In the M-oud
It is when the aquilaria tree’s heartwood becomes infected with a type of mould, does the tree produce a dark, aromatic resin; this is oud (aoud).
Native to south-east Asia, it is one of the most expensive raw materials in the world.
Over the past decade, the demand for oud-based fragrances has exploded, with perfume houses big and small all eager to use the prized ingredient within their upcoming launches.
Known as “the wood of gods,” sometimes a kilo of oud is said to be worth the same amount as a kilo of gold.
The cheapest oud can cost as little as $20 a kilo, while the most expensive is known to have a starting price of $50,000 per kilo.
One of the main reasons for the rarity and high cost of oud is the depletion of the aquilaria tree; it takes at least 40 years for a tree to harvest a sizeable amount of oud.
As a result, countries such as Malaysia, and the main exporter Indonesia, have introduced export quotas, while India has reduced supply even though demand is at an all-time high.
Everyone from long-established brands to new perfume houses are experimenting with oud.
This includes Elegantes, a fragrance house offering the ultimate luxury experience in perfumery.
Hand-crafted crystal flacons encase elixirs made with some of the finest ingredients in the world.
The founders Thomas and Dagmar Smit, made their name in the hotel industry, with accolades including Prague’s award-winning The Augustine hotel.
It was while moving onto a project in Dubai, developing a palatial, suites-only travel destination that Dagmar was inspired to produce fragrances from the personalities of some of their most memorable guests.
They employed the help of Julien Rasquinet, protégé of one of the world’s leading perfumers Pierre Bourdon, to create a collection of 12 fragrances named Beyond First.
Julien lived in the Middle East for two years and has undoubtedly been influenced by the sights and smells of this part of the world.
It is evident in all his creations for Elegantes, but none more so than the two oud fragrances, Oud Exquisite, 200ml for £2,650, which is sold in Harrods and Oud Noblesse, 200ml for £2,350, exclusive to Fortnum & Mason.
Julien says: “Oud either comes from north east India or south-east Asia – Laos, Cambodia and Thailand – those are two quite different qualities because the Indian oud will be much more animalic and Cambodian will be a little bit more ambery.
“I cannot say that one is better than the other, it’s just two different qualities and we need both for perfumery.
“We (Elegantes) use south east Asian oud for sustainability reasons.
“I like the Indian oud but its not sustainable at all; it is not respectful of the forest environment so we are using the Cambodian.
“Oud is popular because it is religious – there are Sunnahs in the in Quran saying you should perfume yourself when you go to the mosque, and they normally do with the purest raw oud.
“But they also use oud for burning; they will burn the Bakhoor in the morning as the first gesture, the first layer.
“Then you put oil, musk oil or attar and then you spray one, two or three different perfumes.”
The fascination with Middle Eastern perfumery is something Julien believes is here to stay.
He adds: “I think people are looking for perfumes with a strong personality and the Middle East inspiration is very important because it is one of the last battlefields where people are not scared with the launches they are doing.
“They launch perfumes with intuition so I think it is one of the most inspiring region at moment.
“It is not just perfume it is the whole region that is extremely inspiring for European perfumery.”
Julien, who has been the nose for Naomi Goodsir, Histoires de Parfums, has also noted a crossover, or convergence between the two markets.
“Arabs tend to say French perfume is the best but they wouldn’t do it the French way, they’d do it the Arab way but using the French structure.
“You can see the animalic notes aren’t that trendy in the Middle East anymore and people are still looking for very strong long-lasting and linear but less animalic.
“They still have strong tolerance to animalic but they would wear those fragrances only for religious but, everyday life they prefer the French structure.”
Oud enthusiast Roja Dove, of Roja Parfums, is no stranger to the precious ingredient, selling his oud fragrances to every rotal family of the Gulf.
These includes the Gulf Collection, six fragrances inspired by different countries in the gulf region, the Tutti Frutti Collection, three oud fragrances with a gourmand element, Majestic Aoud and Amber Aoud.
Having been in perfumery since 1981, working at Guerlain for over 20 years, Roja is able to pinpoint with the consumer’s appetite for oud emerged.
He said: “It was Tom Ford who brought this fashion to the west when he launched Oud Wood in 2008, adding touches of it to Noir et Noir, and Tuscan Leather in the same year.
“His Private Blends were so influential that other perfumers quickly followed suit in the same year, showing the breadth of interest and diversity of houses who wanted to capture a little of the glamour and exoticism that aoud imparts.”
While some may put the demand down to a mere trend, Roja believes oud is here to stay.
“Consumers crave scents that are original,” said Roja.
“They are fed up with the ‘sameness’ of so many products on the market.
“I believe aoud became so popular in Britain because we are an island race we have always liked to travel and to explore, we as Brits are extremely open to accepting new ideas, trends and ingredients.
“We are a truly multi-cultural society; British consumers are now asking for aoud – this is something which was virtually unheard of a decade ago.
“It is a fragrance phenomenon and for a while, many (journalists and public alike) were questioning whether aoud was just another trend that had passed.
“I have always stood by the fact that it is not that it is passed, it is that it is firmly ingrained in the modern olfactive consciousness.”
