Tom Ford Oud Wood, 2007

(Photo source unkown)

Perfumer Richard Herpin

Oud tends to be the gorilla in the room in a fragrance. Oud being both potent and distinctive, the challenge is how to make an oud-centric perfume fundamentally different than any other. This is a problem for all perfume producers, not just Tom Ford.  Oud is the It-Girl still, and here lies the other problem. The oud trend has been going on for long enough that its moment is getting a little long in the tooth. The smart niche companies that were touting oud for the past 4-5 years are moving on, but the high end designer lines (Dior,Versace, Armani) and the niche lines (Killian, Kurkdjian) missed the memo. My point is not at all that the perfumes are bad, but that seeing the trend as a function of marketing, the glass house of exclusivity and taste is looking a little fragile. All the $200-$500 exclusive ouds are competing with each other, but they’re also competing with much less expensive, well-made oud perfumes also available. Exclusivity is a fiction that style-merchants are constantly busting their asses to maintain, and the market is famously fickle. My bet is that the oud star is falling. (see photo)

A large part of the above scenario is price. Rare Vietnamese oud, ancient Cambodian treasured oud…  You’ve never heard anyone refer to rare ethylmaltol, and for good reason.  Where is all this oud coming from? Oud isn’t quite ambergris, whose formation is measured in decades to centuries, but you don’t plant it one season and harvest it the next. As with every other quality of smell that we refer to in perfume, oud, the note, and oud, the material are not the same thing. A product that is much more expensive than its direct competitors (a $400 by Killian perfume v. a $100 Parfumerie Generale perfume) require a certain justification, and whether the company is Chanel or Whole Foods, the rare sourcing of botanical components is the contemporary grail of sophistication among the consumer. Ivory, gems, elephant skin, milk fed veal. The exclusivity of Empire has given way to exclusivity AND ethics. ‘Please don’t spill your acai martini on my ipe wood floor and cause a stain. Though it’s sustainably grown, I’ve spent years monitoring the webcast of the organic, high altitude farm where I commissioned its growth. Don’t put me through THAT again.”

And here we have oud. All the sophistication of ambergris, none of the ethical indecision. We’re perfect prey for the oud-mongers.

Tom Ford’s Oud Wood starts out much like many other eponymous oud perfumes I’ve smelled, but from the very outset has a quality of softened edges and rounded tones. [Caveat:  I don’t have much of a nose or mind for dissecting the notes in oud, although I’ve smelled many oud perfumes. I’ve even had the opportunity, thanks to a friend sharing his stash, of doing a comparison sniffing of a number of quality pieces of Vietnamese and Cambodian oud wood whose very specific provenances were know by the person who collected them.]

This is a perfume that makes me question the difference between modulating something very particular and strong (oud), and going mainstream. Normally I would deride a goal of normalcy-above-all-else, but Oud Wood is wonderfully constructed, and despite the oud name, is a principally woody fragrance that modulates sweetness, smokiness, firmness and softness. It’s blended but specific, and smells like an imagined wood in the way that an abstract floral fragrance like Patou Joy suggests an idealized flower.

Does Oud Wood have all the brutal smokiness, bitterness, and slap-in-the-face often associated with oud? No, but I find this modulated quality refreshing given the ‘my oud’s bigger than your oud’ competitiveness that characterized some oud fragrances released around the time of Oud Wood (2007). Perfumer Richard Herpin pushes oud more to the center of the stage than this, but applies moderation deliberately to the composition and gives us the subtle but forthright Oud Wood.

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