Inspired by passionate stories, philosophy, music and more, Amouage’s perfumes are amazing fragrances that charm a global audience
By his own admission, Christopher Chong never had a nose for scents. “I didn’t,” the Creative Director of the international luxury fragrance house Amouage confesses. “And I did not know much about the perfume world because 10 years ago it was different, nobody really knew what went on behind the creation of a fragrance.”
Today, with dozens of acclaimed perfumes to his credit, Chong modestly says that one does not need a special nose to succeed in the business. “It can be trained,” he says matter-of-factly. “I was fortunate to work with experts, smell a lot of perfumes and train my nose. People think I must have a very sensitive nose and wonder how I articulate smells with words – obviously I can because I’ve a lot of practice.”
Chong came to Amouage from a very unlikely background. Born in Hong Kong but brought up in Manhattan where he graduated in literature, Chong dabbled in the modelling business before moving to London to pursue a master’s in literature, after which he took courses at the London College of Fashion. He also dreamt of making it big as an opera singer, and trained as a lyric baritone for 10 years, participating in competitions and festivals, but stardom eluded him. His last job before Amouage was as a business development manager.
Trading in his dream to sing notes for a career that smells them, Chong took up CEO David Crickmore’s offer in 2007 to join Amouage and help turn it to a global brand. “I did not know that you needed a special talent and perhaps that was a blessing in disguise,” he laughs.
Hitting the ground running, Chong set to work with Crickmore to reinvent the Oman-based brand. In 2007, the year of Amouage’s 25th anniversary, Chong marked his debut with the aptly titled ‘Jubilation XXV’ perfume for men and ‘Jubilation 25’ for women, both crafted by master perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour.
Over the years, Chong has charmed and intrigued the world of luxury with a raft of perfumes inspired by music, ballet, literature, philosophy, tradition, craftsmanship, and contemporary influences. Not merely a heavenly smell in an exquisite bottle, each perfume also has a story to tell.
For instance, there’s Memoir for men and women (2010), inspired by works of 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire and the doppelganger, in which Chong embarks on an existential voyage and explores beauty and depravity through his alter ego, the black swan.
Honour Woman (2011) is a fragrance full of passion inspired by the Italian opera Madame Butterfly that comes in a box designed with shadowy white butterfly wings, while Honour Man pays tribute to Madame Butterfly’s son.
There’s Interlude (2012), which reflects the trials Chong’s overcome to attain personal satisfaction and achievement, and in which traditional scents like frankincense and myrrh were “reconstructed” to feel contemporary.
His Library Collection, which comprises ten Opus perfumes, meanwhile, defies gender and shows his creativity in full flight. “It’s my studio or experimental collection,” he explains. Here too, Chong draws on his operatic roots: Opus IX is inspired by one of opera’s greatest romances, Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, and is a soulful interpretation of the camellia flower while Opus X is inspired by the acclaimed film The Red Violin, which tells the story of a red-coloured violin that travels from owner to owner over four centuries and five countries, inspiring passion and depicting the fate of each of its many possessors.
Fate (2013) is an intense perfume that ended the “first cycle” of Chong’s narrative, parodying the force and power of the inevitable. Then there’s Journey (2014), the first in his Portraits of Life collection, which draws its passion from Chinese cinema and film noir, and symbolises a new stage in Chong’s life – a journey of metamorphosis, as he put it.
And most recently there’s Myths (2016), the latest in Portraits of Life, which explores “life as a dream” through the art of Chinese opera, and is inspired by the mythical dragon and phoenix. “Myths are essentially inspired by surrealism, in which elements are assembled in a dream-like and distorted state in order to create a new interpretation,” says Chong.
The perfumes are also represented in bath and body collections (soaps, hand creams, shower gels, body creams and body lotions) and home collections (candles and parfums d’ambience), while handcrafted leather goods and handbags complete the Amouage portfolio.
As Creative Director, Chong is tasked with overseeing everything creative, from concept through development to the final product, the marketing and PR. As the ambassador of the brand, Chong also spends a lot of time travelling around the world meeting customers. “It’s a bit of everything,” he asserts. “You just can’t say ‘I’ll only do Creative’ – if you do that you lose out. No matter how wonderful the product is, you need to work with other departments. I need them to market it, to sell it, to take it to the customers.”
And how does he feel about being the face of Amouage? “I love it,” he smiles. “I’ve been doing it for many years and I enjoy sharing my journey with customers.”
