jeudi 10 février 2011

Oud as a Cultural Object (notes on Incense Oud By Kilian)



I’ve got nothing against oud per se. The real stuff is a knockout of a material. What bugs me is the cliché it’s become but more than that, what its near-ubiquitousness means: this rush to cater to the Middle-Eastern market which is quickly turning into an undignified scramble… Is it a successful one? It would seem Middle-Eastern buyers aren’t necessarily picking Western oud-themed products over other notes. On the other hand, Western niche product aficionados can’t seem to get enough of it – with its incense-y, resinous, animalic, woody facets, oud ties in several niche codes. Not to mention that what passes for oud is now firmly entrenched in the codes of mainstream masculine perfumery, as Octavian Coifan notes in a recent post

It’s gotten to the point where oud can be thought of as a cultural object, a sign rather than a perfumery material or accord. It’s a tough note to like for Westerners so in a way, claiming a taste for oud (i.e. overcoming the initial weirding-out) is embracing virile values – you’re taking it straight, like a man. Pretty, pleasing notes are so mainstream…

Oud also functions as a new sign for exoticism, as Victoria points out in Bois de Jasmin: it is “authentically” oriental (as opposed to the fantasy Orient constructed by French perfumery). Is it going too far to note that the vogue for oud arose just when the Islamic world was perceived as increasingly threatening? Oud is the signifier of the “Arabia” that doesn’t freak out the West – of the Emirati who still spill their petrodollars in Western capitals while we go on shopping binges in Dubai… As such, it is as every bit as much of an oriental fantasy as Shalimar, a taming of the Other through what is most other, smell. Not to mention that splurging on such a costly ingredient puts us, at least symbolically, on the same footing as the sheiks…
At any rate, the note itself, in the form offered by most Western brands (and many Arabic brands I suspect) is itself a construct, since the real stuff is so rare and costly…
Which brings us to the matter at hand, By Kilian’s new Incense Oud.

With Calice Becker’s smooth animalic Pure Oud and Rose Oud, the most delicate rendition of the accord, By Kilian is already two lengths ahead of its competitors – and with a petrodollar price point.
The next instalments in the Arabian Nights collection were announced nearly a year ago on Basenotes as Amber, Incense and Musk (the latter may well be a coup de theatre, as a new perfumer joins Kilian Hennessy’s line-up of talents)… Meanwhile, instead of the expected Amber – maybe this was just a case of wishful thinking on the part of amber lovers? – the new scent is Incense Oud, authored by Sidonie Lancesseur who already composed the oud-centred Cruel Intentions for the brand (as well as the rum-themed Straight to Heaven). 

Was the flight plan changed in mid-air? The fragrance, to my nose, is almost as much of an amber/musk as it is an incense. What it isn’t is an oud, at least not in the official formula, which lists Guatemala cardamom, pink pepper, Turkish rose, Egyptian geranium, methyl pamplemousse, Virginia cedarwood, Indonesian patchouli, Indian papyrus, Somalia incense (oil and absolute), sandalwood, Macedonian oakmoss, Spanish cistus labdanum and musks. So that like Frédéric Malle’s recent Portrait of a Lady, the fragrance is a non-oud oud, playing on the effect rather than on the actual material. 

I don’t know Sidonie Lancesseur’s work outside of what she did for Kilian, but the two she’s done for the line strike me as much less delicately balanced than Calice Becker’s work. Similarly, Incense Oud is rich but less textured than the two first Arabian Nights. That said, with 25% incense, the formula is an olibanum overdose. Incense is a notoriously tricky material to handle, with mineral facets that can conjure blood: Lancesseur manages to polish off its rough edges and work it in smoothly into a rose-patchouli accord that spans from fresh (the geranium) and slightly fruity to a dark, almost chocolate-y effect with a bit of a spicy animalic pong. The result skews towards the masculine – Incense Oud smells like it’s just off an Emirates airline flight and on its way to the Ritz, clad in a blindingly white kandura. Without stopping at Montale, inch’Allah. 

I’ll still be looking forward to discovering the next Arabian Nights, because as far as ouds go, Kilian’s are amongst the most sophisticated on the market.


Incense Oud will launch worldwide on March 1st. It will come out in travel spray on April 1st.


Illustration by the Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi.


36 commentaires:

  1. Well that explains why I can't smell the oud in this one. Pure incense on me. Very beautiful incense, but...

    I like your cultural analysis, D. I've also wondered whether, as real agarwood becomes ever more rare, the folks in the lab came up with a decent cheap substitute that could be employed by all and sundry. A version of the Barthes Mythologies thing, about the story being impossible to tell until it's over (or something like that...).

