When Basel Binjabr decided to launch his own fragrance house late last year, as a Saudi national himself, he knew there was one ingredient that he had to use. “When handled well, it’s warm, it’s long-lasting, it works as a unisex fragrance, it’s distinctive and although it’s very old, there is also something new about it,” he says, as he tours Morocco on the hunt for new ingredients. “It’s almost as though its potential has only now been discovered.”
That ingredient – which forms the basis of one of the five fragrances Binjabr has launched under his Thameen brand name (meaning, of course, “precious” in Arabic), and which, revealingly, is already his runaway bestseller – is oud, also known as agarwood. That may surprise natives of the Middle East: here, after all, oud – sometimes spelt aoud – may retain an air of mystery and may not even be widely understood, yet is so deeply entrenched in the culture that the notion that it is undergoing a renaissance may seem preposterous. “It’s been part of daily life in the Gulf region for many centuries, maybe even more than a 1,000 years,” says Binjabr. “But the strange thing is that many fragrance houses have either not used it at all, or not used it well – at least not in ways familiar to the Middle East.”
Recent years, however, have seen oud become, as it were, the rock star of the international fragrance industry, which is based primarily out of western Europe. It started with the more luxury boutique fragrance houses. Indeed, the French house M. Micallef, which opened its first stand-alone store in the Middle East, in Dubai, last November, claims to have pioneered what the co-founder Geoffrey Nejman calls “the oud movement” 12 years ago. That was when one of its noses (as fragrance designers are dubbed) discovered oud oil in Dubai’s Spice Souk, took a bottle back to Grasse in France, the centre of the fragrance industry, and created a so-called French oud, of which more later.
Oud fragrances followed from the likes of respected perfumers Michael Boadi, Stéphane Lucas (SoOud), the late Mona di Orio (Les Nombres d’Or Oud), L’Artisan Parfumeur (Al Ouhd) and Creed (Royal Oud). And then, having piqued the fashion giants’ interest, oud went supernova, featuring in new fragrances from, among others, Versace, Dior, Armani, Calvin Klein and, perhaps most influentially, Tom Ford.
Now, arguably, oud has – just a mere millennium on from its first being used – finally gone mass-market. Recent releases have included Damask Oud from Hugo Boss, Terryfic Oud from the make-up artist Terry de Gunsburg – the creator of YSL’s revered Touche Éclat – and even an oud fragrance from Ferrari.
“Oud just won’t go away,” says Roja Dove of Roja Parfums, the world’s first professor of perfumery, who contributed to the oud bandwagon with the launch this March of H - The Exclusive Oud, a new fragrance designed just for Harrods in London. “When it was first used in western perfumery, oud was such a novel raw material people said it was a fad. Yet now the industry is seeking to keep it fresh through the new effects of mixing it with other ingredients – with fruits in Tom Ford’s Atelier d’Orient, for example. And mixing oud with fruits is about as far away from the Middle Eastern conception of oud as you can get.
“Oud was put centrestage by the more confident, boutique perfumers. But mainstream perfumery is using it more as the supporting act. Middle Eastern clients tend to smell these and say: ‘Where’s the oud?’”
Certainly Dove’s comment underscores what lies at the crux of the oud story: that it is a tale of two worlds. The Middle East embraces it, and has its own conception of what it should be, but the West is either ignorant of it – Dove notes how oud was never made part of his training as a perfumer, which he felt was completed only after he had lived in the Middle East for three years – or even shocked by it. Dove likens oud’s effect to that of “drinking espresso for the first time – a real punch – even if now we want caramel-infused skinny lattes”. Others have referred to oud, accurately, as “animalistic”.
As the perfumer Ben Gorham, the founder of Byredo – which has Oud Immortel and Accord Oud – notes with some understatement: “Western noses are just getting to grips with the fragrance. Middle Eastern noses are much more sensitive when it comes to oud; they can discern between the dozens of different kinds and everyone has their favourite. But oud is wonderfully warm. It adds a golden glow to a scent.”
