Designer Fragrances Versus Their Inexpensive Imposters

What is perfumery? Perfumery is defined as “the art of producing fragrances through the combination of odoriferous substances” (Shiftan 1980). The word “perfume” is derived from Latin for “through smoke”. Until very recently, perfumes have been based on all natural components, which placed a limit on odours available and markets applicable. But, perfumery has flourished in the last forty years because of chemistry’s advancements in both the invention of brand new odoriferous molecules and the synthesis of natural ones. Surprisingly, although odour is successfully and widely used commercially, there is not yet a satisfactory structure-odour theory nor detailed understanding of how odour is perceived. (Shiftan 1980) Perfume has many aspects, a rich history, an intricate production, and the industry has several debates. The art of perfumery involves history, chemistry, creativity, and industry; but most importantly perfumery involves the sense of smell, and its appeal and effect on people.
Perfumery is almost as old as history, and might possibly be prehistoric. The sense of smell is the root of perfumery, and is used by many animals, some of which, like modern humans, use a scent to communicate certain things to each other.

By the time the earliest known records were made in Ancient Egypt, perfume was already an active part of the culture. The mild eau d’cologne wasn’t exactly what the Egyptians used, because some objects found in Tutankhamen’s tomb still retain their strong odours. The Egyptians burned scented incense in temples and filled sacrificial animals with aromatic substances to offset the smell before burning them. The Greeks, in addition to the Egyptians, practiced the still-popular ritual of taking baths with perfume in the water. (Shiftan 1980)

Theophrastus wrote in 370 BC about the actual mixing and blending of perfumes. By his time, the art was well advanced. The Middle East introduced scents to Europe through the expansion of trade routes. Western civilization still cherishes the exotic scents of sandalwood, clove bud, and patchouli that were the first novelty fragrances. (Shiftan 1980)

Religions didn’t fail to mention perfume. The Bible refers to spicy balm, galbanum, and myrrh. The Koran speaks of perfumery materials and specifically mentions musks and hyacinth. In Greek mythology, Aphrodite is the first woman to use fragrances. Also, perfumes help Helen of Troy to keep her beauty. (Shiftan 1980)

Ancient man often believed that the fragrance of flowers contained the presence of a nature deity. The first perfumes were an attempt to personify or please these gods. The reason for perfumes started because of the need to cover up bad smells, but over time the motive became increasingly focused on sexual attraction. (Green 1991)

The first perfume in alcohol, Hungary Water, appeared at the end of the fourteenth century. It contained rosemary, and remained the most popular scent from the Middle Ages to Victorian times. In 1725, John Maria Farina introduced orange-flower water, the first perfume under the name Eau de Cologne. The successes of these fragrances pioneers, began the booming industry of flower culture in Grasse, France where the extracts of rose, jasmine, lavender, and tuberose are still cultivated. (Shiftan 1980)

By the mid-19th century, the court of King Louis XV was dubbed as “La cour parfumee.” Custom dictated that everyone leave a distinct aura in their wake. At this time, the first perfume houses were founded in Paris. Jean-Francois Houbigant set up shop at 19 Rue du Faubourg St. – Honore. The company is now located in New Jersey, but its Quelques Fleurs captures all the floral smells of Provence. Roure, a multinational firm that buys raw materials to create and manufacture perfumes for fashion houses and movie stars, was founded in Grasse in 1820 by Claude Roure. Since Pierre Francois Pascal Guerlain became a perfumer in 1828, Guerlain, located in Grasse, boasts five generations of perfumers. The firm still sells a perfume called “Jicky”, a blend of lavender, sandalwood, lemon, rosemary, and rosewood, created in1889. (Green 1991)

The chemical industry began its contribution to perfumery near the end of the nineteenth century. In 1921, the newly-discovered synthesis of odor-suitable aldehydes, lead to the introduction of Chanel No. 5, a rich smelling floral perfume which began the modern industry of fragrance. (Shiftan 1980) Coco Chanel’s nose, Ernest Beaux, presented her with a few numbered bottles. Coco sniffed them; she like bottle No. 5, so Chanel No. 5 was born. Such classics enjoy a long life. Originally perfume houses created and sold perfume. The Paris fashion houses commissioned them, initially was little gifts to clients, but soon developed as major lines in their own right. So Chanel, Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent became as much identified with fragrance as with fashion. (Green 1991)

