Y is for ylang-ylang

Number 25 in The A to Z of the Writer’s Affliction, part of the A to Z blogging challenge.


I’m hardly an expert in perfume, but I fully understand why the ylang-ylang is a sought after ingredient. I could say that to me it smells sweet and pure, but all that says is that I lack the proper vocabulary. To be more precise: The delicate heart note is redolent of ripe apricots and spicy florals, while the sweet, balsamic drydown is warm and enveloping. Add various accents like crème brûlée, apple or rubber, and you have a multifaceted raw material that can be used for ethereal florals like Dior Diorissimo as well as sumptuous chypres like Rochas Femme. There you have it as described by perfume specialist Victoria from boisdejasmin.com.

She might also have mentioned that it enters into Jean-Paul Guerlain’s perfume, Mayotte, as explained on his website: Jean-Paul Guerlain’s desire for the infinite led him to a very faraway island that tourist clichés would call paradise: Mayotte. Its name, meaning “island of perfumes,” certainly comes from the scents of the omnipresent ylang-ylang plantations, which develop and blend with the warm, enveloping fragrance of vanilla pods drying in the sun. While visiting his ylang-ylang plantation, Jean-Paul Guerlain invented the first Mahora version as a tribute to Mayotte and its inhabitants, the Mahorans.

Guerlain’s desire for the infinite was so strong that in 2002 it was found that the workers on his plantation were illegal immigrants from Comoros, paid a pittance. When informed that he was breaking labour laws, Guerlain simply closed the plantation and moved the production to Comoros. So much for his tribute to the island of Mayotte. Mayotte the perfume, incidentally, retails at $270 for a bottle of 125 ml.

When I started the sequel to One Green Bottle, I gave it the working title Perfume Island, thinking I could always change it later. But as so often with working titles, I got used to it. There’s nothing about Guerlain in the book, but plenty about illegal immigrants from Comoros. And of course, there’s a brief reference to the title:

When it came to tourism in Mayotte, and Hounda in particular, a useful word was ‘potential’. You looked at the sea and thought ‘Wow!’ And viewing the town from a distance, what you saw was a pretty smattering of coloured houses against the curve of the hill, clustered round the elegant tower of the mosque. But go up close, and all you found was a few dusty streets, half-finished dwellings, and a messy, uninviting seafront strewn with litter. And if you decided to stop for the night, you’d better pray Allah there’d be room at the Ylang Guesthouse, which was hardly luxurious, but did offer a certain rustic charm, with a good view over the bay and the scent of ylang-ylang pervading the reception. Not for nothing was Mayotte also known as Perfume Island.

Oh, and if you’re still not sure whether to boycott Guerlain, here’s what he said a few years ago in a radio interview: I worked like a nigger on that perfume. Not that I’m certain niggers work that much, but still. A joke, he said – one for which he was subsequently fined 6000 euros. IMO, not enough.


Posted in novel, Perfume Island and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. To be honest, I thought your quotes by Victoria the reviewer and Jean-Paul the Nose were jokes — till I looked them up. I suppose I’ll have to file them away under “You Can’t Make this Stuff Up or If You Could, You Wouldn’t Want To”.

  2. Nice name “Mayotte” and it must be a pleasure to smell the Ylang-Ylang and though the island hasn’t luxries places to stay, the island most be very nice.
    The word “nigger” is so despective that Guerlein deserved the fine.

  3. I don’t know much about perfume except that if somebody can smell it from 3 feet away (for those who insist on using meters, check the length of your Queen’s foot and multiply by 3), you’ve probably used too much.

  4. Where to begin? I feel like I’ve gotten an education in several subjects just reading this, Curtis. The perfume vignette reminds me of writing about wine—or food. Food writers have their own argot, which I really admire (albeit from afar!). And I’ll just put this hypothesis out there: Mr. Guerlain is in the RIGHT business. Sounds very much like (possibly) only a heavy perfume could disguise the bad smell emanating from him! 🙂

        • I’d only vaguely heard the story myself before doing a bit research for the blog post, when I discovered he’s even more of a jerk than I thought. He’s past 80 now but that’s no excuse.

  5. While I could never even consider a $270. bottle of perfume, I have worn ylang-ylang essential oils for years purchasing for a very modest price and without the stink of Guerian infused into it’s essence. This was such an interesting post Curtis. Thank you. 📮

Comments are closed.