Simply put, reformulation is a process in fragrance product development where the scent formula of an existing product is changed. The change can involve the removal of scent elements (either essential or fragrance oils), the integration of new scent elements, the adjustment of the proportional ratios of the scent elements, or some combination of the above.
What is Reformulation and Why Does It Happen?
Unlike more tightly regulated areas of chemical endeavor, the fragrance mix of a given perfume (or even of a more utilitarian commercial product like detergent or soap) is treated as a trade secret, and the manufacturer does not have to list all the various elements or their proportions in labeling, or indeed in any public forum at all. The fragrance mix can be changed at the whim of the manufacturer, for any reason, at any time, with no notice to end users. That is why shave soaps and perfumes are similar in that part of the ingredient list will say “fragrance” or “parfum” and that is all the info you will get on the subject.
Why Should You Care?
First, understanding the topic makes the issue of all the alleged “fakes” being sold on Amazon a lot more intelligible. Consider these reviews, all of fragrances that were sold directly by Amazon, not one of its third party “marketplace” vendors:
Christian Dior’s Fahrenheit
“Do not buy it from Amazon, it is fake. I have been using this perfume for more than 15 years.”
“This one I bought from amazon won’t last for 10 minutes. Tried to return to amazon [they] refused. Do not waste your money.”
“I purchased this as a Father’s Day gift for my dad who has been using Vetiver for over 30 years. Unfortunately, despite the authentic packaging, the fragrance itself is not the original Vetiver by Guerlain. This product lacks the freshness of the authentic fragrance and the undertones of tobacco and fruit. It is very disappointing that the real Vetiver is getting harder to find and this is just another knockoff.”
Surely Amazon won’t be selling fake Grey Flannel, right? That’s less than $20 MSRP, so why even bother selling a fake? Oops… spoke too soon!
“What a shame. This is Grey Flannel? What?… Where? Not here that’s for sure. What is up with all of these wanna be colognes, toilette sprays and slashes that are watered down and last one minute? I purchased 3 Grey Flannel products, a Toilette Spray, this and the cologne, and all of them are made the same…WATERED DOWN! I really don’t understand what all the hype was about on the reviews because this is NOT the real Grey Flannel. As I mentioned in my other review for the Toilette Spray, I have half a bottle of the original Grey Flannel, which I have had since 2006, and I can honestly tell you that it lasts ALL DAY!”
Well, unless we want to believe America’s largest internet retailer is either being fleeced by its suppliers or brazenly selling fake knockoffs of luxury items while waiting for the lawsuits to hit, a more valid explanation for this phenomenon (and it is vast; most poor reviews of fragrances on Amazon are due to complaints about products being “fake”) is simply that the purchaser expected a different “vintage” of the fragrance, and instead got a reformulation. The reformulation was made by the actual manufacturer for one or more reasons, sold by Amazon legitimately, and nevertheless disappointed its buyer greatly.
Why Else Should I Care?
There are other reasons to find out more about reformulations even if the mysteries of the Amazon do not fascinate you. First, if you or a friend own a version of a fragrance from the past, when it comes to restock, or even try to buy something that you’ve smelled and liked on someone else, you may end up buying a newer version that is utterly different from what you expected. Most companies do not accept returns of fragrance purchases, so this may be an expensive mistake. (Amazon, to its credit, though not accepting returns, will usually issue a refund if the buyer raises any question as to quality or authenticity of a fragrance purchase if you ask customer service for assistance.)
Second, you may be “blind buying” a fragrance, that is buying it based on internet reviews or Luca Turin’s evaluation of the scent in his excellent (though increasingly outdated) Guide. You may have read reviews of “Ungaro III” on Basenotes.com, let’s say, and want to discover it’s “vodka Gothic rose accord.” Boy, will you be disappointed when you open your $30 purchase and smell rubbing alcohol and cedar… (More on this one later!)
Next, you also might read this article and be filled with a great sense of nostalgia and loss because all the vintage frags from yesteryear are no more. You may then be filled with the urge to track down say, vintage Z14 in hopes of smelling something more like leather and moss and less like cinnamon. Is this venture worthwhile?
Finally, you might finish this article and think “well, what should I buy? What is either un-reformulated or reformulated well enough so that what I buy is worth what I’m spending?” I have some thoughts on that also… But let’s talk more about why reformulations happen in the first place.
Why Mess With Success?
Well, first as basic background, remember that you, the consumer, have only the most basic idea of what you’re buying in the first place when it comes to complex olfactory concoctions. First, you can only smell so much. Even a very skilled nose cannot identify all the fragrance notes in most compositions, and then those notes themselves are often composed of dozens of sub-ingredients that are not what they seem.
