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Sunday September 4, 2011

The smell of luxury

The new scent Honour is inspired by the intriguing tale of Madame Butterfly, composed by a Chinese creative director who grew up in New York and now lives in London.

For 28 years, Amouage has dominated the high end perfume sector by virtue of its valuable and luxurious ingredients and stratospheric prices.

It holds the position as the world’s most expensive and coveted perfumes, and touted as the “gift of kings” as it is often presented by the Sultan of Oman to visiting dignitaries and guests.

Amouage was founded by the late Sayyid Hamad Hamood Al-Busaidi, a senior royal, instructed by Sultan Qaboos Said Al-Said of Oman to create the world’s most precious scent using Oman as inspiration.

Amouage is an amalgam of two words, one Arabic and one French, meaning “waves of loving emotions”.

The new updated edition Amouage Gold for Men and Women.

When Amouage launched its first Gold perfume for men and women in 1983, it stunned the world with unheard of prices ranging from US$200 to US$500 (RM600 to RM1,500).

Today, the prices for the new Honour Man and Woman scents sold at Isetan, Suria KLCC are between RM865 and RM915, which are not that different, but back then, such numbers were swoon-inducing.

Created by French master parfumier Guy Roberts who declared Gold Amouage was the apex of his career, the 24K gold lavished bottles were designed by Asprey of London. The Gold for Men’s bottle was shaped like the handle of the Omani dagger called khanjar while Gold for Women flaunted a dome inspired by Oman’s Ruwi mosque.

In a single perfume, over 120 base notes were used, allowing Gold to release layer after layer of Oriental notes that bedazzle the senses, beguile the mind and bankrupt your budget unless you were a sheikh. Among the most flaunted ingredients were frankincense, myrrh, rose and resin once used by the Queen of Sheeba. The Three Wise Men started their blessed journey from Oman carrying such precious gifts for Baby Jesus when He was born in Bethlehem.

Amouage Gold was quintessentially and exotically Middle Eastern with its gold and ornate embellishments, and became de rigueur for palaces and mansions.

Christopher Chong, the man behind Amouage.

Many consider the bottles to be works of art to be treasured and displayed. Gold by Amouage continued to be a bestseller in its extravagant golden bottles until 2007 when Hong Kong-born Christopher Chong became creative director and toned down the bottles, to the annoyance of baroque fanciers.

Most would assume Amouage’s high-profile creative director would be a Frenchman speaking exquisitely fractured English or a smouldering Arab armed with a khanjar. Chong, 42, looks more Shanghai Tang than Lawrence of Arabia when he revealed Honour for Man and Woman at the launch in KL recently.

Articulate, tall and handsome, Chong fits the role perfectly. He is also proud of not being the nose.

“I am not a nose as in someone with a highly developed sense of smell who creates perfumes. I oversee the entire concept of each perfume’s manufacture, supervise the ingredients, handle the advertising, marketing, promotion, public relations and look after the whole package,” he explained.

Incredibly, he has no training or direct experience in the perfume industry, and wafted into this scented world by way of classical music.

“I was born in Hong Kong but my parents migrated to the United States where I grew up in New York City before moving to London for post graduate studies in literature. There, I discovered I loved opera and even better, found out I had a voice! So I trained as an opera singer. Do you know there are many Malaysian opera trainees in London? Don’t be surprised if the next big opera star in London is Malaysian.

“While taking opera lessons, I needed to keep body and soul together so I worked in a magazine as product development manager,” explained the London-based Chong.

When his opera training came to fruition, he was all set to storm West End. Then, he happened to bump into an old friend, David Crickmore, whom he had met during his early modelling days. He had done some work for Crickmore before, who was then with Dunhill.

“He did not want someone from the perfume industry but from the artistic world who could look at perfumes differently,” said Chong.

“I didn’t want to be an impoverished artiste so I opted for Amouage and perfume creations! But I had to pass some tests. David took me to Paris and Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, to meet the parfumiers and other industry players. I did not know better so I had no fear. I was daring and made wacky suggestions. They all thought I was interesting and charming, and gave me the thumbs up!”

When asked about Serge Lutens (from Shiseido in the 80s), Chong said: “He is my inspiration! His creations, from perfumes to photographs, films, hair and make-up, are timeless and iconic. I admire him so much!”

The original Amouage Gold Woman flaunted a dome as the cap.

As the first ever Chinese fronting an international luxury perfume house founded in Arabia, does he suffer from discrimination and racial prejudice?

“No,” he said firmly. “I am so lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Things have changed for the better. When I was young, at 16, my first dream was to be a fashion designer for a famous design house. In the 80s, that would never have happened due to my yellow skin. The most I could have risen to would be the designer’s assistant, not become the spokesperson. I would always be behind the scene. Now, it is different. If you are good, you can make it. We live in fortunate times.”

He cited two stunning examples: Taiwan born Jason Wu and Nepali Prabal Gurung. Both are based in New York and have Michelle Obama as clients.

“China is now the world’s second largest economy and the big spenders in the West. With China on the ascendant, people look at me differently. Amouage is seen as a cosmopolitan, international company as David Crickmore is English and I’m Chinese. We are a niche product but having thrived for 28 years, we have come a long way since 1983,” said Chong.

Since becoming creative director, he has created Jubilation, Lyric, Epic, Memoir and Honour in addition to the Opus series in The Library Collection. He has also streamlined and fine tuned the famously ornamental Gold bottles into sleek containers to match the rest so the Amouage range is now easily identifiable.

“I have developed the original bottles into clean, stylish and chic lines that are utterly 21st century. The dome of Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is now discernable as a cap and you can recognise the khanjar, but they are more stylised and sleek. They now match modern homes,” he explained.

The logo too has become contemporary. The Arabic script spells the name Amouage and is a mirror image of each other, reflecting East and West.

Based on his background as an operatic singer, Chong chose one of the world’s most famous operas as his muse.

Honour is inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, an operatic tale of love, despair and betrayal. “It culminates in the suicide of Madame Butterfly in the final aria Con Onor Muore which means ‘to die with honour’.”

It is said that Madame Butterfly is based on a real event that occurred in Nagasaki.

“Many people tell me this is still happening and they can relate to Madame Butterfly,” said Chong. “I wanted this theme so I could inject accord and discord as Honour is very unusual. Honour Woman is a white floral melange on a rich resin base of frankincense, amber and opoponax while Honour Man is spicy and woody with pink berry, black pepper and tonka beans.”

Would his next scent be inspired from another opera like Aida or ballet like Swan Lake?

“Not telling!” Chong exclaimed.

Who knows, that might well be the name of his next scent.