Remember Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the orphan raised in 18th-century Parisian squalor with unparalleled olfactory faculty, whose quest to create the world’s finest perfume leads him to deceit and murders until he discovers the ultimate scent to mesmerise even his captors? Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the 1985 novel by Patrick Süskind, later turned into a film (2006) in which Ben Whishaw essays the role of Grenouille to perfection, could never anticipate how ‘deceit’ will play out in distant India more than three decades on.
Today, the virtual world of e-commerce is inundated by knock-offs of original perfume brands, such as Chanel, Chloe, Tom Ford, Burberry, Versace, Dior, Prada, and what have you—and all of it here in India, right now. They just don’t invade the inbox but populate social media handles with attractive banners and competitive pricing, anywhere between one-fifth to one-hundredth the price of the original. To top it all, the fragrances last 8-9 hours in subtropical climes such as ours. Going by the names they sport, some of them do it with élan, not a care in the world—perfumesteal.com, visionarypirate.in, xlncperfumery.com, secretperfumes.in, to name a few. And as can be ascertained, these online copycats are extremely cagey in disclosing numbers and facts, or else the long arm of the law takes them by the collar. But they ply their trade owing to a loophole we’ll discover down the line.
Open got talking to a couple of them to get a grip on how the ‘industry’ is panning out. Perfumery, otherwise, is a boutique business wherein ‘workshops’ churn out limited batches for end-use. But going by the brazenness of the online mimics in terms of the sheer volumes they deal with, Rajiv Sheth, founder of the Ahmedabad-based All Good Scents, would like to accord the knock-offs an industry status.
India’s perfume market, excluding e-commerce revenues, stood at ₹790 crore in January-December 2021, and is expected to hit ₹1,200 crore by 2025, according to a Nielsen IQ Retail Audit Report. Some industry estimates already peg the number at ₹1,000 crore today, with the e-commerce frat chipping in with an additional ₹500 crore (nearly 15 per cent growth year-on-year). That is remarkable since changes in shopping preferences have propelled the sales of perfumes through the online channel via websites, blogs and social media. Increasing internet penetration and the rising use of smartphones are driving the growth of this format. Now, consider the online retailers of the knock-off perfumes whose volumes are unaccountable since these entities prefer to stay below the radar. That number is anyone’s guess.
On the scent of such industry ‘players’, Open first caught up with one Abu who calls himself the managing director of Perfumesteal, located in Mumbai. The perfumes on offer are almost a perfect match for the original designer fragrance. So, a 50ml Tom Ford Neroli Portofino Eau de Parfum (EDP), which costs ₹28,000 on Amazon, is replicated and sold on Perfumesteal for ₹700, bundled with a free 10ml roll-on tester of any other popular perfume brand—Davidoff Cool Water, for instance. “It [tester] is to give the consumer a feel of our range [for a return purchase],” says Abu, who vends the concoctions by the thousands by prefixing “inspired by” to the original brand on the label. In this particular case, this is how the label reads in its entirety: “Perfumesteal.com Inspired By Tom Forde Neroli Portofino”. Intellectual property lawyers take note of that extra ‘e’ in Ford.
“We have been selling our ‘inspired by’ versions for several years now and largely exported them to Africa and Brazil. Over the last three-four years, we have tasted success online as the business-to-consumer (B2C) channel has exploded in that space,” he elaborates, claiming his craft is “extremely profitable”.
A perfume is a mixture of fragrances and alcohol. Keeping those costs in check along with the cost of the bottles and labour and about 20 per cent courier charges, Abu still manages to scrape in 10-15 per cent profit. Now, over thousands of bottles of a single batch he sells, that is some margin by miles.
But Abu does not make the fragrance himself. They are made to order to the last detail in closed-door sessions Abu has with an undisclosed fragrance maker, who employs machines and blenders for the task. Open learns several such fragrance houses have mushroomed, particularly on the western edge of the country, over the years, and it’s not just perfumes that sustain them but the burgeoning incense stick business, room and car fresheners, homecare and bodycare verticals.
But decoding perfumes using machines is a new phenomenon. “Gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy machines are used to decode perfumes. When you inject a perfume in the machine, you can get between 80 to 98 per cent proximity of the fragrance,” says Sheth who, along with his wife, are few in the business with a ‘nose’ for scents. Now, having a nose is the ability to determine the ingredients that go into the making of a perfume, and requires a heightened olfactory sense. Sheth would know since he conducts nosing classes across the country and has spent years in France acquiring the skill while studying perfumery. His ‘All Good Scents’ is a legit business to create contemporary Indian fragrances at a price point he dubs “affordable luxury”. He was the first to foray online in the country with his own perfume brand 10 years ago but is yet to break even.
Abu reasons that while machines do 80-90 per cent of the job deciphering the original perfume’s composition, the fragrance maker’s nose comes in handy to figure out the remaining notes. Sheth is quick to admonish such a claim since they are only copies of designer brands. “They don’t need to necessarily have noses because the consumer is aware of the fragrance,” he argues.
Abu comes from a family of perfumers. Over generations, they were ittar (traditional perfume with concentrated essential oils and zero alcohol) sellers and his father saw potential in replicating imported perfumes three decades ago and gradually started exporting them. Only a few years back, Abu realised how it could trigger an online gold rush, and now there’s no stopping.
