Among the thousand ingredients available in the perfumer’s organ, two stand out for their exceptional allure and complexity, as well as for their staggering price: iris and agarwood, simply known as oud. Deeply rooted in the fragrant raw materials craftsmanship, each of these ingredients epitomizes the Western and Eastern Art of Perfumery. Francesca Bianchi latest creation Encounters embraces both ends of the fragrant map, connecting them with golden silk roads of amber, starting a conversation that captivates the senses speaking of serene beauty and spiritual harmony. While iris is known to be a signature note close to Francesca’s heart, a symbol of her Tuscan roots, this is the first time oud makes appearance in the brand portfolio, and what a grand entrance!
What a better chance to dig more into this mystery wood worth its weight in gold through an historical overview from its origins to the most iconic perfumes that shaped nowadays perfumery.
Agarwood’s journey begins in the dense, torrid forests of Southeast Asia where large tropical evergreen trees called Aquilaria thrive. When infected with a specific type of mold, the heartwood of these trees undergoes a fascinating transformative process. In fact, this infection prompts the trees to produce a dark, aromatic resin as a natural defense mechanism, ultimately resulting after many years of aging in the formation of agarwood. That’s from this fermented skanky substance that oud is extracted via distillation, becoming the oil highly valued for its captivating scent. India, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia are the main Agarwood sourcing regions, and its influence on the culture of these countries is so deep to be one and the same.
In fact oud holds a significant place in religious and anthropological customs of various East Asian societies, being a sought-after material for incense fumigations, medicinal preparations, and perfumes.
In Eastern cultures, agarwood is sacred for it is often associated with religious rituals and ceremonies. It has been used in Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions for centuries to enhance meditation and spiritual practices, creating an atmosphere of tranquility and reverence. Referred as aloes in some translations, oud is mentioned in the Bible various times, starting from the oldest books where the sacred paraments of the highest priests are described as anointed this way “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad. Myrrh, aloes, and cassia perfume your robes.” [Psalms 45:8].
Also in Islamic traditions, oud holds a special place. In fact it is mentioned several times in the book called “The Hadith Collection Of Prophecies And Teachings” made by The Prophet Muhammad, and not only it is the scent The Prophet loved and used daily in rituals of Islam, but also a valuable remedy treatment for many diseases. Oud is an indispensable part of Cleansing ritual at Al-Haram – the holiest place on Earth for all Muslims – where Kaaba is. Kaaba is opened twice per year to perform the cleansing ritual. The most important part of the religious ceremony is when dignitaries use a white towel impregnated with perfume with rose, incense, oud and musk oil to clean the inner walls of Kaaba.
Oud is also a key ingredient in traditional medicine, particularly in Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine, and it is believed to possess therapeutic properties including anti-inflammatory and calming effects, thus oud infused ointments, balms, and powders have been used to treat a range of ailments.
The use of agarwood burnt as an incense, and as a coveted ingredient in the creation of perfumes dates back to ancient times. Agarwood’s ability to add depth and character to fragrances has made it the epitome of the Art of Perfumery in the East.
After the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who mentions precious odorants such as musk, spices and agarwood, the Silk Road played a crucial role in the spread of the latter in the medieval world. Traders carried tiny amounts of it (real, as well as counterfeit) along with other exotic goods, creating a demand for this fabled resin that spurred economic and cultural exchanges connecting the East to the West. The transition of oud from a ceremonial substance to a key player in perfumery was a gradual process that unfolded over centuries, with oud’s unique scent becoming the opulent signature of perfumery in Arabia Felix.
The smell of oud is a complex interplay of woody, balsamic, and animalic notes, often described as earthy, smoky, and slightly sweet. Depending on the provenience and aging, it might also unfold sharp green hues as well as red fruits hints and even a fermented cheesy creaminess. The aroma is chameleon, making it a dynamic and captivating element in fragrance compositions able to lend complexity, depth, and longevity to scents.
The request of this to-die-for ingredient has skyrocketed in the last decades, causing a menace for the Aquilaria trees forests survival. Fortunately, the increasing focus on sustainability of the perfume industry is witnessing a shift towards responsible sourcing of this ingredient. Efforts to protect and cultivate these precious resources have been pursued by major companies as well as by governments, making this an industry’s commitment.
The 21st century witnessed the rediscovery of oud in Western perfumery, starting with French perfumers Alberto Morillas and Jacques Cavallier who concocted the groundbreaking M7 for Yves Saint Laurent under the creative direction of Tom Ford. Promoted by a provocative full frontal nude photography of rubgy player Samuel de Cubber and featuring a bold herbal oud core, in 2002 the fragrance definitely brought this raw material under the spotlight.
Be it derived from natural or artificial sources, oud quickly flooded the shelves of luxury malls with creations from a few avantgarde brands. Right after M7, it was Pierre Montale who established his eponimous like around the oud note. Sleek functional aluminum flasks, strong olfactory signature, and a flagship store in Place Vendome, Paris, made Montale the first niche brand appealing to both Middle Eastern and European customers. Montale Black Aoud (2006) set an early standard for heavy oud and rose combo in perfumery.
Tom Ford did it again, continuing his exploration of oud with the release of Oud Wood in 2007 that dips the precious material in spiced sweet amber. Oud Ispahan as part of the Maison Christian Dior Collection Privée and Armani Privé’s Oud Royal came right after, while niche brands embraced oud as a trend su much that Maison Francis Kurkdjian dedicated non less than a mini collection to oud. “Oud was something that was ignored for many years by perfumers, but now I think it is part of the palette,” said Francis Kurkdjian. “There is a sensuality in it that we used to have with animalic notes like ambergris”. His top seller Oud Satin Mood dresses the primal charm of oud smearing it with rose confections and feathery iris powder.
In recent years, oud has become a staple in the repertoire of many perfume brands, both niche and mainstream, and its peculiar pairing with sweet amber even entered functional perfumery making it ubiquitous. Its versatility is showcased in a wide range of masculine as well as unisex fragrances, from intense and smoky compositions like Gucci Intense Oud (2016) to spiced, leathery ones like Acqua di Parma Oud (2019), and even more classic moods like the neo-fougère Creed Royal Oud and fruity-floral interpretations like Xerjoff Alexandria II.
Oud, with its deep roots in ancient traditions, continues to captivate and inspire perfumers and fragrance enthusiasts alike. From its origins in the sacred rituals of ancient civilizations to its modern-day prominence in the world of perfumery, oud’s journey is a testament to its enduring allure that passed from cool trend to classic ingredient in the perfumer’s gamut, always standing as a symbol of opulence and mystique.
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