THIS POST WAS SHORTLISTED IN THE 'BLOGGERS AWARD' CATEGORY
OF THE 2014 JASMINE AWARDS
Is there anything left to say about oud? I suspect most of you reading this would shout out a resounding No, and a few months ago, I would've agreed with you. But today, I'm not sure. Since it started to gain prominence in about 2008, the ingredient has become so ubiquitous that it is now a perfumery cliche, a lazy way for brands to foist the notion of 'the exotic' onto potential customers. Walk into a department store and chances are you'll see those three, innocuous letters at several unlikely fragrance counters, including Gucci, Lancôme and Versace, none of which is synonymous with Arabian aesthetics. Oud - or at least, the idea of oud - is everywhere. It has entered the common vocabulary of scentusiasts. There is almost no space left for it to invade. So, at this important juncture in the development of the ingredient's relationship with modern perfumery, I'd suggest that the time is ripe for an exercise in looking back: a compilation of the best oud perfumes on the market today, as chosen by yours truly.
Of course, we can't embark on such an intrepid journey in list-making without first defining our criteria. I'm sure most of you know where oud comes from: it is a substance produced by aquilaria trees in response to a particular type of fungal attack. In other words, it's a self-defence mechanism. This dense, pungent material - also known as oudh, aoud, aoudh and even aloeswood and agarwood oil - has been extracted and used in Asia for centuries. Indeed, scenting one's home with oud-soaked chips of wood is a commonplace ritual in several Middle Eastern countries.
However, the aquilaria is relatively rare and it requires a great deal of time to produce its protective secretion, which is why natural oud is prohibitively expensive. It's not unusual to find a kilogram priced at around £10,000 (more than double the cost of a high quality jasmine absolute), whilst some high grades fetch in excess of £30,000 per kilogram. Guess what. This means there's hardly any of the stuff to be found in the perfumes which allegedly contain it. There simply isn't enough affordable, sustainable, natural oud out there to pour into all the bottles sold by the brands desperate to jump onto the agar band wagon.
Enter: the lab technicians. The real reason why oud has become more conspicuous in recent years is because the wizards of aromachemical creation have come up with synthetic substitutes for it. Some of these concoctions are less convincing than others, and the fact that they're proliferating and being sold under the 'oud' label means that the public is being conditioned to accept a decidedly washed down - if not downright inaccurate - version of aloeswood as the real McCoy. In fact, there are hardly any commercially available perfumes which provide a faithful representation of the smell of bona fide oud oil.
What is that smell like? Well, it's notoriously difficult to describe, because it feels like an unearthly combination of several distinct, contradictory odours. If you'd like to encounter it for yourself, you need to track down a brand which specialises in Arabian creations - I'd recommend Amouage, Henry Jacques or Ajmal - and ask to smell the expensive stuff (ideally, in oil form). Approach it with caution. I still remember the time when a friend took his very first sniff of a high-quality oud. After recovering his senses and getting his breath back, he called the substance a "righteous infliction." He wasn't wrong.
Those of you who don't happen to have access to the genuine article will have to make do with written accounts of the material's extraordinary odour profile. Here's my attempt...
Imagine a throw made out of goat skin; the coarse, unrefined sort that you might expect to see in a rough-and-tumble market rather than a high-end furniture shop. It still carries a sweaty, cheesy whiff of the animal whose entrails it once surrounded. Now imagine rolling it up to form a tube and stuffing it with crimson rose petals plucked from flowers which were just about to start rotting. Add several unwashed socks dipped in a mixture of ink and a powerfully-scented antiseptic (TCP would work a treat). Scrape some moss off a tree - preferably an oak - rub it across some cow dung and shove it in with the socks. Tie up the parcel using an old leather belt which has been studded with clove buds. Finally, spray the lot with a generous dose of petrol and sprinkle with a few mothballs. There's your oud.
It's potent stuff, but the astonishing thing is that it smells beautiful. It's warm, earthy, rich, carnal, heady and quite unlike any other odorous substance. It's visceral, assertive and uncompromising. In short, it is an olfactory miracle.
Sadly, it's also rather elusive, at least as far as modern perfumery is concerned. As I've already said, very few perfumes with 'oud' in their name possess a scent as predatory as the one I described with my goat skin image. As Frederic Malle - the latest person to join the agar legion - said in an interview published on this blog, most so-called oud perfumes aim not to deliver a faithful reproduction of the substance, but a concept of 'oud' as a sort of ambassador to the Middle East. They're 'oud' in name only.
Before we get worked up about such apparent deceptiveness, we ought to remind ourselves that it has a long tradition in perfumery. The idea of the 'oriental' perfume was always less about countries east of Turkey and much more about Occidental perceptions of them. The 'amber' cited as a component of countless fragrances has nothing to do with resins emanating from trees: it is simply a combination of vanilla, labdanum and benzoin. And each time you sniff a scent and think you can detect a lily of the valley - from which it is impossible to extract a natural oil - you are actually smelling a carefully orchestrated balance of aromachemicals.
With all of the above in mind, it's important to stress that the list below isn't designed to bring together those perfumes which display the most authentically oud-like characteristics. Instead, its purpose is to highlight creations which have embraced the oud theme, made it their own and presented it in a noteworthy way, be that traditional or innovative*.