Roja Parfums is the biggest seller of oud, from a western brand, in the world and only uses natural oud.
“Aoud is notoriously difficult to master which is why I am delighted when my Middle Eastern clients say to me “How do you know our smell? This is how we like to smell”, explained Roja.
“It is the most flattering complement of all, as a Westerner, to appease a discerning Middle Eastern clientele.”
Amber Aoud remains the brand’s global bestseller, but Roja’s favourite is Majestic Oud, as it is “an homage to my years of training and year of working with this precious ingredient”.
The traditions of using oud in the Gulf was also something that fascinated Roja, who noticed that some will perfume their clothes with scented wood chips that are burned (Bakhoor) and then use oud as a fixative, making the scent last for days.
What many people may not realise about oud is that it is unisex, and Roja believes there are two primary reasons why it remains genderless.
“Though this is a culture that is specifically alpha male, it has a different way of looking at perfume than the West – its people put how something smells first and are led by their noses before they are marketing,” said Roja.
“The second reason is that because of this, there were no gendered preconceptions brought over to the West with it, allowing scent shoppers to discover it as a new and exotic material.
“The public was able to think about aoud objectively – deciding whether or not they loved it as an ingredient before thinking about whether or not is was acceptable for them to wear it. Fortuitously, it was embraced whole-heartedly by males and females alike.”
Jusbox Perfumes, founded by Chiara and Andrea Valdo, also known as the V Monkeys, revealed around 50 per cent of the customers are Middle Eastern, especially in London.
Every fragrance created by Jusbox has a musical connection, with the scent being inspired by either a specific musician or an era of music.
Their fragrance Live n’ Loud, created by perfumer Dominique Ropion, uses natural oud as one of the scents that boosts the mind, along with spices, flowers, amber and leather, inspired by a playlist featuring disco, hip-hop, latino, rock, punk and heavy metal music.
According to Andrea, it is the “deepness and persistency” that is the difference between a cheap and expensive oud,
“The oud used in Live n’ Loud is an oud coming from Laos and it is so special first of all because it is a natural one, 90 per cent of brands use a synthetic one because it is much cheaper; it was selected and chosen by Dominique Ropion himself,” said Andrea.
Andrea first smelled oud while on holiday in the Middle East.
He explains: “It was during a trip to Dubai, we were invited at a local house and at the entrance there was a brazier with our wood burning inside.”
Although the Middle East has undoubtedly helped raise the profile of oud in western markets, Andrea believes there will be more experimentation to come.
He explained: “It is a very creative time for perfumery – for any form of raw material and any kind of ingredient going into a perfume.
“Of course the millennial heritage and diffusion of oud in the Middle East has helped the popularity of this precious ingredient.
“We will use it (oud) soon for the new fragrance we will launch by Christmas and it will be used like gold for a jewel.”
Thameen London is known for using oud and Owner Basel Binjabr, says he only uses the most precious fragrance oils used in the East for centuries but blends them following the Western fine perfume traditions.
Despite only starting the brand five years over, Basel says Thameen has been the best-selling perfume brand in Selfridges for the last two years.
Explaining the type of oud that is used, Basel says: “We use different kinds of oud oils.
“Where the tree grows has a great effect on the oil: it determines how sweet, smokey or woody the oud oil smells.
“For our most exclusive perfume, Palace Oud, we use an extremely rare Indian oud that has been aged for 12 years.
“We’ve blended that with an Indonesian oud – combined they give a unique depth, sophistication and extravagance. For Carved Oud, one of our most popular scents, we use an Indian oud that is both angular and edgy – resulting in a distinctive scent.
“So it really depends on the kind of perfume we are crafting: we look for the oud that suits the scent best.
“Oud on itself isn’t a very nice smell. Only when you blend it with the right ingredients, you will get the best out of oud.
“The other ingredients have to be spicy and rosy, that will make the oud shine.”
Among their best sellers, Carved Oud and Nassak there is the limited-edition Palace Oud, a collectors’ item, with only 100 crystal bottles made with 30ml of pure fragrance oil with taif rose, jasmin and the aforementioned two rare ouds.
Referred to as ‘liquid gold’, natural oud oils consist out of more than 50 naturally occurring organic compounds, each of them having a unique smell.
Just like his counterparts, Basel doesn’t believe oud is going anywhere anytime soon.
“There are many perfume lovers who haven’t tried oud yet.
“More and more luxury brands are adding oud-based fragrances to their offering and I think that is a trend that will continue for decades to come.
“Probably with a lot of oud based perfumes that are softer in tone than the ones that are out there now.
“Consumers are also looking more and more for unique fragrances.
“Oud based scents are very much suited for layering – spaying an oud-based perfume first, and top that with another fragrance.
“That is when you really get your oud fragrance to shine. By layering you can create your own bespoke perfume.
“There is a shadow side to the increasing demand for oud though: prices will go up further and there is a severe problem with illegal poaching of Aquilaria trees.
“Therefore it’s imperative to source oud oils carefully and ethically, and keep in mind there is no such thing as cheap oud.”