, my memories of the famous Serge Lutens Datura Noir, and indeed a number of his fragrances, also rank in the “not particularly special” category.) Do I regret buying a full bottle? No, not really. I rarely regret buying perfume, especially not one that is hard to find, discontinued, and controversial to boot. It’s worth it for me just to have it for my collection and for being able to know it. I also like being able to make up my own mind about super polarising scents. And, lastly, I can always find a use for some perfume or another. (With the exception of Montale’s Lime Aoud which is truly THE worst thing I have ever smelled!)

However, I would not feel that way if Mahora were not so cheap on eBay. There is absolutely NO way on God’s green earth that I would pay $270 (not including tax) for the Mayotte version. None. I bought my 1.7 oz bottle of eau de parfum for $23 or so! For that cost, Mahora is a fun, exotic, tropical white flowers oriental perfume that I can wear in winter before going to bed and when I want to mentally escape to Fiji. For $23, I get to see what all the fuss is about.

And that fuss is definitely not worth $270.