Oud sloshes about perfume retailers nowadays, you need waders or gumboots to keep the stuff from soaking your shoes. There is practically a flood warning out for it, and still the public seems to love the smell and to keep on buying. Sometimes I wonder if this is not due to the fact that the Industry killed off one of their better dry fixatives with the oakmoss ban imposed by IFRA? It could be, and after all, synthetic substitutes for oud have existed for some time, but the beginnings of oud and the Middle Eastern influence on mainstream perfume is a good deal older than you might expect.
Yves Saint Laurent’s M7, a synthetic oud fragrance for men, was introduced in 2002 and has remained a love it or loathe it experience ever since. However M7 wasn’t the first mainstream release containing oud. The first was probably Yatagan (1976) into whose formula a certain amount of oud wood was incorporated. The oud is not in the notes, neither in the H&R Guide of 1991, nor yet on any of the websites, but there is a reference to this note of Yatagan’s in The Book of Perfume by Barrille and LaRoze who claim that the perfumers of Caron, always interested in rituals (with their own Royal Bain de Caron allegedly part of Voodoo ceremonies) decided to include this nearly sacred material in their new masculine.*
This explains why I smell oud in my samples of Yatagan, neither of which can be less than thirty three years old. What intrigues me is whether there was a substitute for oud in those days, or whether what I am smelling is the real thing? Frankly I doubt that. Real oud does smell pungent, but not quite so squid ink pungent as the substitutes, and I believe I pick up on an early one in Yatagan. It’s a very strange perfume indeed and like M7 polarizing in the extreme.
“The truth, of course, was that this 1976 creation and its levantine fan club were thirty years ahead of their time.” That was Luca Turin’s summation in his second Guide, but in fact, the levantine fans may have been jonesing for something else included in that potent cocktail:agarwood in an affordable form, which also explains why Yatagan was popular in the Middle East for decades.
It’s maybe not so surprising that the easternization of western perfumes began rather a long time before either Serge Lutens or Amouage, or M7 for that matter. I’ve written about the inspiration of Parfum Sacre for Feminite du Bois by Sheldrake, Bourdon and Lutens himself, the second and more influential of Serge Luten’s perfumes. ** The direction that perfume making took may have been almost an accidental one, but certainly the East was in the air. Guerlain’s monumental Samsara was released only a year before Parfum Sacre in 1989, and the ad copy sounded as if it had been lifted from the Sanskrit, or at any rate, that was the idea.
If you consider that 1978 was a watershed year for reducing the cost of an oil formula for perfume ( the best example being YSL’s Opium) then the move towards fixatives was a realistic one. Strange exotic formulas could stay away from the familiar and pricey scents of flowers, introducing the customer to something new, like cedarwood (which is an affordable natural), or a new material like the damascenones of Jean Coutourier’s Coriandre, which put a synthetic in a woody rose formula, even if later more natural rose materials were used, the public was accustomed to the form, as in Frederic Malle’s Portrait of a Lady or Guerlain’s Songe d’un Bois d’Ete. It was essentially a well known, indeed venerable recipe. Some of the templates of fragrance, as early as the 70’s were eastern, not western.
The paradox here is that Yatagan, of all things, used one of the most expensive ingredients in the world, or a facsimile. This went very much against custom, which usually decrees that masculines will be made of cheaper materials. This may not have been the case with Yatagan, like the famous weapons in Topkapi, there may have been some real treasure in that trove…
*Page 113 of The Book of Perfume
** The first was Nombre Noir for Shiseido a rose aldehyde fragrance