There is a bit of a buzz in the perfume industry at the moment because of a documentary released by Fine Fragrance Collection (FFC) with billboards up all over Jhb. I have had a few customers ask me about it so I thought you might like to know my opinion. You can find the documentary here. I agree with a lot of what has been said, however I do believe that there are many claims that have been made that are half-truths and some important differences have been left out.
The documentary claims that all perfumes contain only the fragrance and alcohol that is "mixed, poured, sealed" at both the designer fragrance factories and the "kitchen, bedroom, or boot of your car" smell-alike manufacturers. (I call "smell-alike" perfumes inspiration fragrances as they have been inspired by someone else's work and design and I cannot take any credit for these fragrances. I will refer to them as such going forward.) Although this may be true for some brands (both designer brands and inspiration fragrances), a lot of perfume manufacturers have other ingredients in their perfume formulation which adds value (and cost) to the perfume. These ingredients include PPG-20 Methyl Glucose Ether (a skin-replenishing agent that also acts as a fixative), Propylene Glycol (a fixative), Butylated Hydroxytoluene (an antioxidant), and Benzophenone (a UV filter that prevents light from damaging scents).These ingredients add to the perfume's shelf life and quality as well as their longevity on the skin. The ingredients above cost almost six times as much as a formulation that only consists of alcohol. As for the manufacturing process, it can be as easy as "mix, pour, seal", however a lot of brands will also chill and filter their perfumes. You know how many adverts you have seen where they focus on the vodka being filtered? This is because it adds value to the quality of the vodka. It adds value to a perfume as well.
Now let's look at the claims of the fragrance oil price. Although some high quality oils can be bought for R1800 per kg (perfume oils are measured in grams not ml but the conversion is approximately 1:1), this is not the case for all oils. Some synthetic perfume oils can go up to over R4700 per kg, and if you start looking at natural oils such as rose or jasmine absolute the cost per kg goes into the hundred's of thousands. I am not saying that these are in a lot of the fragrances that are on the shelves but what I am suggesting is that not all perfumes are the same. Having worked at a company for over a decade that is an agent for a French perfume oil company, I have seen the different oil qualities that are available at different price ranges. A perfect example is the oil KITA Fragrances now uses for the inspiration fragrance for L'eau d'Issey for ladies. When I was working at this agent, we received lots of complaints about the price of this fragrance oil because it now costs just under R4000 per kg. An alternate fragrance was imported for those customers who did not wish to pay so much for a fragrance oil which now costs around R1500 per kg. I could plainly smell the difference in the two and would never compromise the quality of my company's fragrances by manufacturing my perfumes with the less expensive oil. Although the designer fragrance companies will get a discount for bulk purchases, you cannot assume that all of these oils will fall within a certain price range as they all contain different ingredients and some will be more expensive than others. The same goes for inspiration fragrances.
FFC is absolutely correct regarding lower-grade perfumes often being used for soaps and household products and that some perfume manufacturers like to cut costs by using these oils in their perfumes. In these cases the fragrance triangle will differ, but more importantly the products could cause reactions with the skin as they will not have been manufactured with the intent of the end product being a leave-on product. What FFC did not mention in this paragraph about the manufacturers cutting costs is that it can also be done by using the incorrect base formulation: a lot of less expensive inspiration fragrance manufacturers use the incorrect (and cheaper) alcohol in their base leaving your perfume smelling like turps or nail polish remover.
Moving on to the percentage of fragrance used. I cannot tell you exactly what percentage of fragrance oil the designer brands use in their products. What I can tell you is that there is an international standard that most perfume manufacturers generally adhere to. There is a difference between a cologne (see my blog on colognes here), eau de toilette (EDT), eau de parfum/perfume (EDP) and perfumes. Should you see a designer brand marked as an EDT, you can assume that there is less than 15% fragrance oil in the formulation, however if it is labelled as an EDP or perfume, the fragrance oil percentage is generally higher.
Now I would like to focus on the part of the documentary that has caused a lot of upset in the industry - FFC's claim: "who will make a perfume oil for the smell alike version? All of them." I have not worked for any of the companies mentioned in the top five so I cannot either confirm or deny these accusations. However, as I have mentioned I did work for an agent to one of the companies who also manufactures fragrance oils for designer fragrances so I know a little about the process. Our fragrance house would never sell a fragrance that was contracted to a designer to another customer. As mentioned in FFC's documentary, most designers give a brief to the perfume oil manufacturers - a lot of the time they will send to more than one - and they will ask them to make up samples to match their brief. Once they have chosen the fragrance they like the most this will then be manufactured as their fragrance. One example I can give you of a perfume for which my supplier won the perfume brief is Azzaro Chrome. And I can tell you that neither this fragrance (nor a smell-alike version) was ever allowed to be sold to anyone else. This formula was designed for and contracted to the designer. So then why can the inspiration and designer perfumes smell so similar? This is because when one fragrance house wins a brief the other perfume companies are not contracted to the designer and are legally allowed to make fragrances that have a similar direction - and they are good at what they do so they get the match very, very close.
One thing that I wholeheartedly agree with FFC's documentary is that the designer brands are NOT unduly profiteering. They spend an absolute fortune on marketing their product. What FFC forgot to mention is the cost of the design of the oil and the expertise needed to create that design. Having designed a few original fragrances for the KITA range myself I can tell you that it is not a quick and easy process; it involves time and wasted raw materials while you try and get the scent just the way you want it. Most importantly it takes expertise that do not come for free. I had over seven years experience in the industry before I developed my first fragrance. The perfumers who design the designer fragrances will most likely have studied a chemistry degree and gone on to an apprenticeship for a few years: this experience does not come cheap.
I believe that the intention of FFC's documentary was to encourage the consumer to know what they are paying for when they purchase a perfume. I do believe they fell short in a few areas but consumer education is a wonderful thing. If you want to enjoy the designer bottle and have the status of wearing the expensive designer perfume there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, if your focus is on the longevity and the smell of the perfume, look around. But know what you are looking for and don't assume all inspirational perfumes are equal. Check the ingredient listing for the formulations that protect the product, make sure you are buying a perfume rather than an EDT. If you are nervous of inspiration perfumes and the base and quality you may receive, check the returns policy. South Africa has a very strict consumer protection act and returns policies must be upheld.
If you have any questions about perfumes or the process, I would like to invite you to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or just click here and let me know what you would like to know.