Oud is a paradox. The exquisite aroma that set the imagination of Japanese poets and Sufi mystics aflame develops as a result of a disease. When healthy, the wood of the Aquilaria tree species is odourless, but once a certain type of mould affects them, they release an aromatic essence to protect their tissues from decomposition. It’s a slow process, during which blond wood turns dark and hard as a stone and develops a fragrance of uncommon complexity. It has the notes of sweet tobacco, incense, leather and smoked spices, with a lingering undercurrent of bitter honey and crushed mint. While it’s known by many names, including aloeswood, agarwood, gaharu, or jinko, its other name, dark gold, will be instantly recognisable to oud lovers.
Yet while this is an ingredient with a centuries-old history in the eastern world, it’s a relative newcomer to European perfumery. One of the first fragrances to use this note was Yves Saint Laurent’s M7, created under the direction of Tom Ford in 2002. The composition – its dramatic effect enhanced by a controversial nude male ad – had a cool, herbal top note that fell straight into the tobacco and animalic warmth of oud. It was relaunched a few years ago as M7 Oud Absolu (£62 for 80ml EDT), softer and lighter, but with the original’s vivid character.
Another memorable perfume is Christian Dior’s Leather Oud (£200 for 125ml). Leather narrows the gap between the lemony sharpness of cardamom in the top notes and the animalic growl of oud and musk in the base. With its moody film noir glamour, Leather Oud is a fragrance to take on a stroll through autumnal streets.
Oud is a potent note, with a distinctive character that can be an acquired taste. The original Maison Francis Kurkdjian Oud (£195 for 70ml EDP) has all its hallmarks of density and richness, but the three new variations, Oud Cashmere Mood, Oud Velvet Mood, Oud Silk Mood (£275 each for 70ml extrait de parfum), explore the fresher, more luminous aspect of the material. My favourite of the collection, Oud Silk Mood, is bright and woody, with a honeyed finish made warmer by rose. Another fine introduction is Midnight Oud by Juliette Has a Gun (£111 for 100ml EDP), an elegant woody perfume accented by saffron.
Since oud is rare and expensive, lab-made accords are the type we’re most likely to encounter today. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea when buying an oud perfume to inquire how the brand is sourcing its essence. The downside of the passion for oud is that it has led to the depletion of wild resources. Since it’s hard to determine whether a tree has been infected or not without cutting it, healthy plants are felled indiscriminately, leading to the disappearance of the once rich groves in southeast Asia. For this reason, some perfume brands avoid natural agarwood altogether, letting the perfumers recreate the aroma of oud with other ingredients. In designing an oud collection for Kilian, Calice Becker used her own accord to suggest the nuances of this rare material. In Amber Oud (£285 for 50ml EDP), the effect is particularly successful, with the oud-like darkness emphasised by spices, vanilla liqueur and smoky woods.
In recent years, countries like Malaysia and Sri Lanka have started programmes to grow Aquilaria trees sustainably. The Singapore-based Sifr Aromatics offers Silfra ($250 for 50ml EDP), a fragrance primarily based on farmed material as well as perfume compounds. Perfumer Johari Kazura blends oud with many other traditional ingredients, like Indian sandalwood, rose absolute, frankincense and myrrh, to enhance its richness and complexity. A classical Middle Eastern composition, it peels off in layers to reveal an opulent finish that smells of dark roses, antique wood carvings and sweet incense.