The typically Middle Eastern essential oil of oud has a complex and checkered history; in the present, it’s become a vital component of the perfume industry
Over a decade and a half ago,
I strolled into one of the traditional perfume/attar shops behind the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay’s Colaba. These shops probably started out as purveyors of traditional attars but these days they cater mainly to the Arab market.
When I persisted,
he finally produced a
small vial of essential oil
of oud. It turned out that he was right. It did smell dirty: it was like rotting wood.
But he was also wrong.
I loved it.
The thing about great fragrance notes is that they have to be used in moderation and paired with the right accompaniments. A tiny drop of oud with other woody smells — say, vetiver and sandalwood — would smell delicious.
A few years later, in 2002, Yves Saint Laurent launched a men’s fragrance called M7. Though the fragrance was described as woody, there was an unmistakable whiff of oud about it. I read up on M7. It turned out that the note had been selected by Tom Ford, who had just taken over as designer at the House of Saint Laurent. Ford wanted a fragrance that smelt slightly dirty and asked the perfumers to include oud in the formula.
I liked M7 but it turned out that almost nobody in the West shared my view. The fragrance was declared a commercial flop and panned by French perfumers who believed that Ford had taken the Saint Laurent style too far from its French origins.
In the long run, though, he was more wrong than right. It took another five years but other oud fragrances started appearing. At first, these fragrances were restricted to niche perfume houses but then Christian Dior, Guerlain, Giorgio Armani and the rest entered the oud race. When mass market fragrances such as Farenheit were re-formulated (as Farenheit Absolut), oud notes were added. And now, even Jo Malone, who has a squeaky-clean image, has produced an oud fragrance called Oud Bergamot.
The perfume industry regards oud as one of the trendiest notes in the market today. It believes that the sort of man who is allergic to the detergent smells of so-called fresh fragrances, wants the alternatives to be as dirty as possible. And oud fits the bill perfectly.
People who live in Dubai or other parts of the Middle East may be surprised by the sudden trendiness of oud. After all, oud has long been part of the Arab tradition of perfumery. Not only do most Middle Eastern fragrances contain oud notes but any perfume shop in Dubai will offer you some low-priced or mid-range oud derivative fragrance.
Oud is an Indian fragrance note and is even mentioned in the Vedas.
The origins of the oud oil are complex. When a tree belonging to the aquilaria family is attacked by a certain kind of fungus, it produces a dark resin to defend itself. That part of the tree where the resin has been produced changes colour and looks significantly different from the rest of the bark. To extract essential oil of oud, you need to cut off the affected part of the tree and look for the resin in the wood.
The Sanskrit word for oud is agar (probably related to the term agarbatti) and most Indian languages still use that name for oud. But, during medieval times, the Nawabs of Oud (Awadh) — in what is Uttar Pradesh today — began using agar-based attars. These fragrances were transported to the Middle East and became part of the Arab tradition of perfumery.
Even today, the aquilaria tree is found in south Asia and in south-east Asia rather than the Middle East. When perfumers look for sources of oud, they go to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, where the tree is still grown. But, like the sandalwood tree, the agar-wood tree is also facing extinction because of indiscriminate felling and there are restrictions on how the oud can be extracted. So, a flourishing black market has grown in which smugglers secretly bring the oil to Bangkok or Bombay from where it is purchased by perfumers.
As you might expect, oud is fabulously expensive. According to some estimates, 150 pounds of agar-wood yield five teaspoons of essential oil of oud. A kilo of oud costs upwards of US$ 70,000.
If oud is so rare and so expensive, why has it suddenly become such a popular ingredient in perfumery? How can Jo Malone and Yves Saint Laurent use it in mass market fragrances? And how does every perfume counter in Dubai offer up a mid-priced oud fragrance?
Which leads us to the dirty secret of today’s oud fragrances.
Well, not fakes exactly. It’s just that they don’t have any real oud in them. Tom Ford decided to put an oud note in M7 after big perfume companies developed a synthetic oud accord. Even today, a molecule called oud synthetic 0760E, made by fragrance giant Firmenich, accounts for most of the oud notes in mass market perfumes.
Another fragrance giant, Givaudan, also makes a synthetic oud molecule which is increasingly used by perfumers. Other synthetic ouds, which do not smell as good, are easily available and explain the disappointing nature of most of the mid-priced oud fragrances sold in Dubai.
There is nothing actually wrong with using synthetic notes in perfumery. And even niche perfume houses like Le Labo concede that their expensive oud fragrances are made with synthetic molecules (increasingly true of sandalwood as well, rare is the fragrance that uses real sandalwood). But people who’ve smelt the real thing insist that the synthetic molecules do not approximate the complexity of real oud.
If you are going to buy an oud fragrance, then expect to spend money on it. Tom Ford does a whole range and the Jo Malone variation is easily available. My own favourites are Al Oudh by L’Artisan and Ormonde Man by Ormonde Jayne. But with a new oud fragrance being launched every month, perhaps something better will turn up.
Either way, one thing is clear. The guy in the perfume shop in Colaba got it very wrong — in the long run, at least.
(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow Vir’s other writings, visit