After weeks and months of trying to track him, an opportunity came last week. This is the story of Christopher Airemiokhai Iluobe, otherwise known as Chris Aire.
The adverts of his products that run on cable networks globally do not bear any linkage to the humility that of his persona. After leaving Nigeria at the age of 17years in 1983 for greener pastures abroad, Chris Aire has done well for himself. The jeweler and exotic watch maker, artist and designer, has as buddies some of the biggest names in American music, film, fashion, entertainment and sports industry.
“He is called the Iceman on account of his trading in diamonds and other precious stones with which he has bedecked many of his superstar friends. Aire will qualify as one of the early prophets of the bling bling culture, a hip hop inspired phenomenon referring to the wearing and accessorizing of flashy, dazzling, sometimes outrageous, often outlandish jewelry.
In a world where the bold, big, flashy, loud and even outrageous are a fashion statement, this Nigerian kid has created a niche for himself in the risky jewelry business and, in the process, made a fortune for himself. In music where he once tried his hands out in his early days in the US, his friends and clients include Rihana, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Jay Z, Nelly, Usher, Celine Dion and 50 Cents. In the film and TV world, his pals include Will Smith, Bruce Willis, Adrian Brody, Eva Longoria, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey and Clint Eastwood.
In this interview with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR , (icirnigeria.org ), Chris Aire speaks about his early struggles in America and how he switched from acting to exotic jewelry-making. Excerpts:
What does the Aire in your name mean? Is it Nigerian?
Yes it is Nigerian, a derivative of my Ishan name. The full name, Airemiokhai, is a derivative of two Ishan words, “Aire,” which means “drawing close” and “Okhai,” meaning “greatness.” So it means “drawing close to greatness.” I decided to adopt my middle name and cut of the second half first as a mark of my independence at that time and, since I was going abroad then, to make it easier for people to pronounce. I was born Christopher Airemiokhai Iluobe.
Growing up must have been tough; can we get to know more about you?
I was born and raised here. I left in December 1983 before I turned 18. I was born in Ivue – Uromi previously Agbazilo Local Government Area. It was Bendel State at that time but now Edo State. I grew up in the village and then attended Immaculate Conception College in Benin. After college, I went to work for my father. I graduated with distinction from high school so he figured that I would be able to run his business. My father had an oil business that I helped to run for about a year and a half before I traveled abroad.
You were so young and ran such a big company?
I was, but I was able to run the company efficiently. Our head office was on Sapele Road in Benin and we had haulage trucks all over the country. We had about 100 trucks that transported diesel and petrol all over the country.
My father (Pa Iluobe) was a very successful businessman. He was into oil and building materials. He had a factory that produced galvanized roofing sheets. He was also into farming, exporting cocoa and palm kernel. He actually gave me my first lessons in business.
If you were doing so well why did you decide to go abroad?
My dad and I were very close growing up and he challenged me several times. But there was this particular time he did that and I decided that it was time to take him up on the challenge which is why I took the decision to be far away from home and his assistance and to use my middle name as my surname.
The challenge was that I couldn’t make it without him and his name. And looking back if I had remained with him then, I believe that I would not have made it without him.
Was the America you arrived in what you expected it to be?
No it wasn’t as I had imagined when I arrived, partly because I went to Memphis in Tennessee, in the south, which was still pretty segregated. It was not what I expected and I told myself I would rather return home than stay there. So I left Tennessee and moved to California.
How did you survive?
It was hard. I started by flipping burgers to put myself through college. One of the things that was ingrained in me back in Nigeria was the need to be educated. So in America, I struggled to get a bachelor’s degree. That was my first goal.
I met other Nigerians there who told me that the best jobs a Nigerian could were guard jobs or fast food jobs. That was how I started working in a fast food restaurant. But I soon decided it was not for me and that I could do better.
You were also going to school at the same time you were working?
Yes. I would go to school from 9 am to about 4 pm or 5 pm, go home to rest and then go to work around 10 pm till 6 am. I did that until I graduated college. It was really tough. Here I was moving from running a major company to having to virtually work myself to death. But I am intractable and a very focused person. When I decide to do something I keep at it. But there was a time I really thought seriously of coming back home when it got unbearable. I thought of coming home for one summer but then it didn’t work out.
Now, how did you get into the jewelry business?
I always had a love for jewelry and knew that jewelry was also a profitable business and wanted to ultimately invest in it. I had hoped to create a successful career in the entertainment industry in the USA and invest the money I made into the jewelry business.
One of Chris Aire’s Products
You wanted to be an actor?
Yes, my degree was in acting and directing.
