If you are a Fummie, you know Oud and its sweet balsamic smokey woodiness. It is also one of the rarest, and most beautiful scent ingredients who’s path to your bottle is so strange it seems almost mythical. It is also in danger of being lost forever.
If you have been watching perfume trends for the last 10-15 years, you might have noticed a shift. Westerners have been buying fewer products while fragrance sales in the emerging economies are exploding. Brazil, with a culture of freshness, love of fruity florals, and its massive consumption of mid and low-priced products has been the tastemaker for commercial products. Everyone is trying to crack into the Chinese market, but cultural norms around smell and the body have made it a challenge. Meanwhile, smart higher-end perfumers have been gearing more towards the Middle Eastern markets and their inexhaustible love of perfume. It’s not just a fling love affair, the region has a cultural acceptance and appreciation of fragrance. As such, they are more willing to buy at higher price points and more often. The average Middle Eastern consumer goes through 100ml of perfume in 4-6 months. A Western consumer may take years to go through a 100ml bottle.
So Western perfumers have tried to integrate Middle Eastern scent sensibilities into their lines and Oud, a once rare perfume ingredient in the West, has become a worldwide superstar. Oud is big business, the global market for Oud is about $7 Billion. A kilo of average raw Agarwood, the source of Oud oil, will cost between $10,000-$14,000. A kilogramme of high-quality old-growth pure Oud oil can cost $100,000. For comparison, the police value a kilogramme of cocaine in the US at $77,000. So what makes this stuff more expensive than cocaine?
Oud may be a rising trend in the West, but it is the grand dame of Asian and Middle Eastern perfumery. Oud is also known as Agar, Agarwood, Aloeswood, Lignumwood and Eaglewood. (For simplicity sake, I will call this divine ingredient Oud when it is distilled into oil and Agarwood when it is in its raw form.) Agarwood isn’t itself a tree, its a bit complicated. See, Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees are fast growing evergreen trees native to India and Southeast Asia. There are about 15 varieties that can become Agarwood.
A variety of Ascomycetous fungi Credit
If the tree is healthy, the heartwood (the wood in the centre of the tree) is pale and odourless, but if the tree gets injured, it can get an infection. This injury is traditionally done by the Ambrosia Beetle which will bore into the tree. The wound then needs to gets infected by the parasitic Ascomycetous family of fungi. That infection leads to an immune response by the tree to control the spread of the disease. That immune response creates a fragrant resin that attempts to penetrate and isolate the infected area, but the story doesn’t end there.
Old Agarwood trees Credit
An infection in the sapwood, the newer growth rings of a tree, doesn’t produce as intense a fragrance. The infection needs to get to the heartwood. The heartwood of a tree undergoes a natural transformation that makes it resistant to decay but should a potent infection spread to the heartwood the tree is compromised. If it were another form of contagion, the tree would die, but Ascomycetous fungi are parasitic. So infected trees lumber along trying to isolate the infection, spending enormous amounts of their resources fighting it and as such don’t grow as strong or high as their healthy siblings.The longer the resin penetrates the heartwood, the better. The wood will turn from pale to dark brown or black and grow more fragrant with time.
Ideally, Agarwood shouldn’t be harvested before the tree is 45-year-old. Some of the priciest and rarest Oud oils you can find come from trees that have been infected for about 100 years. Those trees are gone now, but some of their ichor still remains for those that can pay for the pleasure. The wood is usually hydro or steam distilled. There is some debate over which method is better, but both are preferred to CO2 extraction. The first pull from the distillation is always the best product and a second or third batch will produce lesser quality Oud. All batches will need filtering, ageing and sunning before it will be suitable for sale to perfumers and scent manufacturers. Oud only gets better and darker with age.
