Following Santal Royal and Ambre Éternel, Guerlain has launched the third addition to its Absolus d’Orient series. Called Oud Essentiel, its name is just as stilted and unpronounceable as are all of Guerlain’s Orient fragrance names, typical of "niche" perfumery. Like Les Déserts d’Orient, Les Absolus d’Orient are destined for the Middle Eastern market, but at a significantly lower price than the former. Although the brand is now trying to conquer the entire planet with Mon Guerlain, the truth is that perfume tastes in the Arab nations differ vastly from what is popular in the West. What perfumers call oriental fragrances, softly sweet and balsamic compositions, are not favoured in the Middle East. Maybe due to the hot desert climate, which makes perfumes evaporate on skin within minutes, Arab men and women prefer muscular scents with rich wood, spices, resins and rose.

Oud, especially, a.k.a. agarwood, with its dense, musty-resinous, woody odour, is a highly prized perfume ingredient in the Middle East. It’s therefore no surprise that Guerlain’s Orient series would eventually include an oud fragrance. The oud note is uncommon at Guerlain, but it has appeared in a supporting role in scents like Cologne du 68, Habit Rouge EdP, Rose Nacrée du Désert, Santal Royal, L'Homme Idéal EdP, and Néroli Outrenoir. Also, Guerlain had a short-lived fragrance, actually a perfume oil, called Oud Sensuel in 2007. Derived from an endangered wood species, oud is one of perfumery’s costliest raw materials, so it's safe to say that in commercial perfumery, most, if not all, "oud" is a recreated synthetic note.

There’s an excellent natural feel to Oud Essentiel, but it’s difficult to tell whether it contains real oud or not, because like Santal Royal and Ambre Éternel, it employs a so-called "boisé sec" type aroma chemical, a woody-leathery-acidic super molecule that nowadays forms the backbone of masculine perfumery, as exemplified by Paco Rabanne’s Invictus, or, in the niche department, Nasomatto's Black Afgano. This powerful material can be smelled a mile away and has an extraordinary capacity to boost all other notes in a formula. At the same time, its strong point is the reason for its bad reputation: its extreme stamina and long evaporation curve outperform anything else, and it therefore tends to impart a somewhat monotonous sensation, especially when the rest of the composition has faded away. Dosed carefully though, it can make a fragrance shimmer and effervesce, being to men’s scents what aldehydes are to women’s. Guerlain has used the boisé sec note with great success in L’Homme Idéal and Habit Rouge Dress Code.

Described as "a subtle alchemy", Oud Essentiel is not as subtle as Ambre Éternel, but luckily far less harsh than Santal Royal. The scent is quite an unusual take on the oud theme, which is often interpreted as warm and dark. Instead, Oud Essentiel uses a citronellol or geraniol note, which is a natural component of rose, for a piercing opening effect similar to the one we know from Habit Rouge or, in an even colder variant, the L’Hiver ("winter") fragrance in the Four Seasons collection. Mixing with plasticky leather, rose absolute, dusty notes of bitter saffron and orangey frankincense, and all sorts of smoky, nutty and ashy facets of wood, not the least of which is a dry cedar, this fragrance could be a rosier, Arabian version of Habit Rouge. In fact, it reminds me of a cross between the discontinued Habit Rouge Extrait and Rose Barbare, which isn’t a bad thing at all. And what a rose: fresh, suave, honeyed, and spicy! Carefully inhale Oud Essentiel, and you’ll understand why Thierry Wasser is so proud of his Bulgarian rose blend. If you loved Ne m’Oubliez Pas, but can do without the fruity top note and the high price, Oud Essentiel will probably make you swoon.

The drydown has a rare animalic and earthy touch (maybe this really is real oud?), wonderfully vintage and chypre-like. It's rounded off with the accord of benzaldehyde (almond and cherry scent), caramel and white musk that Wasser and Jelk use as the base for almost everything they do, from La Petite Robe Noire and L’Homme Idéal to Les Délices de Bain and Mon Guerlain. Why doesn’t Guerlain just give this base a name and include it on the list of Guerlinade ingredients? It smells delicious, so there’s really no point in being secretive, and it would make it so much easier not to have to list the same notes in every fragrance review.

Even after showering, Oud Essentiel lasts and lasts. Take it as an opportunity to layer it the day after with a spritz of good old Habit Rouge, or even Mitsouko, and be reminded why we love Guerlain so much.

The Absolus d’Orient fragrances come in an opaque, solid-coloured version of the Eau de Rituel bottle, black for Santal Royal, dark purple for Ambre Éternel, and deep green for Oud Essentiel. The bottle is accented with a masculine-looking scarf around its neck. (Shown here is the limited edition gold bottle for Santal Royal.)
(April 2017)

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