It’s rich and heavy, sensual and intoxicating. It penetrates, permeates, and dominates. Wear it, and everybody takes notice. It’s uncompromisingly bold and fearlessly different. It is oud, and it has taken the Western fragrance houses and noses’ perfume collections by storm.
What is it, what makes it so special, and would you like it? Read on to find out.
What Is Oud?
Oud, or to be precise, the oil of oud or “Dinh al Oudh,” refers to dark oil extracted from agarwood. Agarwood, in turn, refers to the heartwood of diseased Aquilaria trees.
By the way, the heartwood is that part of a tree called the duramen. The heartwood is found at the exact centre when you chop a tree open to view it cross-sectionally. It often has a darker colour than the surrounding wood.
Upon visual inspection, agarwood looks stained and streaked with black veins. It is also incredibly dense. Put it in a vat of water, and the wood will sink.
Oud has long been used as an aromatic, typically to perfume Islamic households and personal garments or as an accompaniment to prayer. Its use goes beyond scent; oud speaks of centuries worth of cultural and religious traditions in Asia. North-east Asia (e.g., Taiwan, Japan, and the Republic of Korea) and West Asia (particularly the Middle East) are the two major agarwood markets.
However, the Western world’s “discovery” of and newfound passion for oud has catapulted this essential oil into the world’s stage and has increased the global demand for it. It is now an in-demand ingredient in premium personal care products, particularly perfumes and fragrances.
How is Oud Used in Perfumes?
Perfumes often consist of three distinct parts that make up the so-called fragrance pyramid.
At the top of the pyramid are the top notes, which immediately hit you when you open a perfume bottle or upon first application. Top notes do not last long, quickly transitioning to the heart notes.
In the middle of the pyramid are the heart notes. They follow the top notes, so you usually smell them once the top notes start evaporating. They linger longer than the top notes, mixing with the base notes to create a unique combination of scents.
The base notes comprise the anchor of the perfume. They help fix the heart notes in place and ensure the fragrance lasts long.
The base notes linger on the skin long after the top notes have evaporated and even after the heart notes have dissipated. They are the scents that provide a perfume’s lasting impression.
Now oud, a heavy scent with impressive staying powers and the ability to hold other scents and fix them in place (i.e., neutralize their volatility, so they linger longer), makes a great base in perfumes. For instance, oud is the base note in White Oud, a fragrance by UAE-based premium perfume house, Emirates Pride Perfumes.
What Makes Oud Special?
Oud is remarkable because it is rare. Agarwood occurs in the wild only under particular circumstances. An Aquilaria tree has to be infected by a specific fungus. By the way, there are multiple species of Aquilaria trees, but not all can form agarwood.
The fungus infection causes stress that triggers the tree’s defences. Specifically, the tree produces secondary compounds rich in oleoresins, and the tree deposits these compounds into the heartwood.
The compounds plug up the tree’s water-conducting xylem tissues in a process known as tylosis, apparently to slow down the progress of the fungus and prevent rot.
These occlusions or plugs turn the fungus-infected Aquilaria heartwood much darker and denser than usual. They also make the heartwood naturally aromatic.
In the wild, however, the rate of agarwood formation is only around 2%. Even in plantations that cultivate Aquilaria trees and deliberately induce stress (e.g., by wounding the tree) to engender agarwood production, the rate of natural infection is only around seven to 10%.
This means agarwood is indeed extremely rare, especially wild agarwood or agarwood that develops in the wild without human intervention.
The very best ouds can command prices like AED 200,000 or USD 54,000 per kilo, which is comparable to the price of gold. Thus, oud is known as liquid gold or black gold.
Even lesser oud variants trade for 15% of that, still considerable at around AED 30,000 or USD 8,000 per kilo.
Oud is so expensive that, in some cases, what are touted as oud perfumes are not made of real oud but laboratory-synthesized oud. Some also use ouds harvested from artificially infested wood; such oud is less desirable than wild or natural oud, which has greater depth and complexity.
Finally, some oud fragrances may contain just a touch of oud and more of other bases like patchouli and Amyris.
Tradition, History, and Uniqueness
Furthermore, oud is special because it is deeply rooted in people’s consciousness. It is a scent that a whole contingent of people associates with their culture, history, and traditions.
It is also special because it is unapologetically different. It’s something you might not know as oud when you smell it at first. Even so, you’ll undoubtedly sit up and pay attention when you perceive it.
Would You Like to Try It?
Oud is a love-it or hate-it scent. You’ll hear it described as heady, smoky, deep, intense, and complex. You’ll also often see it described as an animalic Oriental scent. If the above keywords resonate with you, you will probably like oud.
Oud perfumes pair perfectly with Middle Eastern fashion for women. Try oud perfume if you love your abayas, kaftans, sheilas, and other Middle Eastern pieces. You will probably love it.
Even if you are not keen on Middle eastern fashion, oud may be for you if you like aggressive scents and are comfortable standing out. Oud perfumes are for those who have the confidence to pull it off.
Of course, for some people, oud can come across as just too unique, rancid, and animalic to be pleasant — and that’s okay. To each his (or her) own when it comes to scents and fragrances.
To Oud or Not to Oud
Oud is special, rare, and expensive, and oud perfumes are equally exceptional, memorable, and pricey. You’ll either hate them or love them.
The best way to determine if you belong to the former or the latter category is to visit your favourite perfume house, grab an oud perfume, and spritz on some.
Ayoob Ibrahim is the CEO and co-founder of Emirates Pride Perfumes, an online Arabic perfume, oud, and dakhoon retailer with 21 stores across the UAE.
Ayoob started the company 10 years ago with his 2 brothers, guiding its journey towards becoming the most distinguished perfume company in the Middle East. Emirates Pride also offers flowers, wedding perfume consultations and customized products.