What Is Oud? Meet The Most Popular Fragrance In The UK

What does it smell like and why is it so expensive? Your questions, answered.

best oud perfumes

by Sameeha Shaikh |
Updated on

There is no shortage of great perfumes on the fragrance market. From fruity florals to musky skin scents, there is a fragrance to capture every mood, occasion or budget. But as far as the crème de la crème of the perfume world is concerned, oud takes the top spot. Don't take our word for it. On TikTok, #oud has amassed a cool 1.2 billion views and counting and, according to a study by Lifestyle Packaging, is the UK’s favourite perfume scent with 14,800 monthly Google searches. Impressive figures indeed, but perhaps not as impressive as the rich history, traditions and value of the raw material itself.

What is oud?

Oud, also known as agarwood, is a unique natural fragrance that is sourced from centuries-old aquilaria trees which are native to South Asia and Southeast Asia, specifically in India, Cambodia and Vietnam (to name a few).

The production of oud occurs with the 'fermentation of agarwood that takes place in the trunk and roots of the trees that have been infected by a parasitic ascomycetous mould, namely phaeoacremonium parasitica, a dark-walled fungus,' explains Ahmed Choudhury, London-based store manager of Arabian Oud, a leading oud-focused perfume house**.**

As a response, the trees secrete a resin high in volatile organic compounds that aids in suppressing or slowing the fungal growth. While the unaffected wood of the tree is relatively light in colour, the resin dramatically increases the mass and density of the affected wood, changing its colour from pale beige to dark brown or black, which is extracted to form 'liquid gold' oud. It takes several years to obtain this raw material as only 7% of these trees produce the resin, making yields low and establishing it as one of world's rarest natural resources – ergo the hefty price tag, but more on that later.

Unlike other perfume materials, oud doesn't need to go though a lengthy extraction and distillation process to be immediately enjoyed. 'Agarwood has its own smell, if you take it from its tree and burn it, you'll smell its scent right away, there is no other tree in the world like it,' notes Choudhury, hence the traditional practice of burning 'bakhoor' or wood chips in the Middle East.

What does oud smell like?

As with other natural fragrance ingredients, the smell itself depends on its origin and oud calls a small handful of places home, which all offer differing species and qualities of agarwood. The most expensive comes from Assam in northeastern India, which boasts an addictive sweet quality and is highly sought after. Once it is harvested to create the most popular of bi-products - perfume - its oud has a distinctly rich woody, smoky scent. While there are plenty of synthetic versions available now, authentic oud like that used in Arabian Oud perfumes is natural and lasts longer on the skin or clothes. 'The aroma is intense, mysterious and seductive, and can also reflect notes of leather, spice and earthiness,' says Choudhury.

It is no wonder then, a wave of western brands have latched on to the fragrance category to offer up their own renditions but there is much to be said about lesser known niche brands that have been offering up oud at affordable rates for years. Keen to dabble in some liquid gold? Scroll through our edit of the best ouds to try now.

Shop: The Best Oud Perfumes

Sameeha Shaikh, beauty writer, says, 'My love of oud stems from childhood, watching my father apply attar or oud perfume oil on his wrists and neck before heading out for Friday prayers. The scent instantly signalled a sense of spiritual calm and purpose. It's the reason why I chose this decadent perfume as my wedding fragrance. Full bodied yet feminine, it is laced with saffron, rose, vanilla and a base of dark chocolate and oud for a confident and memorable gourmand scent.

Sameeha Shaikh, beauty writer, says, 'If you're new to the oud scene and prefer a lightweight entry, look to this. It balances the freshness of delicate rose and the warmness of sensual oud, for a modern take that is perfect for every day wear. While it is great when worn alone, I habitually layer perfumes and have found this works seamlessly alongside any scent.'

Sameeha Shaikh, beauty writer, says, 'Mona Kattan's passion and understanding of oud couldn't be bottled up into one single scent. Instead the she created a collection of four unisex perfumes, to reflect the many facets of the note which can be infinitely layered to create your own personal concoction. Oudgasm Vanilla Oud is particularly beautiful with a blend of pear, praline, cashmere and white musk for a comforting envelope.'