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  2. Alyssa, there are a number of oud bases/reconstitutions. Many of them feature what I call "the spiky wood", a peculiar woody ambery synthetic I'm hyperosmic too, like a lot of people, with a majority of women. So some bunches of young guys sporting faux oud notes can really make me feel like my nose is being cleaned with a drainpipe (ugh, what an image).
    Mercifully, Incense Oud doesn't feature this type of material.

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  3. Great thoughts here, Denyse. It ties in nicely with discussions I'm having in classes regarding representations of the Other, which is a term that can be filled in many ways. It is quite fascinating to note the ways in which we imagine those Others, and in turn ourselves in relation to them. I'm always so curious as to what's at the root of those images we have and why we need to continually create the story anew. I suppose it's a Foucault thing, looking at why something becomes the topic of discourse (I need to read more into him yet.) I'm as guilty as the next for falling into trends (read animalic/leather/skanky notes) in our perfumed segment of the population, but the codes of scent and why we need to imagine smells in a certain way are always so interesting to me. I could wax philosophical for hours. We could no doubt start the discussion about authenticity, too, and why (or why not) it's desirable.

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  4. Jared, that's why oud is such an interest object. I'm not as up on the jargon as I was back in college, but you could say it draws to itself many strains of discourse around perfume. Authenticity is and long has been one of them, hence the insistence on naturals; exoticism and more precisely orientalism must go back to the Crusades in a way... It's already huge in ad copies of the 19th and I'll wager it goes back even further. And then there's the forging of a common culture of initiates: that's our little world.
    Hm. Do I feel a chapter coming on?

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  5. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par l'auteur.

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  6. I've already talked about this new oud trend that most of those unimaginative niche perfumers are using now after years of exploiting everything Serge Lutens has done since Feminite du Bois. By Kilian, Armani Prive, Tom Ford, Guerlain, Hermes, Bond No.9, L'Artisan, they all have their gourmand "something", woody "something", leather, tuberose, iris, jasmine etc...but oud is the new non-Lutens thing, in other words the magical note, finally they got something they think is "original" except they're all doing it of course and that includes Frederique Malle's latest Portrait of a Lady, a rose oud accord made in Autueil-Neuilly-Passy. Exploiting trendy notes in perfumery is like fashion solely based on seasonal change for commercial purpose, it's not interesting. I wish there were more visionnary perfumers (and fashion designers) out there...

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  7. Uella, bear in mind that L'Artisan goes back to 1976 and did pioneer the single-note perfume, though that's not saying that the decision to do an oud wasn't made because it was trendy: it likely was.
    But for oud not being interesting, I beg to differ: it becomes interesting when you ask yourself *why* there's such a sustained trend. What's uninteresting is smelling it in every second launch.

    You raise an interesting point about everyone doing a "vetiver" this and a "tuberose" that, etc, etc. This is what marketing people believe sells. I was tallying up the "exclusive lines" and their use of the main note in their perfume names:
    Use the main note in the name: Guerlain L'art et la matière, Armani collection privée, VC&A collection extraordinaire.
    Don't use it: Cartier les Heures de parfum, Chanel les exclusifs.
    I'm sure I'm forgetting some...

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  8. And I wish there were more visionaries as well. But we seem to be running short on them just now. Perhaps no one trusts them with a budget.

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  9. I was refering to single-notes with an oriental theme which is what most niche perfumers have exploited, the latest actually being L'Artisan with Traversée du Bosphore, definitely more "Lutens" than their original Mure et Musc.

    These marketing people have given us mediocrity. I'm glad they fail more often than not. I wonder how much money was spent by Guerlain's think tank to come up with Idylle, a commercial flop that's never made it on the shelves at Sephora in the US.

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  10. Uella, I wouldn't call Bosphore a single-note perfume by a long shot, and Serge Lutens didn't invent orientalism in perfumery, he injected it with a more individual story, his own. Again, L'Artisan were doing stories at about the same time Serge Lutens started his house.
    I had no idea Idylle never made it to the shelves of Sephora in the US. I shouldn't imagine top-flight consultants were paid on the project.

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  11. The cultural significance of the rising prominence of oud is indeed interesting to consider, so thanks for this Denyse. I'm also inclined to see it as one of the effects of the proliferation of the internet-based interest in perfumery. As you say, 'enjoying' oud has almost become the equivalent of loving Iranian arthouse cinema, and it's precisely those sorts of minority, non-mainstream interests that thrive on the community-fostering ethos of the Net.

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  12. Persolaise, that's pretty much it: it's the type of "let's not be mainstream" culture that springs quite naturally online. Though I've never actually seen figures or studies on the impact the online culture has on decision-making in the larger niche houses -- sometimes I wonder whether we're not overevaluating our impact. I really don't know the answer to that one.

