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

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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.

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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.

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23 thoughts on “Perfume Review: Guerlain’s notorious Mahora (and Mayotte)

    • LOL! Was it the rotting vase water and hot cinema popcorn butter that did it? *grin* From some of your reviews that I’ve read, I think you share my curious nature, amusement at whimsical things, and willingness to explore new things. For $23 (or even the $10 for minis that I’ve seen), Mahora is worth an exploration for perfumistas just to see what all the notoriety is about. And, in truth, the dry-down isn’t too, too heinous. I really think that, if it stayed as pure-green vegetal, fecund, coconut floral water sold by someone like L’Artisan or The Different Company, some niche-loving, avant-guard perfume snob would find this to be hugely impressive in its off-balance oddness or extremeness. I just cannot fathom spending more than $25 max for either version of the fragrance. And the fact that Guerlain had the audacity to rename and try to sneak in this hugely polarising, infamous scent as “Mayotte” and charge $270 to boot is simply mind-boggling to me.

  1. I love your ending – saying it like it is. I’m curious about the cat-litter indolic notes. I think we in North America have a cultural struggle with anything that smells like decay, feces or dirt, etc. So the negative reviews about the indolic notes might be a result of a cultural bias.

    We should do a review together. It would be great fun and what we come up with will be hilarious.

    • I’ve never thought about the cultural issues involving tuberose. Hmm, I shall definitely have to ponder that one because, it’s true, the French seem to be a lot more open (nay, eager to embrace) heavy tuberose scents. Heavy scents in general, actually. What a fascinating thought you raise!

      I’d be happy to do a review together! I think that sounds like a lot of fun. A “He Said/She Said” (or She Said/She Said?) comparison. LOL. I just put in a massive order with Surrender to Chance though (which includes 2 Amouage — Jubiliation in men’s and women’s versions), along with Tom Ford (one of which is Oud Wood), stuff from l’Artisan, Ormond Jayne and some others, so it may need to wait a while. Oh, I also ordered the M7!! We could always do competing reviews of that one! It definitely continues our Oud theme. 😀

      • I think the whole idea of fragrance and culture is very interesting. I’m looking into learning more about it myself and if I come across something interesting, I’ll definitely share it.

        I recall Chandler Burr made similar observation to yours regarding how North Americans and European see fragrance. North Americans wear a fragrance as if to say “don’t run away, I’m clean” and Europeans wear a fragrance as if to say “come to me, I’m sexy”. It’s pretty hilarious but if you think about it, it’s sort of true.

        When I was in Paris last summer I noticed that many guys wore sweeter, woody-oriental fragrances, while here in Toronto, you can’t get away from smelling the fresh acquatics.

        Of the ones you mention, I was planning to review Oud Wood. I am hoping to get soon a sample of Oud by Francis Kurkjian. That’s another option if you could get a hold of one too.

        • Funny you should mention what you noticed in Paris because, just today, I read something on how the main type of perfume worn by the French was from the oriental genre. It wasn’t that simple, but it amounted to that. Have you ever read the lists of the most popular fragrances for a particular year for the French vs the Americans? I have. Almost totally diff. scents. I will go pull up Surrender to Chance’s listing for you in a few moments. But going back to the oriental group that you noticed, I find it interesting how the French tastes have changed. I grew up in France for the most part, albeit a little bit of everywhere else as well. Growing up and in my teens, the main perfume type was chypres for women and for men, aromatic fougères. Well, some sort of variation of fougères at least. Apparently, not anymore. lol.

          Please don’t get me started on acquatic scents…… 😉 I was grimacing just last night when compiling the glossary and going over the Calone compound. Things with acquatic notes are sometimes too much of a subset of the “clean, fresh” scents that drive me so crazy. LOL. I’ll be back in a second with the links to those lists because I think you’ll find it interesting.

