It’s been prized for centuries for its rich, smoky resinous and slightly animalic aroma, but in the last few years oud (aka oudh or agarwood) has dominated the fragrance world as an ingredient.
The resin it’s extracted from forms as a reaction to an infection by a mould (how’s that for an unglamorous backstory?) and is so precious that it’s one of the rarest and most expensive components used in perfumery, often described as being ‘liquid gold’.
Especially popular in the Middle East, where it’s been used for centuries to scent rooms and clothes, oud has crossed over as a mainstream fragrance ingredient. What’s more, many brands are now capitalising (sometimes shamelessly) on the Middle Eastern market by adding oud scents to their ranges – often housed in gold packaging as a crude signifier of their opulence.
So why has oud become so popular? “Part of its appeal lies in the fact that it has no equivalent in the palette of Western/European perfumers, so seems unique,” says James Craven, Perfume Archivist at London fragrance emporium Les Senteurs. “In The West we’re still exploring it, still reconciling our noses to it and still coming to terms with the olfactory experience it offers.”
Which might explain our fascination with this most exotic of ingredients. “Oud is a truly mesmerising and extraordinary smell,” says Craven. “And it has so many shades, so many different types and grades of quality depending on its country of origin, age etc. It’s an olfactory feast for the fragrance connoisseur!”
The problem is, with so many ouds out there, which do you go for? Well, here are a few to tempt you. I’m not saying these are the best – they simply represent some that are on offer – but if you’re a bit of an ‘oudie’ they’re certainly worth checking out…
Tom Ford Oud Wood
Along with YSL’s M7 Oud Absolu (see below), Tom Ford’s take on oud opulence is one of my own personal favourites. I regularly cite it as being in my top ten favourite fragrances of all time and it’s earned a place on that list partly because it gets so many positive comments whenever I wear it.
The oud here is underplayed so it’s not too overpowering, and it’s warm and sensual thanks to touches of vanilla, tonka bean and amber.
Also worth checking out is Tom Ford’s Tobacco Oud – an altogether spicier affair that takes its cues from ‘dokha’ tobacco, which is traditionally blended with herbs, bark and flowers.
Acqua Di Parma Colonia Oud
It’s a mark of oud’s popularity that even Acqua di Parma – an Italian company long associated with fresh, light, invigorating colognes – should add an oud fragrance to their portfolio.
This one takes many of the elements we associate with Acqua di Parma Colonia – in particular its sunny, citrusy top notes – and blends them with the deep, exotic richness of oud.
It works beautifully, allowing the fragrance to show both light and shade while being completely understated, which is rare for an oud scent.
Oud Velvet Mood By Maison Francis Kurkdjian
Part of a trio of excellent oud-based fragrances from the perfumer behind Jean Paul Gaultier’s iconic Le Male fragrance, Velvet oud is – to use Craven’s words – camphorous, dense, aromatic, and narcotic.
“I love the use of oud here because it is displayed in a very dramatic and flamboyant, expressive way,” he says. “It’s oud at its most ruthlessly uncompromising.”
Reiss Black Oudh
When David Reiss, founder of high street retailer Reiss, commissioned perfume designer Azzi Glasser to create a signature fragrance for his customers, the result could have been something safe, unchallenging and, well, very high street. Thankfully, it wasn’t.
Instead she conjured up a fragrance that’s as quirky as it is long lasting; mixing oud with musk, vetiver and the very distinctive, slightly ‘tarry’ smell of sequoia wood (one of her favourite ingredients) to create something both woody and wonderful.
John Varvatos Oud
If it seems like the brand is simply jumping on the bandwagon, it probably is – but this latest fragrance from John Varvatos is certainly fun (the signature bottle gets encased in a gold plastic mesh for this edition).
All the notes you would expect from a fragrance inspired by the Middle East are included – from Persian Saffron and rose to Egyptian jasmine and frankincense – but there’s also a touch of leather in there too.
Its carefully crafted commercial appeal means it’s not quite as punchy as some other oud scents out there, but that also makes it a little more accessible.
Commes Des Garçons Wonderoud
Since Spanish beauty behemoth Puig acquired the rights to produce Commes de Garçons fragrances, a raft of scents based around a predominant note or accord have appeared – Wonderwood and Amazingreen amongst them.
Wonderoud is woody, spicy, earthy and, as you might expect, oudy. It’s actually very much like Wonderwood but with an extra dose of oud thrown in for good measure – so if you liked that fragrance chances are you’ll love this too.
Ermenegildo Zegna Indonesian Oud
Part of Zegna’s high-end fragrance range, this sweet, floral and leathery oud keeps one eye firmly on commerciality, so is a little less challenging than some of the boutique oud scents out there.
It’s the kind of oud you could wear to the office.
YSL M7 Oud Absolu
A reworking of the original M7 fragrance and a favourite with perfumistas, this very grown up scent – with oud, patchouli, mandarin, myrrh and amber – is one of YSL’s best scents for men and a personal favourite of mine.
It’s rich, warm, super-sexy and has great longevity on the skin. If you’re an oud newbie, M7 Oud Absolu is definitely a good place to start.