Secret Formulas, Intrigue, Copycats, and Other Things at the Perfume Counter

No industry on earth is as shrouded in secrecy as the perfume world.

The world of perfume is big business, but it’s a business built on preferences, noses, tastes, and the ability to protect your formulas.

There is no legal protection for a perfume formula. If I mix a bunch of ingredients and come up with a wonderful perfume, anybody who can figure out my recipe is free to market the perfume. There is actually a tiny sub-industry of chemists who are doing that very thing, trying to imitate perfumes with drug-store knockoffs labeled “Smells Like White Diamonds” or “Smells Like Eternity.”

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To protect formulas, perfume experts rely on one ancient and one modern technique. The ancient technique is secrecy. You could probably get the formula for Coca-Cola more easily than you could dig up the ingredients for a hot new scent. “Noses,” the people who invent the scents, work in secrecy and often lead extremely low-profile lives despite the fact that they are highly sought after professionals.

Another secret of the perfume industry is a pretty “open secret.” It’s obvious to most perfumistas, and it ought to be obvious to people who buy perfume, even if they don’t really think about it much. Here it is: The people who attach their names to the perfume are not the ones who invent it.

Coco Chanel did not concoct her legendary No. 5 in a Paris apartment; it was concocted in the 1920s by one of the world’s great “noses,” a Russian living in Paris by the name of Ernst Breaux. Celebrity perfumes today may be created with minimal to moderate involvement of their spokespeople, but the real creation of the scent is done by someone else. What this means is that when you buy a scent by J Lo or Beyonce or Liz Taylor or Paris Hilton, you are purchasing a product they agreed to endorse. So don’t be too overawed by a celebrity on the label.

Good old-fashioned secrecy about perfume formulas still works great in the perfume industry, but that does not stop copycats from trying to steal the formulas. The modern technique to help prevent perfume piracy is making the perfumes incredibly complicated.

Way back in the 1920, the same approach was taken with perfumes like Chanel No. 5, Youth Dew, and Evening in Paris, in that they used dozens of ingredients in precise proportions. Even if you could figure out what most of the ingredients were (and Chanel No. 5 has over 100), you could spend a lifetime in the lab experimenting to get the proper balance.

Perfumes today are so extremely complex that it’s hard to copy them.

There are two types of perfume copycat. The first is the legal type. These guys find a top-selling perfume and then create an imitation version. It may or may not be a good imitation, but it’s at least in the ballpark. They then package their product in a plain box and advertise it as a scent that “smells like X perfume.”

This is legal, but it’s really not a good thing. First of all, it probably does smell vaguely like the original, but it is doubtful that a “nose” who could steal the exact recipe for a perfume would work for one of these copycat labs. You’re dealing with an approximation, and that’s on the best day.

Second, this kind of “smells-like” scent is marketed entirely on price; they are the bargain fragrances. This means you can expect a lot less fragrance and a lot more alcohol, smaller sized bottles, and all round cheaper development and production. Most people I know who have tried a copycat product are disappointed because it just doesn’t measure up to the real thing in terms of quality.

The other kind of perfume pirate is a counterfeit producer. These guys not only create imitation perfumes, they put them in original or “forged” bottles and packaging and try to pass them off as the real thing. What they’re trying to do is counterfeit an original and still be able to sell it for significantly less (price is the only drawing card for these guys).

Don’t count on this stuff for purity, high production standards, or not getting you in trouble. Yes, you can get in trouble if you purchase counterfeit merchandise. Besides, these guys are stealing a legitimate product and trying to pass it off as their own. Don’t get mixed up in that.

Of course, many would-be perfume lovers find the cost of their perfume habit prohibitively expensive. However, there are lots of good reasons to stick to the real deal. Perfume manufacturers put their reputation into every bottle; they tend to manufacture smooth scents, nuanced, with top-quality ingredients, carefully packaged, and delivered safely to market (particularly online). Knockoffs and counterfeits are out to make a profit on a cheaper product; these guys cut corners and not always in places you can see. From missing or substandard ingredients to weaker solutions, higher alcohol content, and dubious marketing, the knockoffs are really just out for your money and the counterfeits are thieves.

Copycat perfumes are often less “textured” and subtle than the real thing. While some people might not notice much difference, perfumistas can often take one whiff and distinguish a knockoff from the real perfume.

The real thing will also have more “depth” to it and the blending will create a scent that lasts longer on your skin. Buy perfume from reputable places, which includes major department stores, perfume stores (if you’re lucky enough to have them in your area), or online websites with solid reputations or the website of the manufacturer or designer. If you have even the slightest doubts that your perfume may be counterfeit, examine the packaging. Counterfeiters often get sloppy there.

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