In the luxurious world of scent, what could be more desirable than the elusive and seductive smell of oud? By Rhona Wells

Oud comes from the wood of the tropical Agar (Aquilaria) tree, believed to have originated in the Assam region of India, and from there spread throughout Southeast Asia. When the wood of the Agar tree gets infected with a certain mould variety (Phialophora parasitica), it reacts by producing a dark and fragrant resin, which is the perfume ingredient oud (also called agarwood).

High quality oud is a true dark gold, its fragrance ethereal and complex, blending nuances of ambergris, sweet incense, tobacco and wood. The lower grades, on the other hand, have a sharp, dark, less nuanced and pleasant scent. Its rich fragrance is used for scenting mosques, favoured rooms in the home, and frequently clothes in the Middle East. It is rumoured that its fragrance that can ward off the evil eye as well as attract lovers.

Oud is also used in incense bokhurs (incense blends) and the bark chips retail at prices varying form 17000AED ($4700) a kilo to 23000 AED/kilo ($6200) de- pending on the quality of the bark chip, used for burning, according to an authority based in Sharjah in the UAE

Oud has a long history of use in the Eastern and Middle Eastern parts of the world; Buddhist monks used it for meditation, saying it aids in the transmuta- tion of ignorance. Tibetan monks believe it calms the mind and spirit; Sufis use it for esoteric ceremonies; in China it is considered to have psychoactive properties and in in Ancient Egypt, it was used by the Pharaohs for embalming. Certainly Oud has been used as incense, an aromatic oil and medicine for thousands of years. The Prophet Mohammed mentions it in the Koran 1400 years ago; “Treat with Indian Oud, for it has healing for seven diseases”.

Due to its rarity, high demand, and the difficulty of harvesting it, oud oil is perhaps the most expensive oil in the world. Its value is estimated as 1.5 times of the value of gold, which is the reason it is sometimes referred to as

‘liquid gold’. Because of the immense popularity of this plant-matter for oil, perfume and incense, the trees are now endangered species, protected world-wide under the CITES convention and by a variety of laws in different countries. Oud (in Arabic ‘oudh’) is also highly valued by perfumers for its sweet, woody, aromatic and complex scent. It is used in forms of oud oil (dehn al oud) or resin (oud mubakhar).

Use of scent in the Middle East is prolific. Consumers in the region spend five times as much on perfume as their European counterparts and in the higher class malls and expensive shops the scent of Arabian oud is all-pervading.

The fragrance market in the Mena region alone is currently worth $4bn and predicted to carry on growing at 15% a year over the next four years.

An average Arab male consumer, uses three bottles of the scent at the same time, one in the car, one in the office and one in the home, according to Abdulla Ajmal, Deputy General Manager of Ajmal Perfumes, one of the of leading fragrance houses in the region, selling locally over 17m bottles of scent a year.

As for women, they can be layering up to seven fragrances at the same time, thus creating their own unique signature sillage. According to Shahzad Halder, chairman of the Fragrance Foundation Arabia, the fact that “oud is a scent deeply rooted in tradition adds to its global appeal. As people travel the world, they experience new scents they then want to find when they return home”. This he feels has led to the success of the oud note, fast on the way to becoming a real new fragrance trend of the 21st century.

In the Middle East, local oud-dealers have ruled the market but increasingly, international fragrance houses are looking to tap into the region’s wealth of fragrance users by introducing their own Arabian scent, thus hoping not only to capture the regional market, but also to offer new exciting scents to the world. Philippe Tarasoff, Regional Director of the luxury division L’Oreal Middle East decided to embrace oud’s mystique early on, launc ing Armani Prive Royal Oud in 2008. In 2011, Van Cleef & Arpels launched Precious Oud, as part of their Collection Extraordinaire, underlining the luxury concept, more in name than in scent terms.

The trend has really been taking off with many new fragrances joining the fray; in April 2012, Maison Francis Kurkdjian launched their “Oud”, a scent that truly show- cases the deep woody notes of the oil. Le Labo launched Oud 27 (with 27 ingredients) in upmarket outlets such as Liberty’s of London to satisfy the consumer demand for this note. Not to be left out, in August 2012, Christian Dior launched Oud Ispahan, Created by perfumer Francois Demachy, the fragrance aims to provide the user with “an immediate impression, an instant snapshot of Middle Eastern mystique.” Italian niche house, Acqua di Parma, has launched Colonia Intensa Oud available through exclusive boutiques and outside Italy in Har- rods (London). Joining in, in November 2012, Givenchy introduced Eaudemoiselle de Givenchy Bois de Oud.

Oud also plays a starring role in several American perfumes for women, including Pure Oud Eau by Killian, Oud Intense by Comptoir Sud Pacifique, Midnight Oud Eau de Parfum by Juliette Has a Gun, and Bond No. 9 New York Oud.

From the Middle East, Ajmal have expanded as far as Malaysia, underlining the globalness of this phenomena. In European capitals, such as London, Oud Arabian, Swiss Arabian and Rasasi, who all offer an Oud collection as well as single note fragrances, are all enjoy- ing great popularity, and not just with Arabs. Oman’ s Amouage fragrance house is also present with exclusive distribution and retail outlets popping up around the world. Their latest launch, Amouage Epic for women is an ode to oud.

Capturing both the imagination and the heart, oud once smelled can never be forgotten. Popular fragrances come and go but from its confirmed use in the 13th century to present day local and international perfumes, oud remains in pride of place in the 21st century fragrance market.

On our website we post a selection of articles and interviews that appear in the magazine. For the complete edition you may digitally subscribe to The Middle East magazine by clicking here.