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As a fragrance ingredient, earthy oud breaks the mould

Try telling people that your perfume contains pungent oil extracted from a thick black resin produced by a parasitic mould and you'll probably get suspicious stares.

But refer to the pungent ingredient as oud and watch their eyebrows rise with interest.

Intense, exotic and earthy are among the characteristics of this byproduct of agarwood, the dark resinous heartwood that forms when Aquilaria trees become infected. Oud (pronounced ood) smells expensive and it is. What it perhaps has going for it most is its obscurity and ineffability. There really is nothing quite like it. Hence its appeal.

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While the cultivation of agarwood can be traced back to ancient Asian civilizations, only recently has oud become the note du jour in high-end Western fragrances from Yves Saint Laurent's M7 to Tom Ford's Oud Wood.

This year alone, oud has become something of a scent-sation, with at least half a dozen new fragrances exploiting its intoxicating woodiness. Prestige brand Amouage launched Epic, which marries oud with rose and frankincense (another resin-derived scent). M. Micallef, meanwhile, created Aoud Gourmet, while Liz Zorn peddles Oud Lacquer. Kilian Hennessy (the heir to the Hennessy cognac business) offered up a limited-edition Pure Oud, Montale (a Parisian house that creates perfumes for Arabian royalty) concocts a minimum of three oud scents annually and Comptoir Sud Pacifique sells Aoud de Nuit, Aouda and Oud Intense under its banner. And next week brings Al Oudh, the much-anticipated, wildly feral oud interpretation from Bertrand Duchaufour, the master nose at L'Artisan Parfumeur.

Although it's a niche substance, oud is becoming increasingly trendy, says well-known perfume critic Chandler Burr, who credits its unusual origins for the fascination. When the bacteria die, they "[add]their microscopic corpses to what has become a darkly rich olfactory elixir or black smoke and woody char," he explains via e-mail. It's not your typical cocktail party subject, but the scentoscenti do love to discuss oud.

Marina Geigert, founder of the fragrance blog Perfume-Smellin' Things, refers to devotees as "oudettes." In the Middle East and North Africa, where oud is most popular, it is referred to as a type of smell, not simply an ingredient.

Indeed, oud's chameleon-like tendency to acquire different properties depending on partner ingredients gives perfumers greater latitude to design something original. Tom Ford's Oud Wood from 2007, for instance, is warm and seductive; vanilla bean and cardamom buttress the oud's spicy sweetness.

But add notes of civet and castoreum - both of which can be found in Oud 27 from Le Labo or Al Oudh by L'Artisan Parfumeur - and the scent becomes so animalic that some people may recoil. (Civet is the musk from a cat-like animal, while castoreum comes from the glands of beavers.)

On the Perfume-Smelling' Things blog, one post reads: "Why is everyone jumping onto the oud bandwagon - no doubt a wagon pulled by dirty cows and piloted by tribesmen in need of a bath?"

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Fans, however, swear that the scent simply requires an adjustment period. "I'm one of those people who is not repulsed," Kevin Stant, a contributor to the fragrance blog Now Smell This, says by phone from Seattle. "Even if it goes on smelling pissy and broomy, it gets more beautiful by the hour."

Surmising that oud is following in the wake of once-trendy frankincense, Stant admits this "throbbing" scent is one of the more difficult to pin down. "Sometimes people will think something smells weird or off."

Meanwhile, the Montale series of oud fragrances can be a transcendent experience for people who have travelled to the Middle East, according to Amyn Ladha, co-owner of the Perfume Shoppe in Vancouver. "It falls under the transporting, spiritual, comforting feeling."

Karen Grant, senior beauty-industry analyst for the NPD Group, a New York-based market research company, points out that oud appeals to "the sophisticated consumer who is willing to take more risks. When you're looking at [fragrance]at this higher level, you have to understand it to know it's cool."

Just don't expect to see oud featured in mainstream fragrances any time soon. Since it's not only rare but pricey, most experts think that it will remain on its rarefied perch.

"Oud is such a good fit with the niche houses because it perpetuates the model of being niche," says Nahla Saad, the creative director of Noor, the only fragrance boutique in Toronto to carry L'Artisan Parfumeur.

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On the other hand, maybe oud does have trickle-down potential. "It just has to be used in a mainstream way and/or the mainstream needs to get used to it," Burr notes. "Dark smoke-charred wood can be wonderfully acceptable if you get it just right."

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