© 2018 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
A Nigerian Can Succeed Anywhere in The World – Chris Aire
His name still probably will not ring a bell among many Nigerians, but in America, in the dizzyingly fast – paced, glitzy world of Hollywood and the bigger fashion scene around the world, he is a superstar.
The jeweler and exotic watch maker, artist and designer is buddies with the biggest names in American music, film, fashion, entertainment and sports worlds.
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.
A bold and daring young man, he believes that a man has got to take risks in life. Therefore he dares where others never would. That was what he did when he put up a fashion show in New York a few years ago devoted not to a clothes line but strictly showcasing his jewelry. No one had ever done such a thing but it went splendidly.
Another daring move he made that paid off was to start his own wrist watch and jewelry brand. But he has made the Chris Aire brand a much sought after possession among celebrities around the world with some of his pieces selling for millions of dollars.
As a jeweler, Aire has built up such a formidable clientele of celebrities and superstars that his fashion shows are not only a major event but always star studded.
His friends in the world of sports include the legendary Mohammed Ali, several NBA stars including Gary Payton, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant.
In music where he once tried his hands out in his early days in the US, his friends and clients include Rihana, Snoop Dogg, Nelly, Usher, Celine Dion and 50 Cents. In the film and TV world, his pals include Will Smith, Adrian Brody, Eva Longoria, Angela Jolie, Oprah Winfrey and Clint Eastwood.
Chris and Usher
Born Christopher Airemiokhai Iluobe, from a village in Edo State, his is an inspiring story of luck, determination, share will to succeed and the American dream made real.
The sixth son from a polygamous family, Aire left the shores of Nigeria in pursuit of the proverbial Golden Fleece at just over 17 years old. Today fate has smiled on him and he has, indeed, struck gold.
Starting out by flipping burgers in a fast food joint in California, by dint of hard work, determination, stubbornness and, for him, “the grace of God”,. he has built a multi – million dollar business that is still growing.
His business interests include investments in diamond and gold mining in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.
He has also lately resuscitated an interest in the oil industry which was actually where his experience in business actually started, having run his father’s oil firm before travelling abroad.
Of all his businesses, it is obvious that the one Aire least wants to talk about is his new oil business in Nigeria. And it is understandable. He has been accused of been favoured with a discretional oil lifting license because of a cozy friendship he maintains with Deziani Allison – Madueke, Nigeria’s oil minister
His reaction is that some Nigerians have a mentality of pulling down successful people, an attitude that he says would discourage Nigerians who live abroad from coming home to invest their funds.
The icirnigeria.org had been curious about this small statured Nigerian boy who literally conquered the world and after weeks of trailing him, we finally got him to chat with us. Below are excerpts of the Interview.
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 twoIshan 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.
Were you born Chris Aire?
I was born Christopher Airemiokhai Iluobe.
So can we get to know a little about the Nigerian we are talking to?
I born and raised here. I left in December 1983 before I turned 18. I was born in Ivue – Uromipreviously 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 travelled 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.
Not many people know the name Iluobe. Can you tell us a little more about your father?
My father 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.
So if you were doing so well why did you decide to go abroad?
My father 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.
What exactly was the challenge?
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.
So was America 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.
That is in the South
Yes, down south which was still pretty segregated. It was not what I expected and I told myself I would return home than stay there. So I left Tennessee and went to California.
So how did you survive?
It was hard. I started by flipping burgers to send myself to 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 you could get was to be either a security guard or work in a fast food restaurant. 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.
And you stuck through it. You didn’t want to return home?
It was really tough. Here I was moving from running a major company to having to virtually work myself to death. But I am a very focused person and 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.
So 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. So 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.
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 saw that I could not break into it, I put a group together and started making music.
What was your band called?
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 have a video on BET.
Chris and Forest Whitaker
Well, you were talking about your getting into 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 is 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 got 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.
So 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 but the goodwill I had built was pushed me over the edge.
What exactly did you have to do?
I did all the design and since I had befriended so many people in the business, so I got somebody with a manufacturing facility that would help me with the gold and other raw materials to extend me credit terms.
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.
Which was your 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 from him to show up.
I waited for a few hours and when he finally showed up, I stepped up and talked to him in the middle of 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 me 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.
We read about you and so many Hollywood stars. Who would you say are your biggest customers ever?
