It’s been prized for centuries for its rich, smoky resinous and slightly animalic aroma, but in the last few years oud has dominated the fragrance world as an ingredient.
Extracted from a resin formed as a reaction to mould (how’s that for an unglamorous backstory?) it’s one of the rarest and most expensive components used in perfumery, often described as ‘liquid gold’.
Especially popular in the Middle East, where it’s used to scent rooms and clothes, oud has crossed over into the mainstream, with everyone from Tom Ford to Commes des Garçons turning out heady scents that pull on its signature opulence.
Not all luxury fragrances are created equal, however. Much of what is used in mass-market scents is synthetic, while the real deal can vary greatly in quality, too.
To help you recognise your oud from your ‘oud wanna smell like that?’, here’s a definitive primer on the biggest trend in eau de toilettes.
What Is Oud?
As with anything popular in the land of oil, oud fragrances often come with a hefty price tag. But the expense is often justified by the lengthy process it takes to produce the ingredient.
“The oil itself is distilled from the resinous heartwood of the Asian aquilaria tree and is exceedingly rare,” explains British perfumer Roja Dove, who is famous for his own intense oud creations.
Oud’s story is much more complex than that, though. “The distinctive smell comes when the heartwood becomes diseased with a very specific mould, leaving it dark, oily and incredibly dense,” adds Dove. “So dense, in fact, that if you placed it in water it wouldn’t float.”
It’s this curious birth which gives oud an added allure. “It’s richly symbolic,” says James Craven, a perfume archivist at specialist fragrance emporium Les Senteurs. “The process that leads to its formation is one which celebrates resurrection and renewal: after all, this strange and beautiful scent is a by-product of disease, corruption and death.”
How’s that for a chat-up line next time someone compliments your fragrance?
Oud In Fragrance
So what makes this sensual ingredient special as an ingredient – apart from the fact that high-quality oud can be more expensive than gold?
“For starters, oud has an incredible depth to it,” says Dove. “It sits very low down in the composition of a fragrance, meaning it lasts and lasts on the skin and it also has the ability to hold other [scents] in place, making it an excellent ‘fixative’.”
Longevity aside, part of oud’s appeal in Western perfumery is its sheer ‘otherness’. “Widely associated with the Middle East, it simply has no equivalent in the palette of Western or European perfumers,” says Craven. “It’s a unique smell, entirely on its own. To Western noses it comes across as exotic.”
Unlike ingredients common in contemporary men’s fragrances, like sandalwood, vanilla or bergamot, oud’s distinctiveness and punchiness makes it the Marmite of perfumery. “It’s so extreme, so demonstrative, so powerful and makes such a huge statement that it’s very un-British in a way,” says Craven.
Which means the oud man has to be a confident, self-assured one, says Dove. “Wearing a bolder scent that marks out our individuality is becoming an increasingly popular concept, though, and what better way to make a statement than to than to do it with oud?”
Which Oud To Choose?
Oud sits at the opposite end of the fragrance spectrum to light, bright citrusy scents like Dior’s Eau Sauvage or Tom Ford’s Neroli Portofino. You can wear it in the daytime, but it really comes into its own as an evening fragrance and for when you want to make an impact. For the faint-hearted, it is not.
“A quality oud will give you a good wear from it,” says Dove. “Don’t spray too much as it is long-lasting and will continue to work its magic on the skin for hours on end.”
All you have to decide is which oud to go for – and that depends on whether you want to dive in at the deep end or just dip your toe into the genre with a more accessible scent.
Big, Authentic Ouds
Oud aficionados value authenticity and aren’t fazed by the ingredient’s opulence – nor the hefty price tag that can accompany a well-crafted example.
Roja Dove’s rich and sensual Aoud, for example, will set you back a cool £375 for a 30ml bottle of parfum (the Absolute version is £795 if you’re feeling especially flush) but has the approval of his Middle Eastern customers who certainly know their oud from their elbow.
Just remember when wearing big ouds – like Aoud, Killian’s Pure Oud or Creed’s Royal Oud – that less is more. You might want to refrain from dousing yourself with one before stepping into a lift, onto a plane or just before starting a workout.
Most of the best-known ouds – like Tom Ford’s popular Oud Wood, his spicier Tobacco Oud and fragrances like Comme des Garçons Wonderoud, John Varvatos Oud and Boss Bottled Oud – are popular because they dial down the intensity of the ingredient, making it a little less in your face.
Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian is a master of the accessible oud, using the ingredient in a way that perfectly captures its drama whilst broadening its appeal with other ingredients.
“His Velvet Oud is especially good,” says Craven. “It’s powerful and confident and the oud is at its most ruthlessly uncompromising. It’s clean but simultaneously richly dusty, musty and narcotic and it smells centuries old.” Which might not sound like a winning recipe on paper, but it is once on the skin.
Weird And Wonderful Ouds
In the past few years, perfumers have experimented with oud in an attempt to take it in several different directions, in much the same way a chef might combine new ingredients to create a surprising new dish.
Most audacious of these is Tom Ford’s Private Blend Oud Minérale, which combines the rich, warmth of the wood with notes commonly found in salty, marine fragrances. “It’s a clever composition that manages to find common ground between these two opposing styles,” says fragrance blogger Thomas Dunckley, AKA The Candy Perfumed Boy.
Likewise, Acqua Di Parma Colonia Intensa Oud Concentree mixes oud with the brand’s signature lemon and wood accord to create a fragrance that’s both rich and smoky and fresh and citrusy all at once – a balancing act that’s hard to pull off but somehow works. Check out Jo Malone’s Oud & Bergamot for a tempered, fresher oud, too.
Such is the popularity of oud that spray eau de toilettes and eau de parfums are just one way of enjoying the fragrance.
If you’re truly addicted to oud, you can shower and moisturise with it, fragrance your beard with it and cover your entire pad with it. Now you’re an oud aficionado, you could even get yourself some incense and scent your home the traditional way.