Some years ago, my partner and I were laid-over in Dubai International Airport whilst traveling onward toward Europe. I was overwhelmed with the desire to get a feel for - if even for a short while before we boarded the next plane - the mystique and allure of the United Arab Emirates. But, as with most international terminals, I experienced the "watered-down" version instead... the glamorous East meets West facade of towering pillared halls peppered with bustling retail outlets touting their european designer clothes, middle eastern gold jewellery and asian electronics.But one element in that enormous retail environment stood out for me... and that was the perfume. Anyone who has travelled through the middle east will have encountered exquisite cut-crystal flacons that hold countless fragrant juices both precious and rare... their hypnotizing colours and superb craftsmanship have an almost tranquilizing effect.
But the juice these bottles contained both horrified and appauled us.
Our noses wrinkled and faces contorted as we introduced priceless oudhs and attars to our ignorant noses. As far as the fragrance world is concerned, it was baptism by fire.
Oudh oil is obtained from the Agarwood tree that grows in abundance in India and south-east Asia. The trees are frequently attacked by a fungus, which in turn causes a rich and dark resin to form within the heartwood. This process can take hundreds of years, but the result is the very rare and precious oudh which, when distilled into an oil, is highly prized and valued the world over. Through the millennia it has thus attained a spiritual and esoteric value as it has been used in medicine, incense, has been traded in dowries, and has even been referenced in the Bible. Its fragrance can only be described as "confronting" to the amateur palate, but it is said that with time, one can appreciate deep balsamic, ambergris, woody, accords. It is astonishing to me - with it being so highly prized in Japan and the Middle East - that until recently it has been practically unheard of in the West.
Yves Saint Laurent was amongst the first European design houses to tap into the appeal of Agarwood for use in the mainstream market with their men's fragrance M7. Since then, we have seen a growing appreciation of oudh emerge in niche and mainstream fragrances... though, on the whole its interpretation and use is still largely Westernized. One might argue that the introduction of oudh to the mainstream market may somehow depreciate its value. Could the heavyweight design houses like Tom Ford be exploiting this rare resource purely with profit margins in mind? Possibly. Or, perhaps there exists a genuine desire to bring this etheral component further onto the world's stage. Whatever the case, one must first develop a nose for this unique ingredient. Perhaps the Montale's and the Private Blends are a good entry point for the layman enthusiast.
I have recently been given the opportunity to revisit natural non-synthetic oudh for the first time since wandering the terminals in Dubai. It is therefore with much excitement and some trepidation that I await my exotic (and expensive!) oil samples to arrive.
So, watch this space...