This time of year perfume bloggers around the world often post their “best of” lists: new release fragrances, perfume houses, perfumers, etc. that made a mark on them during the year. As Perfume Polytechnic is not just about fragrance releases and reviews, and is by no means comprehensive in its coverage of such things, I feel unqualified to write such a list. However, as Perfume Polytechnic is about all kinds of olfactory matters and the sense of smell, its role in art, science, food etc., I am going to list my favourite olfactory moments of 2015 instead, in no particular order. Perfume Polytechnic also investigates the connections between people and the function that scent plays in bringing people together, as well as interconnections between the various art forms and mediums, including scent. This year’s list deals with some of these themes. Continue reading
Previously on Perfume Polytechnic…
In Part One of this post I confessed that I wasn’t sure what oud (aka agarwood) smelt like, after I was sent a sample of Evocative Perfumes’ latest fragrance, Nirvana. I wanted to be able to give Nirvana an honest and decent review, so I set about on a study of oud, an ouducation, so to speak. In my last post, I researched and wrote about oud, where it comes from, how it is harvested and extracted, the different uses for oud and what other people think oud smells like.
As part of my quest to learn to identify oud, I investigated what other perfume enthusiasts think oud smells like. I asked some members of one of the largest Facebook fragrance groups, Facebook Fragrance Friends (FFF), what they thought. The descriptions I got were wide-ranging and varied: from blue cheese to band-aids, antique wooden furniture to manure, and smoke to iodine. “Hmm” I thought to myself, “such a multifaceted smell might be difficult to detect in a perfume.” Nevertheless, I wasn’t deterred. I decided to go to two large department stores in Melbourne, armed with suggestions from FFF about what to try, and find a number of oud fragrances to smell. I wanted to see if I could find a common note among all of these fragrances and finally pin down the smell of oud.
Tom Ford’s Ouds: Oud Wood, Oud Fleur and Tobacco Oud
These three fragrances are from the Private Blend range by Tom Ford. Tom Ford isn’t normally a perfumer I go for (I’m too broke), but how can I resist trying three perfumes with “oud” clearly printed on the label? Surely from sniffing these three my nose will get some idea of what oud smells like?
In Tobacco Oud the tobacco dominates, in Oud Fleur I smell a fecal rose, and in Oud Wood, I’m distracted by dry and airy woods and spice. The perfumes share a dark, moody woodiness, an intensity of character, a lush and exotic richness and a hint of bitter grubbiness. But the oud note itself doesn’t jump out at me or smell the same in each fragrance. Perhaps the plethora of other ingredients, and the different focus for each of these oud fragrances actually obscures the oud note a little? Perhaps Tom Ford is trying to show a range of uses for this ingredient rather than aiming towards identifiability and homogeneity? I’m reminded that tuberose, which I can identify easily, can smell very different in a range of settings and fragrance compositions, from indolic and overbearing, to slightly medicinal, to adding merely a hint of feminine sweetness to a fragrance. Fragrance ingredients are not always mono-dimensional, particularly natural ingredients, but is real oud oil used in these fragrances? For the price, I would hope so, but I’m not sure that it is.
I continue my quest…
Mecca Cosmetica and Le Labo’s Oud 27
Upon entering Mecca Cosmetica, I discover Byredo’s Accord Oud, and spray keenly onto a tester card. The knowledgeable and helpful sales assistant notices that I’m writing the name of the fragrance on the card, and asks if I need assistance. I explain that I’m trying to figure out what oud smells like for a blog post I’m writing. He immediately leads me away from the Byredo and over to Le Labo’s Oud 27, explaining that of Mecca’s range of fragrances, this is the closest thing to real oud. I’d forgotten about Oud 27 and that I had indeed sniffed this fragrance many times before, particularly in my early days of becoming obsessed with fragrance. I love Oud 27. To me, it smells like the inside of an old oak barrel that’s been impregnated with the scent of batch after batch of maturing red wine. As a child I frequented the Barossa Valley wine district in South Australia with my family, visiting cellar doors and going on winery tours. Oud 27 reminds me of being in cool, damp underground cellars full of gigantic oak barrels. The fragrance is also a tad fecal and smells very much like antique wooden furniture.
I try a few other oud fragrances including Terry de Gunzburg’s Terryfic Oud, which is overloaded with ambroxan to the near exclusion of all other ingredients and which just about kills my nose; Amouage’s Epic Woman, which reminds me of Tocade with a hint of caraway; Kurkdjian’s Oud, which smells woody, sweet and a bit caramelised; and Creed’s Royal Oud, which is a light fougère with some generic woods.
