When I meet him at the London launch of Thameen, the soft-spoken Saudi entrepreneur, Basel Binjabr, is insistent that his venture should not be seen as a Middle Eastern brand. "It's not Saudi," he says. "It's a company based in London, using German-made oils made by German and French perfumers. I created the company in the UK. It's called Thameen Fragrance UK Limited. It's based here. Its perfumes are not going to be sold in the Middle East. By the end of 2014, I expect to be in 2 or 3 different capitals of Europe, and then the US. It's going to be a global brand. I don't want to link it to a geography or a location or a country. My entire team is based in London."
Having said all this, Binjabr is not opposed to using the mystique surrounding Arabian scent-creation in an attempt to differentiate his wares from others. The very name of his company is an Arabic word ('thameen' means 'precious') and the obligatory story behind the firm's inception accentuates Binjabr's father's adoration of the rose attars sold in the markets of Riyadh.
"My late father was someone who loved perfumes," he says. "I would always see his discussions with the attar sellers and his relationship with them. Then I started developing a passion over the years for perfumes. At home, I have more than 80 bottles of perfume. And I've been focussing more on niche perfumes and rare ingredients. I never buy fashion brand perfumes. They're for the masses. They're not for the fashionista of perfumes."
When asked which fragrance houses he admires, he shakes his head. "Unfortunately, I don't remember most of them, because they have very strange names. But there's a brand called Byredo and one called Olfactive Studio. And I like the private collection of Van Cleef & Arpels."
He decided his own creations would link historically significant gemstones with scents: Peacock Throne, for instance, is a rose oriental inspired by the Kohinoor diamond, whilst Moon Of Baroda is a cedar composition named after the 24 carat yellow diamond worn by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. Binjabr explains, "I had a team who did some research on the legendary stories of jewels throughout history. Hence the names of these perfumes. It took almost a year to find the names and the stories. And the stories inspired the creation of each perfume."
"I wanted to have Taif rose in all of them," he continues. "And then I said that I wanted to have one oud perfume, but I didn't want it to be a normal, strong, overwhelming oud. The oud was one of the most challenging and most difficult to come up with. The oud is from southern India, combined with Indonesian oud. And I asked my perfumers to add patchouli in the base, to make the oud smooth and subtle."
He dismisses any suggestions that the current financial climate may not be conducive to launching a new brand. "Many perfume brands are coming up with what they call 'private' collections. It's their high end, niche perfumes, compared with mass market perfumes. There's a change in consumer behaviour. Buyers today are becoming very sophisticated. They're very selective. They know what they're buying. They're becoming more appreciative of the quality of ingredients."
He's also well aware of the continuing fascination with Eastern-style scents, a phenomenon he blames on one figure in particular. "Personally, I think it's all because of Tom Ford, because he was the first one to use oud in a French perfume, many years ago. It was M7 for YSL. Everybody thought it was a big failure. And then when he resigned from Gucci and he created his own Private Blend line, he insisted that he wanted to have an oud perfume. And his perfume, Oud Wood, was received very well by the western market. Of course, the steep growth of sales happened because of the Middle Eastern market, because they wanted a modern version of oud, instead of the concentrated oud oil. And whether you like it or not, Middle Eastern customers are the biggest spenders in the world on perfumes. So that triggered many other French and global brands to create their own oud perfumes."
He feels that the West's obsession with heavier, oud-inspired fragrances has, in turn, had an effect on the tastes of Middle Eastern consumers. "Their appetite for perfumes now includes oud perfumes made by French perfumers. And they mix both at the same time: they use their normal oud oils, and then they spray Tom Ford or some other western perfume. And this combination is unbelievable. It's like they create a third fragrance."
Finally, I ask him how he feels about stepping into an industry where the power of the Internet - emanating from blogs, discussion forums and social media - is becoming increasingly important. "My brand is going to be very exclusive," he says. "It's not for the masses. It's only for those who value niche brands. So, no, I'm not going to be into the Internet."
[The Thameen range is currently exclusive to Selfridges. Apart from the aforementioned Peacock Throne and Moon Of Baroda, the other three scents in the range are: Amber Room (a rosy amber); Noor-Ol-Ain Taif (a peppery rose); Carved Oud (a musky oud).]
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