But what happened was when I finished college it was impossible for me to go into acting. If you were not connected you could not get into the acting business at the time and I wasn’t connected. When I realised that I could not break into it, I put a group together and started making music.
Our brand label was Raw Silk. We did that for a few years and then broke up and I went solo and started doing my own thing. I actually got up to number 8 on the American Street chart once and had a video on BET.
Back to your involvement in the jewelry business?
Well, I talked to a friend of mine about my interest in the jewelry business and his father happened to be a jeweler. This was during my foray into music. One day his father called me and asked me if I was really serious about pursuing a career in music because it was not taking me anywhere. He invited me to come and learn about the jewelry business since I was always yapping about investing in one. He said at least I would have a job and be earning some money while waiting for my big break. I thought it was a good idea and started working for him. It eventually became a fulltime thing. I started sketching unique jewelry pieces for him and that was really how I started to re-apply my creative skills into designing jewelry.
I apprenticed under my friend’s father for six years and then started my own company.
How did you start your own company?
I worked for him for six years and I had been able to save $5,000. That amount in starting a jewelry company was absolutely nothing. But what happened in those six years was that I met a lot of high net worth individuals within the jewelry community. The jewelry business is a very small community. We all go to the same shows, hang out together. So, working for him gave me a platform which catapulted me into the game. Unbeknownst to me, people had watched me for six years and had an insight into my character. They knew I could be trusted and that I was a serious minded person, this made it easier for them to take a chance on me.
How did you start with $5,000?
The $5,000 was just enough for me to rent a small office space where I was my own secretary, designer, salesman, manufacturer and everything rolled in together. I started in 1996 with that small amount of money but the goodwill I had built was what pushed me over the edge.
What exactly did you have to do?
I did all the designs and since I had befriended so many people in the business, I approached somebody with a manufacturing facility that would help me with the gold and other raw materials to extend credit terms to me. I then produced the pieces, put them in my bag and hawked them to the people I thought would buy them. I was given about 30 days to sell pay off my creditor. I would sell the pieces and repeat the process.
What gave you that real break in the business?
The turning point for me was when I met Gary Paton. He used to play for the Seattle Supersonics. That year they were playing the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs. I knew Gary was going to be staying at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Marina Del Rey, so I went early and waited for him to show up. I waited for a few hours and when he finally showed up, I walked up and talked to him in the middle of the press frenzy. I will never forget how gracious he was. I had never met him before. I just walked up to him and introduced myself and my business. He put his arms around me and pointed to his body guard and asked me to talk to him and exchange addresses and phone numbers.
I stayed in touch with them after the playoffs. In the summer they were in Miami and invited me over to show them the stuff I had and I went over. When I got there he gave me an order for $50,000.
What exactly did you sell to him?
A bunch of gold and diamond basketball pendants. He bought for himself and his friends. It was a big order at the time. The interesting thing is that I had maxed out my credit card making that trip and if he hadn’t bought anything it would have been difficult for me to go back home. But it was worth the risk. Apart from him, I met a number of other people on the trip with whom I later did business.
Our clientele cuts across business, entertainment, Sports and so on. When I first started it was mostly entertainers.
Do you ever get carried away, being this young Nigeria making it big, and hobnobbing with superstars?
Sometimes I still pinch myself because I have been very fortunate. I consider myself lucky. Everything I have done I can only say is by the grace of the Almighty God.
You were away from Nigeria for a long time. What made you come back?
When I left Nigeria the idea was to go and study, better myself and then come back and apply the knowledge here, but the people who came back returned and told us how horrible it was. So coming back home was the last thing on my mind at the time. Also, the things that we were getting popular for in the USA were not your standard run off the mill designs. They were cutting edge and a lot of people did not understand it. They used to ask who would wear a clock? I could never have come home at that time with the pieces I was making. When I left, Nigeria was a conservative place. We were used to small flat wrist watches. So I never thought there would be a market for what I was doing in Nigeria.
As I got older, I started rethinking because most of the raw materials I use come from the African continent and most Africans are exploited and never really given the opportunity to add value to our raw materials, I decided it would be good to come back and set up something that would start to change that. So I started thinking of coming to set up here and contribute in my own way and share the knowledge I have accumulated in the United States. But I didn’t come to Nigeria right away. I went to Sierra Leone and Conakry, Guinea, and then gradually started coming to Nigeria. We set up the jewelry Boutique at Transcorp Hilton.
Where and how do you source you raw materials from, particularly diamonds?
We deal only in blood -free diamonds. Some of the raw materials like semi-precious stones and precious stones we get here in Nigeria. We have investment interest in mines in and outside Nigeria and we get some of our gold and others materials from there.