Other than what you smell (or think you smell), the only other thing you have to go on (barring access to a chemistry lab) is what the manufacturer tells you is in the fragrance.The note pyramids / descriptions listed give some idea as to what the product is supposed to smell like, but the actual composition is far more complex and often does not even have any of the actual scent notes contained as essential oils at all. For instance, many products will list “rose” or “vanilla” as part of their scent notes, but will contain completely synthetic ingredients that simulate these notes.
Sandalwood and, famously, oud are also ingredients that manufacturers talk up a lot when advertising a new fragrance but which are widely simulated rather than used in their authentic natural forms (which are much more costly.) Suffice to say though that virtually every fragrance element exists as a cheaper synthetic version which smells very similar to its natural progenitor. (Interestingly, one of the few exceptions is vetiver; there is no synthetic variant of this scent element that smells comparable to the natural version. Fortunately for perfumer makers and vetiver fans, the natural stuff is pretty inexpensive.)
The most startling issue about reformulation processes to the uninitiated is that the maker will never admit that it happened. Despite the fact the new formula smells different, lasts less, projects less etc the manufacturer will claim that the original formula is still being used, and nothing at all has changed. So in theory Caron’s Pour Un Homme is still using the same formula from 1934… um hm. (It still smells great, but it most definitely has changed formulas, probably many, many times at this point.)
The manufacturer, by denying their own role in modifying their proprietary scent, would rather you, the customer, be mad at the retailer (like Amazon) for selling you a “fake” or “stale” perfume than admit that they, the perfumer maker, have changed your beloved vintage formula. Why? At least with the former case, you might re-buy the fragrance again from another retailer, and / or would buy another product from the manufacturer. By contrast, if Yves St. Laurent (for example) admits that they’ve mutilated your beloved favorite beyond recognition, you might never buy anything from them again, so better for YSL to keep a stiff upper lip, insist they are making whatever fragrance is in question as they always have, infer that your retailer is to blame, and keep the corporate fingers crossed that you’ll buy from them again. (Plus there’s always a chance you’ll like the next reformulation better!)
Reformulation is quite common and frequent; in general, most perfumes see several major reformulations within the first decade of availability, if they survive that long, and many are reformulated in three years or less after they are first sold. Also, if sales flag, and there’s a price reduction, a reformulation at that point is also not uncommon.
The manufacturer then will often “chase the gauges” and re-reformulate if sales and / or criticism mounts regarding a specific effort to reformulate, and then ingredient regulations change very frequently also, (more on this later!) so the odds that anything you are using is still the original vintage formula decreases with the age of the product. Unless you are using a full-priced fragrance less than 5 years old since its date of introduction, the odds are good there have been one or more reformulations of what you are smelling.
The ultimate goal of reformulation is almost always to end up with a product that smells similar to the original pre-reformulation scent. Why reformulate at all then? Three big reasons, one of which is far more common than the other two.
Back in the glory days of male fragrances, the 70s and 80s, many fragrances made by the big perfume houses were immensely powerful and used relatively expensive mixes of essential and fragrance oils (worth say $10 of cost per $75 bottle). After a few years, as sales taper off, pressure starts to increase to lower prices to boost sales, and then the companies would ask their chemists try to figure out how to make say Paco Rabanne Pour Homme smell roughly the same while using cheaper ingredients, say for $6 or $7 per bottle.
This scenario is not seen much these days, as the cost of making perfumes, especially male targeted ones, has gotten cheaper and cheaper. The average value of the ingredients per bottle of $100 perfume is now roughly $2-$4, meaning the glass bottle itself generally costs twice as much to manufacture as the fragrance inside of it.
The development budgets of the big houses have gotten smaller and smaller, due to changing consumer preferences – powerhouse scents that can be smelled from two yards away are out, and “fresh” and “aquatic” are in, and the scent elements used to create those families of fragrances are much less costly than what is needed to make, say, a masculine woody chypre like Giorgio Beverly Hills in its heyday (1984). In general, the value of fragrance mixes for the average perfume is roughly half of what it was pre-1990, $50 per pound rather than the old $100/lb. average.
The odds are good, then, that the fragrance you like that costs Dior or Guerlain $3 per bottle to make is not going to be reformulated to a lower value simply due to economics alone. The big guys are already making a ton of money from each $100 sale (roughly $15 per bottle as profit) and they don’t want to run the risk of losing sales by cheaping out to much. Yes, they might save another fifty cents per bottle, but the risk of negative consumer reaction to a bad reformulation is very high, in terms of both declining sales and public criticism on the internet and elsewhere.
