DUBAI // Even when he was 13, off-the-shelf perfumes were not enough for Mohamed Hilal. Instead, he would take scents from his parents' shelves and blend them to create new aromas. He would carry these around with him, leaving an olfactory impression wherever he went. His friends would often ask for a dab of one of his unique concoctions.
Now a 34-year-old perfumer with a sensitive nose, Mr Hilal will be concocting a scent for Dubai, bottling it so that the world might visualise the city through their sense of smell. The perfume will be called Oqib al Rouya (the vision), and its release date will be announced soon after Eid. "I want people to say, 'Ah yes, that is the smell of Dubai' every time they come across this fragrance," says Mr Hilal.
While he refuses to talk about the specific formula, he says it will include Oud incense as well as several local ingredients that will trigger "nostalgia" in whoever wears it. "It is good to leave some things to the imagination and not reveal everything," he says. "The scent will encompass 30 years of what the city went through and what the people lived through. It will be the full history of the place in a single whiff."
It will attempt to capture the totality of Dubai, rather than any single location. "A bit of the old, and a bit of the new," he says, "and my special touch to blend it just right." He dislikes quick concoctions, and is taking his time developing scents for "concepts" that he believes in. "There is too much focus on stimulating the visual sense here. I want to awaken in people their other senses, their sense of smell.
"I want people, when they go to any Emirates Airline counter in the world, to smell Dubai." With a flair for design in everything from clothes to house interiors, Mr Hilal turned his own wedding invitation into a memorable olfactory experience with hundreds of guests receiving a tiny bottle of scent with the invitation on the bottle tag. "It is all about giving people an aura of exclusivity and luxury in a single bottle of perfection," he says.
Before becoming a full-time perfume designer, Mr Hilal spent eight years as a pilot for a major airline. Even then, his white kandoura would be stained with oils and perfumes from the nights he spent experimenting with scents. He opened his first shop in 2001, but it was not until three years ago that he decided to quit flying and turn his passion into his profession. Today, there are more than 50 of his Hind al Oud shops in branches of Paris Gallery across the UAE, and Mr Hilal is on a mission to turn his take on the local scent into an internationally recognised brand.
Once his scent for Dubai has launched, he does not rule out creating perfumes for each of the seven emirates. "Every city, every country, has a distinct smell," he says. "A scent that would remind you of the mountains for instance for Fujairah." Already, he is working on something closer to his heart - a scent for Sharjah's Allayyeh district, one of the city's oldest areas. "It will be aquatic scent," he says, "since it is near a khor [wetland], and will be vanilla based and just a very clear scent.
"It is all about creating a lasting impression about a place." Although his perfumes and incenses start at Dh500, some sell for tens of thousands of dirhams. Sometimes, he creates a one-bottle exclusive product, such as a scent he concocted for last year's Peony edition of the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Each buyer of the car, which was sold only in the UAE, received a bottle of the perfume, which included essence from the peony flower.
Mr Hilal had to start his dream of a perfume franchise from scratch. "There was no home-grown industry, but rather the blending of established brands together to create a local scent." He made it his business to dissect the perfumes and understand how even the tiniest quantities of ingredients worked together to affect the olfactory sense. And despite courses and visits to renowned European perfumers, this, he says, inevitably involved some mistakes along the way. "Once, I mixed in a wrong ingredient, and ruined a Dh50,000 oud," he says with a laugh.
"You live and learn through your mistakes and even turn the mistakes into new perfume." In his early days, he would sleep only in fits and starts, dabbing each hand with a perfume before he went to bed and then waking up throughout the night to see what happened to the scent and how long it lasted for. He insists there is more to perfume design than having a sensitive nose. "For me, it is using the right combination and about how the brain interacts with this or that blend of ingredients.
"I can't explain it, but I just know if a scent works or not. I feel the fragrance, I imagine it, and I live it." Mr Hilal also often varies the doses of each ingredient and tries different combinations, all in the hope of creating a lasting fragrance. "I never forgot in my early days how customers always asked for a perfume that lasts the whole the day, so I made it my signature," he said. Among his best sellers are Pink Musk - a strong, traditional scent - and Khol - which he says embodies the traditional smells often mixed together for celebrations.
"Within our culture, we notice someone's perfume, and whether it leaves a strong trail behind them," he says. He is also releasing two new perfumes, Ana for men, and Anaha for women. Among the ingredients in Ana are bergamot, pineapple, cedar and musk, while in Anaha there will be more floral ingredients, such as jasmine, and rose as well as musk and sandalwood. Like all his products, both also contain "Hilal's wood". But he will not be drawn on its source.
"It is my secret, every perfumer has their secret ingredient," he says. But Mr Hilal wants to do more than just create perfumes; he is also hoping to lay the foundations of a thriving local industry. "We just need the government support to create a luxury fashion city of a sort, where luxury goods would be locally produced, packaged, and exported. "It will just boom, but needs the right kind of foundation and support."
For his master's thesis, he will draw up a blueprint for such a project, which he hopes will be taken up by the authorities. He even suggests that perfume could become the country's second source of income after oil. "People don't realise that the whole concept of fragrance and perfume actually came from the Arabs," he says. "As early as the ninth century, the Arabian chemist Al-Kindi [Alkindus] wrote a whole book on perfumes and how to make them.
"It started here, and so really, we are going back to our roots." email@example.com