You see, blood diamonds are diamonds that fund wars and conflicts. Sierra Leone has been peaceful for quite some time, but there are diamonds in Canada, and there is no war in Canada. There are beautiful diamonds in Australia and there is no war there. Most of the yellow diamonds are from Australia. Some of the best diamonds are from Africa – South Africa, Botswana, Angola, and many other places.
Apart from jewelry you also went into wrist watches and other products. Can you tell us more about your businesses?
When I started I didn’t have much money so I started with what I felt most comfortable with which was bridals – designing bridal rings and accessories and expanded into other areas later. But I felt restricted and I couldn’t express myself much. I wanted to serve a clientele of artists, actors, celebrities and people like that who had different tastes, certainly not conservative. So I started creating these pieces my peers called “crazy designs”. But I always went out and sold them. By the time I had built up a big clientele I realized that they were looking up to me for direction in terms of the design of their jewelry and so I started recommending other brands to them. One day I woke up and said I was going to create something that was mine and present it to them. I created my own brand of watches and put it out and it sold out within two weeks and people were sending me their Rolex watches to trade it in for the Chris Aire watches.
How much was it?
When we first came out with the watch, the Aire Traveler, the basic model was $4,600. Then we had the diamond model that was $6,000 to $7,500. Some were $22,000 each and the most expensive one at the time $50,000. But today we have watches that sell in the million dollar range.
Looking at some of the stuff you have done, it takes an utterly crazy person to do them?
You call me crazy? (Laughs). Yeah, I get called that sometimes. Most of my clients are my friends now. When you are in the public eye you become extremely suspicious of people. Most celebrities are guarded. I misread this when I was starting out. I didn’t know it was a protective shield. I thought they were just being jerks because I would walk up to some of them and they would look down on me like I was a thief or something. As a Nigerian, I have an innate sense of pride but I had to swallow that pride because I had to eat. And that is why I say I was lucky. Imagine if the first 100 people I walked up to had told me to go to hell. It would have been a different story today.
Has being a Nigerian even worked against you abroad?
My belief is that if you do not feel comfortable or confident in your own skin, everything will work against you no matter where you are from. Yes I am a Nigerian, a black man and I am proud of it. What my story has shown is that a Nigerian can make it anywhere in the world. Nigerians are great people. We are hardworking and immensely blessed by God that is why Nigerians excel wherever they go.
It is a high risk business. And you have been in the US for a long time. Have you ever been scammed? And have you also ever had any problems with the law?
I have been in America for 30 years now. And I have been in a business of trust. But I have never had any run with the law and I have not had any problem with anybody. You know the jewelry industry is replete with stories about quark jewelers. We have been very fortunate and have not been involved in any controversies; thank God! I would prevaricate if I tell you that I am not aware of the international community’s perception of the Nigerian brand. I know most people think that a lot of us cannot be trusted and there is a strong argument in favor of that. My take on that is that you cannot indict a whole group of people based on the actions of a select few.
This is why I always let people know that I am a Nigerian, because even though some people have given us a bad name, not every Nigerian is a conman. As far as being scammed, I wouldn’t say I have been scammed in the US but I have lost money in Sierra Leone and Guinea. I have not had any problems in Nigeria.
Having made it outside this shores there are many young Nigerians who would look up to you as a role model. In what way are you giving back to society, in building up our youths, for example?
I think it is a privilege to be in my position and I do not take the responsibility of giving back lightly. But on a serious note, that is one aspect of my life that I do not make too much noise about. But what I can talk about is I have tried to give some of our young ones the kind of opportunity and exposure that I have enjoyed. I was the one who introduced D’banj to Snoop Dogg and orchestrated the deal with the collaboration. I have also worked with Duncan Mighty and a host of other guys helping to strengthen the Nigerian entertainment community. And none of it was business. I never got a dime from helping any of them.
You said you had invested in mines in Sierra Leone. Do you have similar investments in Nigeria?
Yes we have some investments in Nigeria as well. We support small scale miners in the country from whom we source some of our raw materials use in some of our products in our Transcorp Hilton Hotel Boutique.
Do you have a factory here?
No not yet. We are working on it but we need to get our electricity and other things sorted out first.
That is a disincentive to investing in Nigeria isn’t it?
I think it is a very import one. I am told that the government is working round the clock to fix it. There are other discouraging factors. I have been extremely encouraged by the support that we have received from majority of Nigerians in our efforts here, but there are a few people who are grounded in negativity that they believe the only way to excel is by bringing others down.
Courtesy Nigerian Observer