Sultans of Scent

February 24, 2019 Updated: May 28, 2019

You may have heard of oud—the rich, woodsy aroma that many fashion houses sell, typically as one of their most expensive fragrances. With oud oil valued at up to $13,000 per pound, these fragrances merit their price tag. Historically, even King Louis XIV famously soaked his royal robes in it.

Perfume or cologne connoisseurs may have even heard that the unique scent comes from Southeast Asia’s agarwood tree when it becomes infected with a particular mold. But that’s only half the story.

The alluring aroma comes, in fact, from the tree’s healing response to the infection. Nicknamed “liquid gold” and “wood of the gods,” oud is the beautiful aroma of healing.

“The oud itself is a result of the tree defending herself … that medicine is created by the tree,” said Hassan El Neil, general manager at Arabian Oud in New York. “When a person uses it for himself, it affects him positively in his nervous system because it’s very calming and soothing … People love that smell.”

Rare and Alluring

Oud is a woodsy, rich, musky oil as rare as it is alluring. In nature, only a small portion of the trees become infected with the particular type of mold that begets the aromatic oil. Since global demand outweighs this precious resource, perfume houses, like Arabian Oud, own tree farms where they innoculate the agarwood trees with the mold to conjure the prized aroma.

Even in this controlled environment, it’s still a long process, and it takes eight to 12 years for the trees to produce the oud. To make sure it has a sustainable, long-term future, Arabian Oud planted 75,000 agarwood trees in 2012.

Arabian Oud has grown rapidly since its inception in 1982, now with 900 stores globally across North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. At the beginning of this year, it even opened a store in Tysons Corner, Virginia, where I grew up.

The company is the world’s largest manufacturer and retailer of oriental oils and perfumes but also includes Western scents in its 400-fragrance collection. Oriental perfumes are characterized by unique scents and ingredients from the Middle East and India, with notes such as cinnamon, amber, oud (which is also called agarwood or aloeswood), musk, and rosewood.

“Western perfume basically depends on a balance of freshness and sweetness,” El Neil said. Last year, over 1 million of the “head turner” Madawi eau de parfum were sold, as an example. If you wear it, “Everyone that passes by you will ask what you have on.”

Arabian Oud was ranked the top perfumer in the Middle East and Africa, and 11th globally by Euromonitor in 2013.

When I first called El Neil on the phone, I had been slightly obsessed with oud, and had already bought five or six designer fragrances. El Neil agreed he too had really enjoyed other designer ouds, but since joining Arabian Oud, he said, “It’s like I went to another world.”

Arabian Oud’s store in Manhattan. (Courtesy of Arabian Oud)

El Neil explains Arabian Oud’s perfumes are so unique because the manufacturer takes a fundamentally different approach to its formulation. To start, Arabian Oud uses the highest concentration of oil in its fragrances, creating only eau de parfum, not more diluted concentrations like eau de cologne or eau de toilette.

Secondly, a perfume is made of three parts—top notes, heart notes, and base notes, which are smelled in that order as the perfume dries. Arabian Oud invests 30 to 40 percent of its concentration in the base notes, the most expensive and longest lasting. In contrast, he said other brands only use at most 25 to 30 percent base note concentration, putting more oil concentration in the less expensive top notes.

As testimony to Arabian Oud’s quality and richness, El Neil noted that Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Al Faisal recently visited his store and purchased Sioufi oil, a strong oil aged 50 years. Arabian Oud also crafted a bespoke perfume at the request of Princess Hamidah of Brunei for her wedding day. The Princess Hamida Blend continues to be one of the brand’s most popular perfumes today, a delicate fusion of oud and the rare Taif Rose.

Talking to El Neil piqued my curiosity about oud even further, so I visited him at his store in Times Square.

Essential Oil

When I went to Arabian Oud, it was a typical New York City winter day—below freezing, and windy.

“[Winter] is the best time to use [oud] because it just warms you up,” El Neil said.

When he greeted me, El Neil’s own charming personality was as warming as his oud fragrances. Every time he’d spray something new or give me a waft of oud oil, he’d say, “happy birthday” to celebrate the moment. I laughed every time.

Arabian Oud sells fragrances in three forms—pure oil; eau de parfum, both Oriental and Western formulas; and bakhoor, dried chips of scented woods burned as incense.

Burning bakhoor on charcoal reminded me of spiritual ceremonies, as oud has a long history of use in rituals in various religions. Since oud gets its aroma from the healing process, it makes sense it’s used to connect with the true tree of life—divinity.

After many tests, I was drawn to two eau de parfums—one with oud, one without. The first was called Shahrayar, presented in an ornate silver bottle, reminiscent of an exquisite, ancient artifact. The description reads, “inspired by the folk stories of the 1001 Nights,” promising to “transport you to a forgotten age of … adventure” with its harmony of fresh mint, spicy nutmeg, and deep woodsy base notes.

The second eau de parfum I loved was Asalet Eloud, a simple formula of cedarwood (top note), sandalwood (heart note), and oud (base note).

Both of these scents were spicy, mysterious, and grounding. I was also surprised at their sillage (how long the scent lingers in the air) and their endurance—how long they last. With designer brands, I’d typically spray three to five times in day. With these, one spray lasts an entire day.

“It’s more distinguishable—you can feel it,” El Neil said of Arabian Oud’s unique quality and formulation. “[Oud changes] with the different layers, different pictures, different dimensions.”

He’s right. Oud won’t wash away the winter, but it helps you adapt; it warms your body and spirit so that you can always comfortably stay in the center of the storm.

J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.