Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oud: A Rare and Powerful Scent

Fragrance delivered through incense offers a glimpse of the invisible. It quiets the mind that insists on visual proof of what is being sensed and effortlessly calms. In releasing patterns of smoke, incense animates the soul of the ingredients being burned while moving the spirit of each person in its presence. If we can believe in things we cannot see, things we may only know as impressions, then the world in all its beauty and chaos is completely open to us. Anchored in the present we become eternal.

Of all the ingredients used as incense, none is as precious and revered as Oud wood. The story of Oud (also known as Agarwood or Aloeswood) is an interesting one. A fungus (Phialophora parasitica) infects the tree and the heartwood responds by creating an aromatic resin. Nature provides an interesting metaphor for managing life’s tribulations with the story of Oud. Consider the facts. Something foreign and dangerous attacks the tree. The tree responds from its heart and produces something more precious and powerful than the very thing that invades it. Imagine what the world would be like if each of us could respond to negative forces with such grace.

The Muslim world has embraced Oud as a sacred ingredient for thousands of years. Infected wood from trees of the Aquilaria family is burned over charcoal in a portable censor called a mabkhara and is wafted around one’s person to scent hair, skin and clothing. Worshippers who come to Mecca and Medina encounter the scent of burning Oud wood at the Great Mosque during Hajj and often return home with a souvenir of Oud wood chips from their pilgrimage. Oud is also ritually used to greet guests in the home, at wedding celebrations and in the home of a newborn child.

Essential oil of Oud is used to fragrance skin neat or in combination with other raw materials. There are superior grades of oil from naturally felled trees and lesser oils that are derived from trees purposefully infected with the fungus. Once a tree is infected it takes at least 10 years before the heartwood can be processed to extract Oud. A variety of Oud fragrances can be found in Dubai and other countries in the Arab world, where Oud is a fragrance category in addition to being a raw material. Unfortunately, Oud imposters also exist due to the exorbitant cost of the ingredient and the temptation to defraud unwitting customers.

Western noses have a difficult time embracing Oud as a facet of the bouquet is fecal and animalic. Imagine a windowless library lined with book shelves made of aged mahogany. A series of dusty leather books line the walls, covers half rotted, pages yellow with age, the room musty in the absence of sunlight. This off-putting facet of Oud can be further imagined as the scent Pip encountered in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations when he visited the embittered Miss Havisham in her room of decayed feasts, shrouded furniture and silenced clocks.

Moldering scent of decay aside, Oud wood possesses sweet, woody and balsamic qualities. These aspects are evident when you burn the material in a censor. A perfumer once told me that essential oil of Oud has the ability to make floral ingredients in a perfume bloom. I decided to test the figurative aspect of this statement to see just how literal it could be. I obtained certified Oud from Enfleurage in New York and conducted an experiment using a 10% dilution of the raw material.

I dipped one blotter in the Oud and another in Tabac Blond (Caron), keeping each blotter in a separate hand. I chose Tabac Blond for the experiment as ferreting florals in the Caron classic takes time as the dominant leatheric and tobacco effects override the floralcy in the fragrance. I slowly drew the Oud blotter towards the Tabac Blond until the space between the blotters measured an inch. What transpired was an unforgettable synesthetic moment; I saw a rose and smelled it as if it were present on a bush in front of me. The rose aroma didn’t dominate the overall fragrance impression of Tabac Blond; it made itself known among the perfume's other ingredients and seemed to add a quality of richness to the composition.

“Categorical” Oud fragrances are infusing the marketplace in the United States. Though the ingredient is becoming part of the fragrance connoisseur’s vernacular, it is often misunderstood and poorly explained by the companies who use it in their fragrances. Fragrances that utilize Oud (usually in synthetic form as there are issues with sustainability and cost) play up the luxurious and exotic aspects of the ingredient, as well as its alleged aphrodisiac properties.

Parfums Montale offers a series of Oud-inspired scents in their collection which perfectly illustrates Oud as a fragrance category. A new entry in the Oud family of perfumes is Le Labo's Oud 27 which will be released at the end of March. The juice possesses a spicy amber unctuousness that is not as complex in composition as Tom Ford Oud Wood, but it’s less derivative than some of the fragrances in Parfums Montale’s Aoud Collection. Glass Petal Smoke predicts that future Oud fragrances will strike more of a balance between the material’s animalic qualities and its ability to animate a bouquet.


Trygve Harris, the owner of Enfleurage, sources Oud from Laos and has been present at Oud distillations on site. The raw material is available in essential oil and wood chip form at her store. Limited amounts of Agarwood essential oil are available at $130 for a 2 ml bottle. Enfleurage is located at 237 West 13th Street,  New York, New York 10011. To call the store phone: 212-691-1610 / 888-387-0300. Enfleurage is open from 12-8, Monday thru Saturday and 12-6 on Sunday.

Photo of an antique Venetian perfume brazier in the form of a domed building comes from the Royal Academy of Arts. It is part of the Byzantium 330-1453 exhibition, which ends on March 22.

Aurora is an ethereal computer drawing by artist Eno Henze. Its ethereal appearance resembles smoke, flame and fabric all at once. Aurora is part of an ongoing series of works titled "The Human Factor".

Photo of Oud wood taken by Michelle Krell Kydd.