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'Perfume Detective' tracks down fragrances for folks with a fondness for hard-to-find scents

Sunday, August 04, 2002

By LaMont Jones, Post-Gazette Fashion Editor

There's nothing more frustrating than finding a product you really like, going to the store to buy more and discovering that it's no longer made.

Anitra Earle of Yonkers, N.Y., is a perfume detective who has tracked some of these fragrances for customers and keeps them on hand in case anyone else is looking for them. From left: two fragrances that flopped and disappeared from the marketplace, Scaasi, an eau de parfum by fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, and Tuxedo by Ralph Lauren; Dali body lotion by Parfums Salvador Dali (in a container shaped like nose and lips); Flora Danica, a cologne by Swank; Krazy Krizia, an eau de parfum by Krizia; and Voulez-Vous, a successful perfume by D'Orsay -- this one costs $500. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

That frequently happened to fragrance lover Anitra Earle. In fact, it happened so much that she decided to start a business to deal with it.

Earle is "the Perfume Detective," a name she got trademark-protected after a newspaper used it to describe her in 1988. Since 1985, she's been a scent sleuth, a purveyor of prized perfumes who has hunted down thousands of rare, discontinued and no-longer-exported colognes for people the world over.

"It's something that I can do any hour of the day or night," says Earle, of Yonkers, N.Y. "The thing that's fun about this is I never know what I'm going to come across next. Sometimes I'm absolutely flabbergasted that a thing could reappear."

A former newspaper journalist and music critic, Earle operated a series of perfume stores called The Perfumery in California from 1985 through 1991. Fed up with finding herself at the discontinued end of her favorite antique fragrances, she converted her bricks-and-mortar operations to a mail-order perfume business. The change has given her more time and freedom to look for long-lost perfumes.

When someone writes to Earle about a search, all she requests is a self-addressed, stamped envelope so she can reply with the results of her investigation. She searches for free and has found hard-to-find perfumes -- or related after-shaves and soaps -- for people all across the United States and in foreign lands such as Belgium, Sweden, Japan and Canada.

Although Earle can get started with nothing more than the name of the product, it helps if she has the name of the manufacturer or fragrance house.

Her goal is to pinpoint the product within 48 hours. There are some requests, however, that she has been working on for more than 15 years. Her database contains about 10,000 files, and about 2,000 are active searches she hasn't yet found.


Want Earle to find a fragrance for you? Send her information about it, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to The Perfume Detective, 615 Warburton, Yonkers, NY 10701.


Earle received 20 requests Monday, half of which she could fill immediately from her stock. She had KL by Karl Lagerfeld, My Sin by Lanvin and Evening in Paris by Bourjois -- an enormously popular fragrance in the '60s that came in a cobalt blue bottle -- but she has to track down Ritz by Charles of the Ritz and Unleaded, a men's fragrance by Liz Claiborne.

Connections with manufacturers and distributors help Earle track down items. She buys inventories of stores that are going out of business. She visits fragrance houses. She checks out small importers and specialty stores. And because of successful searches and media coverage, she's developed a name recognition that sometimes has sources looking for her upon finding long-lost products.

"I have to go on the assumption that everything I want exists somewhere on this world," said Earle.

Two of the most popular requests are for Woodhue by Faberge, once hugely successful, and Intoxication by D'Orsay. Both were retired.

Earle, who has loved perfumes since her childhood in Chicago, has several fragrances she hopes to find for herself. One is Infini by Pierre Dune, a floral with notes of night-blooming four-o'clock. Its aroma is "absolute heaven," said Earle, adding that she's been trying to track it down for 35 years.

She will look for a fragrance for years, but sometimes a disappointing report is inevitable. A week ago, she reluctantly informed a woman that she wouldn't be able to find a fragrance named Zortel. The lady, who had hoped to have it by her 68th birthday, said she had been looking for it for 40 years and that Earle was her last hope.

It's important for people to be patient because searches can take a while, and Earle doesn't waste time telling people she hasn't yet found something.

Some people doubt that a fragrance could have its intended aroma after 30 or 40 years. But it can, says Earle, depending upon such factors as light and heat exposure (both bad) and the flacon's shape and color (flat shoulders and darker glass seem to hold heat longer).

Even after a scent is sniffed out, happiness is not guaranteed. It may not be what the seeker loved and remembered because manufacturers sometimes alter the formula. And sometimes, retired fragrances are relaunched under the same name but with some different notes, which someone familiar with the original can quickly discern.

That's what happened with Gardenia by Chanel, another of Earle's favorite "lost children." When Chanel relaunched the scent as a limited edition several years ago in its boutiques, Earle's elation turned to "bitter disappointment" when she realized the formula had been altered.

She felt like a penny waiting for change.

"I was wondering how they could be so foolish," she said.

Earle is also baffled by the tendency of many fragrance makers to discontinue a fragrance that is enjoying commercial success.

She has found thousands of fragrances for people, including Fracas by Robert Piguet for Martha Stewart. Her sleuthing is rewarded with lots of Christmas cards from satisfied clients and "wonderful letters."

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