On Beauty

The Return of an Enigmatic Old World Fragrance

Dark, rich and spiritual, oud unfolds anew in this season’s most original perfumes.

Clockwise from top left: <strong>D.S. &amp; Durga</strong> Notorious Oud, $260, <a href="https://dsanddurga.com/collections/featured/products/notorious-oud">dsanddurga.com</a>. <strong>Maison d’Etto</strong> Canaan, $300, <a href="https://maisondetto.com/products/canaan">maisondetto.com</a>. <strong>Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle</strong>: The Night By Dominique Ropion, $1,600, <a href="https://www.fredericmalle.com/product/19566/50265/perfumes/the-night/by-dominique-ropion">fredericmalle.com.</a> <strong>Acqua di Parma</strong> Oud Eau de Parfum, $325, <a href="https://www.bloomingdales.com/shop/product/acqua-di-parma-oud-eau-de-parfum-6.1-oz.?ID=3490175&amp;pla_country=US&amp;CAWELAID=120156070009374151&amp;CAGPSPN=pla&amp;CAAGID=79361164781&amp;CATCI=pla-559875772923&amp;cm_mmc=Google-PLA-ADC-_-tROAS_FOB_Campaign-_-beauty-_-8028713810527USA&amp;gclid=EAIaIQobChMIqOLp0bac5gIVSNyGCh1czwd9EAQYASABEgJePfD_BwE">bloomingdales.com</a>. <strong>Serge Lutens</strong> La Couche du Diable, $230, <a href="https://www.saksfifthavenue.com/serge-lutens-la-couche-de-diable-eau-de-parfum/product/0400011561502">saksfifthavenue.com</a>. <strong>Behnaz</strong> Pure Oud (sold in a set as Behnaz Fragrance Flight II), $165, <a href="https://behnazsarafpour.com/products/fragrance-flight-ii">behnazsarafpour.com</a>.
Credit...Photo by Marie Maeda and Yuji Oboshi. Market editor: Caitie Kelly.

The French perfumer Dominique Ropion has researched thousands of ingredients during his 30-year career. But one in particular continues to beguile him: oud. “Unlike other ingredients, like rose, we still don’t fully understand its constituents,” he says. “It’s spicy, woody, ambery and animalistic — all at the same time.” The Paris-based perfumer Francis Kurkdjian agrees, saying that when it comes to oud, “it’s a wild beast to be tamed.”

Indeed, oud is not a pretty plant at all, but a sticky resin exuded by the agarwood tree to protect itself from mold; it is a strangely wonderful-smelling antifungal. While agarwood is native to Southeast Asia, oud is particularly prized in the Middle East — from Saudi Arabia to Yemen — where, according to Robert Klanten, co-editor of the book “The Essence: Discovering the World of Scent, Perfume & Fragrance,” oud incense is often burned at home to welcome guests and in religious rituals, including Islamic purification.

Now perfumers are putting a modern spin on the rare Old World ingredient, creating fragrances that depart from the traditional, spice-heavy blends in fresh, even startling, ways. Acqua di Parma’s Oud ($270), for example, combines oud with zesty bergamot, D.S. & Durga’s Notorious Oud ($175) mixes in North African papyrus, and Maison d’Etto’s Canaan ($300) injects green neroli and tuberose.

Others let oud, often referred to as “liquid gold,” stand on its own. At $1,300 per ounce, oud is “the most expensive oil in perfumery,” says the American perfumer Mandy Aftel. That didn’t stop Ropion from adding a lot of it, and little else, to The Night ($960), the scent he created for Frédéric Malle. Or consider Behnaz Sarafpour’s undiluted Pure Oud oil ($165, as part of a set), which is derived from sustainably harvested, replanted agarwood trees certified by Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The steam-distilled oil can be layered with other fragrances or simply worn solo.

More traditional blends still exist, of course. Serge Lutens’s La Couche du Diable ($230) is reminiscent of a smoldering stick of amber incense, and is not for the meek. But regardless of how it’s blended, says Ropion, oud eventually settles on the skin with a subdued, mysterious trail. He is so enamored with the oil that, unlike some perfumers who don’t wear scent, he will mist on his own blend. “It’s not bad,” he says modestly.