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Sniffing Out the Phonies Among Your Fragrances

Times Staff Writer

Something stinks in the fragrance business. For years now, investigators have been nosing around suspiciously inexpensive products being passed off as haute designer scents, and this afternoon the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is expected to unveil at a press conference part of what may be the largest cache of counterfeit perfumes ever confiscated.

The message the fragrance industry hopes the press conference will deliver is two-fold: Let perfume counterfeiters be warned and let buyers beware.

Industry spokesmen were unwilling to guess at just how deeply fake perfumes are cutting into the $4-billion annual sales of perfumes, colognes and toilet waters. But they agree that sophisticated imitation products--which mimic expensive perfumes such as those created by Giorgio, Chanel, Christian Dior or Jean Patou, right down to the bottle and package--can wreak havoc on an industry in which competition is based on very subtle selling points.

“It’s a growing problem,” said Michael Gould, president of Giorgio of Beverly Hills, whose company security staff was reportedly instrumental in helping the San Bernardino and Riverside county sheriffs in the bust. “You can look at bottles and boxes and have a hard time telling the difference.”

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“I have heard that some of the counterfeiting is really quite excellent,” said Paul Wilmot, senior vice president for public relations for Calvin Klein Industries. “Their fragrance replication is almost good enough to fool the consumer,” he said.

Quick Industry Denials

But he and others in the industry are quick to deny that the counterfeit products really approximate the aroma that wafts out of a cut-class bottle of the genuine article.

“The sense of smell is definitely qualitative,” said William Spence, senior vice president of administration and sales for Chanel. It’s a matter of “individual recognition,” he said. " . . . A perfumer who has the nose can do it. But how are you going to inform the consumer on ways to tell the difference? I wouldn’t touch that subject. . . . It’s very very difficult to give verbal instructions on what Chanel No. 5 is supposed to smell like.”

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That a certain breed of consumer is willing to settle for fewer refinements in the aromas they wear is evidenced by the lucrative “knock off,” or “designer impostor” market, comprised of perfumes clearly marked as less expensive imitations of well-known fragrance names--usually with a slightly different name.

“There are people who lack the sophistication to tell the difference,” Gould says. But he and other perfumers maintain that perfumes are like fine wines--or to use the preferred metaphor, as complex as symphonies--with “top notes” that announce themselves when a bottle is opened, “middle notes” or the “heart” that defines a fragrance, and the “bass notes” or “dry down,” which lingers.

In order to make these complex fragrances, the companies that concoct the essences for perfumes import expensive herbs and flower extracts from around the world. “These things cost a fortune. It takes 2,000 pounds of jasmine petals to make one pound of jasmine oil,” said Wilmot. “You’re dealing in a very esoteric world,” he said. “That’s why these things are expensive . . . In Obsession there are over 200 ingredients.”

A skilled perfumer, he added, will work for years on a product, refining the layers of aroma to interact in a very specific way throughout this spectrum of “notes.”

“There’s no way counterfeiters are going to care about that,” Wilmot said. “They’re trying to make the cheapest product they can.”

The Real Thing?

So how can the consumer be reasonably sure the $150-an-ounce fragrance sitting on the dresser-top is the real thing?

One test of a good fragrance is that it will be consistent, said Wilmot. Its aroma won’t change over the hours that a person is wearing it. “Counterfeit fragrances,” on the other hand, “move all over the place,” he said.

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Wilmot goes so far as to suggest that counterfeiters, by ignoring industry safety standards, may be subjecting consumers to health hazards. “You get what you pay for,” he said.

“On closer examination, the counterfeit merchandise looks cheap, and it is,” said Spence of Chanel. Printing on counterfeit Chanel products is usually of low quality, he said. The piping on the box is often out of alignment. The logo is printed badly. And “if the carton is opened and the bottle examined, the quality of the glass is poor.”

Spence and others say that consumers can make sure they get the real thing by watching where they shop.

“Certainly you can trust what we’re calling authorized retail outlets, including the major department stores and specialty stores,” said a spokesperson for Giorgio. Perfumes sold at swap meets or discount stores, on the other hand, should be more closely scrutinized.

Quality perfumes contain many natural ingredients, but counterfeit products contain only synthetic ingredients, said a spokesperson for Giorgio of Beverly Hills. A sophisticated buyer can easily discern the nuances of fragrance in a “juice,” she said. “But you have to be familiar with the original product to be able to tell the difference.”

“One other little clue is that if the product is significantly discounted from what you know it should be, that’s a sign that it could be a knockoff or counterfeit.

“We think our users would be outraged if they thought they were buying Giorgio Beverly Hills and got a counterfeit, " she said.

And perfumers are becoming increasingly vigilant in efforts to protect consumer noses from inferior scents.

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“These counterfeiters are very, very professional,” said Gould of Giorgio, “and we’re going to pursue them to the ends of the earth.”

Times staff writer Beth Ann Krier and free-lance writer Paddy Calistro contributed to this story.


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