At the end of all this I’m still feeling somewhat baffled. Oud 27 comes the closest so far to the descriptions I’ve heard about oud. The Tom Ford Oud range collectively seems to have a dark and exotic character, and although I can smell similarities between the fragrances, I can’t quite detect a distinct oud note that is the same in each fragrance. As for the other oud fragrances, they don’t seem to embody or represent many of the common descriptors used for oud, nor is there an obvious, common note among them all.
Part of my conundrum is that real oud is too expensive to be used by most perfumers, so synthetic substitutions or amalgams of other ingredients are used to represent oud. But what do these substitutions smell like? If a certain aroma chemical is used regularly by perfumers, I can’t spot it. I’m used to smelling synthetic rose, jasmine, and orris regularly in perfumes, and to being able to identify them, so I can’t quite work out why oud is so different, and why there seems to be little consistency from one fragrance to the next. Perhaps it’s hard to fake because the real thing is so complex and multi-faceted?
I decide to wait for Mark Evans’ real oud oil samples to arrive, so that I can have the genuine article to refer to when I go perfume sniffing next time.
What Real Oud Smells Like
Mark Evans, perfumer at Evocative Perfumes, an Australian independent perfume house, kindly offered to send me some real oud oil when I told him of my conundrum. Not one, but two types. When they arrived I applied both kinds of oud to my skin and allowed them to warm and develop, taking notes about how they smelt at various stages.
My initial reaction to the two ouds (one is possibly Cambodian) was that they were very different from one another.
This oud is darker in colour, thicker and stickier than oud 2. It smells like old wood, somewhat like the inside of a varnished, heavy antique chest, and it’s camphoraceous, a bit like pine, and almost minty. It’s also quite cheesy, like a ripe, gooey, stinky French cheese. I’m surprised by the camphoraceous and mentholic aspects of this oud as I’ve not heard of oud being described in this way before. I can detect a slightly medicinal aspect to the smell, and it’s somewhat bitter and a little bit mouldy too. Overall, this is a very deep, dark, rich, woody ingredient, with fascinating complexity and unexpected qualities. It smells like a complete perfume in itself, as if several distinctly different perfume notes have been combined.
Oud 2 is lighter, thinner and less sticky than oud 1, and is not as complex. This oud is dominated by the smell of band-aids, light woody notes, with a hint of rotting wood. It’s ever so slightly fecal, and is quite sweet and honeyed. It reminds me very much of the band-aid note in Serge Lutens’ Daim Blond.
Mark also sent a sample of ambroxan 10% in alcohol for me to sniff, as I was certain perfumers were using ambroxan regularly in oud fragrances. The ambroxan smells like smoky wood. It’s light and airy, subtle, and not very complex. It has a definite woodiness about it, and smells a tiny bit like the woody aspects of oud, so I can imagine that it may be used in some oud fragrances, especially those that combine other ingredients to recreate oud, instead of using the real thing.
Comparison between real oud and the commercial oud fragrances I’ve smelled
After smelling the two real oud oils, I can comment that none of the commercial fragrances that I smelt last week are particularly reminiscent of the real ouds. The two oils are so complex and rich and have distinct qualities about them that aren’t reflected much in the perfumes. The Oud 27 and the Tom Ford range of Ouds probably come closest in “vibe” to how natural oud smells, without either of them smelling much like the real deal, although Oud 27 is animalic and woody. I’m not sure whether any of these fragrances uses real oud. They might, or they might claim to, but I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.
I must also add that as I’ve only smelt two types of real oud oil, I’m still no expert on this matter. I’ve read that there are many kinds of oud, and that they can smell quite different to one another. Make of this what you will, but I shall conclude this comparison by stating that my experience so far has taught me that oud is a hard ingredient to replicate in a fragrance, and that most commercially available perfumes don’t even come close. That is, until I smelt Nirvana by Evocative Perfumes.
