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Why Oud Is the Ultimate Holiday Scent
Experts break down one of the richest and most intense fragrance notes.
When you want a deep, luxurious fragrance experience, you turn to an oud. But this intoxicating wood scent is more than just a lovely aroma — it’s a cultural staple for many.
“I always say that in perfumery, complex scents have a complex story,” says Givaudan perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux. “Perfumery is a lot of nuance about cultural reference, and oud is basically a scent of culture.”
Steeped in history, oud has existed for centuries and has been a mainstay in Asian and Middle Eastern markets. It’s used in perfumery, but it is also integrated into many spiritual practices such as burning incense. But the west is just catching on.
“Oud has been recognized in the western markets as a new warm and woody note that adds depth to a fragrance,” says Frank Voelkl, principal perfumer at fragrance company Firmenich. “[It] is so unique in its character and not as recognizable to all consumers that the use of it in formulations can provide an air of mystery to a fragrance making it intriguing and particularly attractive for consumers.”
So why is this rich wood note having such a renaissance as of late in the west? What makes it everyone’s go-to when the temperatures start to drop? And what is next for oud in 2023 and beyond? To see what exactly makes this fragrance note so special, both Flores-Roux and Voelkl break down what it is, how it’s harvested, and where oud is going.
Oud is a rare — and expensive — fragrance note
Oud is a raw material. According to Voelkl, it is a “prized ingredient” that is extracted from one of the rarest and most expensive woods: the Agar (Aquilaria) tree. A rich and warm wood note, he says it is the epitome of luxury and extremely coveted.
“Oud is a note that adds a unique woody warmth to a fragrance with a slight leathery and animalic aspect,” he says. “When featured in a fragrance can add significant depth and sensuality.”
To harvest oud is a complicated and long process
The main reason why it's expensive is because of the complicated way it's harvested. Flores-Roux explains that when an Agar tree gets sick, which is usually caused by fungi in the inner part of its trunk, it begins to release a very rich and strong smelling essence. You then strip and distill the infected bark after it has fallen and that becomes the oud oil.
“I like to compare it to when a very small [particle] gets inside an oyster, which has a very soft body, and then the oyster produces material in order to cover the grain of sand and that produces a pearl. It’s like a secretion is happening in order to protect the body [of the oyster] from something harmful. This is more or less the same principle with the essential oil of oud,” he says. “Oud is basically an oily medium that lubricates and protects the sickened tissue of the tree.”
The process is a long one. For a tree to be considered a true Agar trea, Voelkl says it needs to be at least 25-years-old. Plus, Flores-Roux adds that the tree must be infected to produce oud. A perfectly healthy and young Aquilaria tree, he says, will not have the scent present.
It’s the quintessential winter fragrance — but only in the west.
At least in western consciousness, ouds make for the go-to fragrance for many during the colder months. “Oud notes add depth to the back of a fragrance and it is one of the most long-lasting ingredients we use in our palette, so it really increases longevity when worn, “ says Voelkl. “That said, I believe that in western markets, the long-lasting warm feeling it evokes makes it an attractive scent for consumers to wear in colder weather; feeling warm on the skin is the kind of comfort we all seek during the holiday season.”
"Because it's darker, heavier, warmer, a little bit sweeter, a little bit more ominous, [and] more nocturnal, if you will, those things connect more to the weather that is colder," adds Flores-Roux.
But in other parts of the world, an oud is popular for different reasons. Voelkl notes that ouds are huge in the Middle East, where the weather is very warm. Here, people turn to ouds for intensity and sensuality. That said, Flores-Roux recommends using fragrances whenever you want to rather than sticking to traditional pairings, such as warm woods for fall and citrus florals for spring. “I love breaking the [seasonal fragrance] rule,” he says. “I recommend [breaking] it.”
The future of oud is all about evolution.
What will become of traditional oud is a bit uncertain. Voelkl explains that the low yield of oud through the traditional extraction process has caused some to begin provoking infection onto the trees so that they can be cut and distilled for oud oil. This has all led to the Agar trees becoming incredibly scarce and raising the price of production.
But that doesn’t mean that traditional oud is going away completely; there are ways to harvest the natural oud in a more sustainable way. Voelkl says that Firmenich is working to sustainably extract oud oil without destroying trees. “This incredible family business [that Firmenich has partnered with] manages over 600,000 Aquilaria trees (hundreds of which are over 80-years-old), along with planting a significant number of trees ranging from five to 50-years-old.”
“The perfume industry has actually achieved, quite well, [a way] to cultivate the tree and then, through a very complicated process, inoculate the fungic tissue (the infection agent) in order to infect the tree and [have] the tree produce the scar tissue that will exude the essential oil,” Flores-Roux adds. He also says that they are constantly growing new trees.
There are even ways to replicate the scent or expand on the original wild ingredient to give consumers many different interpretations of it. He points to 1970s men’s fragrance Yagatan by Caron as the first entry of an oud impression. “[Caron] made a very interesting composition that is very wooly and sensual; it’s a little bit enamelic and a little bit leathery,” he says. “It had also kind of a texture of raw wool.” Made with notes of pine, lavender, patchouli, incense, and musk, Yagatan, he says, has been considered very similar to oud by Middle Eastern clientele. (Though, whether Caron intended Yagatan to be an oud dupe or not is unknown).
Flores-Roux also calls out Tom Ford’s first fragrance for Yves Saint Laurent, M7, as the western’s market first real introduction to oud as a scent. Though it doesn’t contain the essential oil of oud, Flores-Roux says that this oud-inspired fragrance helped opened up oud as the fragrance category that we know today.
“Oud has become a category of perfume that replicates a very specific mixture that is Middle-Eastern driven, but still universal,” he says. “These elements [to what makes a modern interpretation of an oud fragrance today] are very rich, with notes of amber and patchouli and in many cases, accompanied with top notes of rose and spices (in particular saffron). That’s more or less now what the oud category has become and is.”
Fragrance in general is always evolving. And while oud has been the main focus in ingredient lists since its inception, Flores-Roux says that the possibilities of how to incorporate it in the background while another note takes center stage is something that has yet to be explored. He personally would be interested in seeing oud as a supporting note to an unconventional match that he hasn’t seen paired with oud before, such as citrus and marine.
But regardless of where fragrance trends will go, this rich ingredient is most likely going to be a mainstay in perfumes to come.
After all, “Oud is here to stay,” he says.
Our Favorite Oud Fragrances
This woody floral contains a touch of oud and patchouli mixed with warm sandalwood, amber, Damascus rose for a sweet spicy scent perfect for cozy weather.
Photo by David Castillo (@espacioveintiuno)