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6 - Oudh and why I'm not bothering

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The perfumery materials I use - 6 - oudh

Oudh is Arabic for stick. That can lead to some confusion; also there’s a musical instrument called the oudh; it looks a bit like a lute, or a big mandolin.

In the world of perfume oudh or oud – and a few other spellings – refers to the extraordinarily smelly oil from a particular wood. It occurs in several species of agar tree (Aquilaria) when they are attacked by a fungus Phaeoacremonium parasitica that turns the wood dark and stinky.

What’s it like?

Rich, deep, dark, dirty. A little gives a perfume a mystical sensuous feel. A bit too much and it smells as if you’ve accidentally strayed into the stables at mucking out time.

With all the recent hype, you’d think it had been invented when Tom Ford first put it into an exclusive fragrance a couple of years ago, but it’s been around in the Far and Middle East for centuries. Now, the price is rocketing as every perfumer and his auntie is being asked to do an oudh variation. It’s very popular in the Middle East; people will pay thousands for the finest raw materials and hundreds for a bottle of extrait with oudh in the title. Or noir, or black or dark – all implying that there’s oudh in there somewhere, Of which more later.

 Earlier this year I was at a niche perfume trade show in Milan, and at every second stand we were smacked in the nose by another oudh perfume. It’s everywhere, and I’m not that bothered about adding to the proliferation. In 30 years time oudh will be what this year's babies are calling grandad scents.

In 2011 I was in Dubai and visited the oudh market. After a great deal of banter I got to smell some.

 “You don’t want oudh, you want a beautiful rose for a beautiful gazelle.” (Produces a cut glass pink bottle.)

“Give me oudh.”

“Western ladies don’t like oudh. Here’s a beautiful jasmine.” (A white velvet box with a sparkly multicoloured decoration.)

“Please let me smell the oudh.”

“Oh but a beautiful orange flower!”

“SHOW ME THE OUDH!”

And finally I got some. I bought a tiny bottle, 10ml of oudh oil in a cheap glass bottle for more money than I care to say out loud. And I do use it in The Lion Cupboard. Each litre of perfume has a tiny amount of oudh, a drop. The Lion Cupboard is not an oudh perfume. I don’t want it to smell of oudh, and I don’t want anyone to notice it when they wear it. For me, one drop gave it richness and that was the difference I was looking for at the time.

I’m not planning to make an oudh perfume, mostly because that’s what everyone else is doing. Call me incorrigible, but I’m not that interested in following perfume fashion. If someone asks me to make one for them because it reminds them of a wonderful evening out at the soukh, watching the moon reflect on the harbour... Well then, I’ll consider it.

There’s another thing.

There are more oudh perfumes than there is oudh to fill the bottles. Most oudh fragrances - like most rose, jasmine, sandalwood or orange blossom – are made with excellent synthetic recreations. That’s not really a problem for most perfumers, except that a lot of the recreations are sold as the real thing at prices to match.

Here at our tiny 4160Tuesdays workshop, I don’t have the technical machinery for the necessary analysis. Genuine oudh is very expensive, so there are people hiding away, skilfully blending together oils that smell really just like it, labelling it as real and charging extortionate prices. As soon as a product can command big profits, you’re going to get counterfeits.

The same thing is happening with sandalwood. The oil from Mysore in India used to be the best. So now, alternative sandalwoods being imported into India, mixed with some beautiful synthetics to make it smell like the proper lovely Mysore stuff, labelled as the real thing and sold for bucket loads of cash. I’m happy to buy Australian sandalwood and blend it with synthetics myself to get the richness I want, recalling the scent of some sandalwood beads I got in the 80s before the industry imploded.

And if I want to buy an oudh perfume, I hop along to a shop in Shepherd’s Bush that’s never had sight of an EU cosmetics safety certificate and pick them up for £15 a go. So shoot me. Not planning to put it on my skin any time soon though.

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