The Fragrant One
Oud is an exotic scent whose invisible allure makes you irresistible, reveals Paddy Renouf
By Paddy Renouf
July 25 2019
The concierge of a grand London hotel recently rang me to request entertainment for a Qatari family who were staying in town for a few days. I relished the challenge and was invited to have tea with them and offer my suggestions. I arrived to be met by a very shy, endearing young man called Mohamed. He explained that “His Excellency” was reluctant to leave the suite. (His Excellency was his father.)
Therefore none of his eight brothers and cousins could leave either. They had been stuck indoors for three days.“So, if I think of an experience to inspire his Excellency to leave his suite for a few hours, that would work for you all?” I asked. “If you do, you will be my brother,” he deadpanned.
We ran through various options: A delightful exhibition or architecture tour? Tea in a world-class artist’s studio? Learning about handmade tailoring on Savile Row? Marvelling at the exquisite craftsmanship of the best shotguns in the world at James Purdey & Sons? I was met with a blank stare.“I know!” Mohamed exclaimed with glee. “Do you know about oud? It’s an exotic fragrance that comes from the agarwood tree. It makes some people calm and serene, but others ecstatic.”Agarwood grows in Cambodia, India, Thailand, and Vietnam, and the oil produced by distilling the resin is the essence for the most desired and expensive perfumes in the world. In the Middle East, oud has been coveted for more than 2,000 years. “It costs up to $100,000 per kilo,” Mohamed told me. “My father has about 10 kilos.”
Mohamed had seen a documentary about an agarwood collection in London. “If you could find it, it would be perfect to get us out of the suite,” he said. Discreet enquiries led me to the research laboratories at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where a charming gentleman of letters agreed we could visit the very next day.
To my eyes, Kew’s jars of agarwood looked and felt like petrified lumps of kindling. We gently scratched the brick-hard surface to release the scent. The aroma was faint, but enchanting.
Before we left, His Excellency asked how much Kew wanted for the lot, but of course it was not for sale.
That evening I mentioned our visit to a lady friend, and the next day she kindly presented me with a bottle of Oud Wood by Tom Ford. As we parted, I sprayed it over us. Strong and musky, it was animalistic in its sensuality.
Afterwards I went to The Donovan Bar at Browns Hotel for a few Negronis with a friend. I was telling him all about oud when a sweet Chinese lady standing at the bar came over to our table. She introduced herself and said, “I just love your style. When you came into the room, there was a special fragrance and atmosphere.” Then, more coyly, “May I give you a hug?” And with that I received a warm embrace.
My friend’s face was a picture. Then her friend came along and asked, “Can I have a hug too?” Now, I know I’m good, but I’m not that good. Once he’d picked up his jaw from the floor, my friend requested a spritz of oud for himself and, shortly afterwards, a lady celebrating her 85th birthday pronounced him to be beautiful. It was like rubbing the genie’s lamp. I scanned the room for a hidden camera – was the concierge having a laugh?
The attention was magical, so, ever since that day, I’ve paused in the fragrance hall at Selfridges; sniffed vials in Fortnum’s; and sprayed the room in perfumer Roja Dove’s boutique in Burlington Arcade.
Sometimes called black or liquid gold, oud essence is so rare that it costs more per gram than gold. It is not weighed in millilitres, like most oils, but in tolas – the standard measure for gold and silver used in British India.
The Aquilaria tree, which produces the aromatic dark-wood resin (the agarwood) when it is infected by mould or fungus, is now an endangered species, owing to illegal felling. One cannot tell by looking at it whether the Aquilaria has the agarwood virus, which affects only seven per cent of the trees. It needs to be felled to discover its precious element, and of the 17 species of Aquilaria, only a few have the best and most potent properties, which can drive prices sky high.
Producing genuine oud essence is a labour-intensive process that involves harvesting this ‘wood of the Gods’ by hand, cutting it into small pieces, and drying for 24 hours to evaporate 40 per cent of the moisture. It is then ground into powder and stored in barrels from a few weeks to several months, to regional tastes. For example, Kuwaitis like a light, fragrant, subtle aroma; the Saudis prefer a deeper, richer, longerlasting effect. The region favours pure oud oil to avoid wearing alcohol.
First mentioned in one of the world’s oldest written texts – the Sanskrit Vedas – oud had great cultural and religious significance in ancient civilisations for its intoxicating, deep woody aroma that wraps itself around you. It was also renowned for its medicinal qualities, for burning raw oud-wood chips elevates the soul and calms the heart like no incense can.
Today, thanks to the high demand for oud oil and protection from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, farmers are planting and preserving Aqualiria trees. There is now technology to produce agarwood by innoculating the mould, so that 100 per cent of the plantation is productive.
Sustainable forestry has developed in Asia, notably in Malaysia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, where large corporations are replanting the species and helping local villages with schools and jobs. The location, the land and the forest are as important as terroir for wines.
Today, oud is the base note in many fragrances, yet it is still the most expensive perfume ingredient. As well as Tom Ford, Christian Dior and Gucci have all launched oud-based perfumes.
A few days after my Kew Gardens adventure, I had lunch at White’s with a legendary restaurateur and a Hollywood actor. I shared my tale of oud, including my experience at Browns Hotel. At the end of lunch the actor leant in, looked me in the eye and asked, “Hey, how far is Fortnum’s?” Two days later in the Burlington Arcade, I met the restaurateur carrying an elegant bag of oud. We turned the corner onto Piccadilly and bumped into the actor and his family. He too was holding elegantly wrapped bags of oud. His wife thanked me for helping him find a scent that he liked. We men looked east and west, north and south, keeping our naughty secret. If only this magazine had scratch and sniff…