A sniff at designer perfume prices reveals a stench

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A sniff at designer perfume prices reveals a stench

Designer fragrances differ from their cheaper ‘smell-alikes’ in their pricing more than actual quality

Consumer journalist


I’m fascinated by what drives consumers to make the choices they make and the value they perceive in a product.
International brands, with their lavish advertising, huge marketing spend and multimillion-dollar celebrity endorsements, have done a very good job of influencing consumer perception about what makes a product desirable.
If you make a consumer believe their own image and status will be enhanced by your brand, they’re going to want to be associated with it, despite its hefty price tag, or perhaps partly because of it.
So it is with designer clothes, shoes and fragrances. We’re buying not just a fragrance that appeals to us, but one that lends us a whiff of a five-star life, a scent that others instantly recognise and associate with a R1,300 price tag.
The owners of a Joburg-based company producing a range of 200 “smell-alike” fragrances – at R160 for 30ml – recently went big on getting the message to South Africans that what they’re actually paying for with original perfumes is just R20 to R30 worth of perfume, a magnificent bottle and some of the cost of the celebrity-driven advertising campaign that made them want it in the first place.
Simon Maritz and Grant Stanek of Fine Fragrances Collection (FFC), which began in Maritz’s garage a few years ago, paid for billboard adverts with a link to their mini-documentary, in which they lift the cap on the inner workings of the fragrance industry.
In it, experienced perfumer Andreas Wilhelm reveals that almost all the top designer perfumes are outsourced to perfume oil production companies, and that it’s well-known in the industry that the actual cost of the liquid in a 50ml bottle of perfume is rarely more than about one euro.
And most of the top five multinationals who make those perfume oils also supply them to the “smell-alike” manufacturers.
“Actually, everyone is copying everyone,” they claim in the documentary.
“But do the smell-alikes really smell the same as the originals?”
To put that to the test, they asked 313 people to do a smell test over four days. Each were given two small grey bottles, marked only with an L and R to indicate which wrist they should be sprayed on daily.
What those fragrant testers didn’t know was that one contained the original Thierry Mugler Alien and the other FFC’s version of it.
After the test period, they were given a multiple choice question: did the two samples smell the same, not smell the same, or smell the same, but the one was stronger?
All said they smelled the same, and half said the FFC’s smell-alike Alien was stronger.
And that’s because, Maritz says, while the original perfumes are dosed at 20% perfume oil, they dose at a higher 30% to make their fragrances last longer.
They know this because they had 16 of the world’s top original fragrances analysed in an Italian lab, among them Chanel No. 5, Armani Si, Black Opium, Angel, Sauvage, Kouros and Invictus.
The original Alien had the highest dosage of those tested – 26,5%.
But why would the perfume oil companies sell the identical oils to the original companies and to the smell-alikes?
“I don’t know,” Maritz says. “They just do.”
And why do some smell-alikes not smell very like the original? Low dosage and lower quality oils, apparently.
At a recent visit to FFC’s Olivedale warehouse, Maritz showed me a letter SK Chemtrade Services – the official local agents for IFF, which supplies the perfume oils for Lady Million, Alien, Aromatics Elixir, Invictus and others, which happily sell him the smell-alike oils of their own creations.
It reads: “Fragrance supplied to you for your current range is from premium quality created in IFF Paris office.
“Fragrance you purchase from SK Chemtrade is manufactured in the IFF factory situated in Tilburg, Europe.”
And Givaudan, one of the biggest perfume oil manufacturers in the world, making perfume oils for Tom Ford Noir, Kouros, One Million and others, sells the equivalent smell-alike oils through their South African agent Kalex “to all and sundry”, Maritz says.
“The multinational perfume oil manufacturers are branding the smell-alike companies as unethical, but that’s ridiculous, because they are the ones that make the perfume oils for both the branded designer perfumes and their smell-alike equivalents. Without them, the smell-alike industry would not exist.”
But a representative of SK Chemtrade told me the perfume oil sold to the smell-alike companies was not identical to those sold to the originals. “If it was we’d be sued!” she said. “The copycats are synthetic, chemical versions of the originals, which are made from natural ingredients such as rose.”
Maritz scoffed at that.
“We asked all our suppliers to supply us with their best quality oils, and said they must smell the same as the originals, so we could pass that information on to our stockists, including Checkers and Pick n Pay.
“When questioned by outsiders they will say the oils are different, and maybe they are, every so slightly, but in reality few people, if any, can tell the difference.”
Many articles on the making of fragrances state that most of the world’s most popular designer fragrances are made with synthetic chemicals these days, rather than natural oils.
I asked the Estée Lauder group of companies to comment on the smell-alike industry and got a response from a company spokesperson saying it was “not able” to comment.
“The pricing of our products reflects our dedication to quality, safety and service …
“We use only high-quality ingredients in our unique fragrances.
“Many factors contribute to the cost of fragrances, such as quality of ingredients and packaging, state-of-the-art product formulations, cutting-edge innovation and robust quality assurance programmes.”
The Prestige Cosmetics Group, local distributors of Elie Saab, Issey Miyake, Bvlgari and Hermes fragrances, acknowledged my query and promised me a response, but didn’t provide one.
For many, buying an original designer fragrance, with its indulgent packaging and evocative marketing backstory, is a big part of the sensual appeal of the product.
And they’re willing to pay for it.
For others, who want the fragrance without all the stuff that can’t be smelled, knowing about the actual cost of perfume is intensely empowering.

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