The sweet smell of success

Juliet Highet

Oil from the Agarwood tree is worth more than gold. The precious wood resin, oud, has become a 21st-century object of desire for perfumers

Whatever it’s called – oud, aoud or agarwood – is not for the faint-hearted. Dark golden oud, derived from the Aquilaria tree, is imported into the Middle East from South and East Asia, as oil (dehn al oud) and resin (oud mubakhar). It not only perfumes mosques and clothes and is a component of bokhurs (incense blends) in the Middle East to this day, but it has a long pedigree of use for personal fragrance, healing and for heightening spiritual experience. 

The art of perfumery originated in Arabia. The very word ‘perfume’ derived from the Latin per fumem, ‘through smoke’, from the burning of frankincense, also a gum resin obtained from trees. Ancient Egyptians used oud for embalming – rumour has it that oud wards off the evil eye, attracting lovers as well. Sufis use it at ceremonies, Tibetans and other Buddhists for meditation, and it is mentioned in the Indian Vedas and Ayurvedic medicinal texts. Indian oud is believed to have a pacifying as well as therapeutic quality, the Quran stating: “Treat with Indian Oud, for it has healing for seven diseases.” From the third century CE Chinese texts document the use of oud, describing its fragrance as “sweet, deep but balanced” and prescribing it to balance body energy, or chi, as well as to treat liver, lung and tumour problems. 

Whether it’s used as the main smoky, leathery, and of course woody, component of a complex accord, or as a darkly dangerous, baroque backnote for modern scents, oud has become ubiquitous in Western perfumery over the last decade. Having been venerated for thousands of years in Arabia and Asia, its rich perfume is intoxicatingly evocative of the Orient, of the languid Odalisque. Ever since 2002, when the launch of Tom Ford’s Oud Wood and Yves Saint Laurent’s M7 Oud Absolu shook up the world of Haute Parfumerie, each month a new crop of addictively intense, sumptuous oud scents has appeared. 

Ford’s Oud Wood relates directly to the wood chips containing the resin which are traditionally burned in Arab homes, while ‘straight no chaser’ oud oil leaves a gloriously pungent trail behind both Arab women and men and can be jaw-droppingly expensive, often locked away in safes. In fact, due to high demand, difficulty of extraction and rarity (of high grades anyway), it is probably the most expensive oil in the world, its value estimated at 1.5 times the price of gold, which is how its epithet ‘liquid gold’ has come about. For many, the most authentic translation of oud into Western perfumery is Roja Dove’s Aoud series. These are statement scents – deep, dark and long-lasting, one with notes of amber, another with musk, a third called simply ‘Aoud’. Dove says: “I fell in love with the perfumes of the Middle East when I was working there. Many of the gum resins, which have been used for millennia, originate from there. I wanted to see how far it was possible the push the note of Aoud from its traditional route and create something totally unexpected.” 

Other perfumers have been adding an ingredient cherished in Arabia – the rose – to create new visions of oud. Jo Malone’s Velvet Rose and Oud is spiked with clove, opening into damask rose, wrapped with earthy oud, offering a warm, rounded, fragrance. Secret Oud by Caron plays on the sensual theme characterising the oud experience, adding rose absolute and spicy saffron. Lancôme’s L’Autre Ôud swathes Bulgarian and Turkish rose with a subtle leather and saffron accord, presented in a bottle laced with gold, referencing Arabic calligraphy. 

A series of three fragrances by Aramis titled Perfume Calligraphy interprets tradition with a contemporary twist and combines two art forms. Their presentation features distinctive logos created by a modern designer, Tarek Atrissi, developing the ancient art of Arabic calligraphy, one of the most highly regarded elements of Islamic art. 

Clearly this perfumed love affair with oud appeals to sophisticated Arab consumers, who spend five times as much on scent as their Western counterparts. Arab males have three bottles on the go at the same time, one in the car, another in the office, the third at home; while Arab women layer up to seven scents simultaneously, creating their own signature ‘sillage’ or trail. When they travel, visiting the perfume halls of stores like Harrods, they enjoy trying new variations of a familiar fragrance like oud. 

Recent interpretations, which especially appeal to Western customers, include ‘fresh’ notes like citrus, a top note in Creed’s Royal Oud and Acqua di Parma’s Colonia Intensa OUD; or flowers as in Van Cleef and Arpel’s Precious Oud; or leather, a note evoking gentlemen’s clubs found in many oud-based scents such as Versace’s Oud Noir; and even tea with an Earl Grey bergamot accord in Atkinson’s Oud Save the Queen, referencing both English customs and Scheherazade Orientalism. 

Whichever one of these seductive perfumes you choose, be prepared – once you’ve been bitten by the oud bug, there’s no turning back. 


About the author:

Juliet Highet is an author and photographer specialising in travel, the arts and culture


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International