Nirvana by Evocative Perfumes
Nirvana is the newest release from Mark Evans, perfumer at Australian indie brand Evocative Perfumes. Nirvana celebrates and encapsulates the true characteristics of oud, although it doesn’t contain any real oud. Not a drop. The description for Nirvana is as follows:
“There are many, many fragrances out there with oud or agarwood as one of the featured notes. Of course there is never any actual real oud oil in these fragrances as it is way too expensive. The oud note that wearers have come to expect is a fantasy and not really anything like the experience of real, genuine oud oil. Nirvana is my attempt to provide you with this experience. I’ve used a high proportion of natural ingredients, blended to provide the incredible richness of the funky, cheesy top note and the floral, rosy, jamminess and dry deep woodiness of a real, sticky, Cambodian oud.” (Source: Evocative Perfumes website)
What Nirvana Smells Like
I put a dab on the back of my hand and rub the perfume oil gently into my skin. I smell a light antiseptic note, a funky cheesy smell that’s present but not overpowering, dry antique woods, and a sweet band-aid smell. Something ever-so-slightly camphoraceous or even minty-fresh lurks in the background. A boozy, wine-barrel effect is somewhat present at first too, but it isn’t as strong as that in Oud 27 by Le Labo. Nirvana is rich, nuanced, and complex. It has animalic overtones and a vintage air about it.
How does it compare with the two oud oils Mark sent me to sniff? Nirvana is most like Oud 1, but is lighter, sweeter and more wearable. It shares its cheesy top note, and its deep woodiness. It shares medicinal qualities with Oud 2, and has a similar warmth.
Mark Evans’ Nirvana also features rose, which, along with the oud forms a classic Middle-Eastern style pairing. The rose adds futher complexity and a touch of sweetness to the composition.
The notes for Nirvana are listed as follows: funk, jammy notes, rose, oud, sandalwood.
Mark Evans has created a brilliantly believable replica of real oud with Nirvana. Of the ten or so commercial oud fragrances that I tried, none came anywhere near as close to smelling of real oud as Nirvana does. Fans of oud, or perfume lovers who want to try a realistic oud fragrance should try Nirvana.
Nirvana is a great unisex fragrance, and radiates really well for an oil-based fragrance. It also lasts a good 3-4 hours on my skin.
Nirvana comes in a 12ml bottle of perfume oil and sells for $40 AUD. You can buy it at the Evocative Perfumes Website. Samples are also available at $4 a pop.
To read an interview with Mark Evans and learn more about his process as a perfumer, click here.
Two Samples of Nirvana are up for grabs as part of Perfume Polytechnic’s First Birthday Giveaway. To enter, click on this link and scroll down the page to find the instructions on how to place your entry.
Terms & Conditions
Entry is open to followers of Perfume Polytechnic only. Competition closes Wednesday the 23rd September at 5pm AEST. I will draw two winners using random.org on the 24th September, will announce the winners here and on Facebook, and will try to contact you privately through email, your Gravatar, or Facebook. Prizes will be redrawn if winners do not respond within 7 days.
Acknowledgements & Conclusion
My warmest thanks go out to Mark Evans of Evocative perfumes for providing my sample of Nirvana, which inspired me to set forth on a grand ouducation. I wouldn’t and couldn’t have done it without you Mark, and I’ve had such fun on the journey. If I hadn’t received Mark’s sample, I might have just dismissed oud as another trendy ingredient that I didn’t understand, but instead, I feel that I now have a better understanding of oud, the issues surrounding its use in perfumery, and a genuine appreciation for the real article. I hope that you’ve also learnt a bit about oud along the way. Mark has also generously provided the two samples of Nirvana for the giveaway, as well as the samples of oud oil and ambroxan that I referred to in this post.
Mark Evans, perfumer at Australian indie brand Evocative Perfumes, recently sent me a sample of his latest creation, Nirvana, a fragrance that celebrates and encapsulates the true characteristics of oud (also called aoud, oudh, agar, agarwood, gaharuwood, eaglewood, jinkoh and aloeswood). The description for Nirvana is as follows:
There are many, many fragrances out there with oud or agarwood as one of the featured notes. Of course there is never any actual real oud oil in these fragrances as it is way too expensive. The oud note that wearers have come to expect is a fantasy and not really anything like the experience of real, genuine oud oil. Nirvana is my attempt to provide you with this experience. I’ve used a high proportion of natural ingredients, blended to provide the incredible richness of the funky, cheesy top note and the floral, rosy, jamminess and dry deep woodiness of a real, sticky, Cambodian oud. (Source: Evocative Perfumes website)
And herein lies my conundrum. I want to review Mark Evans’ lovely new Nirvana, but I have to confess that I don’t know what oud, real or fantastical, smells like, even though Mark gives a pretty good description of it above. It’s a perfume note that has evaded me, despite being used in many commercial, niche and independent perfumes as one of the trendiest perfumery ingredients in recent years. Some say oud is one of the rarest and most expensive materials in perfumery. Some loathe oud because of its ubiquitousness in contemporary perfumes. Some talk of oud’s complicated nature, its multifarious characteristics and facets, which just adds to my confusion. I just want to be able to identify oud, and the more complex it is, the harder that will be.
