There are several kinds of agarwood which, when infected with the parasitic mould (Phaeoacremonium parasitica), can produce one of those perfumery’s perversions – something heavenly out of something unfortunate (see, also: whale excrement; natural musk).
Alas. You can already see this ingredient isn’t going to be easy to mass-produce, no matter how much we’d like to. Trees take a long time to grow. Infected heartwood from a specific subset of trees – which then has to be cut down to be processed into oil (so no more tree; no repeat harvest like with oranges or roses) – it doesn’t bode well for price and availability. Oud oil is one of the most expensive perfumery raw materials still in use today. Which is why the majority of oud scents on the market are interpretations of the theme with a little bit of real oud in them or no oud in them at all. Sometimes another material called nagarmotha or cypriol (Cyperus scariosus) is used in oud accords. All kinds of other naturals can help tremendously – a bit of patchouli; other woods. Often oud accords are made with the help of synthetic materials – various animalic, amber and woody notes, and the results can be beautiful. And, as with all perfumery – these fragrances range from the tragic to the sublime. We get everything from the Milli Vanilli of oud to actual oud.
Real oud oil comes in a few varieties, too. There are at least a couple which have strong animalic notes and at least one which has a strong whiff of camel undercarriage dipped in gorgonzola. That oud variety is very difficult to mimic in the lab without the real thing. I’ve tried. It also doesn’t usually appeal to Western noses.
Oud as a word has been a big marketing hit for a while now. I’ve spoken to several indie perfumers who claim to have started the trend. You know something is truly popular when everyone claims credit. And you know a trend is meant to be over when it has trickled down to deodorants and fabric conditioner. We’ve had absolutely everyone and their mum jumping on the bandwagon. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’ve smelled a fragrance which was a cringeworthy combination of a Barbie-pink fruity-floral with a bit of fake oud thrown in, pushed to me on a scent strip at a posh London department store by a sales assistant whose demeanour was a cry for help: “I don’t like it either!” I’ve smelled an impressively authentic cheesy-animalic oud scent in an equally posh London department store. The fragrance felt serious, expensive, well-made and completely unwearable, bar to a highly niche group of connoisseurs.
As a consumer I don’t really care if an oud fragrance has real oud in it, but I do want the fragrance to hang together. I don’t like the idea of bandwagon-jumping, so the transparent attempts at throwing oud in just to be ‘on trend’ make me sigh. As do the scents which feature oud in the name and haven’t really managed to create an oud impression at all. On the other hand, I don’t find the ultra-authentic oud scents my cup of tea either (even though I like the smell experience itself – as an experience – just not on my skin. But I also like to smell new glossy magazines and the tar of old railway tracks and I don’t want those as a perfume either).
Something has happened to the way Western noses are calibrated towards the oud accord, though. The other day I spoke to my hairdresser about the kinds of perfumes she buys and was completely shocked to find that she buys Arabian Oud. I had her down as a happy-go-lucky celeb fragrance wearer (nothing wrong with that, by the way). My jaw dropped. What did I like to smell of when I was 21 years old? Coco Chanel. Not of camels. But here we are.
So when I was invited to meet the people behind a new brand Amouroud, I was a little concerned. Uh-oh. Aren’t they a little… late to this trend? Is this going to be a really cynical attempt to cash in? Are those glossy-looking black bottles going to cost £250? Are they going to have even a hint of oud in them?
Perfumer’s Workshop International was founded in States in the early 70s and has been creating highly commercial and successful fragrance concepts ever since. They were the first to think of bringing custom fragrance blending to department stores (long before Aveda and others had a go) and they were talking to Arabs about oud fragrances at their Selfridges perfume counter back in the 80s when virtually no other fragrance marketer in the West had heard of it.
I met the co-founder Donald G. Bauchner along with his team William Skinner and Denis Roubinet in London last week to talk about Amouroud. It’s always interesting to talk with real industry veterans and I was open to be convinced.
Trying my best to ignore all the official marketing and focus just on their own words and the scents themselves, piece-by-piece, note-by-note, the concept opened up to me. These guys have watched the oud trend be handled by others in the variety of inconsistent ways we’ve seen – and spotted an opportunity to do something better.
Has it worked?
The concept is this – use oud as an amplifier to add intrigue to other fragrance themes. Blend the notes in such a way that oud is not what jumps out, but it does something to all the other materials in the scent; something good, hopefully.
One could say that where Jo Malone scents are for people who want an elegant fragrance but find typical perfumes too heavy, the Amouroud range is for people who wish their designer perfumes had a bit more depth and interest. Amouroud is also attempting to sew together everything that is good about the oud trend and make it accessible. Those glossy black 100ml bottles? £140. For a luxury niche brand, that’s a jaw-droppingly good price. Consider that the current UK best-seller Paco Rabanne 1 Million Eau de Toilette for men retails at the equivalent of £69 for 100ml and we’re talking about a mass-market EdT strength designer fragrance. For that price point alone; that lack of cynical cashing in on ‘niche pricing’ this brand deserves some attention. They have done everything with care – worked with some fine perfumers (Cecile Hua, Patricia Choux, John Mastracola, Claude Dir and Irina Burlakova), packaged everything in beautiful bottles and cartons and have not rushed to be the first on the oud train but watched and learned from other people’s mistakes and chosen to do things their own way. I suppose in this they’re not the innovators, but the potential success story – not the Myspace and LiveJournal, but maybe the Twitter and Facebook. Remains to be seen.