At work, Chong believes that teamwork and good-spirited people hold the key to getting it right. “I work with amazing master perfumers and I’m very lucky that I can pick and choose whom I want to work with. When I work I put away my ego and I like others to put away theirs. It’s about creating the perfume and following the brief. So I choose to work with nice people. I like to have a good vibe. I don’t want to sound spiritual but it’s important to put good feelings into the product and take that to the customer. There should be no anger or tension.”
Bringing a new perfume to market can take anything from 18 to 24 months. The process starts with Chong fleshing out his vision on paper which he might embellish with images or sounds to help describe the mood he wants to create. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to articulate a smell,” he admits. “We are trained to use words to describe sight, sound and taste, but not smell.”
This brief is then sent to various perfumers – in Paris, Grasse, Geneva and New York – to work on. Once a formula is chosen, it is refined and two or three options brought to the table. Concurrently, Chong works on the packaging and bottle. He has used the same designer for the last 10 years because they work well together. “My briefs are not the easiest; they are very challenging.”
Chong finds the science behind perfumery – the combining of synthetics and natural ingredients – fascinating. “We have all these wonderful ingredients to choose from and it’s up to me to use them like a palette of colours to paint my picture.”
Amouage’s perfumes are distinct, says Chong, because they are not linear like so many others. For Chong, it’s all about creative tension, disruptions and ambivalence, the hallmarks of his creations. “I don’t follow any textbook, but having great ingredients helps.” Amouage also does not follow market trends as Chong is known for setting his own. Frankincense used to be his favoured ingredient but is no longer a constant as he continues to evolve with the brand.
But just how crucial is the story behind the appreciation of a fragrance? Surely a perfume has to appeal to the senses first? Chong explains: “The stories are part of my process and I’m sharing that with my customers. It’s about honesty, how I start off with a story and find the ingredients that match the narrative. For me, it’s extremely important.”
Most people would be baffled by terms and words such as ‘ambergris accord’ or ‘narcissus’ and what they represent, he says, pointing out that story-telling, however, is something that everyone can relate to. “This is good way to draw the customer to the fragrance. It makes it more interesting.”
Chong will not be drawn into which of his perfumes he loves best – “they are all my babies” – but singles out Epic, Interlude for women and Fate for man which was “a challenge”, as among those close to his heart.
Now sold in 65 countries, Amouage has 19 mono stores in Italy, the UK, Malaysia, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar with a new one in Milan set open this September. Its factory in Oman has a capacity of up to 20,000 bottles a week, and provides visitors an opportunity to view the various stages of perfume manufacture and learn about perfume extraction.
While revealing that Amouage is growing ever more popular in the West, Chong says he is also focused on the “grey market” which holds great potential. “Sixty is the new forty now,” he says, pointing out that Amouage was the first brand from the region to break into the Western market.
Very much a people person, Chong has been deeply touched by letters of appreciation that have come from around the world, some relating how the scents have even changed their lives. And his most beautiful smell? “Fresh air,” he says emphatically, “You can’t live without it and to be able to live is the most beautiful thing.”
Chong feels blessed that Amouage has helped him grow as a person. “The past nearly 10 years feel surreal. Amouage helped me open my eyes to the Middle East. I had never been to the region and the only thing I knew about Dubai was that it was a place you passed through in transit. How embarrassing,” he laughs. “Amouage expanded my vision and made me more receptive to other people’s cultures. Despite my Chinese heritage I am 99 per cent Western and was brought up to believe that ‘everything’s best in the West’ but after joining Amouage I became much more enlightened. It brought a bigger picture of the world to me.”
A respected figure in the perfume world, Chong still feels the occasional pang of regret on what might have been had he pursued a career in opera.
And while he dreams of getting his doctorate he also hopes to one day go back to the music world, not on stage but as a teacher to help young performers. “But for now I’m sticking to perfumes, I need to make a living,” he says with an impish grin.
Represented by the Chinese phoenix, a symbol of peace and prosperity, Myths for Woman paints its floral and green facets with an expression of dark nuances shaded with an ambivalent tone. It opens with narcissus laced with violets leaves and galbanum to evoke a journey into the surreal world of mythical themes. The heart radiates with carnation, green facets, musk and patchouli. This journey is adorned by a base of amber, moss and leather for depth and texture.
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