Saturday, May 4, 2013

Is Mayotte Mahora? First sketch of an outline of a theory of perfume identity

How many times have I heard Guerlain Mahora denounced by perfumistas as an epic failure on the part of the otherwise venerable house of Guerlain? How many of those who parrot this refrain have even experienced the now-discontinued perfume? 

Mahora was launched in 1999 (according to the date on my bottles) but swiftly pulled from the counters and boutiques. How many times have I heard it said that Guerlain Mayotte, launched in 2006, is no more and no less than Mahora? In fact, the claim is frequently made that Mayotte is Mahora, albeit rebottled and sold under a new name, and this appears to be widely accepted as the truth.

Needless to say, the blogosphere- disseminated "factoids" to the effect that, first, Mahora is horrible and, second, Mayotte is Mahora, have left me puzzled and perplexed. I have been known to gush about Mahora, so the first and foremost source of my perplexity inheres in the simple fact that such an excellent perfume should be trashed so volubly by so many people. But there is more to my puzzlement than profound disagreement on a matter of taste. After all, the Mahora haters may well love Insolence, which at least in the eau de toilette form (I've yet to muster up the courage to try the eau de parfum), I find utterly repulsive. If so, then I can remind myself how very subjective perfume perception is, deriving a modicum of solace and comfort once more from the handy adage

One perfumista's treasure is another perfumista's trash.

That little piece of folk wisdom, however, is not enough to dispel the logical quandary posed by the second of the two claims, that Mayotte is in fact Mahora. On the face of it, the claim is preposterous, and I have never believed it to be true. Why? First, because if Mahora was a resounding market flop in part because of its "nasty" scent, then there would be nary a reason for Guerlain to have launched the "disaster" all over again. Would there?

Second, it has been brought to our collective attention that Guerlain has reformulated most if not all of their perfumes. Why would Mahora, even if under a pseudonym, not, too, have been put under the chemist/accountant's knife, all under the pretext of needing to comply with the IFRA?

There are a few possible responses to these concerns, commencing with the most obvious, that when Mahora was launched, Guerlain was still an independent house. Such apparent logical preposterousness would not be precluded in the least by Guerlain's new corporate master, LVMH, which after all is now infamous for having worked wonders for the house of Christian Dior by renaming Miss Dior Chérie as Miss Dior and Miss Dior as Miss Dior L'Originale, sowing confusion far and wide.  LVMH also appears to be responsible for the complete and utter perversion of the once-beautiful Aqua Allegoria line. In the wake of these sorts of wild and wacky business moves, it becomes difficult to insist that relaunching Mahora as Mayotte can only be written off as completely out of the question. Everything is permitted, it seems, chez LVMH, so why not that, too?

After all, it might be thought, or it might have been thought by the marketing gurus at Guerlain under the aegis of LVMH, that Mahora's real problem was her marketing campaign. Perhaps people were put off by the shiny-skinned naked model standing in an exotic scene before what looks to be a volcano in the middle of the desert and channeling perhaps the gods of Indian mythology. But wait, did not Tom Ford put naked flesh to good use in marketing the decidedly unedgy Tom Ford Cologne

Details, details. Are they or are they not the same?

The Proof is in the Juice?

Fortunately, there is no need to delve further into the inscrutably labyrinthine strategic cogitations of the marketing team at LVMH. Thanks to my perfume pal Andrew Buck at The Scentrist, who recently gave away a large bottle (125ml) of Mayotte, of which I was the lucky winner, I am able to compare the juice of Mahora to the juice of Mayotte side by side and decide whether or not they are the same. One nose, one set of skin, two bottles of juice. Are they the same?

HRH Emperor Oliver stands by, ready to assist in the definitive sniffing test

Let's begin with the visuals. The juice inside the Mahora and the Mayotte bottles is similarly colored and appears even to have approximately the same viscosity. I had remembered Mahora as having a thicker, more viscous texture, but as I compared the two perfumes, both at eau de parfum concentration, side by side, I recognized that my memory had built up Mahora in my mind as a golden elixir. In fact, it's just as watery looking as Mayotte. So are they then the same? Not so fast. Colored water is sometimes used to fill perfume bottles put on display. We cannot be sure that the juice is the same from the color alone.