The problem for me is compounded by the fact that actual oud is not used very often in perfumery due to its expense: often weakened dilutions that don’t smell much like the best quality oud are used instead, or a synthesised chemical form of oud. Sometimes perfumers create illusions or impressions of hard-to-source ingredients out of other ingredients entirely, and I think this probably happens in the case of oud, simply because the ingredient is too expensive to buy for many perfumers. So, bearing all of this in mind and if I have no access to the raw ingredient, how am I supposed to know what oud smells like? I wonder if it’s a bit like musk, in that there’s real musk, and then there are various synthesised versions of it. The modern-day, legal, chemical versions of musk smell almost nothing like the raw ingredient, which comes from the scent sac of the male musk deer, and which I have actually smelt. I wonder if fake oud smells anything like real oud, or whether they are two different substances with the same name? I wonder if oud is, as Mark Evans suggests, a fantastical notion in most of the perfumes that profess to feature it? Am I on a wild goose chase in my quest to be able to identify oud?
When I was training my nose to recognise certain fragrance ingredients, it was a long process of comparison and elimination. I would go into a department store, armed with a list of perfumes featuring a certain note that I wanted to be able to identify. Gradually, after smelling perfume after perfume on my list, and searching for the common factor, I would learn to identify a particular ingredient. Learning to detect tuberose wasn’t too hard, thanks to a whiff of the obviously named Tubereuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens, which features a bold, camphoraceous and indolic tuberose. Jasmine, used frequently in perfume, came easily, as I had the blossoming flower on my fence to compare it to. And ambroxan clicked into place for me after smelling Not a Perfume by Juliet Has a Gun, which is supposedly composed solely of this ingredient. Ambroxan, with its distinctive, nostril-hair-burning smell has also played a role in my quest to identify oud. In fact, it is in so many perfumes that I’ve smelt that supposedly feature oud, that I thought that perhaps the perfumers intended for ambroxan to replicate or stand in for the real thing. But perfumista friends soon corrected me, and told me that oud did not smell like ambroxan, however, they weren’t really able to explain to me what it did smell like in a way that helped me to identify it. And so, I was back to square one. However, I have since found out that oud is also burnt as an incense, so perhaps the ambroxan, with its smoky smell is supposed to convey the smell of burning oud incense?
All of this musing, this hunt for the true nature of oud is because I want to be able to review and appreciate Mark Evans’ Nirvana properly: Nirvana is such a lovely creation that it deserves a proper review from someone who knows how oud smells. I could pretend that I know and fudge my way round a review, but I’m too honest to do that. Instead, I’m going to treat this as an opportunity to learn something, to give myself an ouducation, so to speak, as learning is all part of the program here at Perfume Polytechnic.
What is Oud?
In the middle east, the word oud or oudh (which in Arabic means stick or rod) is used to describe agarwood. Oud is the term most used by perfumers to describe the resinous, fragrant wood of the agarwood tree, as well as the essential oil derived from it. The following definition of oud (referred to here as agarwood) from Wikipedia is a good introduction to oud, and discusses some of the issues surrounding its cost and sustainability.
Agarwood, also known as oud, oodh or agar, is a dark resinous heartwood that forms in Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees (large evergreens native to southeast Asia) when they become infected with a type of mould. Prior to infection, the heartwood is relatively light and pale coloured; however, as the infection progresses, the tree produces a dark aromatic resin in response to the attack, which results in a very dense, dark, resin embedded heartwood. The resin embedded wood is commonly called gaharu, jinko, aloeswood, agarwood, or oud (not to be confused with ‘Bakhoor’) and is valued in many cultures for its distinctive fragrance, and thus is used for incense and perfumes.
One of the main reasons for the relative rarity and high cost of agarwood is the depletion of the wild resource. Since 1995 Aquilaria malaccensis, the primary source, has been listed in Appendix II (potentially threatened species) by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In 2004 all Aquilaria species were listed in Appendix II; however, a number of countries have outstanding reservations regarding that listing.
First-grade agarwood is one of the most expensive natural raw materials in the world. A whole range of qualities and products are on the market, varying in quality with geographical location and cultural deposition. Oud oil is distilled from agarwood, and fetches high prices depending on the oil’s purity. The current global market for agarwood is estimated to be in the range of US$6 – 8 billion and is growing rapidly.
