Oud notes in perfume are very on trend. I trialed as many as my duty-free golden hour would allow last time I passed through London Gatwick. Miller Harris La Fumée Arabie, Jo Malone Velvet Rose & Oud and L’Occitane Oud & Rose all drew my attention. I used blotters so as not to carry the clinging oud notes with me in flight.
When oud goes this mainstream, does it lose its allure? It depends on how it is interpreted. Many perfumes I’ve trialed lately have done oud and gone oud without knowing oud, in my opinion.
To know oud is to live it in situ, in its homelands. I once spent five days working in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, well before the Arab spring swept North Africa. The (only five-star) hotel lobby was awash with oud as well-heeled Libyans and their business partners from across the Middle East came and went under the gaze of Gadaffi images. I was taken on a trip down memory lane to that weekend when a man glanced past me in London’s Regent Street this summer. Behind, he left a distinct, heavy oud sillage.
I have noticed over the years since coming face-to-nose with oud in that hotel and grand bazaar of Tripoli, that fragrances for the European market have upped the oud note strength when it does makes an appearance.
Even if it’s more in vogue now it still holds unfathomable, untapped depths, lending more than oud to the equation, depending on what it is pared with. I am using a white oud right now. My supplier describes it as having “notably salty, animalic undercurrent lending a seductive element as it mellows on the perfume strip”. Those are the exact qualities I am looking for. I marry it with sandalwood, guaiac wood, ylang ylang, bergamot, a hint of cumin, as well as vanilla and tobacco.
When I tried oud perfumes in less haste in a Covent Garden perfumery, the Italian sales assistant went on about finding oud just too masculine a note and dominating. She said it reminded her of downtown areas of Italian cities. Having walked around the back streets around various Italian railway stations as a student tourist, I kind of know what she meant. Oud notes can be a touch difficult to enjoy; edgy and unpredictable. Whether she meant oud spoke the smell of those areas or evoked the vibe, I didn’t ask.
Oud is rarer than gold dust and comes with a stratospheric price tag: apparently up to $5,000 a pound – or more, according to the International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences, and its oil as much as £20,000 per kilogram.
I love oud because it not only powers the longevity of perfumes, but also because it has a backstory that suits my perfume needs and is close to home; my adoptive home in the centre of the Mediterranean. Let me take you on my oud note perfume journey; part historic fact, part creative licence.
Oud Notes in History
I picture below Mustafa Pasha, Grand Vizier and Military Commander of the Saracen forces. His lasting, if ignominious claim to fame was defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683, which saw the Saracen’s last serious push to take Christian lands in Europe. Malta, my adoptive homeland, also saw its Great Siege 100 years earlier in 1565. Again, the campaign ended in defeat for the Saracens commanded by an unruly combination of Barbary Corsair Dragut in alliance with the Ottoman naval commander Sinan.
The history parallels are interesting too for the way these events resonate down the centuries. While European Christendom didn’t become annexed to the Ottoman Empire, the influence of the East was still deeply felt – and still is to this day – in eastern Europe and the eastern and central Mediterranean, and none more so than in fashion, foods and perfumes.
According to legend, when the Saracens retreated at Vienna, they left behind some bags of green beans – coffee beans – which became the catalyst for the Viennese coffee trade and the rise of its amazing coffee houses. The famed French croissant appeared only a long time after the Kipferl (crescent) pastry or Viennoiserie inspired by the Turkish delicacies became part of Viennese life. Similarly in Malta, coffee was adopted by the islands rulers the Knights of St John from their Saracen slaves and servants. At first viewed warily as a strange drink, but then accepted in upper echelons as the ‘in’ drink.
The Oud Road in Perfume
Just as coffee filtered in from the East, so too did perfumed pleasures of the Middle and Far East, probably taking a similar route from exotic = dangerous to exotic = pleasure and the height of fashion. Malta is about as central you can get in the Mediterranean, almost equidistant east-west and north-south. Its vast natural harbours – the Grand Harbour below its baroque capital Valletta has to be seen to be believed – saw busy trade for centuries at the epicentre of spice and silk routes from the East and from North Africa onwards to the swish streets of Europe’s capitals.
The intoxicating black magic of oud would no doubt have been in those cargoes, and have found its way to the inner chambers of the Knights of St John. Post the Great Siege, now feeling secure in their bastion island home, the Knights took to earthly pleasures of the flesh (much to the Papacy’s disdain). No expense was spared in embellishing their new grand city of Valletta and ensuring it was the envy of all Europe. What better place to air this latest fashion: the exotic, expensive and elite Oud?
Whether Oud took that route or not, I can’t swear by, but for sure, Malta today has elements that still exude the air of a Souk. Valletta’s back streets, while tarted up, give insights still of its heydays as a port of call. One little shop – and I mean weeny – is a spice shop where you can still buy loose, by weight. The Maltese word for market is ‘Is-Suq’, and the language’s origins lie partly in Phoenician and Arabic dialects spoken in ancient times in current-day Lebanon.
When I come across Oud note fragrances, I sense these connotations and the likely arrival of this strange treacly resin on the Maltese Islands. Oud is somehow near to me and not of faraway parts and climes. I like to think of the the rare Aquilaria tree or Agarwood’s resin or oil making its long and arduous route from south-east Asia by sea and overland via the Middle East and again by sea to Malta. A trip to the still derelict old warehouses and to that spice shop make me think of men of old passing me by, wafting drifts of heavy animalistic oud my way.
Oud Note Perfume Edit
I’ve listed here some other oud and oud-like mainstream perfumes you might like to try. Not all claim to have oud but work other resinonous and woody notes to evoke oud.
Aramis: Calligraphy Rose soft vanilla and rose notes
Atelier Cologne:Rose Anonyme soft, easy rose/oud
Clinique: Beyond Rose wearable, good oud strength, long lasting
Dior: Oud Ispahan strong oud, akin to Nishane’s
Dyptique: Oud Palao definitely wearable
Histories de Parfum: Rosam
Idolo: Thirty Three smooth oud, but deep
JHAG: Midnight Oud
Jo Malone: Velvet Rose & Oud
by Kilian: Amber Oud and/or Rose Oud
Francis Kurkdjian: several ouds, but try Satin Mood
Mona Di Orio: Oud Osmamthus soft oud and well balanced
Parfumerie Generale: Isparta a sticky rose to temper oud
Nicolai: Amber Oud and Rose Oud
Tom Ford: Oud Fleur softer oud
Vilhelm Parfumerie: SmokeShow soft leathery oud, rose and saffron and also try: The Oud Affair – ginger, honey, tobacco with oud.