Renee Washington, digital fashion & beauty assistant, says, 'I bought this fragrance on a whim after seeing it go viral on TikTok, and it was everything and more. Just one spray is enough, as this scent definitely commands attention. It has a saffron base, and as it develops, hints of amber, vanilla, and rose start to emerge. I love wearing it in the evening because it has a deep, rich aroma. Although it's a unisex fragrance, it is a bit more masculine, if you prefer something lighter, I suggest pairing it with a floral scent. It also has impressive longevity, lasting beautifully for a few days. You can’t beat the price, too.'

Rachael Martin, beauty editor, says 'When writing fragrance stories journalists just love a clicky headline stating how people ‘chased them in the street’ in a frantic bid to find out their perfume. Call me cynical, but I didn’t really believe it- until I got my hands on Gucci Oud, that is. A heady, rose based scent that (quite literally) turns heads as soon as I walk into a room, I have never received so many compliments from strangers. On a recent trip to Hampton Court Palace King Henry himself literally came out of character to ask me what I was wearing, which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, quite something. While I wouldn’t wear this one during the day anymore (I think something fresher and zestier works best for me) for evening cocktails and date nights this one really shines - I’ve yet to find a more stunning scent.'

Sameeha Shaikh, beauty writer says, 'A blend of tarty, sweet fruit liquor and floral notes is balanced with the warmth of honey, soft vanilla, and hearty oud wood for a wholly comforting take.'

What is the significance of oud?

Known in Urdu as 'Agar', 'Chenxiang' in Chinese, and 'Gaharu' in Malay, oud (its Arabic name) crosses cultures and comes with a long history. Choudhury explains that agarwood was once used for embalming dead bodies in Egypt and Japan, and has since evolved into a perfume ingredient that is a cornerstone in traditional and religious ceremonies in India and Cambodia. Likewise the Sufis and Sikhs use agarwood incense for meditation purposes to bring energy into balance. Given its pseudonym – the 'wood of gods' – it sits at the axis of various communities and is used in incense for medicinal purposes, too.

Outside its countries of origin, the scent has become synonymous with the Middle East, where the oud market booms. American-born Iraqi entrepreneur and the founder of perfume brand Kayali, Mona Kattan, notes, 'Middle Easterns for centuries have used fragrances as part of their heritage, rituals, and the way they identify themselves. It is a part of every single moment, be it celebrations or self-love'. As a fragrance expert Kattan is fascinated with oud and the different ways you can use it, whether its extracting oil from the wood to create a long lasting perfume oil, an eau de parfum, or burning it to make oud smoke which can fragrance your house, hair and clothes – a common practice in the region.

While we don't know how it made its way to the Middle East, the significance of oud can be traced back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who was said to have used, promoted and recommended its curative properties. Oud along with musk, the Prophet's other favourite scent, is promised as the fragrance of paradise. Its well-documented presence in Islamic culture makes it a part of every day life for Muslims, especially on Fridays when adding fragrance to oneself ahead of prayer is encouraged.

Why are oud perfumes so expensive?

Powerful, unforgettable, exotic and luxurious are just some of the adjectives Kattan uses to describe oud, 'it is the most expensive ingredient in the world of fragrance, they actually call in liquid gold'. While its beauty has long been enjoyed in the east, oud has evolved on a global scale to be a key player in the billion dollar fragrance industry. Choudhury explains top quality Cambodian agarwood can go for as much as £31,000 per kilogram.

The pricing reflects the rarity and slow production of high quality materials. 'The highest quality oud comes from trees more than 100 years old. It has a low yield from its original plant material and the extraction process is extremely labour-intensive. These are very good reasons for the high cost of agarwood oil. Low-grade resinous wood is used for oil production and usually requires a minimum of 20kg to produce 12ml of oil. Having said that, it doesn't mean that the new trees don't get a good fragrance, but what needs to be added is the quality, the heritage and the tradition. Still, sales of oud-based perfumes continue to grow each year, but to meet the demand, many perfumers have started to use a blend of natural and synthetic oud.'

Sameeha Shaikh is Grazia's beauty writer, working across all categories to bring you insights on the latest trends, industry news and the products you need to know about, viral or not (most probably viral).

Main image: TikTok @farhanaoberson, @scentswitharli, and @aysha_harun.

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