I try to respect people’s privacy because most of my clients are private people. So I can only talk about the ones we are allowed to talk about. But our clientele cuts across business, entertainment, Sports and so on. When I first started it was mostly entertainers.
Chris and Mohammed Ali
How does it feel? Do you ever get carried away being a small boy from Nigeria making it big and hobnobbing with superstars?
Sometimes I still pinch myself because I have been very fortunate. I consider myself as very 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, 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 pieces I was getting lot notoriety for in the USA were not your standard run off the mill designs. They were cutting edge and a lot of did not understand it. They used to say 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 Guinea Conakry and then gradually started coming to Nigeria.
Then we were invited by Nduka Obaigbena to participate in the Thisday Arise show and we did. After the show many people showed interest in our products which inspired me to set up the jewelry shop at Transcorp Hilton.
Where and how do you source you raw materials from, particularly diamonds?
From all over. Some we get through our diamond network but we deal directly in blood -free diamonds. Some of the raw materials like semi – precious stones and precious stones we get in Nigeria. I have invested in some mines outside Nigeria and we get some of our gold and others from there.
There has been a great outcry against blood diamonds from Sierra Leone and other places. How do you ensure that you do not deal in them?
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 in South Africa, Botswana 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 a different taste, 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 brand.
How much was it?
When we first came out with the watch, the Aire Traveller, 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 go sell in 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.
Some of the big stars in entertainment and sports you do business with and who wear your jewelry at concerts, in musical videos, how do you relate with them?
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.
But with time they saw I was somebody they could trust. In hanging out with celebrities, going to their homes and so on you become privy to a lot of things but you cannot talk about them elsewhere. What they want to know first is can they trust you and do you care about them? the business comes later.
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 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 in 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
I would be lying if I tell you that I am not aware of the International community’s perception of the Nigerian brand. I know most people that we 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.
Chris and Nelly
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 feel privileged being in the position in which I am 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 have tried to do is 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 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 used in some of our products in our Transcorp Hilton Hotel Chris Aire 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 important one. I am told that the government is working around 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 the believe the only way to excel is by bringing down others.
If you are talking about the allegations that trailed you foray into oil business it was simply alleged that you won a major oil lifting license with a briefcase company which had no address, no staff. And that you got the license because you had a relationship with the oil minister. Why won’t you address that?
The truth is whatever you give attention grows bigger. I did not feel the need to address any of those gutter articles because I did not want to give them credence. I am a public figure and therefore entitled to certain precautionary measures as a result of my exposure.
Did anybody I do business with tell you they couldn’t find me? Did NNPC tell you that we needed to pay a bill and they didn’t know where to find my company?
So what is your relationship with the oil minister? How did you meet her and do you have any business relationship?
I am very good friends with her and her entire family. I am extremely proud of all her accomplishments and how I have seen her represent the country both at home and abroad.
The minister approached my company a few years ago, having followed up on our success in America and wanting to increase the awareness of Nigerian’s vast wealth of Solid Minerals to the world. We brainstormed and decided that Hollywood would be the best place to put on such an exhibition.
But since the ministry could not afford to finance the event, our company offered to provide fifty percent of the funding while the other fifty percent was sponsored by four major Nigerian banks.
The event was first of its kind by any Ministry in Nigeria. It was broadcasted to over three billion viewers world- wide and massively covered by domestic and international news agencies.
There were also allegations that you front for the minister and that you gave her loads of diamonds in return for an oil lifting license
(Bursts out laughing) It is false. The funny thing is that the event that they wrote about (Hollywood Glamour Collection featuring Nigerian gold and gemstones) was a very public event put on for the good of all Nigerians. It was strictly for publicity and was broadcast on AIT, Channels and NTA and Thisday, Leadership, Nation, Punch all wrote about it.
The event where you partnered with her in America?
Yes. This is where they said I paid her in diamonds. It was not a personal partnership with her, but a partnership between our company and the Nigerian Government. I think they should applaud her for having the vision to partner with a successful Nigerian abroad to showcase Nigerian’s solid minerals and attract international investment.
Just for the records do you have an oil lifting license? Or what type of oil business do you do?
I am a Nigerian and a businessman and just like every other Nigerian we have various interests and investments in Nigeria and other countries. We compete and bid like every other businessman.