Celia Lyttelton, in her book The Scent Trail, describes the traditional process of harvesting oud (which she calls gaharuwood):
…local people [across Southeast Asia] regularly tap the trunks of Aquilaria trees to gather it. They knock the trunks with a tool, and if the tree contains the resin it makes a particular sound. Gaharuwood is still often obtained from Aquilaria trees in secret rituals which women are not allowed to attend, and gaharu oil-filled wood is so heavy that it sinks in water, which is how it got its name: “the sinking perfume”.
Once the resin has been tapped it is soaked in water for a long time before it is distilled into an essential oil known as oudh. (p.63)
There are three methods through which agarwood oil is distilled, namely, hydro-distillation, steam distillation and super critical CO2 extraction. However, the most common methods of distillation are hydro-distillation and steam distillation. Another thing that has its mark on the distillation of the oil is the age of the tree. Older trees have a higher resin content and just like a wine, old resin gets better with age. Speaking of the grading of agarwood oil, the best quality oil comes out from first distillation and after this the wood undergoes for second distillation and hence, it is graded accordingly the number of times it is cooked.
Oil coming from steam distillation is said to lack the three-dimensional smoky quality which comes from hydro-distilled oil. In both methods, after the oil has been distilled, it is filtered, sunned, and aged for a while. The more the oil aged, the better it will smell.
Other than its use as an ingredient in perfumery, oud can be found in high-grade incense in Japan, across Asia, the Middle East and also in India, where it is used in a variety of festive and religious events. The leaves of the Aquilaria tree can also be used as a herbal tea, which is reputed to have antioxidant properties. In China, where the Aquilaria tree is known as Chen Xiang, the resinous wood is used widely in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including kidney, spleen and stomach disorders. Various parts of the tree, including the bark, resinous wood, and heartwood have also been used in Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine.
How Do Others Describe the Smell of Oud?
The first step in my ouducation was to explain my conundrum to perfumer Mark Evans, to confess that I didn’t know what oud smelt like, that it was a tricky note for me to identify, and that I had confused it with ambroxan. Mark very kindly offered to post me a tiny amount of real oud oil for me to smell, as well as some ambroxan. Wow! Mark is amazing and incredibly generous to do so, and for someone (me) who has such limited access to raw materials, this is a marvellous opportunity to go directly to the source, to the actual raw material, not a chemically synthesised copy of oud. I look forward to discussing the smell of these two ingredients in Part Two of this post, and to reviewing Mark’s perfume Nirvana and comparing it to the smell of real oud.
Onwards and upwards, my next journey was to consult the Internet, and to read some discussions in online perfume communities about oud. In particular, I found a detailed discussion on Basenotes about real oud oils very helpful. In this discussion oud is described as smelling like a multitude of things, including antique wood, wood sap and bark mixed with green notes, turpentine, bandaids, Dettol, rotting vegetation, faeces, and smoking wood. It is also described as resinous, mentholic, funky, medicinal and “too hard to describe”. To complicate matters, the ouds that come from different areas – from various parts of Southeast Asia, mostly – smell different to one another. One particularly observant comment in the Basenotes thread (by a user called Buzzlepuff) discusses the Dettol-like antiseptic aspect of oud and explains how it makes sense that the tree would produce a medicinal smell as a kind of defense against the mould that is attacking the tree and causing infection. Buzzlepuff also states that this facet of the oud smell is rather like the smell of the chemical chlorhexidine digluconate, which is used as a disinfectant in various settings, including dentistry.
Celia Lyttelton describes the smell of oud as follows in The Scent Trail:
Oudh gives off an almond-sweet smell and has been compared to a blend of sandalwood and ambergris. The older the wood and the more mature the resin, the more delicious the oudh smells. (pp. 63-4)
Fragrantica describes the smell of oud as “a rich, musty woody-nutty scent”. (Source: Fragrantica)
It seems like I have my work cut out for me, but now I’ve done my research, and have a sample of real oud on its way, I’m confident that I’ll be able to spot this note in perfumes and more importantly, give Mark Evans’ Nirvana the review it deserves.
In Part Two of An Ouducation I’ll share my impressions of real oud, tell you about some oud fragrances I’ve sniffed down in the big smoke, and will review Nirvana, the latest perfume from Evocative Perfumes.
You can read Part Two of An Ouducation here.