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Don’t waste money on cheap oud fragrances

Even if you have no interest in perfumery, you may have noticed that many of the men who get into an elevator with you tend to smell the same.

It is not the smell that we have traditionally associated with after shaves and men’s fragrances, but something heavier and almost overpowering.

 

It is a smell that is sweet and woody but also, somewhat reminiscent of human or animistic secretions.

 

   If you have some interest in perfumery then you will already know that there are many schools of fragrance. The one that dominates the world is the French school which accounts for nearly every fragrance you will find in the average duty-free shop.

 

   But there is also an Indian school of fragrance. It depends on such ingredients as rose and sandalwood and creates sweeter and heavier fragrances than the French make. Fragrance has always been part of the Indian tradition but we often find ways of adding it to our lives in ways that do not depend on spraying liquid from bottles. Take, for instance, khus. Most of us have grown up with the smell but it has reached us in a different way. In some Indian homes, doors and windows are covered in the summer by rough, grassy curtains of khus. As it gets hotter, we spray water on to the curtains. As the water evaporates, it not only cools the room but also fragrances it with the aroma of khus.

 

   We like flowers, not just because they look pretty but because they add fragrance to our lives. A garland of mogra is as valued for its aroma as it is for its appearance.

 

   The Arab school of perfumery is less concerned with fresh flowers and relies more on dry ingredients. For as long as anyone can remember, Arabs have loved oud (or oudh, both spellings are used interchangeably).

 

   Oud is the fragrance you now smell on men in crowded lifts and it has spread out of Arabia to the rest of the world. And it has reached the modern Indian male bizarrely enough via Paris.

 

   Oud is associated with Arab perfumery but it comes from India and the Far East. It is derived from the agarwood tree but, for oud to develop, the tree has to be infected with a particular fungus. The techniques of extracting oud from the tree have been known to man for centuries and one theory has it that it was originally an Indian ingredient that travelled to the Middle East.

 

   Some people claim to have found references to Oud in the Vedas (it all comes down to how you translate and interpret each reference so let’s just say that this view is controversial) and it has been suggested that it is too much of a coincidence that both agarwood and our agarbatis are similarly named.

 

   What we do know for certain is that Assam is a major source of oud (the Oud king of Assam Badruddin Ajmal is now a significant politician in the state) and Oud fragrances turn up all over India. Many years ago, I shot an episode of Custom Made with a traditional perfumer in Hyderabad. The perfumer threw blocks of agarwood into a fire and scented the room with oud while making me a fragrance. “It is such a strong fragrance,” he told me, admiring his own work, “that even if you have a bath, the smell will stay.”

 

   And therein lies the problem. Much of Arab perfumery, and certainly the part that involves oud, is geared towards creating fragrances that last for very long. French perfumery, on the other hand, works on the assumption that you don’t want to wake up the next morning smelling as you did the night before. But in the Arab world, this is not undesirable and even in the old city of Hyderabad, the perfumer who made me my bespoke fragrance assured me that he had learnt the secrets of perfumery from Arab masters so that he could make fragrances that lasted for days.

 

"As the trend towards heavier fragrances caught on, a section of the global market fell in love with the new oud fragrances."

   Western perfumers have always known about oud but have stayed far away from it, regarding it as too strong for global tastes. Indian perfumery ingredients, on the other hand, have found much more favour. Sandalwood is the basis of many western fragrances and the French perfume industry has suffered since India banned the export of sandalwood. Jasmine and rose are often used in western perfumes though the great French perfumes tend to use a French jasmine (as in Chanel No. 5) or a Bulgarian rose.

 

   Oud finally broke through and became popular in the early years of this century because of a combination of circumstances. First of all, Arabs were buying lots of perfume and they wanted something they liked. Secondly, the big fragrance companies invented inexpensive synthetic molecules that effectively captured some of the aroma of oud.  And finally, the venerable French house of Yves Saint Laurent fell into the hands of a brash American, Tom Ford, who was willing to take risks.

 

   Ford launched M7, a fragrance that used synthetic oud in 2003 and marketed it by exploiting the olfactory resemblance between the smell of oud and the aroma of sex.

 

   It was a mass-market perfume and it failed in both the United States and Europe. But it showed that it could be done. And so, the French niche perfume houses began creating oud-based fragrances. It took a little time but these caught on so much that men’s fragrances, which had begun to smell like fresh laundry, suddenly took a different turn and became heavier and more aromatic.

 

   As the trend towards heavier fragrances caught on, a section of the global market fell in love with the new oud fragrances. They sold very well in the Middle East and North Africa (no surprises there) and in India but sales began dropping the nearer you got to Japan or China.

 

   Now, with the exception of the great prestige French houses (Chanel, Hermes, etc.) nearly every global perfume house has an oud fragrance in its line-up. It is not just niche houses either. Oud is mass-market and even mid to down-market.

 

   That’s why so many of the men you meet at parties or are stuck with in elevators tend to smell the same: They are wearing fragrances with synthetic oud molecules.

 

   My own views on oud have evolved over the years. I used to like it because it had a dirty edge to it. A good perfumer would balance the dirty notes with other cleaner ones and create something sexy and mysterious.

 

   Now, with the oud explosion, I find the vast majority of oud fragrances cheap and nasty. The emphasis is on strong smells and there is very little subtlety to the scent.

 

   Even in the Gulf, say Dubai, real oud is hard to find. Almost every shop that sells so-called oud oil uses synthetic materials. This is not necessarily a bad thing unless they charge for real oud (which can be expensive) while using inexpensive synthetics.

 

   If you want to experiment with oud, I would still recommend the original M7, which has stood the test of time and is a steady seller. You can find it at every duty-free store.

 

   Within the niche perfumery segment, there is now an Indian option. Maison Fouzdar is an Indian house that makes many successful fragrances, several of which are based on oud. The ones I tried were strong enough to gladden the most enthusiastic Indian male. They are expensively packaged (for gifting purposes, I guess) and are available at most good niche perfume stores.

 

   As for the larger question of whether you like oud, that is an individual decision. I find the warm mystery of the raw ingredient fascinating. My wife, on the other hand, loathes it.

 

   So be discriminating. Don’t waste money on cheap oud fragrances. But, if you find a skilled perfumer, then oud will share its dark mysteries.

 

 

Posted On: 10 May 2022 06:42 PM
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