The day I received my package from The Scentrist, upon my initial application of Mayotte, I was absolutely convinced that it was nothing like Mahora. In fact, I found Mayotte much closer to Versace Blonde! More animalic, more vague and cloudy, less golden and gleaming and glistening. Still, I could not be sure until comparing the juices side by side.

When I tried that, on a different day, I found that the opening of Mahora and the opening of Mayotte are not all that different, although Mahora does seem more sweet. The real story does not reveal itself until the drydown, when the two perfumes smell nothing alike. Mayotte  turns out to be rather linear, smelling more or less the same from start to finish, with only a diminution in strength until it finally fades away. 

Please rest assured that I sprayed the same amount of these perfumes on (Mahora on the left, Mayotte on the right), so the radical distinction in longevity, sillage, and trajectory cannot be explained away by spritz-versus-dab phenomenology. The Mayotte bottle does not have a sprayer, but I decanted the liquid into a purse spray vessel for the purpose of this comparison.

Mahora, in contrast to Mayotte, grows stronger and more luxuriant as it melds into the skin, which heats up the perfume to create a much bigger sillage than the perfume initially seemed to have. After a couple of hours, there is no comparison to be made whatsoever. At best, Mayotte can be read as a reformulation of Mahora, quite a bit weaker, and much less sweet and intoxicating. Mayotte is a pleasant enough tuberose scent, but it is not Mahora, the complex elixir which I fell in love with at first sniff and which I continue to love still today, long after my esteem for the house of Guerlain has dwindled to nearly nothing. Mahora is the last vestige of a by-gone era.

My conclusion: the two perfumes are not the same. But is my reasoning sound?

What are the criteria for identity in perfumery?

Perfumes, like persons, are rather complex things, ontologically speaking. What makes a perfume a perfume, and how do we decide that it is or is not the same as another? I argued above that Mayotte is not Mahora. The basis of my claim is that the two perfumes smell rather different, especially in the drydown.

It may be objected, however, that Mayotte is closer to Mahora than to any other Guerlain perfume. After all, there is a relative dearth of tuberose in the Guerlain line-up. Rose and vanilla abound, but tuberose? Perhaps that is what everyone who has propelled this falsehood far and wide, faster than the speed of sound and throughout the world wide web, really meant. Perhaps when people say "Mayotte is a relaunch of Mahora," they mean no more and no less than that Mayotte is a lot closer to the discontinued Mahora than it is to any of the extant creations, so it must be a relaunch of the same, more or less. 

Why get bogged down with picayune details? Hardly anyone knows what Mahora smells like anyway, and even fewer want to find out, now that it has been pervasively, and I dare say perniciously, denounced as the worst perfume ever to have been designed by Jean-Paul Guerlain. The received view appears to be that Jean-Paul Guerlain had a very bad nose day when he signed off on Mahora. I respectfully demur from the "conventional wisdom", needless to say.

If purveyors of the received view mean that Mayotte is "more or less" Mahora, then what they are perhaps saying is that Mayotte began in the lab as Mahora but then was reformulated. That would, in fact, make a lot of sense, given that Mahora was a market flop, and Guerlain has in any case reformulated just about everything else.

But if that is what happened, then why claim that Mayotte is Mahora in the first place? How can identifying a recent launch with a previously launched failure help anyone? Oh right, LVMH marches to the beat of their own drummer, which in their case means operating beyond the realm of logic. Has the conglomerate perhaps been infiltrated by spies from the competition, say, Procter & Gamble or Elizabeth Arden or Coty or Estée Lauder? On ne sait jamais...

