Oud – or Oudh – is one of the most expensive raw fragrance ingredients in the world. Known in English as ‘agarwood’, the value of a kilo of oud can be just as expensive as a kilo of gold, sometimes even more. With an instantly recognizable woody scent, the fragrance ingredient originates from the bark of trees which are only found in South East Asia.

It’s a scent that has become synonymous with the Middle East over thousands of years and can be traced back to the roots of the time of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H). “He started the tradition of fumigating oneself with oud – a practice that is followed by Muslims today,” Fathiya Al Marzooqi, the co-founder of Alchimie tells Emirates Woman. “The Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) referred to oud as an item found in Paradise.”

It’s an inherent part of life in the Arab region and as part of Arabic culture in general. Today, it’s used as a traditional aromatic and perfume in many forms: from high-grade wood chips burnt to welcome guests into one’s home, to perfuming garments and also perfuming the household with a rich and opulent fragrance.

To delve deep into the history of oud in the region and the significance it has, EW sat down with two experts – Fathiya Al Marzooqi, the co-founder of Alchimie and Salim Kalsekar, Managing Director of Rasasi Perfumes.

Salim Kalsekar, Managing Director of Rasasi Perfumes

What are the origins of oud in the Arab region?

Oud follows a long tradition and is used for a variety of purposes from medicinal, to aromatherapy, to spiritual and in perfumery, while also being synonymous with luxury, exclusivity and intimacy. Known in English as Agarwood, the first recorded use of oud dates back to at least 1400 B.C.E and has continued throughout human history with numerous references being made in many religious texts, poetry and pharmacopoeia.

Oud is sold in many forms from its purest (wood chips and pieces), to an oil-dhanal oud (both pure and blended together with other fragrances). Even its derivative products which are usually small pieces of oud leftover after distillation – oud moattar and its dust dakhoon or bukhoor is used as incense either alone or combined with other fragrant ingredients.

Rasasi Perfumes, one of the foremost fragrance houses in the Middle East offers customers a wide range of agarwood and dhanal oud products, from popular to rare and coveted varieties. Rasasi has built a reputation for offering authentic agarwood and dhanal oud products ensuring that the customer pays for the exact worth of the product. The pure extract from the agarwood tree also known as Dhan Al Oudh is one of the most coveted oriental perfumes, highly desired for its complex scent that unfolds over a course of many hours imparting a lasting fragrance trail that is mysterious, intoxicating and exotic, invoking a sense of magic and mystique.

Oudh Al Boruzz Asrar Indonesia

What is the history of oud in the Middle East?

Trade-in agarwood and its products can be dated back to ancient times with some texts even reporting that traders used the famous Silk Route to transport agarwood from China to the Middle East via India. Traditionally, oud came from South and Southeast Asia (India, Bangladesh, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam), and it was consumed by markets primarily in Japan and the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates). Presently, however, there has been an expansion both in supply centres (including Australia and Sri Lanka) and in-demand (largely throughout Western Europe).

Arabian perfumes have long been alluring the world with their distinct fragrances and are said to be synonymous with ancient heritage, tradition as well as fine luxury. Often referred to as black gold, the high price of oud is considered an indicator of its value as a precious and luxurious product, and the quality of the aroma can be viewed as an indication of status and prestige.

Oud, also known as the ‘wood of the gods’, has been an important part of religious rituals believed to facilitate a connection between man and the divine. Due to its calming effect agarwood is also burnt during meditation. It has been used throughout history, either in the form of incense or fragrance oil for personal grooming, applied on the hair, behind the ears, neck and clothes prior to prayers and social gathering.

The burning of agarwood is also considered an essential customary tradition within the Arab world and particularly in the Middle East, interwoven into the lives of Khaleejis and those within the Arab region from a young age. The fragrance rituals are so intrinsic to the culture that many expats living and growing up in the Middle East have adopted the tradition of scenting their homes by burning oud, oud moattar (oud chips soaked in oils) and bukhoor (oud dust soaked in fragrant oils).

Which are the most significant moments throughout the history of oud?

With agarwood having numerous uses from medicinal to perfuming one’s home and garments, to burning incense chips in honour of visiting guests, there are several significant mentions of the uses of oud throughout history in the Arabian region as well as other parts of the world. One of the first references to oud can be found within the Hebrew bible among descriptions of perfumes used by a bride prior to a wedding ceremony.

From the Islamic hadiths there are descriptions that the Prophets liked to use perfumes and often used oud to perfume their garments, while from the narratives of the famous Arab explorer Ibn Battuta, there are descriptions of the extensive use of perfumes by the Arab people in the 13th century. In Cyprus in the 14th Century C.E., agarwood was primarily used to treat a variety of medical conditions of the ear, eye, skin, bones and much more. In Al-Andalus (Muslin Spain between 900-1500 C.E.), local perfumers utilized aromatic substances of both eastern and western origin with agarwood being one of the top five primary ingredients used.