So, take a deep breath and prepare for an olfactory onslaught. In no particular order, Persolaise.com's best oud perfumes are:
Oud Wood by Richard Herpin (Tom Ford; 2007)
This has never been one of my favourite ouds, but as it sparked off the current agar craze, it deserves a place on the list. Tom Ford first tried to bring agar wood to wider public attention in 2002 when he released M7 for Yves Saint Laurent. That attempt didn't enjoy commercial success, but Mr Ford was undaunted. When he set up his own brand, he revisited the basic structure of M7 - thorny woods lifted by clean citruses - and produced this bittersweet, vanillic take on what was then a little-known material in the West. The rest is scented history.
Leather Oud by Francois Demachy (Christian Dior; 2010)
Several perfumes have exploited oud's natural affinity with hide, but Leather Oud is perhaps the dryest, most blistering expression of this lethal combination. Using a parched cedar and a rough-edged cypriol to add a sense of raw elegance to his composition, Demachy has created one of the most monumental - and seductive - agar-inflected releases of recent years. (Also worth seeking out is Oud Ispahan, in which Demachy presents the same idea with a sweet, rosy twist.)
Oud by Francis Kurkdjian (Maison Francis Kurkdjian; 2012)
With characteristic panache, Kurkdjian takes an extremely convincing oud note - heavy on pepper - and links it with a brave dose of synthetic musks. The result is an innovative re-interpretation of agar wood as a 21st century, European material, a scent as clean as CK One, yet grounded in the ancient landscape of the Sahara.
Al Oudh by Bertrand Duchaufour (L'Artisan Parfumeur; 2009)
Strictly speaking, Al Oudh is much more about cumin than it is about oud, but its growling sweatiness places it on a par with the most lecherous agar scents. This is the god Pan in a perfume, stamping his hooves, flaring his nostrils and kicking up a desert storm that cannot be ignored.
Thirty Three (Ex Idolo; 2013)
Who'd have thought it? A superb oud scent made on the banks of the Thames. Thirty Three's pedigree is very '21st-century-multinational' - it comes to us courtesy of Matthew Zhuk, a 30-something Canadian living in London - but its approach to its subject is entirely traditional. A majestic combination of rose, patchouli, musks and agar wood, it pays homage to the past whilst avoiding contrivances and remaining energetic and relevant throughout.
Opus V (Amouage; 2011)
A scandalously torrid blend of the dryness of iris with the fecal stench of civet and, of course, the animalic purr of oud, Opus V is divisive, distinctive and dangerous. Hardened scentusiasts have been known to collapse in its wake. Don't say you haven't been warned!
Aoud Cuir D'Arabie by Pierre Montale (Montale)
As its name suggests, this is another beast born out of an all-consuming alliance between leather and agar, but whilst Dior's just about maintains a sense of decorum, Montale's is a trip right into the stinking heart of a tannery in a Moroccan souq. Gutsy and imposing, it is also notable for providing a fairly accurate idea of what oud oil smells like in isolation from other ingredients.
Interlude Man by Pierre Negrin (Amouage; 2012)
Pierre Negrin's work here is worthy of attention not because it focusses on the smell of pure oud oil but on the subtly different scent of the smoke produced by burning agar wood. Somewhere, in a mythical East, a few miles left of midnight, there's a fairy tale cathedral sleeping beneath a crescent moon. The silence of its dimly-lit interior is broken only by a gigantic censer swinging from the ceiling. It fills the space with a smell that is elemental, imperious and authoritative... the smell of Interlude Man.
Kanz by Stéphane Humbert-Lucas (SoOud; 2010)
Not unlike Thirty Three, Kanz takes its inspiration from the past, placing its forceful oud within a classical structure of rose, sandalwood, beeswax and leather. Audacious and high-handed, it also happens to be one of the most accurate depictions I've encountered of the smell of Dubai's shopping malls, circa 1985.
Amber Oud by Patricia De Nicolaï (Nicolaï; 2013)
No doubt inspired by the camphoraceous connections between oud and lavender, De Nicolaï has put together an innovative neo-oud which takes the former's opaque temperament, and renders it weightless with a judicious use of herbs and soapy notes. Charming work.
Oud 27 by Vincent Schaller (Le Labo; 2009)
Several so-called oud perfumes are, in fact, tangy leathers topped by sharp, acidic fruit notes. Oud 27 does fall into this dubious category, but it also possesses sufficiently inky, medicinal characteristics to qualify for inclusion here. Taking the more antispectic facets of oud as its inspiration, it presents a rendition of the material which is bitter, sharp-edged and surprisingly bracing.
Dahn Al Oudh Al Shams (Ajmal)
The likes of Ajmal, Rasasi and Swiss Arabian - brands better known in the Middle East than in Europe or the Americas - have a constantly changing roster of agar scents, so it isn't easy to keep track of their output. But if I had to recommend one creation from their current line-up, it would be Ajmal's Dahn Al Oud Al Shams. It is, quite simply, a barn yard. As filthy as it is compelling, it creates a fecal, woody cyclone which demolishes everything in its path. Resistance is futile.
* The list isn't set in stone; as and when new, praiseworthy oud scents are released, they may be added to it. For instance, Frederic Malle has just released an oud perfume entitled The Night (composed by Dominique Ropion). If it's like everything else made by the Malle-Ropion duo, it'll be amongst the best in its field. However, as it's available only in Dubai, I haven't had a chance to try it yet. As soon as I do, I'll report back.