I strongly suspect that the real reason why this falsehood has gained such traction is simply that the two perfumes do look similar, and they also smell similar in the opening minutes. Anyone who writes a review on the basis of the opening, without waiting around for the lengthy and complex drydown of Mahoranonexistent for Mayottemay easily conclude that the two perfumes are "more or less" the same, and depending upon their sensitivity, they may or may not notice the difference in sweetness between the two.

One thing, perhaps the only thing, of which we can be absolutely sure is that Mahora was never reformulated. It was launched and discontinued, thank goodness, I might add, since now when we score a bottle at least we know what's really inside, what certainly cannot be taken for granted in cases such as ShalimarSamsaraJickyMitsouko, and many other of the classic perfumes from the house of Guerlain.

I have based my judgment that Mayotte is not Mahora on the simplest of evidence: how the liquids in the bottles smell. In reality, perfume identity is not at all dependent upon scent, as odd as that may seem to those who pride themselves on learning as much as they possibly can about perfume. 

Clearly, the formula is not considered an essential part of the perfume. Why? Because countless perfumes bearing the same names have been serially reformulated. The scent of Coty Muguet des Bois has changed, but the name stays the same. The identity criteria are quite different in the case of perfume than they are in virtually any other realm. If a company owns a perfume formula, then they have the right to retain the name and fiddle with formula, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it.

By this logic, the only way that Mayotte could really be Mahora would be if Guerlain had kept the name Mahora and slapped it on the perfume instead of the name Mayotte. The two are not the same because the house says that they are not the same. By using a different name, Guerlain has stipulated that the perfumes are not identical. Mayotte is not a relaunch of Mahora, because only same-named perfumes can be relaunched.

That is all that perfume identity amounts to: the house and the name. No, wait! Even that is too much. Take cases such as Balenciaga Rumba. The formula for Rumba was sold to Ted Lapidus. They proceeded to reformulate the perfume, while still selling it in the same bottle, albeit with the house name Ted Lapidus replacing the house name Balenciaga. This is not a case where a corporate overlord has arrived on the scene to manage the company. No, Balenciaga still exists as a house, and it is not owned by Ted Lapidus. Balenciaga continues to launch new perfumes, but no longer owns Rumba. Balenciaga is owned by Coty, and Ted Lapidus is owned by the Jacques Bogart Group. (As far as I know, Coty does not own the Jacques Bogart Group. Perhaps it's on their future acquisition wish list?)

Yet Rumba continues to be sold as Rumba, despite the fact that Ted Lapidus completely reformulated the perfume, and the bottle emblazoned with the Ted Lapidus label now boasts completely different notes than did the Balenciaga original. This example shows that what matters is who owns the formula for a named perfume. They then own the name, and can at their caprice completely change the formula! Perfume names are no more and no less than brands. If a company decides that it will be more lucrative to completely transform "the product", as they view the matter, then they will. 

Perfumes, from the perspective of business people, are no more and no less than products. Mahora did not sell well, so Mahora was terminated with extreme prejudice. Mahora does not exist anymore, according to Guerlain itself, and for that reason Mayotte is not Mahora. The fact that different recipes were used to produce the two liquids is entirely beside the point. What matters is what the house says. Guerlain says that Mayotte is Mayotte. Guerlain ceased production of Mahora. Therefore, the two are not the same.

The nail in the coffin in this case is the simple fact that the official notes, provided by the house itself, are different for the two perfumes.


top: green notes
middle: frangipani, jasmine, neroli, tuberose, ylang-ylang
base: sandalwood, vanilla vetiver


top: green notes, almond blossom, orange
middle: jasmine, neroli, tuberose, ylang-ylang
base: sandalwood, vanilla vetiver

Frangipani is listed for Mayotte, but not for Mahora. Almond blossom and orange are listed for Mahora but not for Mayotte. How, in the light of such evidence has this clear-cut case of false identity persisted for so long?

