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.