Today, perfumers have a vast array of choices for perfumes. There are the numbered, yet classic and reliable, traditional materials. There are also the myriad of new, synthetic ingredients. (Shiftan 1980)

The basic ingredients used in perfumes produced from natural sources are the essential oils, resinoids, and absolutes that are formed within the cells of plant tissues. Resinoids are gums or resins purified with a solvent. Absolutes are aromas in the form of viscous liquids, achieved by extraction with solvents. Barely 2,000 of the 250,000 know species of flowering plants contain the oils. The oils may be found in the entire plant, in the flower, in the roots, in the fruit, in the bark, or in lichens. (Green 1991)

The ultimate aromatic, usually attained by pressure, extraction or steam distillation, is a remarkable reduction from the original. For example, look at the mathematics for jasmine absolute. It takes 45 minutes to pick 5,000 jasmine flowers, which weigh about a pound; 800 pounds of flowers provide only one pound of jasmine absolute. (Green 1991)

In the past thirty years, the sources and supplies of many of the traditional raw materials, which are so important to perfumery, have changed radically. There are many reason for the changes, including social, economic, or political considerations, conservation, wildlife protection, and industrial growth. The essential oils and floral products, whose harvest if labor intensive, have a constantly moving source of supply because of economic and political events in the places where the industry thrives. The ban of the use of certain animal products has also produced the need for change. (Shiftan 1980)

The uncertainties about the future supplies of essential oils have created a motivation towards the development of synthetic replacements. There are positives and negatives as to the use of synthetics. Synthetic materials have better chemical and olfactory uniformity than natural products. The production of synthetics is constant, with no off-season or subjection to ever-changing weather conditions and natural phenomena. Yet, natural products give the quality perfumes a certain richness and fullness of character that establishes true refinement and trademark. (Shiftan 1980)

The manufacture of synthetic aromas is not new. In the 18th century, early scientific analysis of natural oils led to attempts to isolate an oil’s crucial “odorous principle,” which produced the vital aroma. The first chemical aromatic was nitrobenzene, prepared from nitric acid and benzene, which was use to give an odor of almonds to scented soaps. The key breakthrough came in 1868 when William Perkin synthesized coumarin, which captured the new-moan-hay scent of the South American tonka bean. Soon after, Ferdinand Tiemann produced synthetics of vanilla and violet. In 1889, Francis Despard Dodge pioneered citronellol with a rose or geranium odor, and a variation, citronellal, which could be variously adapted to give the scents of lily of the valley, hyacinth, narcissus and sweet pea. (Green 1991)

The traditional way to make a fragrance’s oils is to pick the flowers, then place the crushed petals into alcohol , allowing the essential oils to be released. It takes over 8,000 roses to make a gram solution of concentrated rose oil. (Frost 1995)

A new technique, developed by Mike Zampino, extracts oils without killing flowers. A bubble-shaped glass jar, connected to a vacuum tube “inhales” the odoriferous molecules of the plants essential oils, without damaging the flower. The molecules extracted by the devise analyzed with gas chromatography, so that the scent can be synthesized. Molecules are bombarded by electrons, and the lighter molecules react quicker to the electrons. The size of each molecule is recorded as it moves, resulting in a type of chemical “blueprint”. (Frost 1995)

This new “Living Flower Technology” enables perfumers to use the infinite number of plants that weren’t suited to the traditional methods of perfumery. Also, synthesized oils are closer to the scent of live flowers, in contrast to crushed, picked ones used traditionally. (Frost 1995)

Synthetics offered two advantages. The perfumer was no longer at the mercy of a bad year when the harvest of many flowers might be poor. More important, they widened the range of his palette. But, synthetics cannot be a complete substitute in high-quality perfumes. Perfumers argue, “You cannot replace the touch of nature.” (Green 1991)

The creative side of perfume making is controlled by an exclusive group of creators, “noses,” as the trade calls them. Only a dozen or so might merit the reputation of “un grand nez”, a “great nose”. A nose must have not only an exceptional olfactory sense, but also the ability to retain a memory bank of more than 2,000 different scents from which he or she can draw between 100 and 5000 to blend into a new perfume. Noses usually hand down the tricks of the trade to family members. (Green 1991)