In fact, applying my well-intentioned but ultimately irrelevant olfactory test to any number of pairs of reformulated perfumes, one would conclude, erroneously, that they are not the same. That is to fall into a sort of fantasy world about perfumes, which do not exist as objects independent of the houses which produce them. The houses are the gods of the universe of perfumery, and the perfumes are at the complete and utter mercy of their gods. There are no Platonic Forms when it comes to perfume. There are only products being peddled to markets by hook or by crook.

The sort of deception which we deem unacceptable in our dealings with other human beings is the order of the day when it comes to the business world. The line between false advertising and seduction is impossible to locate when it comes to perfume, so long as its provenance is the house which owns the rights to the formula. By definition, Guerlain cannot commit fraud when it comes to their own perfumes, as odd as that may seem. They exhaustively define the parameters and contents of the microcosmic perfume universe coextensive with their house.

Whoever owns the formula of the juice, makes the rules.


  1. This is an interesting exposition on these two perfumes, Sher. I don't put any stock in house-released note pyramids because I think they're an intrinsic part of marketing, carefully crafted to appeal to whatever demographic-tastes are currently considered "buyers." But I like that there is a thorough analysis of how these two Guerlains develop and diverge.

    One thought is that there was success in marketing Mahora to a specific market, like perhaps the Middle East, but that it wasn't enough to continue funding production of the formula, so it was discontinued. Then, thanks to a revival of interest in French perfumes about eight years ago, a broader spectrum achieved "demographic" status with Guerlain and they felt confident enough to subtly retool Mahora and re-release its new formula as Mayotte. I understand the opening of both perfumes (when new) is rather perplexing and, to some, downright unappealing, but that it later develops into a very rich floral-green scent. Sounds awfully niche to me . . .

    1. Good Morning, Bryan, and thank you for sharing your thoughts!

      Your point about notes is well taken. In fact, I concur wholeheartedly with your skepticism about house-issued note hierarchies. They can sweeten up a perfume and then list "cotton candy", "sugar cubes", "meringue", "praline", "marshmallow", "divinity", "manna from heaven" or even "sucralose" (though I haven't seen anyone do that yet...).

      I added the note hierarchies as an afterthought to this post, but I did not mean to suggest that they have any literal validity. I consider them further evidence that the house of Guerlain sharply distinguishes the two perfumes from one another. I realize that my introduction of the note hierarchies might make it seem as though I believe what the houses say, which I do not, generally speaking. I'm not saying that they are liars, but they do whatever they feel that they need to do in order to sell a perfume.

      I have long been of the opinion that notes are metaphors. Roses, cedar trees, and all of the other things to which notes refer are not literally a part of any perfume. Essences and abstract renditions or surrogates of them are.

      Thank you for drawing our attention to the fact that we should not put too much stock in the notes list. That's not really the basis of my argument, but I realize now that it may come across that way!

      A propos of "niche quality": yes, Mahora smells very "niche" to me. I recently discovered that my prize from The Scentrist was quite the coup, since a bottle of Mayotte goes for circa $300! That perfume is apparently only available at the exclusive boutiques, so it is definitely a part of the Guerlain "niche" line. As indicated above, I believe that Mahora is a better perfume, and I suggested elsewhere (at Nero Profumo) that it would have been a success, had it been launched in a different context, say, as a part of the Serge Lutens line-up. It simply lacks the immediately affable quality needed to be a "buy at the counter" mainstream market success.

      Your theory about what really happened in this case is interesting, and certainly possible. My sniffing indicates that the two perfumes are definitely distinct, so the formula was indeed "re-tooled", in addition to the marketing campaign. Part of the new strategy was to transfer the new perfume to the boutique rather than the mainstream market. Guerlain is charging a lot of money for its niche offerings, and some people are invariably seduced by the investment itself. I've no doubt that some people truly prefer the new formula as well--in fact, someone at left a comment on this post to that effect: that she believes that the two perfumes are distinct but that Mayotte is better!

      A chacun son nez!

    2. Can we consider all Guerlains "niche?" I never quite know what to call them. They're not "designer" in the normal sense of the word.