          • Thank you so much. That would be interesting to see. The acquatics have been so overdone that if tomorrow they go away, I promise I won’t miss them…well maybe except Eau D’Orange Verte but technically that’s a citrus aromatic.

            Speaking of fougeres, I just tried the re-release of Fougere Royale by Houbigant. It’s a reformulation of the original that started the genre. It’s so pungent and at the same time so old-fashioned masculine. Not my style to wear but I find it extremely interesting to smell.

        • Here you go. The list of bestsellers for France (though it’s for 2011) can be found here: http://surrendertochance.com/2011-best-selling-perfumes-for-women-in-france-sample-set-17-samples-with-gift-box/

          For American women in 2011: http://surrendertochance.com/best-selling-perfumes-for-women-united-states-sample-set-18-samples-with-gift-box/

          BTW, that Chandler Burr quote is hilarious *and* true, imo! I may have to quote that to some of my friends. LOL.

          • Off the top, I notice much lighter florals are on the list for North America and much stronger orientals/gourmands are on the French list. I bet the men’s list is not much different. My best guess:

            North America Top Fragrance List:

            1. Armani Acqua di Gio
            2. Chanel Bleu de Chanel
            3. D&G Light Blue Homme

            France Top Fragrance List:

            1. Dior Homme Intense
            2. YSL Le Male
            3. Terre D’Hermes

          • I think you absolutely nailed it for the men’s US list! No question in my mind. (D&G Light Blue, mens or women’s version is…. *shudder*). Interesting choices for the men. I’m obviously not as au courant as you, my friend, on men’s fragrances but I do know a little. Why would you put Terre d’Hermès at No. 3 and not at, say, No. 1? I haven’t smelled Dior’s Homme Intense or YSL’s LeMale, but I would think YSL’s L’Homme in regular or Soir version might give LeMale a run for its money in terms of popularity, no?

            In pondering the question and, as always turning to my trusty Google, I found an article from the NYT’s that gave some surprising results for 2010’s 3rd most popular choice: Eau Sauvage. It also noted the revival of the old classiques. I think I’m going to try to figure out how to reblog it without quoting it verbatim, particularly given that I just reviewed the Monsieur de Givenchy that they show in the photo. LOL. Anyway, here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/20/fashion/a-revival-for-classic-mens-fragrances-skin-deep.html And, when you get the chance, I’d love to hear why you chose those 2 for your top 2 choices? Also, I wanted to mention that the infernal Acqua di Gio is so popular world wide, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were in the top 3 for the French too. Even my best friend in Denmark wore it until recently, much to my utter horror! I got him to go order some Lutens, Malle & Chanel Exclusifs in sample form from the US. heh. I am nothing but determined to eradicate the blight that is Acqua di Gio! 😉

  2. LOL, the smell of vase water was enough to tell me I never want to smell this. I don’t think I’m afraid of “earthy” natural smells (in fact, I generally love them), but I *hate* the smell of the water that is left behind in vases after a bouquet dies. Blech! Another great review! I’m so glad you started blogging, I love reading your thoughts on different scents!

  3. Pingback: Cultural Difference in Perfume Tastes & the Revival of the Classics for Men | Kafkaesque

  4. Pingback: Cultural Differences in Perfume Tastes & the Revival of the Classics for Men | Kafkaesque

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  6. I’ve been wearing Mahora now Mayoote for two days now as my SOTD. I figured it was appropriate given it’s a whopping 86° in the city with stifling humidity! Can you believe it?

    I tried not to read anything about it before trying it for two days. I do have to say that in my notes, I actually wrote, “This is Guerlain?!” Followed by “There is something super musty about this thing . . .” Then when I read your description of brackish, murky, green vase water, it totally clicked. That is exactly what I get too for about the first hour or two before it segues into just a very big, fleshy, tropical white floral. I could have sworn up and down that there was frangipani in there, but apparently tuberose has many guises (and after refreshing my fragrance, I do smell that tell-tale camphorous signature).

