Perfumes with Middle Eastern panache

Oud, incense and sandalwood scents are steeped in history and poetry

Atelier Cologne Oud Saphir, £160 for 100ml EDP. Hermès Galop, £183 for 50ml EDP. Kilian Royal Leather Mayfair, €235 for 50ml EDP
Atelier Cologne Oud Saphir, £160 for 100ml EDP. Hermès Galop, £183 for 50ml EDP. Kilian Royal Leather Mayfair, €235 for 50ml EDP

If I were to characterise the perfume trends of the past decade in two words, I’d say that fragrances have grown sweeter and darker (not necessarily within the same blend). Nobody is counting calories when it comes to compositions adorned with caramel, chocolate, cotton candy and other pâtisserie staples. The darker notes, on the other hand, are often taking the shape of oud, incense and various ingredients associated with Middle Eastern perfumery. They appear in niche offerings like Tom Ford Oud Wood (£148 for 50ml EDP) and Maison Francis Kurkdjian Oud (€195 for 70ml EDP). The oud craze shows no signs of abating.

Maison Francis Kurkdjian Oud, €195 for 70ml EDP. Tom Ford Oud Wood, £148 for 50ml EDP
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Oud, €195 for 70ml EDP. Tom Ford Oud Wood, £148 for 50ml EDP

One of the main reasons for everything coming up oud is that the Middle Eastern beauty market remains vibrant, plunging oil prices notwithstanding. Customers in the region are spending increasingly more on skincare, make-up and fragrances, and this attracts European and American brands eager to expand their reach. So what appeals to perfume lovers in the Middle East and how do they use aromas in their daily life?

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“People here indeed take their fragrances seriously – perfume is seen as a powerful statement about an individual,” says Jola Chudy, a luxury, beauty and lifestyle magazine editor who has lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates for over a decade. Scent plays an important role in social and religious functions, and its connection with general culture is deep and complex. For instance, there are many references to aromatics in the Koran, while a famous saying among Islamic scholars suggests that “perfume is the fuel for the soul, which stimulates the engine of the body”.

Dior Oud Ispahan, £200 for 125ml EDP. Roja Dove Sultanate of Oman, £395 for 50ml EDP. Guerlain Rose Nacrée du Désert, £170 for 75ml EDP
Dior Oud Ispahan, £200 for 125ml EDP. Roja Dove Sultanate of Oman, £395 for 50ml EDP. Guerlain Rose Nacrée du Désert, £170 for 75ml EDP

The distinctive element of Middle Eastern perfumery is oud, or agarwood. This precious resin is prized for its opulent aroma of tobacco, leather and honey, and as Chudy notes, “In the UAE, you will smell oud woodchips or scented bakhoor [an incense blend] burning in most malls, and if you live in an apartment and have Arab neighbours, you may, as I do, smell the aroma of fragrant wood emanating from their home.” Oud can also be used to scent clothes, by holding them over a brazier full of incense. “Because of the desert climate, perfume traditions have evolved differently to those in Europe and the United States,” says Chudy. “There is still today a great focus on achieving a strong, long-lasting fragrance. Perfumed oils are dabbed onto the skin and then topped with sprayed fragrance to prolong the scent.” Leaving a beautiful scented signature is a sign of taste and elegance, for men and women alike.

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Rose is another beloved ingredient. In Arabic poetry it embodies perfection, and its scent is the symbol of the divine and the perfect. Perfumers’ experiments with rose, complex and rich in its own right, can be exciting and surprising. It may be paired with incense and musk (Rasasi Al Attar Al Thameen; $55 for 30ml EDP), with smoky spices and sandalwood (Amouage Epic Woman; £175 for 50ml EDP) or form part of an opulent floral bouquet (Ajmal Ahbab; £38 for 50ml EDP). The gender codes of European perfumery – flowers are for women, woods are for men – don’t have the same currency in the Middle East where people make choices based on their individual preferences, customising and layering scents as they please.

While European houses are trying to capture the attention of Middle Eastern perfume wearers with fragrances like Guerlain Rose Nacrée du Désert (£170 for 75ml EDP), Roja Dove Sultanate of Oman (£395 for 50ml EDP) or Dior Oud Ispahan (£200 for 125ml EDP), the intricate palate of oud, rose attar, sandalwood and saffron is seeping into the classical themes back home – eau de colognes, chypres, florals, leathers. Oud adds a dusky accent to the bergamot and jasmine in Atelier Cologne’s Oud Saphir (£160 for 100ml EDP). Rose and saffron give a voluptuous warmth to the refined simplicity of Hermès’s Galop (£183 for 50ml EDP). Dark musk and smoky suede colour Kilian’s Royal Leather Mayfair (€235 for 50ml EDP). As often tends to be the case, artistic exchange enriches both sides.

Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com, since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.

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