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  13. No, I definitely don't know the answer either... but I do know one thing.

    I attended a perfume event recently, and the main speaker couldn't have been more vociferous about what he considered to be the power and influence of web-based writing about the industry. Sorry to keep going with the cinema analogy, but word of mouth is an extremely powerful force, right? Maybe the perfume world realises that the Net is an excellent 'venue' for generating word of mouth?

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  14. Persolaise, I'd say that web buzz is the be-all and end-all of a great many communications strategies in the niche world. It's so cheap. Playing the devil's advocate here, but how far does it reach outside the mundillo? To do google, say, on By Kilian's Incense Oud and stumble on this blog if you're not into niche, you'd have to have heard about it elsewhere -- printed press, maybe going by a perfume counter. Unless you google Chanel Bleu and get curious.
    One thing's for sure, and has been for quite a while, there are a lot of people reading these pages. And probably a lot of people making money off the ideas.

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  15. In addition to the cultural and economic reasons (definitely worth a chapter!), I also think oud has become so popular now partly as a result of the IFRA bans, which have robbed us of so many of the ingredients that used to give depth and complexity to western perfumes.

    I do hope Calice Becker will be back for others in this series. Her Liaisons Dangereuses, Rose Oud and Pure Oud are among my top ten, and I enjoy her other Kilians, as well.

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  16. I agree with Anonyme, there is a real sadness in the perfumista/ niche community about the demise of French perfumery due to IFRA fallout and bean-counting. I think the Arab world is now viewed as somewhat more "authentic" when it comes to perfumery, so it's being looked at for ideas. I remember when the Indian attars (the traditional, natural ones) came up in the blogosphere last year, many found them fascinating, and even bought and wore them. And the natural perfumery movement, which thumbs its organic nose at IFRA, has really taken off. A reason in common for these trends is surely the 2,000 ton weight that's fallen on European perfumery these past 5 years or so....
    -Marla

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  17. I went to Sephora today and checked again if they carried Idylle but they don't, they only had My Insolence and Allegoria Pamplelune. No Idylle available either on the Sephora's US website.
    I believe Idylle is the first and only mainstream Guerlain with no extrait de parfum version, seems like extraits are a thing of the past now even for Guerlain.

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  18. Anonymous, that's an excellent point. If only it were real oud, which it often isn't... I think Ms. Becker's work for By Kilian is excellent and it might have been more fruitful for Kilian to stick with the one perfumer, but the next ouds are by someone else entirely as far as I know.

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  19. Marla, you're right about the perfume community looking for "authenticity" after feeling defrauded by reformulations: this is also the reason for the vintage stampede. I'm not very knowledgeable about Indian and Middle-Eastern products but people who are tell me that not all is "authentic" in there either though...

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  20. Uella, the US Sephora seem to carry very different, less diverse stock than the French ones so I suppose they just have the newest things and the best-sellers of certain brands. I'm not sure Guerlain is successful in the US on the mainstream market: most of their market is in fact in France.

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  21. Yes, most oud-based perfumes in the Arab States, and certainly India and SE Asia, use oud adulterated with synthetics, or only synthetics. Trygve Harris has written in depth on the subject, here's a good link for those who want to know:
    http://www.naha.org/articles/agarwood_article.htm
    I've tried some of the new cultivated oud, and it shows promise, but it's not quite there yet. I think it will be, though, in a few years.
    -Marla
    PS: And yes, I'd forgotten the vintage tsunami, it does tie in with the rest!

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  22. I read Uella's comment, and I wish to step in on the "one note stretched over a house signature theme" that's become the staple in many niche launches.
    I read sometime ago that in mainstream releases, consumers seem to favor perfumes in wich the title seems to disclose the main ingredient...
    This is so puzzling, at least for me. The straightforward identification of the fragrance name with it's predominant smell was sufficient to diss a perfume, in my pre-perfumista days- in a blink: serge lutens, l'artisan, the aqua allegoria... Like if there was no magic, no complexity, no story. Today, some things have changed and I do approach with curiosity several fake soli-notes (white flowers, myrrh, incense, leather), but still, I'm not fan of this genre. I see no vision there, no artistry, and no magic - but I must be wrong since perfume lovers seem to prize so high these naifs esquisses, that to me are more like smells than actual perfumes.
    I know, I am off topic.

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  23. I like Pure Oud so much that I don't see the point in trying any other version And rose is not a note I enjoy...at least that's one crazy-expensive Kilian I'm safe from :)

    On the one-note theme, I do agree with Anonyme & Marla that part of the reason many 'simple' niche compositions have been so popular is that they actually contain (some quantity of) the natural ingredient they're named after (rose, orange blossom, etc), which you rarely get so much as a taste of in mainstream compositions - wh may be to do with IFRA restrictions. When I took my sister niche-testing last summer she was amazed & delighted to smell compositions without the synthetic shampoo notes she associated with 'perfume'.

