Well, in this case the plot is all about capturing a fragrance and bottling it. The 'sleuth' is Laurice Rahme, a master perfumer and the booty – the Bond No. 9 line, a range of perfumes named after various districts of New York City. Shiva Kumar Thekkepat goes along on the tour.
As befitting its reputation, the niche New York perfumery, Bond No. 9, has ensconced itself in a, well, niche at the vast perfume showroom of Paris Gallery at the Festival City in Dubai. But it's a very prominent presence. When you step into Bond No. 9's unique 'niche', as perfumery's executive director Frederique Cohen and later on its creator Laurice Rahme repeatedly help me understand, it's immediately clear that you're in anything but a typical perfume shop. Or that Bond No.9 is anything but a typical perfume.
The 31-odd fragrances that they market are all based in one way or the other on New York. The city, that is.
You see, the Paris-raised Lebanese-born Laurice Rahme so fell so deeply in love with her adopted city, New York, that she is still busy writing odes to it in the form of her ever-expanding range of perfumes.
The long centre table where customers are invited to sit and try out their products has a row of testers, all in the company's trademark bottles. To one side are a stack of magazines on fragrances, and in the vicinity are refreshments (coffee or fizzy drinks depending on how much of a boost you need in your energy levels) and nestling among all these are blow-ups of pop culture icons.
The Bond No. 9 line offers a wide range of scents – spicy, floral, woodsy, fresh – all complex but not too heady. And most of them are named after one of New York's neighbourhoods. The story behind how Rahme came up with the idea is as interesting as how she came about to being a perfumer.
"Our offices are in downtown New York City and after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, the air was filled with this horrible smell for weeks," says Rahme, stating the reason she started the range based on NYC. "I wanted to make the city smell good again! In Paris, perfumers have been making neighbourhood scents for centuries, but no one had done it here.
"I decided Bond No. 9 would be the perfect combination of the art of French perfumery with the dynamics of New York City. Each neighbourhood of New York is like a village on its own with its own culture and roots," says Rahme, who has lived for over 30 years in NY.
Do New Yorkers tend to agree with her idea of which perfume represents a particular neighbourhood? "Well, yes, generally people love their neighbourhood scents!" she responds.
"Whether one lives there or aspires to live there or work there, every one of these neighbourhoods attracts certain kinds of people. It's the character and soul of the neighbourhood that we capture in the scents," explains Federique Cohen, international export director.
For example, the Bond No. 9 brochure explains that the 'Wall Street' fragrance has "a very strong marine note (which is sea kale)," while 'New Harlem' scent "is a very dark scent ... with coffee notes". Another example: "'Madison Soiree' is a very uptown fragrance, for clients who love to shop all day. It's the opposite of 'Park Avenue', which is a very quiet fragrance, understated and discreet."
While the story behind the birth of the brand (incidentally named after the address from which the company operates) does sound romantic enough, Rahme is no mushy-hearted perfumer. A recap of her bio shows she was clearly headed towards launching her own fragrance line long before 9/11.
At 21, she was International Training Director at Lancôme. Then she headed its Middle-Eastern expansion, launching in 22 countries and effecting a three-fold increase in the skincare business. Her early experience included dealing in antiques in Paris, though she only alludes to it with a casual, "I studied art at the Museum of Louvre in Paris, so as a student I really went deep into the world of beauty and art."
Of her time with L'Oreal she says: "Working with Lancôme, I got to both travel the world as a young woman and learn all aspects of the beauty business – it was an invaluable period. I would say that L'Oréal was my university."
By 1973, Rahme was in charge of training pharmacists and staff on the skincare techniques of Lancôme, as well as doing personal consultations for women. As international training director, she is said to have tripled the company's skincare business in the Middle East, working in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.
Her dynamic performance at Lancôme, and later at Annick Goutal and Creed, and then onwards to the birth of Bond No. 9, is pretty clear evidence of Rahme's drive and talent.
How has working in places as diverse as Kuwait and New York affected Laurice's outlook? "The knowledge of different cultures (like the Middle Eastern culture in Kuwait and the Anglo Saxon culture of the US) has helped me develop a deeper understanding and respect of individual identities," she says. "This influenced my creations and convinced me to develop different fragrances for different places, moods, ambiences and people. I've learned to never assume that we are all alike. We have different tastes for foods, clothing, colours, for relationships, etc. Beauty products must be adapted to our diverse tastes."
Her stint in the US began in 1976 as the director of the Lancome Institut de Beauté in New York. She is credited with having made it the second most popular brand in the market. And then she left to begin what was her calling: marketing niche perfume brands. As partner-owner of the US division of Annick Goutal in the late 1980s, she made the brand a roaring success. That was also when she realised fragrance was her true passion.
"With Annick Goutal, it was about changing the way that people viewed the perfume and the flacon," she says. "When I brought it to the US, it was the first niche fragrance company: 15 different fragrances and one flacon design."
She later sold her stake in Annick Goutal to market another niche French perfume, Creed. But technical glitches (availability in the grey market, in this case), made the association short-lived. The mistakes of the big perfume companies helped convince her she could succeed on her own.
"No matter what level of success I reached, whether at Lancôme or with Annick Goutal, I always felt stifled creatively," says Rahme. "Growing up in Paris, and then as a student of art, the artistry of perfumery always was on my mind. So this was a natural business evolution... because it is a passion."
And thus was Bond No. 9 born in 2003.
Does Rahme see Bond No. 9's debut in the Middle East as a coming-home-of-sorts? "Of course! My Lebanese origins greatly influenced my choice of perfume notes and packaging, which would logically appeal to the Middle Eastern tastes."
And does she foresee a separate line in perfumes for this market? "The more commercial fragrances do have a more Western sensibility, but they're made for global tastes – not specifically for the Middle East (or for any one culture). My other half, the French part of me, has allowed me to modernise the more traditional Arab tastes."
How does she decide on a perfume to represent a particular neighbourhood? What are the dynamics involved? "The idea is to develop a scent that conveys the particular vibrancy and sensibility of each neighbourhood, the people who live and spend time there, and the people who want to live and spend time there," replies Rahme.
More than 31 perfumes in a relatively short period. Is she going too fast? Or is she trying to make up for lost time? "It seems I can go fast enough!" Laurice exclaims. "We have a waiting list of neighbourhoods that are always being requested by customers. No matter how fast we make them, the list keeps growing."
"She does business her way or no way, and that is very hard," says Cohen, who feels they have established the right pace in growth.
What next? A line in cosmetics? "I always have a lot of ideas in the works," say Rahme. "Most immediately, I'm expanding our line of body products. It's called Bodies by Bond, and it includes a thick, luxurious body cream. You'll soon be seeing body lotion, body oil and hair perfume. High-tech skincare meets head-to-toe fragrance."
As Cohen puts it, "Bond No 9 is essentially the story of a woman, Laurice, of Lebanese origin, who lived in France and then moved to the US to start a very strategic store, the Lancôme Institute, 25 years ago. At that time, the brand was not strong as it is now, and she had the vision to open it up to a new market. And here she is now on the cusp of a new chapter in perfumery." Should anyone be worried?
No fear of that, says Cohen. Mass market products, he says, have nothing to fear from niche brands such as Bond No. 9. "The market that is saturated is of the mega brands. The niche brands market, which we belong to, is very small though growing rapidly. At present, there are less than 10 (such) companies worldwide. I don't think we have too much competition."