Oud is difficult to source with an esoteric fragrance, but that hasn’t deterred perfumers from reviving it with a modern update.

Here’s a quick perfume history lesson for you. In 2002, Yves Saint Laurent launched a men’s fragrance called M7. One of its selling points was that it was the first “Western” scent to contain oud. This near-mythical substance had been used in Asian perfumes and incense for centuries but was little known west of the Arabian Gulf.

Produced by certain varieties of the aquilaria tree in response to a fungal infection, it is overwhelmingly pungent, displaying an astonishing range of olfactory facets, from spicy to petroleum-like, fecal to medicinal and woody to leathery. To say that it’s an acquired taste would be an understatement, but, according to James Craven of London specialist perfumery Les Senteurs, those who fall under its spell liken it to “something drifting down from the gates to Paradise”.

As the formation of oud is difficult to control and its supply severely limited – its “host tree” is listed as an endangered species – the extreme odour is matched by the price tag, with some qualities fetching in the region of £30,000 per kilo and beyond.

Its inclusion in a mainstream European product at the start of the century was down in no small part to the fact that chemists had successfully created cheaper – and, according to some, inferior – synthetic substitutes, thereby prompting one of the fragrance industry’s most lucrative and influential trends of the past decade.

The YSL release was followed by countless others and now very few brands don’t feature an oud scent of some form in their collections. Even Lynx, that perennial favourite of teenage boys, launched an oud product in 2016.

So ubiquitous has the smell of the ingredient become – or, at least, the smell of its synthetic versions – that many fragrance aficionados believe it is now an olfactory cliché. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that Middle Eastern customers – the target of many oud creations – are actively seeking scents that don’t feature its unmistakable odour.

Now that the novelty of the substance has worn off, a handful of scent makers are attempting to present it in more innovative ways; the past few months have seen the appearance of several striking oud-based creations.

The latest among these is Opus XI from the house of Amouage (see box opposite). Its creative director, Christopher Chong, was struck by the notion that the over-use of lab-made oud means that few ordinary shoppers know what the real McCoy smells like. Since synthetic ouds “have been accepted by the public as real”, he explains, “I decided to combine the real with the illusion. I felt that would make an interesting twist.”

For his creation L’Oudh, award-winning Zurich-based perfumer Andy Tauer decided that the best way to create a truly original oud perfume was to adopt a back-to-basics approach and just use the genuine article. “By using real oud in substantial quantities, you do what 99 per cent of all others have not dared to do,” he says. “I used a natural oud from Laos, got it imported under CITES [the body that oversees the trade of protected plants] and composed a fragrance that brings out the facets of the essential oil.”

Craven recommends Anima Vinci’s Oud Delight (£170 for 100ml of eau de parfum; lessenteurs.com), in which the ingredient is “lifted and lightened”. He says: “The scent lives up to its name with the brightness of ginger, saffron and coriander. Freshness, not fustiness.”

It is perfumers’ willingness to be more daring in their use of the material – perhaps by making it sweeter, cleaner, more floral or more “authentic” – that is allowing oud to enjoy a new-found respect among both experts and casual shoppers. “And through these qualities,” Craven says, “people will come to see oud differently.”


Opus XI, Amouage

  • £300 for 100ml eau de parfum
  • Oud linked with bitter herbs and tannery notes. Tremendously long-lasting
  • amouage.com

L’Oudh, Tauer Perfumes

  • £238 for 50ml eau de parfum
  • A no-holds-barred showcase of all of oud’s most prominent features
  • lessenteurs.com

Dawn, Frédéric Malle

  • £580 for 50ml eau de parfum
  • Weighty, leather-entwined oud on a powerful, woody-amber base
  • fredericmalle.co.uk

Agar Ebene, Hermès

  • £185 for 100ml eau de toilette
  • The scent of burning oud chips is combined with the bracing qualities of fir balsam
  • hermes.com

Words by Persolaise