It is considered to be the new patchouli. Black gold of perfumers, oud wood has found its place among noses initiated to its woody and smoky scent. If its origin goes back to the mists of time, the trend of integrating oud in compositions is rather recent. But who is really behind this rare and mysterious ingredient?
The story of a mystical wood
Oud wood is actually a very fragrant resin produced by certain types of trees of the aquilaria species, growing in the tropical forests of Asia. Known under various names such as Agarwood, Aloe Wood or Clay Wood, oud (its Arabic name) is secreted by the tree when it is attacked by a fungus called Phialophora parasitica. When the tree is healthy, it does not give off any smell. It is therefore from the reaction of the diseased wood that the coveted resin comes. Strange origin for a perfumed ingredient! Not as surprising as the origin of ambergris, whose story will surprise you too if you don’t know it yet!
Perfume of the Orient
Coming back to our precious wood, this very fragrant resin has been used for thousands of years for therapeutic, aesthetic but also spiritual purposes. The oud is present in the Indian Veda, some of the oldest texts of humanity, but also in the Bible. Buddhists burn its shavings to enter into meditation while traditional Asian medicine recommends it to treat stomach aches and other respiratory ailments. In the Muslim culture, oud appears as one of the fundamental ingredients of perfumery. And still today, its smell spreads throughout the Middle East. Its essence perfumes bath water, its shavings burned in the bakhour (natural incense composed of several odorous elements) to impregnate clothes and hair. Its essential oil is also used in mukhallat, these alcohol-free perfumed compositions, worn by men and women on a daily basis.
A rare essence
It is this precious resin that is recovered and then processed to be integrated into perfumes. While the aquilaria species counts about twenty trees, only two or three varieties of them can produce oud. Once infected, it takes about 6 months for the tree to secrete its fragrant remedy. Only one tree in a hundred produces oud, but since it is impossible to know which one, it is necessary to cut down many before finding the desired resin. Although these trees were growing in large numbers in the forests of Southeast Asia until a few years ago, they were quickly decimated. Today, these trees are protected in many countries, making oud an even rarer product. But to meet the growing demand, these trees are being cultivated. And it is from the hand of man that oud will be born, by inoculating the fungus directly to the trunk.
Oud & perfume
But what does the oud smell like?
Once distilled, the oud wood delivers an essence with a bewitching smell. The success of this material is due to its mysterious fragrance and its complex facets. It has woody, resinous and amber notes reminiscent of sandalwood, with an extra “something” that is difficult to define. This essence also reveals a darker, more animalic, almost sexual, raw side. It brings a lot of oriental warmth to a composition and reveals a tawny scented wake with notes of incense, very sensual. With oud, a fragrance will be adorned with beautiful amber reflections, as an invitation to travel…
Real Oud vs. olfactory mirage
Because of its rarity, oud wood essence has become an almost impossible ingredient to obtain. To buy real essence, you must work directly with Laotian or Burmese farmers and above all have the financial means to acquire this black gold. Sometimes more expensive than gold, its price oscillates depending on the variety between 15 000€ and 60 000€… the liter! The cost of the material is so high that its essence is mostly reproduced in the laboratory. So, if you buy a perfume composed of oud, there is a good chance that it does not contain a single drop!
To recreate its smell, perfumers combine several synthetic molecules with woody and amber scents with other natural essential oils. Nose can use patchouli, vetiver, incense and cypriol, a plant whose essence delivers a woody and smoky smell very aromatic. Without synthesis, the price of a perfume composed of oud wood essence would be unaffordable!
The use of oud in perfumery
This ingredient is difficult to handle as its nuances are complex and powerful. Its scent is so persistent that it has the particularity to cross the fragrance. Present from the top note to the bottom note, it ends up delivering a sensual wake. To bring subtlety to it, perfumers can add fresh and citrusy notes with mandarin or bergamot, but also floral nuances to bring more femininity. To reinforce its raw aspect, the nose can combine oud with leathery or animal notes, in the spirit of a full-bodied juice.
In order to adapt to the Western market, some say that oud has lost its power in order to soften, like musk which would have become “cleaner” over the years. But this increasingly popular facet could well become a hallmark of modern perfumery in a few decades. The author Denyse Beaulieu even speaks of a new genre “the French oriental” in which the oud would be the star ingredient. To be continued!
Did you know about oud, this mysterious perfume ingredient?
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