Pleasure / April 2017

Uncommon Scents: Oud Oil

The surprisingly sensual oud oil has made its way into many major perfumiers, and despite its rarity is a staple scent on many a gentleman’s dressing table.

It’s an oil that is extracted from a thick, viscous black resin produced by a parasitic mould that infects aquilaria trees. It costs a fortune, at its best quality 1.5 times the price of gold. And if that wasn’t enough to put you off, to western noses at least, it smells awful - a blend of leather, wood, goat and old socks. And yet oud - the signature whiff of the Middle East for centuries - has become the defining ingredient of some of the most notable fragrances of the last few years: Tom Ford, Acqua di Parma, Calvin Klein, Dior, Armani, Van Cleef & Arpels are just some of the big names to have produced oud-based scents.

And that is all the more remarkable - global brands the likes of these typically have to strike a middle line to make the kind of sales the cost of their fragrance launches demand. Oud might be expected of more left-field fragrance houses the likes of Francis Kurkdjian, Kilian or Byredo - all of which have also used oud - but not of the more mainstream.

But oud, indeed, is the forerunner of a wider shift in thinking about fragrances: if the markets of the west have long been dominated by fresh, light, citrus-based scents - inoffensive, accessible, easy to wear, perhaps chiming with a rise in fixation on personal hygiene and a growing interest in the ‘natural’ - then recent times have seen an experimentation with ingredients that, on paper at least, would not be something anyone would want to walk into a lift wafting from their person. If certain fragrance companies, the likes of Demeter (with its Grass, and Gin & Tonic scents, for example) or Comme des Garcons (with its tar and sherbet-based ones), have pioneered the unusual for years - admired but rarely imitated - then their approach is rapidly becoming the new centre-ground.

In part this is a product of western ‘noses’ (as fragrance designers are called) opening their olfactory minds to the scents of faraway places - the likes of oud - with, as Demeter’s CEO Mark Crames notes, globalisation helping long cherished, but decidedly regional, tastes cross cultural barriers. But it’s also a product of competition: the mass-market fragrance industry has too long surfed on me-too products dependent less on inventiveness or originality as brand names and celebrity endorsement. More and more that’s a high risk strategy - these products might, literally, be on the shelves for a matter of weeks before being dropped.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.