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The Return of an Enigmatic Old World Fragrance

By Kari Molvar

 
Oud Perfumes

Clockwise from top left: D.S. & Durga Notorious Oud, Maison d’Etto Canaan, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle: The Night By Dominique Ropion, Acqua di Parma Oud Eau de Parfum, Serge Lutens La Couche du Diable, Behnaz Pure Oud (sold in a set as Behnaz Fragrance Flight II). (Credit: Photo by Marie Maeda and Yuji Oboshi. Market editor: Caitie Kelly)

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The French perfumer Dominique Ropion has researched thousands of ingredients during his 30-year career. But one in particular continues to beguile him: oud. “Unlike other ingredients, like rose, we still don’t fully understand its constituents,” he says. “It’s spicy, woody, ambery and animalistic — all at the same time.” The Paris-based perfumer Francis Kurkdjian agrees, saying that when it comes to oud, “it’s a wild beast to be tamed.”

Indeed, oud is not a pretty plant at all, but a sticky resin exuded by the agarwood tree to protect itself from mould; it is a strangely wonderful-smelling antifungal. While agarwood is native to Southeast Asia, oud is particularly prized in the Middle East — from Saudi Arabia to Yemen — where, according to Robert Klanten, co-editor of the book “The Essence: Discovering the World of Scent, Perfume & Fragrance,” oud incense is often burned at home to welcome guests and in religious rituals, including Islamic purification.

Now perfumers are putting a modern spin on the rare Old World ingredient, creating fragrances that depart from the traditional, spice-heavy blends in fresh, even startling, ways. Acqua di Parma’s Oud (US$270, approximately S$364), for example, combines oud with zesty bergamot, D.S. & Durga’s Notorious Oud (US$175, approximately S$235) mixes in North African papyrus, and Maison d’Etto’s Canaan (US$300, approximately S$404) injects green neroli and tuberose.

Others let oud, often referred to as “liquid gold,” stand on its own. At US$1,300 (approximately S$1,750) per ounce, oud is “the most expensive oil in perfumery,” says the American perfumer Mandy Aftel. That didn’t stop Ropion from adding a lot of it, and little else, to The Night (US$960, approximately S$1,292), the scent he created for Frédéric Malle. Or consider Behnaz Sarafpour’s undiluted Pure Oud oil (US$165, approximately S$222, as part of a set), which is derived from sustainably harvested, replanted agarwood trees certified by Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The steam-distilled oil can be layered with other fragrances or simply worn solo.

More traditional blends still exist, of course. Serge Lutens’s La Couche du Diable (US$230, approximately S$310) is reminiscent of a smouldering stick of amber incense, and is not for the meek. But regardless of how it’s blended, says Ropion, oud eventually settles on the skin with a subdued, mysterious trail. He is so enamoured with the oil that, unlike some perfumers who don’t wear scent, he will mist on his own blend. “It’s not bad,” he says modestly.