Might that be the fumes? “It is such an intense scent, especially for a western market brought up on pretty floral scents,” concedes Dove. “For westerners, it can be very challenging, especially if you give them real oud as an oil to smell. They can think it’s ghastly, a smell that is rather farmyard and which doesn’t seem to go away, and it doesn’t help that oud is exceptionally scarce and so what is used varies widely in quality. You need to go to an Arab perfume shop to experience it first. The problem is that salespeople make the assumption that westerners can’t handle the real thing and give them a Middle Eastern idea of what westerners would like.”
These are the so-called French ouds – heavy on the Middle Eastern styling, but actually rather light on the oud. Small wonder then that a fragrant curtain seems to have descended between East and West. While the West gets a largely ersatz version, convinced that bona-fide oud is intolerable, the East is mystified by the lack of oomph in many of the fashion fragrance ouds – all the while knowing how to use it more subtly themselves to avoid any unwanted hint of rural living, be that burning the wood to scent clothes or home with the smoke (known as bukhoor), to blending it carefully and with complexity to take away any excess pungency.
That subtlety has been achieved with generations of practice particular to Middle Eastern perfumery, a style by which the West remains largely perplexed. Oud oil is mentioned in the Vedas, one of the oldest written texts from India – and it is from here, as well as from what are now Vietnam and Myanmar, that it is believed to have originated, and where it is still produced. The oil is extracted from the viscous resin produced by a parasitic mould that infects endangered evergreen aquilaria trees, the bacteria in the mould dying to add their own particular piquancy – none of which does much to sell it to doubters. The opening of trade routes took the oil, which became something of a highly prized commodity, via North Africa to the Middle East where its use was finessed, and where it was imbued with almost spiritual significance.
Finessing will be important if any western perfumer wishes to create an oud-based fragrance that strikes the right balance for both western and Middle Eastern customers – of the kind, client profiles suggest, that has been pulled off by Dove with his own experiments in oud, or that of, for example, Kilian Hennessy. His Arabian Nights collection – of five oud-based fragrances sold through New York’s Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue stores – found a niche by using molecular analysis to recreate the particular, softer aromas of bakhoor, making, he argues, oud more accessible.
“Certainly, some people love oud and some people hate it,” says Hennessy. “And oud is not easy to work with, either. It can overwhelm other components of a scent. It’s expensive. And historically the supply has been uncertain, too – it has sometimes been cut with other ingredients in order to make more money for the supplier, and its production was even associated with criminal organisations, so buying oud was seen as some way to fund them. All those inconsistencies made it even more difficult for a big perfume house to work with, but perhaps explains why boutique brands got in first. Supply issues have been greatly improved – and unfortunately in this industry, and in a highly competitive market, there is no shame in copying another perfumer’s fragrance.”
And, as the sheer number of oud-inspired fragrances might suggest, copy the industry certainly has – or at least followed the trend. But, given the weight of interest, can western perfumery’s new, somewhat overdue interest in the fragrant traditions of the Middle East last? A business-minded Nejman thinks so, but not for the obvious reasons.
Yes, “oud is intoxicating, fascinating and, because of its price, associated with luxury, prestige and wealth”, he says, but so many companies are keen to embrace it because so many are keen to embrace the Middle Eastern consumer – who generally has been less affected by the global economic downturn. Oud is a calling card.
Dove agrees that oud’s rapid global conquest will not, as with so much in fashion, condemn its fire to burn brightly but briefly. Oud will only form part of many more big-name fragrances to come. But, he says we may hear much less about it.
“I think we will see fewer mentions of ‘oud’ on fragrance boxes, or as part of a fragrance’s name. It’s very unusual to highlight one component of a fragrance in that way. In fact, I think it’s probably only happened once before, and that was with vetiver in the 1950s. That perhaps speaks to oud’s blockbuster status.”