    3. Hi Bryan,

      You are right that Guerlain is not a fashion house, and therefore cannot really be compared to, say, Calvin Klein, Prada, et al. On the other hand, Guerlain makes a huge amount of cosmetics and skin care products, so I tend to think of them as more mainstream than niche. Yes, they have their "niche-esque" offerings, but so does Estee Lauder, and no one would call them "niche"--or at least I don't think that they would. What would you say about Estee Lauder, Bryan?

      Another consideration is that the going prices for most Guerlain perfumes these days are firmly in the mainstream range. At the discounters, the now-reformulated classics are going for a fraction of MSRP, which was never at the level of haute niche (Amouage, Creed, etc.) to begin with.

      A further consideration is simply Guerlain's subsumption within the corporate conglomerate structure of LVMH. I tend to think of niche houses as independent, which Guerlain no longer is.

      I understand why you have that impression, but to me there are more reasons against than for characterizing the sum total of Guerlain perfumes as niche. Among other examples, the Shalimar sold at Walgreens does not strike me as the least bit niche--by any criterion...

    4. The Shalimar sold in Walgreens is not actually made by Guerlain. That's the "cologne" concentration, if I'm not mistaken. They farmed that out to some other entity a few years ago, which is why it's found at drugstores and discounters. Technically that's not even a Guerlain fragrance (anymore).

      I have a slightly different view of niche, in that I don't define it by price range. Yes, most niche is very expensive compared to designer fare. But that's not always the case. Look at the Pinaud range. Dirt cheap. Sold wholesale only to barbers and a handful of drugstores, and only to those who know they exist. Ask any guy or gal off the street what their favorite Pinaud fragrance is, and their eyes will glaze over. It's a barbershop niche. It's still niche.

      Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop is another example. That brand did nothing but make floral perfumes, or surprisingly high quality. Also dirt cheap.

      Al-Rehab is yet another example, the "Middle-Eastern fragrance oil" niche, on a supreme budget of anywhere from $5 to $10. It's crazy. Countless guys out there swearing Silver beats Silver Mountain Water, which is practically fifty times the price.

      But you make an excellent point regarding the cosmetics end of things. I hadn't considered that. Maybe because I'm a guy, I don't really know anything about the makeup division of Guerlain. I think Caron, if I'm not mistaken here, also does some sort of cosmetic business. And naturally Estee Lauder does, too. That's enough to send them into the designer end of the spectrum, then. Good call.

    5. I had *no* idea that the drugstore Shalimar is not even made by Guerlain anymore! Thank you so much for sharing that information, Bryan.

      I did not mean to suggest that price is a decisive factor, but only that it's one of a cluster of factors which, taken together, lead me to withhold the label "niche" in this case. I know that Guerlain is considered niche by many perfumistas who partake of the perfumes from the exclusive range, but a visit to the counter at most of the major department stores will reveal at least as much if not more skin care and cosmetics than perfume.

      I agree with you that there are "budget niche" brands. Lots of the independent traditional houses of France seem to fit into that category as well, including Molinard, Berdoues, Fragonard, et al. There are similar-tier Italian houses (Borsari, Gandini, ...), which also seem "niche" to me.

      The label has come to be used as a term of hype in recent years. I read your excellent post on that very topic today, by the way, and I'll be commenting chez toi soon. ;-)

  2. I came to Guerlain too late (just a year ago) to even know all the names - leave alone being able to trace different reincarnations of the favorites from more than a decade ago. But it was interesting to read your investigation.

    1. Thank you, Undina. Somewhat oddly, I became a Guerlainophile long before I became a perfumista. Guerlain was definitely my favorite house for several years. If memory serves, I just sort of accidentally discovered Mitsouko at Neiman Marcus thanks to a friendly sales associate...

      Probably I would not be so disappointed with the latest developments, had I been ignorant of pre-Y2K Guerlain. Alas, times really have really changed... By now, my trust in Guerlain has been shattered. I no longer make blind buys from this house, as I used to be able to do, back in the good old days...


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