The manufacture of a fragrance is a time-staking, intricate process. It begins with a perfumer sitting in a room by himself, compounding the fragrance. The formula for the perfume is written by the perfumer in small amounts of 10-100 grams. The perfumer works in a laboratory supplied with every material possible to use in a fragrance, adequate weighing facilities, magnetic stirrers, and heating and filter equipment. All equipment is of stainless steel. (Shiftan 1980) A nose does his work at a U-shaped desk, surrounded by rack upon rack of little vials of “le jus”- “the juice”. This set-up is known as the “organ.” The musical analogy of an organist before the console is maintained because the composition of a perfume is described in terms of “notes.” Each essential oil and each perfume has three notes. (Green 1991) Fragrances are analyzed by odors, in a blend with a top note, continuing into a middle note to a final end note. The materials with the greater vapor pressures evaporate faster. The perfumer is faced with the challenge to smooth the odor profile so that there are no discontinuities in odor impact as the different components volatilize. “Notes de tete”, top notes, give the initial tang of a perfume when it is opened or put on the skin, but vanish quickly. The middle notes “notes de coeur” provide the richness and body of a fragrance and are mostly floral or light woody. The end notes “notes de fond” have a variety of long lasting materials such as resins, ambrette seed, patchouli, vetivert, and sandalwood oils, and provide a long-lasting bouquet. (Shiftan 1980) The ultimate blend gives a perfume its distinctive “signature.” (Green 1991)

The nose begins his creation by dipping narrow strips of blotting paper known as “mouillettes” into the vials and passing them lightly before the nostrils for an initial impression, then attaching them to a rack on the desk to see how the aroma evolves as they dry. Making careful written notes, the perfumer adds and mixes and smells again, drawing on experience of countless previous concoctions- adapting, honing, balancing. (Green 1991)

The initial formula is rewritten into a working formula, which means adding crystals first, more viscous materials second, and then part of the liquids until the mixture is homogeneous. Then, the rest of the liquids are added, and then the valuable, delicate, and often more volatile materials are added. Mixing takes several hours, because the crystals must dissolve without heating. The highly viscous materials are sometimes placed in a hot room until they can be poured. Stronger heating is not desirable since it can increase the loss of the top note and can possibly cause deterioration of more sensitive materials. Most flower absolutes, otto of rose, aldehydes, and light esters are the volatile and more valuable products. Then, the well-blended fragrance can be filtered through filter paper or a filter press, depending on the quantities involved. (Shiftan 1980)

Quality control is a big factor in perfumery. The quality of a material changes from source to source or growing season to season. The odor quality is the most important criterion in determining a material’s acceptability according to an established quality. Even though there are many physical, chemical, and analytical tests, they do not help unless the primary requirement of odor quality is established. (Shiftan 1980)

Chemical analysis, refractive index, specific gravity, and gas chromatography are used to determine the purity and uniformity of raw materials used in fragrances. Gums, resins, and absolutes sometimes need color control because of their effect on finished perfume oils. (Shiftan 1980)

When products are given odor evaluations, a standard, or target, is a sample of the original quality established by the perfumer. Targets are kept in full glass bottles with airtight screw caps and seas, and are stored under refrigeration away from light. Targets are periodically updated to prevent use of standards showing signs of deterioration because of age. This olfactory evaluation is done on separate odorless slips of blotting paper. The samples are compared over a time of about twenty minutes so that all aspects of the fragrance can be compared. A very through quality of control of all fragrance raw materials, as well as finished perfume oil, is absolutely necessary if a high degree of quality uniformity, continuity, and consistency is to be attained. (Shiftan 1980)

Nature is of utmost importance to the perfumer. With nature as a model, he creates a work of art, a moment of scent. Just like art, there are obvious styles of perfumes. These are always an easily recognizable theme and are described as straight florals, floral bouquets, aldehydic florals, oriental, animal, woody, green, herby, musky, leather, and chypre. (Shiftan 1980)

The straight floral is a large and very popular style of perfume. The group is characterized by flower odors, not blended with many other scents. (Shiftan 1980)

The floral bouquet family has more oils blended into a floral theme. One floral bouquet is distinguished from another by the little changes in distant notes. An example of a floral bouquet is “Charlie” by Revlon. (Shiftan 1980)

The aldehydic floral family is one of the most important types of perfume. These have a sharp odor, with a hint of fruitiness. Aldehydes have an unnatural brilliance, and are blended with florals as an undertone. The first and most popular aldehyde was Chanel No. 5. (Shiftan 1980)

