It's been used in Arabian perfume for centuries and appeals to the Middle Eastern preference for strong, rich scents made from high quality natural ingredients. It's only in the past few years that it appeared as a new, trendy note in Western perfumery, intially in niche perfumery.
As such, it was very much embraced by hipsters alongside joke beards (thankfully we seem to have to reach peak-beard some time ago, though oud survives!) and it's true to say that oud gets a bit of bad press in perfumista circles for this reason. Once marketing teams decide it's a trend there's no stopping its ubiquity. I'm kind of surprised not to see it sprinkled in cocktails or salads, like pomegranate seeds.
Nonetheless it was and is a welcome change from fruity, sweet patchouli style perfumes, which I'm far from alone in loathing. Most oud in contemporary western perfume is synthetic, since the authentic stuff is so rare, difficult to make and therefore expensive. Similarly to ambergris, oud varies in quality and effect due to an ageing process. In perfume it's quite difficult (for me anyway) to tell if it's the real thing, I've only tried one or two Arabian perfumes with a touch of oud, and in my far from expert opinion, I'd suggest the real thing is more challenging, the synthetic versions seem softer-edged and seem to have added synthetic woody musk of some description.
If you're into perfume you don't need a description of how oud smells; it's very distinct. From the Arabian oils I've tried I'd describe it in its authentic form as initially sharp, tarry, medicinal, sour, very dry, astringent and smoked in effect. The medicinal quality has been described by some as smelling like old-fashioned cloth plasters, which is pretty accurate - imagine a woody germolene scent or a touch of TCP left on aged wood and that's quite close.
It sounds unpleasant, but what it seems to do is refresh the nose; the foody equivalent might be a touch of mustard. I can definitely see why it's enjoyed in the Middle East - the dry quality is astringent and the effect in hot weather would be refreshing in an entirely different way from, say, a citrus scent. Perhaps more lasting. For example (to use another food and drink comparison) you can see why green tea is enjoyed in hot countries- the tannin astringency is more refreshing than a sticky, sweet drink could be. Citrus is cooling in effect, yet it does have a slight sweetness.
I think the other advantage of oud might be that it blends so beautifully with those classic notes of Arabian perfume, such as strong rose, aber and woody resins, which is why most oud-based perfume whether Arabian or Western, usually pairs rose and oud. Personally I love the combination. It lends a little dirt and depth to rose, yet unlike patchouli (often paired with rose) it's not cloying or heavy due to its dryness and the smoke-like effect. Add incense notes to this and it creates yet another harmonious facet.
For the purposes of this blog, I've dabbed a few samples on my arms and wrists (I also tried on a couple of new ones on my travels today when I dropped into a perfume department) so here are a few below (in order of least to most liked!) ...
Another Oud by Juliette Has a Gun
Hmm, another frutichouli with oud, more like! The combination of synthetic ice-cream sundae raspberry and austere oud is utterly wrong, though humorous in a way - evoking the soberly robed Muezzin of a Mosque being accosted by a lap-dancer wearing a pink vinyl bikini. Possible in this day and age, but just wrong!
Rose d'Arabie, by Armani Privé
Very nice - oud warmed with amber, vanilla and damascus rose, but it's far too light and fleeting for this price. If I had money to recklessly throw away, I'd buy this as a daytime oud/rose.
Oud Cashmere Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Much as I love others from MFK's oud series, this appealed the least to me, probably because it's a more masculine, harsh take on oud with a hefty dose of labdanum (a resin from the rock rose plant). I find labdanum quite goaty and sweaty, so it really depends on what it's paired with. In this case I find the combination of oud and labdanum too dirty and animalic -a bit like something left to dry on the bottom of a shoe, I'm sorry to say. For others though (and I think men more likely) this dirty aspect may have a pleasingly satanic beastiness to it.
The real deal, therefore a slightly more challenging perfume. I dab it on every so often just for that odd perfume hit which I think of as the equivalent to enjoying mustard! This is definitely medicinal at first, but into dry-down it becomes more and more like the lingering incense scent you'd expect to find on the clothing of someone who works in a Bazaar. The rose is powerful, quite clean and hard edged, the oud almost chlorine-like, but there's underlying amber and sandalwood, so that into drydown the effect is like rose-scented treacle (though not as sweet) quite more-ish. The name refers of course to the journey to Mecca and the black cube-shaped building at the centre of Islam's most sacred mosque, so the perfume is correspondingly challenging, yet rewarding in the end.
Oud Velvet Mood, by Maison Francis Kurkdjian.
If you can imagine a velvety/dusty tarry effect, I think that describes the texture and scent of this perfume quite well. Dusted with saffron and cinnamon, the effect is warm and pleasing, though the tarriness of oud remains throughout. As someone who likes leather scents (which often use birch tar notes for the leather effect) I enjoy this, but I wouldn't describe it as feminine or elegant. It's more of an outdoorsy effect, which is lovely in its way.
Arabian Nights by Jesus Del Pozo
I really enjoyed this perfume from the sample I was gifted a while back by a generous member of
To me, this has exactly the right blend of that oud-y smoky astringent/dry bite alongside a beautiful rich, sweet rose and hazy musks, to make this elegant, intriguing and mysterious. It's very distinct and I'd say ideal for evening, especially when wearing something either ethnic and silky, or black with a contemporary, arty cut. It's stylish and unusual. Other notes include papyrus grass and chamomile and while I can't say I identify these notes alongside oud and rose, there is a haziness and dry quality that's really lovely.
Lastly my favourite so far, Santal Royale by Guerlain, combining the usual suspects - rose, sandalwood, a hint of cinnamon, leather and of course oud, but also jasmine, neroli and peach. The last three alongside sandalwood are maybe what gives this a softer edge, not so challenging, with the oud adding a small bite but not taking over. It's very soft, very unisex and perfect for cooler weather.