One of the only areas of modern fragrance sales where the buyer really has to be cautious of cost reformulation is in cases of fragrances made by companies not known for their fragrance quality, and / or where the company does not make much of its money from fragrance sales. If Dior or YSL reformulates cheaply and badly and ruins a perfume, their reputation will suffer, and future sales of that fragrance and their entire line may be affected. So if perfume X has sufficiently bad sales, a big maker will be more inclined to just discontinue its sales rather than make it a cheap “zombie” that costs pennies to make but which also smells dreadful.
No such sense of shame applies to companies that really have no reputation for fragrance making, like let’s say Juicy Couture as an example. Their “Dirty English” for instance, when it first came out in 2008 had a reputation as being an interesting masculine papyrus / booze / oud / leather mix that smelled like a far more expensive fragrance. As sales began to decline, Juicy outsourced production, began to charge less and less for the bottles, and roughly in 2013 or so, the bottles available for the mere $20 charged for them in discount stores began to smell more and more like alcohol and carrier oil, with some really cheap synthetic woods scents mixed in.
Why? Because the company was not especially concerned about its rep as a parfumeur, so they did not really care about the guy in Marshalls that dropped $20 on an anticipated leather / oud fragrance and got cheap woods and cheaper alcohol scents instead. (That guy was me, by the way, and I am not buying anything else from Juicy Couture again, but then I never bought anything from then before this experience either!)
So then, as long as you stick to the larger, reasonably prestigious fragrance makers, the already low cost of fragrance ingredients in the modern era and the company’s own concerns about its reputation means that in most cases the manufacturer will not be worrying about formula costs too much, so modern fragrances are generally not reformulated on a cost basis, or at least nowhere near as frequently as they used to be. However, there are other reasons to change the mix…
2. Changing Tastes
This reason to reformulate is even rarer, but in general involves a recognition on the part of the maker that they kind of messed up the initial release, and / or represents an attempt to change the formula to accommodate a strongly held and unexpected shift in preference on the part of the target market audience.
For instance, Dior Homme, when it first came out in 2005, used a heavy powdery iris note that was rare in masculine perfumery, and many loved it, but many guys also hated it, saying it smelled “like makeup” or too feminine, etc. Dior (it is alleged) reformulated the fragrance in roughly year 6 of its availability (2011) and toned down the iris note. Fans of the original formula were upset, but many men who would not have considered wearing the original version responded well to the newer mix.
Dior of course did not admit to any reformulation at all (which is very typical) and some fragrance buffs also agree there is no real difference between the early and later mixes. I personally own two different bottles that straddle the alleged transition point, and I myself feel there is a perceptible difference between the 2010 and 2012 vintages I own. (I like the earlier one better, but the second one is also fine.) You can read more about the controversy here and here.
As mentioned, this reason to reformulate is rare. In general, guys that like old school Dior’s Eau Sauvage and have been wearing it for years are unlikely to look kindly on a new fresh aquatic touch in the formula. And guys who like fresh aquatics are probably already accustomed to wearing other products, and associate the Eau Sauvage brand with something they are not interested in, so a hypothetical reformulation of Eau Sauvage to accommodate changing tastes will probably not gain Dior any new customers and may well cost them the loyalty of existing ES fans. Plus if they really wanted to experiment, they could just bring out a “flanker”, that is a slightly modified name variant with a different composition, like “ES Intense” or “ES Fresh” or “ES Ocean” etc. while leaving the original formula unmodified. This way the company sends a clear message to traditionalists and newcomers alike as to what they may be getting themselves into.
As a matter of fact, Dior has done exactly that recently, launching a new fragrance “Sauvauge” which emphasizes the “freshness” of the new formula, and one which uses Johnny Depp as the star of their media campaign. Dior clearly is aiming for a much younger demographic in both its marketing and product design, while also (not so subtly) referencing the new product’s distinguished pedigree.”
3. Regulatory Compliance, Or Who’s Afraid of IFRA?
So if reformulation for cost has become unlikely and reformulation for changing tastes is even rarer, why is this process so common? Four letters, joined together in an acronym of great significance… International FRagrance Association, or … IFRA! Suffice to say that IFRA has done more damage to male (and female) perfume manufacturing traditions than all the combined cost and changing taste based reformulations have done together. In the next article of this series, we will discuss what IFRA is, what its goals are, and why it has had such a negative effect on the world of fine fragrance creation and appreciation.