The Oriental family is influenced by mosses, woods, and spices. Usually, these stronger oils are blended with vanilla and accented with animal notes like amber, civet, or musk. Often Orientals are used with rose r jasmine. An important Oriental is “Opium” by YSL. (Shiftan 1980)

The Chypre family is characterized by a warm, mossy, and long-lasting top note, with rose, jasmine, and animal notes. Sub-classes of the chypre (moss) family are fruity, green galbanum, aldehydic, and leathery chypre blends. (Shiftan 1980)

The woody family remains closest to nature in the age of synthetics. The woody family is usually a base of sandalwood, vetivert, cedar, or patchouli. The wood bases are combined with sweet animal and floral accords like “Cotillion” by Avon. (Shiftan 1980)


The green family has always been a favorite among perfumers, and has recently gained the favor of the consumer. “Vent Vert”, by Balmain remained the only popular green until the seventies. Greens slowly dram attention by an exclusive, almost weak, scent. (Shiftan 1980)

The citrus family has always been one of the most popular fragrances. Recently, it has retained its success in blends with florals. Important ingredients in citrus’s are lemon, lime, orange, and bergamot. These accords combine well with lavender and amber accords(Shiftan 1980)

The fougere family is a classic fragrance. It is well known and appreciated. Fougeres have a very masculine note, usually of fern, tonka, or moss. The first fougere was “Maja” by Dana in 1931. (Shiftan 1980)

The canoe family, created in 1935, remains a very popular fragrance among men and women. It was the most popular fragrance in the 1940’s and the 1970’s. Canoe fragrances continue to top the unisex perfume industry. (Shiftan 1980)

The musk family began as a counterculture fashion. But, it was surprisingly widely accepted. Musk was first introduced as “Musk Oil” by Caswell-Massey. (Shiftan 1980)

Influenced by the musk trend, the animal family elaborated on musk. This group has a definite animal character, and has recently fallen out of popularity because of environmental issues. Some of the ground-breaking animal fragrances were “Ambergris” and “Civet” by Jovan. (Shiftan 1980)

The leather family is a quite distinguishable group. Leathers have a warm, leathery tobacco note. (Shiftan 1980)

The spice family is easily recognized by a strong, spicy scent. “Old Spice” by Shulton has been very popular since 1937. (Shiftan 1980)

The herbal family is a popular type of men’s fragrance. Herbal perfumes combine well with woody, patchouli accords. (Shiftan 1980)

Fragrances are compared by the percentage of essence in the bottle. “Perfume” contains the highest concentration of essential oils, usually 15-30%. “Eau de Parfum” is the next strongest, with about 10-15% essence. “Eau de Toilette ” contains about 5-8% oils. “Cologne”, the lowest concentration, contains 2-7% essence. Price relates to concentration, the highest price paring up with the highest concentration of essential oils. (Consumer Reports 1993)

Sometimes, the different concentrations of a fragrance are not identical. In a ‘Consumer Reports” study of Chanel No. 5, sensory experts found differences in the intensity and character of the scent. The cologne, eau de parfum, and the perfume were subtly different from one another, but all very well blended. The eau de toilette smelled slightly different and was less well blended. (Consumer Reports 1993)

Impostors of designer fragrances are an option for many people. But, designers perfumes boast of high quality and refinement. “Consumer Reports” compared some impostors to the originals, and found differing results. “Chanel No. 5” scored only a little higher than one of its many impostors. On the other hand, an impression of “Opium” was considered to be terrible compared to the original. (Consumer Reports 1993)

This experiment involves this last element of perfumery. Little is known about impostor fragrances, let alone published about them. The impostor companies choose to rely on their consumer, without much advertisement nor publicity of any other kind. The designer fragrances keep all information about exact ingredients in their products top secret, for fear or imitation. Yet, the impostors survive, and very well.

Impostors produce their perfumes at considerably lower costs, and sell their goods at fractions of the designer prices. It is hypothesized that the impostors use not only cheaper ingredients, but also use more alcohol than the originals in making a solution of perfume. Also, it is expected that the impostor uses more low-cost, low-quality synthetics. The most important factor of perfume will be tested in a survey of volunteers, attempting to distinguish the designer fragrance from its impostor.

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