    All the same, I'd definitely agree with Denyse that Traversee doesn't fit this category - it's delicate sure, but complex too.

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  24. Zazie, I think you can't dismiss a piece of work around a specific material any more than you can praise systematically more abstract compositions -- but I think you'll agree with me there. It's all a matter of how a perfumer has worked on his/her composition.
    Naming a perfume after its main note -- which Serge Lutens, for instance, is moving away from -- does seem to be something consumers appreciate, and maybe we could link this trend to the need for authenticity: people want to know what's in the bottle, to recognize it, just as they want to know what's in their dish. It's more easily legible so you need less effort to understand it, and people don't feel "fooled". You could call it olfactory traceability.

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  25. Parfymerad, IFRA restrictions apply both to mainstream and niche identically, and "solinotes" don't necessarily contain a high dose of the material that gives its name to the product. In fact, sometimes you'll get a more realistic rendition with just a very small amount of the namesake material. But of course consumers don't know that, and in many ways it's not even relevant. The "synthetic shampoo" note is a commercial choice I think (budget and style).

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  26. Any info on what kind of oud was used, or if synthetics were used, or an "accord"? Cambodian and Assam ouds are worlds away from each other. Are they walking the walk or just talking the talk? hehheh (I shouldn't leave comments after drinking a glass of Amarone....)
    -Marla

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  27. Step away from that bottle right now, ma'am! As I mention in the post, no actual oud was harmed in the process of composing Incense Oud.
    The brand doesn't even list the note. It's an effect, but I can't tell you which synthetics were used cause I don't know, and besides I had three glasses of wine with lunch and have now moved on to scotch and soda which is what Lauren Baccall drinks in The Big Sleep. So there! ;-)

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  28. OK, you gave us all a laugh, I've left the Amarone alone, with deep regrets, mea culpa....
    -M

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  29. I haven't given a try to L'Artisan Bosphore yet, I just read it was a nice but not-memorable gourmand leather but most important I don't see the cohesion with the original Mure et Musc in terms of concept. M&M is L'Artisan signature, not Rahat Loukoum and Fumerie Turque.

    Anglo-americans can pronounce Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Prada and Versace but not Guerlain, that being said, they always had Shalimar, L'Instant and Insolence at Sephora, they even had Mitsouko for a while in the early 2000s, it's just since last year I noticed they started to take away these fragrances from the shelves to the exception of a couple of Sephora locations in Manhattan.

    Idylle was supposed to be Guerlain's J'Adore huge commercial hit, I don't even think it ever got close to that even in France.

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  30. Uella, L'Artisan isn't really the subject here, but let's say Mûre et Musc is what? 30 years old? So it's a good think the house moved on. They've been doing travel-inspired scents for a decade.
    I suppose big brands all need their "J'Adore" to make money. Trouble is no one quite knows what will and what won't.

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  31. Sorry, I know L'Artisan is not the subject here but I'm so not into the oud thing, first like Lutens I don't like it, second this whole trend in niche perfumery is now approaching the level of a joke.

    Guerlain marketed Idylle to younger women but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that nowdays most if not of all want sexy, fresh yet highly feminine fragrances from those slutty young celebrities. Idylle is just to plain boring, it's totally void of personality and sexuality, it smells like the fragrance of a naive and bullied high school girl who doesn't know anything about the opposite sex.

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  32. Uella, I couldn't agree more. Independently from oud's olfactory qualities it's become a cliché.

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  33. Oops - forgot to sign off on the anonymous comment above about Calice Becker. I'll keep watching for her work elsewhere. You sound possibly optimistic about the new perfumer, so I'm still looking forward to trying the next in the BK oud series. ~~nozknoz

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  34. Beautiful post, is very interesting to read your opinion about oud as trend in perfumery, but I ask myself and you, is there one of this great number of fragrances that contains real oud oil? Because I suppose real oud is very few in the world and costs obscenely.
    And an other question is what is the smell of real oud and how many people was lucky to smell it?
    Which is the way to judge the quality of an oud based fragrance? Or we can judge only the quality of oud synth?
    Thanks

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  35. Fragrancescout, some of the products that announce oud do actually contain oud but not necessarily in large quantities. I'm not a huge expert on the material since I only smelled the real thing a few times, but I'm sure somewhere in the blogs someone with more expertise has already answered your questions.
    You can start here:
    http://absolutetrygve.blogspot.com/2010/03/oudh-time-at-enfleurage.html

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  36. thank you for your answer, the post that you have linked is very interesting

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