Friday, June 20, 2008

Why do Fragrances Smell the Same?

Why do fragrances smell the same? This is a question that many people ask themselves when they're sampling fragrances spanning the spectrum from mainstream to selective distribution to niche to drugstore and of course knock-offs. Because professionals "shoot" the juice! This is industry-speak for analysing the formula (the "recipe" so to speak) of any bestseller or indeed any new perfume on the market using a gas chromatograph. The gas chromatogaph is a machine that separates the individual molecules that make up a fragrance, puts them on a sort of conveyor belt and then identifies them one by one. In tandem with a mass spectrometer they analyse what goes into a given fragrance which then allows technicians to replicate any formula, rendering it common knowledge and no longer secret.

But why are formulae secret in the first place, if it is so simple to break them down like a secret WWII code broken by the Enigma? The answer is two-fold.

First, because the perfumery world works in conservative, traditional mores, some would almost say obsolete: it was the custom of the medieval societies and guilds such as the gantiers et perfumers (those are the precursors of formal perfumers as they were scenting the leather gloves of the aristocracy to get rid of the smell of raw hide and then progressed into producing seperate fragrances for the body). They kept the formulae secret because in an age of low technological advancement it meant that their clients would have to get back to them to have their perfume replenished when they ran out, ensuring them a prosperous business.
Secondly, because in an equally anachronistic twist no one has contracts to protect themselves. It's true that the big brands, for example Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent or Givenchy, do not have possession of their own formulae for their perfumes. Those form intellectual property of the big aromachemical companies which produce the actual juice for them, such as IFF or Givaudan or Symrise etc.
But here's the catch: those perfume-making companies do not have a specific contract with the customer companies who own those brands (for instance LVMH who owns Givenchy). Therefore said company could very well take the "shot" juice to another perfume-making company and ask them to do a miniscule twist (say change a 0.1% of the formula, which will mean that the consumer will never understand the difference in smelling the finished product) and go on producing it more cheaply and make more money in the process! Should the first company ever take them to court ~which they never in a million years do because it would mean that they would lose all subsequent briefs from that gigantic customer~ they would de iuro lose the case, because of that little twist. Technically it just wouldn't be exactly the same. And legalese is very bent on the "technically" part.

Therefore the formulae theoretically are secret but in practice they circulate behind backs (no one admits it openly!) and get copied almost instantly: within days of actual release.
Of course in business terms, unless we are talking about knock-offs which by definition aim to be photocopies of the original, there wouldn't be much point in making something exactly the same as something else on the market. You could of course, in light of the above, but why would you? It would be even better to give a twist in the top-notes so as to fool the consumer into thinking they're buying something else, when in fact the core of the formula is the same. Repackage, rename, relaunch with a different image and you got yourself a hit. If not as big as the original one, then at least a very lucrative one that basks in the glow of the success of the first one.

Is there no way to get out of this mess, you'd be asking yourselves by now. It has been intimated to me that certain smart perfumers, of who I am in no liberty to reveal their names, have devised little tricks to fool the gas chromatograph by including red herrings. Those in essence are minute amounts of materials that do not actually contribute to the formula's olfactory result but act as decoys. And in order to accomplish that, those materials are naturals; because naturals contain hundreds of molecules instead of the single molecule or in any case much simpler contruction of aromachemicals. Yet, what one man constructs, another finds a way to break down. Lab technicians understand that the quantities are exceedingly small and although it slows them down, in the end with a little creative twinkering they still manage to come up with a quite plausible copy.

And this dear readers is why your new fragrance is smelling so much like the one you had in your cupboard all along and why the market is saturated with endless versions of the same recipes over and over again to the point of fatigue. In a high-tech market that worships sameness for the sake of familiarity, since psychology teaches us that the familiar creates a sense a security and comfort resulting in the desired sales, there is sadly no light at the end of the tunnel.

Pic of WWII poster via history1990s.about.com


  1. If memory serves, the trick of including minute traces of compounds that don't have an impact on the scent, and thus are put into the formula merely to fool the gas chromatograph, is used by Jean-Claude Ellena, as stated in Chandler Burr's book. I'm sure Ellena is not the only one to do this.

  2. Yup, he's not the only one. But...shhhh.... ;-)

  3. Another reason for the similarity of commercial fragrances is that they are often created in a modular fashion using pre-mixed bases provided by the large aromachemical companies. Examples are Orange Power Givco from Givauden or Scentenal by Firmenich. These pre-mixed bases provide a quick, easy and often cheaper way of creating a perfume, however the end result is that they start to smell similar to each other.


  4. Anonymous14:35

    That's just great, they screw themselves over and then ask why they don't sell as much as they did before. Well, no wonder, guys, no wonder, shame.
    Thank you for running such interesting articles.


  5. Mark,

    great point!
    That was also one of the reasons the 30s fragrances shared so many common attributed as well.

