We are delighted to welcome Christopher Chong, the Creative Director of the Omani perfume house Amouage. This luxurious perfumery brand has succeeded since 1983 in projecting an image of classic Arabian opulence mixed with the Western tradition as well as in becoming popular in the circuits of niche perfumery where demanding amateurs abound. It is an excellent example of how the guiding principles of luxury and creativity of the prestige and niche markets can coalesce.
Amouage has just released their latest creations, Reflection Women and Men. We felt it would be a great time to learn more about the work of the perfume house and in particular that of its Creative Director, Christopher Chong.
TSS: First, may I ask you how you became involved with fragrances? Or again, where does this love of fragrances of yours spring from?
Let me tell you about my funny childhood. My first encounter with perfumes started when I was four. I took one of my mother's perfumes and intoxicated the house with the entire bottle. Everyone was fighting for air. Whereas I was transfixed by the notes dancing around me. It was a magical moment that I hope I will experience again.
Ever since that time, other children wanted to go to the playground, I begged my mother to take me to the perfume hallls in department stores. That was my wonderland filled with magic and spellbinding excitement.
I further developed this love for perfumes by studying humanities at university which gave me an in-depth knowledge of art, music and literature. Also, as a trained opera singer, perfume is the perfect complement. I used to sing the notes. Now, I smell the notes.
-When one talks about the creation of perfumes today, a lot of focus is put on perfumers. A debate has arisen recently around the question of authorship in perfumery with, as you know, different conclusions in The Netherlands and France. Yet at the same time it is quite obvious that perfumery appears more and more to be the result of sophisticated teamwork akin to the level of collective effort found in the making of a movie, from designing the perfume, to composing it, blending it, to packaging it and marketing it etc. What is exactly the role of an artistic director in that enterprise, at least in the way that you see it?...
As Creative Director of Amouage, my role is part creative and part executive. On the creative level, I come up with the mood, story and inspiration in the brief. This brief will be sent to several noses. I prefer not to know which nose created which scent at the initial stage because I prefer to select the scent that best matches the brief rather than selecting a famous nose.....
At the smelling sessions I would shortlist a few scents and start to articulate in details my requirements, such as increasing or reducing the amount of some ingredients. Then, I would take this with me and test them on myself and live with these scents for some time. I am a strong believer that fragrances have to be smelled on skin. It is an art form that requires time to mature and to develop. All this takes at least one year to complete. On the executive level, I make joint decisions with the CEO on matters concerning package designs, marketing and production. Also, I work closely with the sales team because I believe customer feedback is vital in creating unique and wearable fragrances.
-The Royal family of Oman seems to be very close to Amouage especially since they are the ones who established the house in 1983. How much input do you receive from them? Are they the ones who come up with the original briefs?
You are right. The Royal Family of Oman is very close to Amouage. They are very supportive and I value their input. I wouldn't be able to create such wonderful fragrances without their insightful help. However whilst they are the owners they give the CEO autonomy to run the business and to produce the best fragrances suitable to the market. They are always consulted at the final choosing stages however as their knowledgeable input is always useful.
- It is fascinating to see that Amouage did not start just as a business venture but also seems to have been structured to correspond to the royal family's needs of gift-giving and hospitality. Does this orientation lend a particular character to your perfume house?
Not just the royal family's needs but the needs of the whole Arabian market, since perfume is a highly valued and important gift particularly for weddings. Also, one is perfumed as one enters someone's house and as one leaves.
Did you know that the tassels on the dishdash of the Omani man (and only on Omani dishdashas) are there as in ancient days? There is perfume in a holder by the door of every house and they would dip this tassel in to perfume themselves before entering. Today this tradition continues with the host offering the most expensive and valuable perfumes to his guests. Scented rosewater is also offered at the end of the visit to send the wearer on his way feeling refreshed and nicely perfumed. Incense is also wafted over the departing guest again to perfume them as they leave.
Perfume is nowhere more prevalent than as a wedding gift. Huge Mandoos (like dowry) boxes are stuffed full of varied perfumes to give to the newly weds. Perfume is as important to men as to women and Arabic men think nothing of wearing a ladies' perfume if they like it.
Of course our choice of perfumes at Amouage aims to carry on this wonderful tradition and we always consider whether the new fragrances will form worthy gifts for royals and other discerning Arab customers but these days we also have to consider the taste and needs of the rest of the world as we broaden our reach.
- Regarding the latest Amouage releases, Reflection Men and Women, how did the back and forth with Maurice Roucel and Lucas Sieuzac take place? What were your sources of inspiration?
Both Maurice and Lucas are true artists. The process had been very easygoing and they had been very kind and generous in the development stage.
The primary source of inspiration is the celebration of "you", the individual. Whoever wears Reflection is the face of the fragrance. We want to empower and to celebrate the individualities of our customers. It's totally fortuitous that Time magazine chose the same ethos for their person of the year this year!
- The perfume market seems very much driven by trends. There are certain conflicting notions about whether perfumery ought to be more of an art-for-art's-sake phenomenon, versus being unabashedly a fashion phenomenon. Luxury, it seems to me, is more about aiming at conveying an image of timelessness; the Amouage perfumes all seem to bear a classic, atemporal quality. What kind of balance do you try to achieve?
