Scent Notes: Oud

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

AgarwoodTreeOud (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.

Traditional Use

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.

Contemporary Use

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.

Advertisements

20 thoughts on “Scent Notes: Oud

  1. Fascinating. I actually just wrote about the oud/aoud trend in perfume yesterday but I had absolutely no idea that a mostly synthetic molecule compound was being used. Do you think Amouage does so as well? If most of these fragrances contain synthetic oud, there is definitely little justification for the prices they command. But the synthetic aspect certainly explains why a brand like Bath & Body Works has a perfume that they claim contains “oud wood.” I found that incredibly difficult to believe at the time but it certainly makes sense now.

    I’m new to blogging, though definitely not new to perfume, and I was wondering, could I reblog this? I’m not sure how one does all that and how it appears on one’s own blog with full credit and details given to the original site, but I would certainly like to do so for this article. I have a number of friends who are extremely interested in Oud fragrances and I think your explanation would go a long way in helping them understand how some scents seem to lack that medicinal aspect of Oud, or why others have it.

    Like

  2. You are more than welcome to reblog, Kafkaesque.

    You can never know for sure whether a fragrance contains natural oud or a synthetic unless the fragrance company tells you. I think Amouage, though is more likely to use at least some traces of natural oud because it is a traditional Arabic house. It’s owned by the Sheikh of Oman and if you were to believe the marketing story, price on ingredients is never the limit.
    As for Bath & Body Works – definitely synthetic, maybe even the cheaper ones.

    Can you please share the link to your post on oud?

    Like

  3. Thank you for sharing, Kafkaesque. It’s a very good review of the recent history of oud and its smelling properties.

    I’m curious about M7 myself. I’ve never smelled it and I believe it was discontinued at some point and then re-introduced reformulated.

    You mention that Oud Wood is the next one on your list to try. I think you’ll like it. It does have medicinal notes in the opening but then it dries down to mildly sweet tonka bean and (maybe) vanilla.

    I’m curious to try Francis Kurkjian’s Oud. If the price is any indication of quality, this one should be up there with Amouage.

    I’m going to update my post on oud and include a paragraph with a link to your post. It’s definitely a must-read for anyone interested in oud.

    Like

    1. Thank you so much, Scent Bound. It’s very kind of you! 🙂 As for the M7, I haven’t read anything that states it was *officially* discontinued by the company. I think they did so quietly, without wishing to draw attention to just how much of a bomb it was. They then pretended that they released a flanker, the M7 Oud Absolu, in 2011 as if it were something totally separate from M7 instead of an essentially de-fanged, gutted replacement. I think the M7 was such an embarrassment, they didn’t want to admit what had really happened to the perfume.

      If you want to smell M7, you can certainly get a sample or decant from places like Surrender to Chance. (It’s an incredibly useful site!) I plan on ordering a small vial myself. I’ll see about tossiong Kirkjian’s Oud into the order too, *if* I’m not broke from the various Chanel Exclusifs, Tom Ford and Amouage things that I also plan on ordering. Perfume is a very expensive habit! 😀

      Like

      1. I’m not surprised they tried to discontinue M7 quietly. Perfume companies are known to do sneaky stuff like that. Just look at all reformulations they do, while still claiming it is the original formula from 30 years ago.

        Perfume can be an expensive hobby – all of the ones you mention are quite pricey. Which ones of the Chanel Exclusifs do you like? Amouage has a new fragrance out – very incensey-smoky. Have you tried it? If you get a chance to try it, sample both the men’s and women’s versions. I smelled them once at a sort-of specialized perfume store and they told me the men’s version is much more interesting and smokier.

        On Fri, Dec 14, 2012 at 12:54 PM, scent bound

        Like

  4. Reblogged this on Kafkaesque and commented:
    A fantastic analysis of Oud and how much of it in contemporary perfumes is actually a synthetic molecule. Obviously, that impacts the nuances and smell. To quote one part of the fascinating post: “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.”

    If you’re interested in Oud, make sure to read the whole thing. You can learn a lot, as I did. From Creed’s Royal Oud to others, there may be a market and commercial reason for why synthetic oud may be preferable for perfumers. Apart from the low(er) cost, naturally.

    Like

  5. Hi, I am a guy. I used to have JPG Gaultier2 and I think it has Oud in it. Very nice perfume and last long on my skin. For much subtle oud fragrance, try aqua de palma oud cologne, but they dont last long

    Like

    1. Thanks for the message Ben. You are probably right about the oud in Gaultier 2. Many fragrances have the note but is hard to pick out if it has only traces of it. I’ll make sure I smell Gaultier 2 again.

      Like

  6. Since I met my boyfriend originally from Pakistan, he made me realize how amazing Arabic perfumes truly are. He has a no brand small bottled perfume which he rubs into his facial hair and it lasts for all day with the same intensity. The scent is so beautiful that it truly makes even random people on the street ask what he uses. This bottle is the size of a woman’s pinky finger and the liquid is so thick it’s almost like honey. You can’t buy this in Europe, he got it from Saudi for the price of 5 D&Gs but he uses it for over 2 years now. I bought recently an Oud perfume from Reminiscence and realized now that his must be containing natural Oud in it! Thank you for this article and for the good read 🙂 Scents are truly powerful and underrated.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s