    Of course, to be fair, perfumers do go to bases when they want a specific effect and don't want to have to construct it from scratch all over again, too.

  6. Aline,

    I sense some anger towards companies! Or am I wrong? :-)
    But thank you for your compliment.

  7. Also, even among people who are trying to do "honest" work, so to speak, I imagine they are limited by the expense of materials and what combination of available materials smell good. It's easy to imagine perfumeurs using natural rose, iris, and jasmine extracts, and creating works of art, but that's simply not a feasible reality. Besides, quite a lot of the Guerlains smell the same, and they call that a signature, so sometimes it's deliberate and it's good.

  8. Great post, E. I love it when you rip the lid off the business!

    Dain makes a good point--"signatures" are a great thing, IMO. But there's a big difference--to my nose--between that and the "Here's that same drain cleaner note again" experience one has with so many current perfumes. I think it does come down to the quality of the ingredients, as always. If everybody was buying the same gorgeous base and just tweaking it slightly, I wouldn't complain!

  9. nubelia01:08

    Great read Helg , no shocker to my system but informative.

    I feel as though the perfume industry is just like some factory outside jersey or illinois whipping up some Milks Shake base for all the restaurants to use , and the latest offerings really do reflect this , pity.

  10. Good point Dain and since there's no parthenogenesis in art, it stands to reason that someone might be influenced by someone else; that might be the concept of another article.
    The Guerlain example is a very good one in that it is a creative twist on something that gives coherence to the line.
    But when something smells very much like something else by a competitor then it becomes a little...annoying, I presume.

  11. Thanks, M. I appreciate your enthusiasm.
    The drain cleaner note is the horrible side of mimicry, I agree. Perhaps if it entailed only true masterpieces or wonderful combinations of quality ingredients it might be more acceptable, but so often it doesn't.
    It would also be fascinatingly interesting to actually dwelve into the functional products industry and find out how they copy bestsellers and therefore "ruin" them for generations to come ;-)

  12. Dear N,

    with your intelligence I was sure that it wouldn't be shocking. Thank you for your most kind words.
    You know, your paradigm is not very far from the truth I believe~ amazingly succinct and precise!!

  13. Anonymous08:33

    Angry you say, you bet I'm angry when everything under the sun smells similar and they expect me to fork out my hard-earned cash for one of the same. Unfortunately the Lutens example, of someone who is a true artist, doesn't cut it with big companies, so we are faced with these mediocre things for airheaded youths.

  14. Aline, I'm afraid I can't help you with that: air-headed youths seem to have a lot of cash to spend these days and companies are naturally interested in exploiting that.

    I don't think that Lutens is beyond business sense either.
    But it would be nice if everyone followed that example in the lucrative and imaginative aspect of it :-)

  15. I think it's the same sort of thing with other products. If you actually read their labels, they're all made of the same stuff; it's just that they change it a bit and then add other personal touches. Essentially, though, all shampoos and cover up and mascaras and lipsticks and perfumes are the same.

    Now, occasionally, you do come across something that is indeed unique or individual. Like when mineral make up hit the market, non sulphate shampoos, or when J'adore or Herve Leger came out, or even Michael Kors. These guys made something that truly separated themselves.

    But when I go into Victoria's Secret, only one or two of them truly smell unique. It's like they use the same base in all their perfumes. That base is the same as is used in other stores in the malls or department stores.

  16. As a maker of my own perfumes for my little company 4160Tuesdays, may I just wave the flag for us indie scent makers who try to do something different. When you can just stop making something that doesn't sell you can afford to experiment and make unusual scents in small batches. With the big ones they make 10, 000 bottles a go and it's all about reducing risk, going for something safe - something that's already selling. It's like Hollywood versus indie films, or fashion or music. If you want to come over and sniff the materials one day, let me know.

  17. Jamie,

    terribly late, but the reason is exactly what you have pinpointed yourself; they DO use the same base, only a slight twist in the top notes is different.

  18. Thanks Sarah!

    I think indie perfumers nowadays can provide what big companies have lost: true luxury. Feeling the customer's needs and creating something for them, from the heart, aimed at them directly. The gilded approaches are leaving me increasingly cold these days.
    Thanks for the invitation, I'd have to cross a continent I wager. :-)

  19. yes...yes...and, NO - the creation is also (largely) driven by (commercial) sense and what consumers currently like/buy: most (if not all) of the large beauty houses (from P&G, Estee to L'Oreal) consumer-test the fragrances before launch and learn that consumers mostly "like" things they already know, i.e. smells familiar and wouldn't necessarily purchase something "too new or different" (i.e. creative..). Spending millions on a big new launch and taking (big) risks is highly unlikely...

  20. Thank you Brad.
    You have a great point there; familiarity does not breed contempt in those cases, it breeds more sales. Sad but true. I also tweeted to you with another link (which focuses on the ingredients used)


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