In the last several years oud has become very popular in mass market and niche fragrances. I did some research on oud and how it is used in perfumes nowadays and here is what I found out:
Sourcing Natural Oud
Oud (a.k.a. agarwood, oudh, aoud) is formed when the heartwood of Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees get infected with a dark-walled fungus (Phaeoacremonium parasitica). The infected tree releases a resin in the process of protecting itself from the fungus. This resin emits a very complex and distinctive smell, which we call today oud or agarwood.
Agarwood can be produced only from eight of the fifteen species of Aquilaria. Those 8 species are traditionally found in India, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Naturally, under 10% of the trees in a Aquilaria forest would get infected with the fungus and produce oud. A common method to get higher output is to infect all trees with the fungus. Over-harvesting of the oud-producing species of Aquilaria in the last 30 years has kept the production low and the price high.
The essential oil from agarwood is usually produced through a hydro-distillation process. The raw material boils in water, the mixture of steam and essential oils goes through a condenser and finally the essential oil is separated from the water. Another popular way to extract oud essential oils is through CO2 distillation.
Agarwood has been traditionally used for religious and spiritual practices in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Nowadays, oud continues to be a staple in many traditional Arabic and Middle Eastern perfumes. Oud attars, essential oil mixes and incense are still used in many Arabic and Middle Eastern countries. Unlike the perfumes sold in the West, the traditional Middle Eastern fragrances contain a much higher concentration of essential oils and therefore last much longer on the skin.
High quality oud has a buttery, sometimes medicinal smell. It is usually used as a base note. The complex structure of its molecule makes it last longer and stay closer to the skin. In traditional Arabic and Middle Eastern perfumer oud is often combined with rose, myrrh, amber and incense. This seems to be the pattern followed by many Western niche houses too.
Nowadays, natural oud is rarely used in perfumery. Due to over-harvesting and the labourious process collecting the raw material, it is not feasible to use natural oud for mass market perfumery. Most fragrances on the market contain synthetic materials to replicate the natural oud scent. Vir Sanghvi (virsangvi.com) says that Firmenich’s Oud Synthetic 10760E is used in most oud fragrances on the mass market. Givaudan also has its own version of an oud synthetic. Elena Vosnaki (perfumeshrine.blogspot.ca) says that Oud Wood by Tom Ford is made with Givaudan’s Agarwood Arpur. Bond No. 9 New York Oud also contains the same synthetic.
Because the natural oud molecule is very complex, the synthetic oud molecules cannot replicate 100% of its nuances. This is not a necessarily a bad thing as the perfumer may want a certain note of the oud smell present and avoid another, which may not work well in the mix. For example, Royal Oud by Creed does not have the medicinal part of the natural oud, which makes it an easy sell to the core Creed market. Consumers not used to the full aspect of the natural oud smell may find it too weird or strange. This is why in many cases, stripping certain aspects of the scent may make sense from a marketing point of view.
Considering that most high-end oud fragrances on the market are made with synthetic oud molecules, I can’t help but wonder why their prices are so high. Francis Kurkjian’s Oud, for example, sells for about $300. This is a higher price point than some of the other fragrances in his line. Oud & Bergamot by Jo Malone was released as part of a special line, which is sold at a higher price than the regular fragrances.
The only way to know for sure what drives the higher price points for niche oud fragrances is to ask their creators. Unfortunately, even if we ask, chances are that we’ll either get the standard PR spiel about using all natural ingredients or we will be graced with no response. Some reasons why high-end oud fragrances are more expensive may be:
- They still may contain traces of natural oud;
- They may contain other naturals, which drive the price up;
- It is a marketing ploy: if the price of an oud fragrance is significantly higher, it must be for a reason and probably that reason is that it contains a very expensive natural harvested by barefoot virgins in the remote forests of Laos. This is at least what the marketing department would want you to think.
After all, the logic of higher price-higher quality is not that flawed. Good synthetics usually cost good money, so the cost of production may be higher after all even though it may not be high enough to command a double price.
Despite the higher prices for high-end oud fragrances, the oud trend in perfumery has taken a hold of the market in the last several years. Every major and niche label from Dior to Byredo has released at least one oud-based perfume, many more than one. Even though virtually all oud fragrances on the market contain a synthetic oud molecule, many of them smell great are a definitely worth the higher price.
What do you think?
What is your favourite oud fragrance?
Does it put you off that most oud fragrances use a synthetic and still charge premium prices?
More oud-based fragrances? Check out The Oud Fragrance Mania.