The Enduring Influence of Oud

15th April, 2020

After more than two centuries of continued use, authorities in the UAE have announced that ouds and traditional concentrated oils will no longer be sold using the historic ‘tula’ system of measurement and instead move to ‘gram/millilitre’ measurement. This move, which came into force at the end of last month, marks an important shift for oud in the UAE. It is also indicative of rising demand for oud both in the Middle East and across the world.

Oud in the UAE

Known as “liquid gold”, oud is the most expensive oil in the perfume industry. In the Middle East, its significance goes far beyond its monetary value, however. Oud oil has been used as a fragrance for the body and the wood chips as a purifying smoke since it was first introduced to Gulf traders in India’s Assam state.

Since then, the bark from the Agar or Aquilaria tree, native to Southeast Asia, has become even more precious. The dark, sticky resin secreted by the Aquilaria is used to protect itself from a parasitic mold. Fewer than 2% of the wild trees produce it and it takes at least 40 years before a tree accumulates a good amount of oud for harvest.

Most importantly, oud holds a particular cultural significance. The sweet, rich scent has become synonymous with the Gulf where it is infused into daily life - from the scent of the wood being burnt at home to the breath fragrance as greeting with a cheek-to-cheek kiss. It is an important signifier of status and wealth as the cost of the oil increases with the complexity of the scent and the rarity of the source.

Oud is further linked to religious rituals of Islamic purification. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have held the tradition of fumigation with Agarwood, the English name for the tree, and it is now a central practice in the Islamic world.

Image Credit: Kenan Hodzic / Adobe Stock

The changing market for oud

Globally, there is strong evidence that consumer tastes are moving towards fragrances derived from aromatic oils including oud, amber and sandalwood. The enigmatic nature of oud, which can be spicy, woody, balsamic and amber-touched all at the same time, make it a far more engrossing fragrance than the classic florals and citrus scents of Asia and Europe.

The sharp rise in the popularity of oud has been linked to Tom Ford, who first began incorporating oud into his private blends and exposed Western markets to its convoluted characteristics. A number of French and Italian brands followed suit, bringing oud firmly into the mainstream. Contemporary fragrances often seek to create fresher blends, incorporating bergamot, green neroli, ginger and citrus. This has helped to establish the scent in a wider market, reaching consumers who ordinarily may not be attracted to darker aromatics.

The rising trend of oud outside of the Middle East has also been linked to the global movement of people. Western expats working in the Middle East may be introduced to the fragrance, encouraging its introduction and acceptance in the West. As more people are exposed to the heady scent of life in the Gulf, they seek to recreate the intoxicating sensory experience back home.

In turn, more brands have begun incorporating oud into their perfumes, ranging from Versace’s Oud Noir to Ormonde Jayne’s Elixir range, reinterpreting the brand’s best-known scents with a splash of oud. In 2020, some of the leading oud fragrances on the market are Atkinsons’ The Other Side Of Oud, Creed's Royal Oud and Acqua Di Parma’s Colonia Oud. In response to this upwards global trend, the prices for oud have continued to rise sharply thanks to increased demand and rarity, cementing its position as a luxury product.

Why measurement matters

In Dubai, the raw material of oud is brought and sold on a massive scale. As one of the most important oud trading centres in the world, measurement matters for the UAE. The tula system has been in use for trading oud and aromatic oils in the country since 1833, when Indian merchants began trading on a larger scale. This historic use has continued unchanged until this year, but globalisation has made it increasingly problematic. Crucially, the tula system is not compatible with the metric system - 1 tula equals 12 millilitres. A challenging conversion for any consumer.

The most recent standardising move by the Emirate Authority for Standardization and Metrology (ESMA), changing overnight from tula to gram/millilitre measurement, is intended to make the export of local products easier. By removing unit barriers, the UAE hopes to improve the competitiveness of oud products globally by ensuring that oud can move uninhibited across their borders.

Standardised global measurement for fragrances ensures that sellers and buyers have transparency, with no conversions needed. To help merchants, suppliers and retailers in the UAE adjust to the change, ESMA has set up a website to educate consumers, as well as workshops for merchants. Overall, the change has been welcomed with the hope that it will promote continued growth of the oud trade into the future.

Oud in 2020

Brought from Southeast Asia to the Middle East by Indian merchants, oud has become embedded into the culture of the Middle East. It lingers on the skin and in the mind, so much so that one almost craves the woody warmth of the scent after periods of absence.

Now oud is spreading beyond its historical limits once more to become the new favourite of global perfumery. With a market valued at approximately £5 billion annually, the enduring influence of this impenetrable scent doesn’t look to be dwindling soon.

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About the author: Elizabeth Harris

Elizabeth is a writer, editor and content marketer who covers food, health and travel. She’s been happy to call many places home and has travelled across the world, collecting fragrances. Studying Anthropology has led to her fascination with the cultural connection between humans and plants, particularly aromatics. She now lives in Budapest, Hungary where she splits her time between travelling, writing and creating recipes.


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      • Mak-7 | 15th April 2020 15:37

        Per Ensar - he was the first to introduce oud to western markets. I doubt Tom Ford had any influence :P

      • Funwithfrags | 16th April 2020 12:07

        A few new things here. A shame to lose the old unit of measurement, especially when 12 to 1 isn't really that hard to convert.

      • Tamasin | 21st April 2020 23:38

        Actually it was Ormonde Jayne that launched the first fine fragrance with OUDH in it. Ormonde Man in September 2004, a few months before YSL's launch of M7. The latter never really took off, but Ormonde Man is in Luca Turin's Best 100 Scents. I'm surprised the author didn't research this properly.

      • hednic | 22nd April 2020 04:28

        Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

      • PStoller | 22nd April 2020 07:59

        M7 was launched in 2002.

        Arguably, the first use of Oud in modern Western/French perfumery was by Gérard Anthony in Balenciaga pour Homme. But, the author isn't making claims about who used it first; rather, she says, "The sharp rise in the popularity of oud has been linked to Tom Ford." That's accurate.

        Ensar is a legendary artist and pioneer, but the scale of his production and price precludes direct influence on the global culture at large or Western culture in particular. (Indirect is another matter.) To 99.99% of Westerners buying oud fragrances today, he's "Ensar Who?"

        Micallef and Montale were selling fragrances called "Aoud" as early as 2004. But Tom Ford promoted oud to a much wider audience beginning with Oud Wood in 2007. I don't think Micallef or Montale (or later, Mancera) had anything like Ford's cachet or market penetration, nor his influence on the big perfume houses.

        No, Ford wasn't first, not even with M7. But he's still a big part of the reason everyone and his brother-in-law now has an oud fragrance. And whether he deserves as much credit as he gets or not, he still does get it, which is what the author actually said. Seems to me she did her research just fine.

      • Tamasin | 22nd April 2020 14:04

        M7 was launched in November 2004 - 2 months after Ormonde Man.

      • PrinceRF | 22nd April 2020 15:32

        Interesting article.

        Thanks for clarifying.

      • badarun | 23rd April 2020 00:29

        Oud in western fragrances started with Balenciaga Pour Homme, then Guerlain Habit Rouge.

        All other brands followed suit after...