Jaimeen from Surat follows a slightly different business model than Abu’s Perfumesteal with his Visionaryprirate. Along with partner Harsh, he has recently launched Toxic Male. In a video shared by the company with Open, Harsh explains his modus operandi: “Within just two months of operations, we have recreated more than 70-plus designer and 30-plus niche perfumes ensuring that the silage, fragrance, projection, and longevity are the same as the original. We have also customised Eau de Toilette (EDT), EDP and parfum across 20ml, 50ml and 100ml bottles.” For the uninitiated, EDTs have the least concentration of the fragrance in a perfume bottle, anywhere between 5-12 per cent; EDPs notch up 12-20 per cent; and any compound more than 20 per cent of the fragrance is categorised as parfum. Again, like Abu, Toxic Male vends online with an ‘Inspired By’ prefix to the original scent. So, a 100ml of Montblanc Legend EDP that could set you back by ₹9,500 if you purchased it directly off the Montblanc website, is mimicked to the last decimal by Toxic Male at ₹1,799 a pop. Similarly, fellow pirate Secretperfumes uses the prefix ‘Secret of’ to designer brands on its labels, which it vends for ₹949-1,699 a pop.
Now, there’s a substantial difference in pricing in what Abu and Harsh, and Secretperfumes offer. That is where the shades of grey algorithm kicks in. “The price at which fragrance houses manufacture [counterfeit] scents is either high or low, which creates categories among the knock-offs. An almost similar copy of the original perfume would be more expensive than a bad one,” explains Sheth.
A purist like Sheth who gets his fragrances customised from a fragrance house in Grasse, France, too, is feeling the heat from the online me-too brigade. “At our price point [₹225 to ₹1,190], if consumers see anything close to, say a Hugo Boss or Tom Ford, they will lap it up owing to the brand perception. That is how the imitation industry is eating into our market share,” he says.
Sheth is not alone. Rajkot-based Nirbhay Lunagaria, managing director of Noggah Perfumes is 29, and so is his longtime friend and fragrance provider Abhinav Kotak, promoter of Abhinav Perfumers. Lunagaria collaborated with Kotak and launched 20 fragrances under the Noggah brand in December. While he is upbeat about the category, he vends his wares at a risky price point—at ₹2,990 for 100ml of EDPs—leaving the turf wide open for perfume pirates to nibble away market share. Though Lunagaria’s effort is genuine and Kotak helps him with authentic formulations, he admits getting inspired by top designer brands too. “We don’t copy top brands but take inspiration from them. Our focus is on the niche market, not the me-too category, really,” he says.
As a fragrance house, Kotak’s Abhinav Perfumers stocks an enviable 2,500-plus ingredients, varying from 100gm to 20 tonnes, and perfumes account for 35 per cent of his business, incense stick fragrances make up another 45 per cent, and air care comprising the remaining 20 per cent. Though he mimics fragrances for the knock-off trade, he is quick to point out that he doesn’t market them. He also admits that a replica is almost impossible. “These [designer] perfumes have their own set of essential oils and if you recreate them fully, you need to import these oils, and that is not feasible. Dior and Chanel, for instance, have their own rose farms in Grasse. They use oils from these farms in their fragrances and it is exclusive to them. That is why you cannot have an exact copy of Chanel No 5.”
Kotak also helps the me-too market by tinkering with the formulation of the fragrance, thereby bypassing the law. “Formulations are not patented and if we add 0.1 percentage more of an ingredient than the original, the fragrance changes, implying we haven’t copied the formula. The only patent that exists is for ingredients and technology, not the formulation,” he observes.
Kotak is probably right. On December 10, 2013, the highest French court confirmed that perfume is not eligible to be protected under copyright law. While giving its verdict, the court observed that “a form that can be perceived by the senses” can only be protected if it is identifiable with enough precision to be communicated.
In India, too, the olfactory senses are muted when it comes to law. “Fragrances [in India] are not protected since they are not part of the definition of trade marks. In Section 2 of the Trade Marks Act, which defines a trade mark, it includes shape, sound, everything but smell,” says Jatin Trivedi, senior partner at YJ Trivedi & Co.
But what about the packaging when established brand names are being infringed upon with an “inspired by” or “secret of” prefix? Now, Section 29(8) of the Trade Marks Act clearly states: “a registered trade mark is infringed by any advertising of that trade mark if such advertising takes unfair advantage of and is contrary to the honest practices in industrial or commercial matters.”
The Trade Marks Act even confers specific powers on the police. Section 115 of the Act gives power to the police to seize the counterfeit and arrest the perpetrator, though that is not happening anytime soon since the police infrastructure is inadequate. As a lawyer points out anonymously, “We need to equip the executive department that includes the metropolitan and judicial magistrate courts, and the police. Just like there is a cyber cell in every city, there needs to be an intellectual property (IP) enforcement cell where any kind of IP being breached is taken over on a war footing.” Also, Mohinder Vig, partner- Trademarks, Khurana & Khurana, feels it is not worth the effort of global designer houses to fight such trivial battles. “Top global designer houses feel it is not worth spending millions of dollars on petty infringers, particularly when there are so many of them.”
But Trivedi contends that once the knock-off artists go offline, they can be easily arrested with an address thrown in. Until then, our homegrown perfume pirates continue to mesmerise their audiences by taking a leaf out of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s art of deception.