    Pretty much the most un-Guerlain-esque Guerlain that I have tried. I even find the famous base restrained, only really detecting it after 7-8 hours (this lasts forever on me).

    That being said, I appreciate it for what it is. I like that Guerlain attempted to do something more challenging. Is it for me? Sadly no. Would I spend over $200 for it? No. Would I spend $23 for it? Heck yeah! Even if I didn’t really wear it, the bottle alone is worth the price of admission. the interesting juice is a bonus.

    It does kind of make me want to go to Tahiti and wear a sarong. In that case, I think M. Guerlain was quite successful 🙂

    • I totally missed this comment at the time, so forgive the very late reply regarding Mahora. I’m SO glad that I wasn’t imagining that brackish, murky, green vase water scent. I’m sad you got it too, but I’m relieved it’s not just my nose that detects it. As for the frangipani, I can definitely see why you’d smell something like that. I guess it’s the overall fleshy, indolic nature of the flower with that almost ripe, fruity aspect. All in all, very much an UN-Guerlain Guerlain, as you said. So, for the cost and around $23, are you tempted to hit eBay? lol

  7. Fascinating blog, really makes me want to go and learn more about perfumes. At the risk of being scandalous, I fell in love with Mahora while in Egypt in 2001. I ordered a large bottle from overseas once I returned to Australia and have loved it ever since, particularly in Winter. I spend quite a bit of time living in the Pacific and it is a perfect scent to wear on hot humid days where a multitude of scents fight for your attention as you wander around the place. I wonder if place and climate play a part in the appeal of certain scents.

    • Not scandalous at all, but a lovely story. 🙂 Odd as it may sound, I can imagine the smell of Mahora wafting out near the pyramids at dawn. As for places and climates, I have no doubt that some scents work better in certain environments than others. Then, when you add in the emotional factor of certain locations fitting well with the spirit and feel of a scent, it definitely can add to its appeal.

      I’ve actually become a little fascinated lately with the issue of humidity/heat in a perfume’s development, and I’ve tested a few in both very cool, air-conditioned environments and in extraordinarily humid ones (ie, no AC at all). One fragrance that is supposed to replicate a few South-East Asian aroma’s (Etat Libre d’Orange’s Fils de Dieu) was rather terrible, boring, and citric with the cool, but the heat made it bloom the way it was supposed to. It was a wholly different scent, and infinitely better. So I can definitely understand your feelings about Mahora fitting perfectly with the climate of the Pacific. 🙂 Thank you so much, Anna G, for stopping by to share your experiences and thoughts on Mahora. It was lovely.

  8. I too thought Turin’s mention was nasty-tempered, and when I was able to pick up a mini of Mahora on ebay for $8, I snapped that sucker up. And loved it, for a good eight hours – I have scent-eating skin as well, but certain elements seem to stick well on it, namely vanilla and white florals. I didn’t get any old vasewater; that’s kind of a deal-killer for me (can you say Nuit de Tubereuse? can you say HOLY @*%&@t(_ Manoumalia?).

    HOwever, after those eight hours, Mahora got nastier and nastier on me. I have no idea what caused that, as after three miserable experiences with it I passed my mini on to a friend, but it was metallic, synthetic, thoroughly unpleasant, something like my experience with the drydown of Puredistance Antonia. I wanted to die, or failing that cut my arm off.

    Have you smelled Manoumalia?

    • God, it’s so good to find someone else who dislikes Nuit de Tubereuse! *grin* No, I haven’t tried Manoumalia, but I’ve been curious.

      You know, I’m rather intrigued by what particular floral note may be the problem in turning “metallic” for you in a number of these fragrances. I wonder if it is the same note, or something else. Antonia, Mahora, Penhaligon’s Blue Bell…. I wonder what it is? Perhaps something in the base, or some synthetic which makes the flower note go terribly wrong when they combine? A vanilla element, or would it be some form of musk synthetic? We should try to figure this out, as it it might spare you some future horrors. 🙂

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