I try not to follow trend. In order to create a timeless perfume, it is important to see it as an art. I try to create a balance of art and commercial product. In order to achieve this, it is important to give the noses the freedom to create without setting a budget or any creative boundaries. These considerations are of course vital in any business but with Amouage they would never limit the birth of something truly wonderful and exotic.
- In what ways has Guy Robert left his mark and continues to leave his mark on Amouage?
Guy Robert is Amouage's benchmark. I hope one day, with hard work, I will be able to create a fragrance that has the immortality of Guy Robert's legendary creations. I have so much to learn from the great masters and I am so fortunate to have so many wonderful noses as teachers. Today we still continue to salute Guy, as the creator of the first fragrance for Amouage that is still the best seller of the brand today.
- It is striking to see how the discourse around perfume-wearing in the Middle East puts emphasis on the inner life. Amouage is no exception. Why do you think there is this propensity to evoke the moral life? What does "Reflection" mean by the way here exactly?
Perfume-wearing in the Middle East has a lot to do with spiritual cleansing. It is also about respect for the self and others that we co-exist in harmony in this world. It's interesting that in religious ceremonies as well perfume (incense) is used to cleanse and purify the space.
"Reflection" here means beauty comes from the inside. By wearing Reflection we are proud to be who we are rather than who we appear to be.
- Amouage with its Arabian heritage is also very much a cross-cultural product of Western and Middle-Eastern influences. How do you take these influences into account in your work? Do you have perfumes that sell more in the Middle East and others more in the West?
I love the Middle-Eastern influences. Every element of the Arabic heritage and tradition has a strong influence in my creations. As Creative Director of an international perfume house, I translate these elements and make them accessible for the western markets.
Both our signature fragrances Gold and Dia sell equally well in the Middle East and the West. With Gold and Dia we combine Omani ingredients such as frankincense and the rare rock rose with other western notes. It is this beautiful fusion that makes Amouage truly international.
With all new fragrances we try to insert exotic and Arabian influences as our fragrances need that something a little different to the usual run of the mill launches.
- When experiencing the different perfumes in your line, one cannot but be struck by the beauty of the ingredients and compositions, their luxuriance and lushness. So much so that conventional coded gender lines in perfumery start feeling blurrier. Gold Men is as rich as Gold Women, if not even more so. How do you determine these differences? What accords or ingredients or proportions of ingredients allow you to establish more of a masculine and feminine character? It seems that the Arabian heritage in this case works towards the creation of flamboyant masculine fragrances.
In the Arabian culture, both man and woman see perfume more as a fine art. They have a lot of respect for the perfumes they choose to wear. Therefore, they don't choose perfume based on the gender set by the perfume houses.
Even though a fragrance may be coded for women because it may be more powdery and have more floral notes, it should not stop a man from wearing it. We should be able to choose and wear what we want.
In creating fragrances, my signature style is to lightly veil a "strangness" that separates Amouage from other perfumes. I call this my discord. However it is necessary to form symmetry amongst all the notes. I juxtapose harmony with a discord in order to come up with something original and different. This discord is a secret place in which it will evoke the wearer to share the journey and experience.
I thank the Arabian heritage for giving me the freedom to be creative without boundary. I create as an artist, not as a marketing man.
- I have noticed that the Amouage fragrances have a soothing, calming effect. Has this characteristic been brought to your attention before? Is it due to the high proportion of natural ingredients that you use? Has silver frankincense any particular properties?
The mission of all Amouage fragrances is to spare no expenses in creating the best wearable scents.
Oman produces the best Silver Frankincense in Dohfa. You have made a very interesting observation. Silver Frankincense contains special properties that are both calming and soothing. It's widely used in traditional Omani healing medicine and is highly prized.
It has always been considered the very best quality of frankincense available in the world. The Queen of Sheba took silver frankincense from Dhofar to King Soloman way back in the Old Testament days. Legend has it that the frankincense taken to the baby Jesus by the Magi also came from Dhofar.
- What is your next project? You mentioned that you were going to create oil-based perfumes?
In addition to our main perfume line, I am working on several collections. The Home Collection includes candles, bamboo diffuser and oil lamp. The Bath & Body Collection contains soap, shower gel, body lotion, body cream and hand cream. We hope to launch these collections towards the end of this year.
As for oil-based perfumes, this has always been a strong Omani heritage and tradition. Amouage has been doing this since 1983 and distributions have been mainly in the Middle-East and Harrods. One of my objectives for Amouage is to make this more accessible to the West. I plan to create oil-based perfumes that will bridge the cultural differences of the West and the Middle-East.
Another project that I have started is creating a "boutique collection". This collection will be bold and adventurous. The nature of this is to explore all elements of human emotions and express it through scents. We plan to launch this sometime in 2008.
- Finally, a little ritual. Apart from the Amouage perfumes, what are the 10 perfumes that you think everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime?
Caron's Tabac Blond
Caron's N'Aimez Que Moi
Chanel's Cuir de Ruissie
Carthusia's Ligea La Sirena
Acqua di Parma's Colonia
Comme des Garcons' Man
Serge Lutens' Ambre Sultan
Annick Goutal's Sables
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to share Amouage with your readers.
We thank you very much for your insights.
Note: Next time we will review the two new releases Reflection Men and Women. Today, we will offer a review of Persephone by Sali Oguri