Is anyone here just a teeny tiny bit tired of the rose-oud combination? Don’t get me wrong – there are days when I still crave that wonderful combination of smoky, sour oud and sweet rose. But increasingly, I am turning to oud fragrances that either do away with the rose part of the equation, or bury the oud in dark woods and crisp leather so that it becomes more of a bit player than the main attraction.
The key words here are subtlety and novelty. Can oud be presented in a manner that surprises and pleases even the most jaded of palates? Here are my thoughts on a few fragrances I’ve been testing recently that place the oud note in a new light.
James Heeley’s Phoenicia
Heeley Parfums describes Phoenicia as an “imaginary journey in the Antique Phoenicia, at its peak in 1000 BC. Inspired by this region of the Mediterranean coast, the notes makes us travel from Lebanon to Andalusia, passing by North Africa, Cyprus and Israel”.
This is a very subtle, dark, and masculine take on the oud theme that chooses to make the oud note part of the general bone structure of the fragrance rather than the star. Despite the dried fruit, oud, and incense notes, this is more a dry, smoky woods fragrance than an imaginary trip down the Levantine coast – more Timbuktu than Jubilation XXV or Al Oudh, say.
The Heeley signature of refinement and grace is evident here. This will greatly appeal to anyone who prefers the delicacy of small, well-made objects to blingy costume jewelry. It’s not a statement oud – it is a private pleasure to be absorbed and enjoyed in the small space between your breastbone and your shirt. From the dark, feline oud oil note at the start to the polished woods, leather, and crisp smoke background, nothing about Phoenicia is gaudy or loud.
Phoenicia reminds me of an old wooden casket that once held dried fruit and bunches of vetiver root wrapped up in paper, the aged smell of which has infiltrated the brown patina on the casket and exists more as a memory of scent in the grain of the wood than a direct, “present” note. A work of incredible subtlety, I would wear this everywhere without having to think twice about whether it’s appropriate or not – this kind of thing will always be right, like Cary Grant.
Creed Royal Oud
I freely admit that I don’t enjoy the top notes of Royal Oud. I am sensitive to cedar for some reason, and Royal Oud presents such a massive overload of it that I can feel something tightening behind my eyes. To me, cedar can smell very sour and musky and just plain “wrong”, and unfortunately Royal Oud places it in such a way that I can’t inch my way around its bulk. So I just sit it out for a while, waiting for the cedar rush to subside and my butt cheeks to unclench. It’s a process.
Don’t take it personally, Creed fans – cedar manages to torpedo many other perfectly good fragrances for me as well. Spiritueuse Double Vanille is just one I can think of off the top of my head.
Once the cedar haze dies back a bit, I am able to discern some very nice notes coming to the fore, such as a green herbal note that smells very crisp and refreshing (the angelica?), a pleasingly green resin tone (galbanum), and something that reminds me of wood rubbed with either mint, lime, or eucalyptus. Still, the heart remains very woody, and almost sour/musky with its green underpinnings, and I perhaps don’t enjoy it as much as I think I should be at this stage.
Where I really dig Royal Oud is in the drydown, where it becomes a creamy, powdery sandalwood blend with a slight hint of Indian oud. This supplies all the creamy sweetness I was missing in the cedar top half, and it performs at such a pleasing, low-level hum all day that I completely forget about all that initial unpleasantness. The creamy, powdery woods in the base are lifted by a salty tonality from a smooth musk and perhaps a touch of ambergris, obtained with royal warrant from whales from all the best waters in the world.
Royal Oud is obviously well-made, and is a good choice if you’re the type of person who vests more importance with the basenotes of a fragrance than the top notes (and that would be me, more or less). I personally don’t think I could get past the cedar, but I’d recommend this fragrance to anyone who wants a well-made, woody, slightly conservative fragrance that doesn’t focus too much on the oud.
Oud Velvet Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdijan
Oud Velvet Mood differs from its brethren in the Oud Moods series by virtue of a striking copahu balm note, smelling of cinnamon bark, rare metals, medicine, and sweet rubber all at once. The texture of the fragrance is balmier than Oud Cashmere Mood, which is comparatively smokier and (it has to be said) more interesting all round. But what I love about Oud Velvet Mood is that it is unafraid to present an oud oil note that is authentically Indian in profile: creamy, nutty, and very, very sheep-cheesey.
Yes, Hindi or Syoufi oud haters need not apply. It fairly explodes out of the bottle, this rudely unapologetic aroma, ripe and falling apart at the edges – and proceeds to stand there proudly, completely alone on a ledge, with no sweet rose at all to soften the blunt force trauma of it all. I happen to love the sheer unloveliness of animalic oud oil, but I will admit that to the uninitiated, there will appear to be some disturbing mind associations that come up, like oil, rubber, cheese, tires, melting plastic, and the like. In this respect, Oud Velvet Mood has a similar oud note to that of Oud Cashmere Mood – but it is perhaps easier to swallow in Oud Cashmere Mood because it comes neatly wrapped up in smoky labdanum. Here, everything else seems pared back, minimized, to allow the full glory of the oud to shine through.
Apart from the cinnamon-medicine accent from copahu balm, what’s very notable in this fragrance is the use of saffron. Here the gold-metallic, dusty leather facets of saffron have been harnessed, and it adds an overall tone of brightness to the composition that brings Oud Velvet Mood further away from the dark smokiness of Oud Cashmere Oud and closer to the sunshiney, yolk-yellow smile of the original Oud. This was a surprising development, and one that I was able to confirm only by wearing it side by side with Oud Cashmere Mood and then again with the original Oud. So, if you want an oud fragrance that is halfway between the bright, sweet, saffron-dominated original Oud and the dark, smoky, industrial Oud Cashmere Mood, then Oud Velvet Mood might be what you’re looking for. Personally, though, I love the original Oud and Cashmere Mood far more than this. I’m at a loss to say why, but there it is.
Other favorite “Non-Rose-Y Ouds” of mine are, of course, Oud Shamash by The Different Company (reviewed here), Oud Assam by Rania J. (review here), Original Oud and Oud Cashmere Mood by Maison Francis Kurkdijan (reviewed here and here respectively), Al Oudh by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Mukhallat Dehn al Oudh Moattaq by Ajmal, and the utterly amazing Oud Osmanthus by Mona di Orio, whose beauty I still find myself at a loss to describe in adequate terms….
What are YOUR favorite non-rose oud fragrances?