Their sales technique is designed to show off the drydown – a good approach when you’ve invested money in your base notes and the main theme of your collection rests there. You are given a scent strip which was sprayed yesterday and has been kept sealed in a glass jar. So you skip to the end where the oud accord is on full display, but remnants of the main theme are still lingering. I enjoyed testing the scents I had samples of fresh, too – the comparison gave a full picture. I do think the top note and heart are an important part of the experience as well.
The packaging is perfect for the concept. The boxes are heavy card with a metal label affixed to the front (great attention to detail) and the bottles are heavy black glass with a metal label. When you purchase a 100ml bottle, you are given a travel spray of your second most favourite fragrance as a gift. How very cheeky of them to marry you to one scent and immediately enable a love affair with another.
So what about the scents?
Say Harrison Ford was playing an incredibly wealthy Russian businessman walking past the Harrods tobacconist eating pear drops while wearing a classic woody masculine fragrance – that scene would smell of Safran Rare. This scent is old-fashioned in the best possible way. It’s a little bit showy but not trashy. It absolutely does have that luxe Harrods oud fragrance signature that one would assume from the look of this brand – perhaps more than any other in the line. But it still manages to have lightness, space and a degree of playfulness that is not what one would expect. Every one of these scents has an American twinkle in the eye.
Oud du Jour – a modern raspberry-apple fruity-floral meets oud – and is done well. What could be a mismatch is actually a seductive tango. It’s like watching a film where an older actor is paired with an actress 20 years younger and you fear they won’t be plausible as a romantic couple but instead the chemistry sizzles on screen and later you find out they had a real off-screen romance. I can’t decide if the name is meant to feel a little playful in your mouth when you say it out loud, but it does. This fragrance is full of genuine fun and contrast. I have nicknamed it Oud to Joy.
Midnight Rose opens with a popular rose – lychee theme which sings in crystal-clear tones from the top for a good while and swells to a classic green-tinged rose melody at the heart until the oud accord joins in – and doesn’t break the tune. It just provides a thrum of bass line; an amplifier. It’s like listening to a fully orchestrated cover version of a pop song. It’s beautiful. Do not be fooled by the name and expect a typical Middle Eastern rose + oud combination. This might be the most accessible of the line-up for the oud-curious.
Dark Orchid – well, I am just going to have to be honest here and say my immediate impression was Tom Ford Black Orchid x Covonia cough syrup x Finnish dark liquorice … and I ADORED it from the first sniff. Adored it. There is something unsettling about Black Orchid to me, whereas Amouroud Dark Orchid is just right. This fragrance amps up all the dark, medicinal, ambery notes and that flips the scent from an apologetic attempt at a Halloween costume to a full-on drag queen out and proud, head held up high and killing it. If you’re going to dress up, go to town or go home. The more Dark Orchid blooms, the less it looks like its wallflower of a
cousin and the more it takes on its own, fabulous personality.
You’ve got to make a choice about how to lift a sandalwood – do you
stick with a woody theme (oh goodness, that was an accidental pun,
wasn’t it?) or do you build a bouquet which reveals a sandalwood
drydown? The perfumer for Santal des Indes has chosen the former
strategy and leads us to the idea of sandalwood through a woody theme –
we get that almost fizzy cola aspect of a cedarwood and incense accord on top,
which develops over time to a sensation of heat – and after a while conjured another Finnish reference for me: sauna benches. If there is a fatty sandalwood
note, I can’t quite detect it, but if it’s there, I wouldn’t be surprised if it stayed close to skin, as sandalwood often does.
Miel Sauvage made me giggle with delight when I first smelled it (I have witnesses) and this is a good sign (and the last time a fragrance did that to me I bought it immediately). I also love it when the name of a scent is completely at odds with what pops into my head when I smell it (as regular readers will know). The image Miel sauvage conjured for me was that of a saucy pinup lolloping about in an abundantly overflowing bubble bath, coyly managing to keep the bubble cover just a smidgen too low around her cleavage. This scent makes me think of Camay soap ads from the 50s; of glamorous film stars on just the wrong side of saucy and fruity goings-on in a chiffon dressing gown and fluffy slippers. It’s fantastic; every time I smell it on my skin, I find myself smiling and feel the champagne bubbles of laughter beginning to form in my chest. I’m calling this Pinup and it may become one of my treasured signature scents. I love it that much. Oh – and the honey note? It’s not the urinous kind. It’s the waxy, soapy kind. Just in case my florid description didn’t make that clear.
Oud to Joy
Amouroud has nailed it. At least for people like me who were sitting on the fence about oud and were thinking it wasn’t for them. And there must be millions of us left. If you’re one such person and any of the above made you think “hmm…” run, don’t walk to a store where you can smell these scents and have a play. I think they’re worth the money and I think these guys deserve to do well.
Amouroud will be available at Harrods in the UK first. You can already explore the range in Sweden (this might have something to do with the fact that Donald’s wife Gun is Swedish. They got first dibs).
Just one more thing
I’m wondering something about oud. I’m wondering whether what we’ve got here isn’t a trend at all, but the birth of a whole new fragrance family. That would explain a lot.
Travel samples and one full bottle of fragrance provided for review purposes by Amouroud. My policy is not to review at all unless I like the fragrance(s) in question and freebies do not influence this decision in any way.