The long historical use of agarwood has been associated with cultures where aromatics are deeply ingrained in cultural experiences, such as the Middle East, India, China, and Japan. Among the many available plant-based aromatics, agarwood has always been among the most coveted and multi-functional- used as incense, as perfume oil, in perfumery as an ingredient, source of derivative fragrant products, and medical preparations. Historically, agarwood was also eaten for medicinal purposes as well as prepared as powder and applied to both skin and clothes.

The popularity of agarwood has been consistent throughout history and continues to remain in high demand even today for use in traditional and contemporary incense and perfume alchemy around the world.

What does it add to fragrance?

As one of the most expensive perfume ingredients in the world with the quality, rarity, place of origin and nature of the wood all playing a part in determining the price, it adds so much to fragrance. Known to come from the wood of the Southeast Asian agar (Aquilaria) tree; when the wood of the tree becomes infected with a particular type of mold, the tree reacts by producing a dark, scented resin, often referred to as liquid gold. The older the tree from which the resin is extracted, the more expensive the product as it sometimes takes hundreds of years for the wood to mature and produce a resin that is rich in scent and of a high-quality.

When used within a perfume composition, oud is most often used as a middle or base note. As base notes typically form the foundation of a fragrance, Oud adds a sense of richness and opulence to the perfume with the scent lingering on the skin long after the fragrance of the other ingredients dissipate and disappear. The effect an oud note imparts depends upon the origin of the oud. The Indian oud lends a sensual spicy rather animalistic profile to a perfume, Indonesian oud has a deep woody profile while the Cambodian oud is smooth, sweet and most pleasant amongst oud varieties.

What are the ideal notes to pair with oud?

Oud is highly versatile as a perfumery ingredient and goes well with a variety of olfactory profiles including the likes of sandalwood, musk, rose, geranium and carnation to name a few.

Rasasi has always been at the forefront of product innovation and has infused a modern appeal to classical oriental perfumery. The introduction of contemporary notes like white florals, fresh green notes, fruity-florals, fruity accords and other exotic and gourmand notes to oriental alchemy has extended the appeal of oriental perfumes and incenses to newer audiences while also wowing existing clientele.

In your fragrances, what significance does it hold?

Rasasi perfumes add the ingredient of oud to a variety of their fragrances as it brings an oriental twist adding a touch of opulence and luxury to the fragrance. Oriental fragrances are famous across the world for their aura of mystery and opulence. Oud lends the famous fragrant trail to a scent- a lingering scent that can be smelt from a distance and is full of exotic mystique. Dhan Al Oud is a symbol of the famed oriental perfume trail and is used as a base on which various perfumes are layered to create a signature scent that is unique as the individual. This process is called layering.

Dhan Al Oud is independently used by the rich and wealthy for its distinguished scented and as a symbol of status and prosperity.

Fathiya Al Marzooqi, the co-founder of Alchimie

What are the origins of oud in the Arab region?

Commonly known as ‘black gold’, a kilo of oud can be as expensive as a kilo of gold, sometimes, even more, depending on the rarity of the tree it was cut from. The Arab region can trace back their roots to the time of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H), who started the tradition of fumigating oneself with oud – a practice that is followed by Muslims today. The Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) referred to oud as an item found in Paradise.

Oud is also one of the reasons why the Arab region developed trade routes in ancient times.

What is the history of oud in the Middle East?

Oud holds a special place in Gulf Arab traditions. Walk into any Gulf home, especially during the Eid holidays, and one is welcomed with the scent of burning oud throughout the house, and the oil-based oud that adorns men’s traditional thoub dress and females’ abayas.

Dubai is the oud capital of the world – the material is bought and sold here on a huge scale. There are multiple vendors and perfumers here who sell this prized scent. Oud is more than just a scent – it’s a whole culture and there’s no place that appreciates oud like the UAE.

Which are the most significant moments throughout the history of oud?

Oud, well-known to the human nose for its expensive yet quality notes, is without a doubt enjoyed as a unique luxury in the region for thousands of years. Carrying unique properties, Oud has been traditionally used in Mosques where the incense chips are burned, letting out strong scents that can be easily recognized from afar.

Moreover, coming in various forms including wood chips, oils and perfumes, Oud represents status for many families in the Middle East, leaving a mark with the rich fragrance wherever they go. They hold great significance as it is used by families in every Arab home, as well as gifting choices for clients, colleagues and relatives.

What does it add to fragrance?

Oud gives its wearers a distinct personality. No one note of Oud is the same which is why it’s used as a base note with other scents to create something that’s timeless but also powerful. We strongly believe that oud is very classy but also helps with making the right impression.

What are the ideal notes to pair with oud?

This is purely subjective but I’m partial to jasmine and musky scents – especially if they are earthy.

In your fragrances what significance does it hold?

I’ve grown up with having bakhoor in my home. It’s a mainstay in Emirati homes, bakhoor is synonymous with warmth, richness and Arabian hospitality. Alchimie’s home fragrances and diffusers pay homage to bakhoor without the negative side effects – did you know your lung capacity and breathing gets affected by burning incense at home without a filter? This is why we conceptualized Alchimie and created it.

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