Young plantation Agarwood trees Credit
First pull from about a tonne of Agarwood
Agarwood plantations now have human-induced injuries and purposely infected saplings. They try to get the trees to distillation in 12 years. This, however, is an inferior product without the living maturation of the infection and the beetles. It is often referred to as Fake or Faux Agar. There are attempts as well to not fell the old Agarwood trees, but when it takes 70 kilogrammes of wood to make 20 millilitres of essential oil through steam distillation, it becomes hard to keep up with demand. Make no mistake the market is huge and legal and illegal Oud production can barely keep up. Oud has a history in perfumery going back thousands of years. It literally has a cult following beyond the trendy perfume counter.
Royal Agarwood distillery in Malaysia
The Aloe mentioned in the Bible is not Aloe Vera, a common misunderstanding due to poor translation, but Oud. Aloes are referred to at least five times in the Tanakh (Old Testament). In the New Testament, Nicodemus buys powdered Aloeswood for the embalming of Jesus which gives a tantalising detail into the influence of Egyptian burial practices on First Century Judea and Canaan. Egyptians did use Oud on occasion in their embalming practice, but embalming and applying unguents to the dead are strictly forbidden in Judaism, then and now. It is evident, however, that throughout the biblical writings it was a product that was considered rare, wonderful, sacred, and I dare say, erotic.
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.
The Prophet Mohammed was said to scent his home with Oud and Agarwood is mentioned by the 9th-century Islamic scholar al-Bukhari as one of the plants in Paradise. It has a long history in Ayurvedic medicine and is mentioned numerous times in the Vedas, which is the oldest body of Sanskrit literature and one of the oldest written texts in the world. In Wa Zhen’s 3rd Century CE chronical, Strange Things from the South, he mentions its production in the mountains of what is now Vietnam. Agarwood has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries and can still be found as a treatment for digestive and breathing conditions. (Though I could not find any peer-reviewed data showing its efficacy as a medicine). In 1580 the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam established a royal monopoly on Oud, which they called Calambac, and this act single-handedly financed the state during the tumultuous first years of their rule.
Heian Era Lady’s court incense tools
Oud was valued as a medicine but far more as a perfume and incense ingredients where its beautiful scent played a cultural role by creating sacred space through olfaction. It was indispensable in the Heian period in Japan as fragrance played an important court function at this time and is still essential to Shinto practices. It remains the main ingredient in Japanese and Indian incense. Agarwood is specifically used in the ritual incense for many Hindu ceremonies. It may also be the aromatic bark listed in the ingredients for the temple incense burned in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem; and twice a year the Kabba, the most sacred site is Islam, is washed with a mixture of water from the Well of Zamzam, Tarif rosewater, and Oud.
Why was Oud so closely associated with divinity? I have a theory. Before CGI, superhero movies, heart thumping base, and laser light shows, people created the sense of otherworldliness and sacredness through art, architecture, natural lightings like bonfires and stain glass, performance and fragrance. In a world of dull or unpleasant smells, the waft of that rare and beautiful smoke was a way to shrug off the mundane and get closer to your deity. Scent touches memory like no other sense can. Part of your memory of the ritual is the smell which can hold your previous emotional experiences with the ritual preserved as if in amber. The exhilaration you felt as a child watching your mother light the sacred incense for the first time bubbles up when you, years later, do the same and catch that particular odour under your nose. It is a touch of Paradise in the real world. It is a memory of repetitions, of those that taught you these rituals and those whom you will teach these rituals to.
15 C interpretation of Paradise
In modern times we still crave otherworldliness, but we find it in the movie theatre, the concert, even the night club. We’ve lost this appreciation for the unplugged theatre of ritual. We also live in a time that is both hyper-critical of scents and strangely, inundated with the obnoxious non-scent of “clean”. We smell that slightly floral, white musk, laundry detergent fluff so much most people have trouble recognising that a product is scented, their noses have deadened to the odour. Western culture does not take olfaction seriously or see perfume as olfactive works of art. So as a culture we don’t turn to it to mark time and create space. In recent memory when it has been attempted we’ve ended up less with Sacred Smoke and more with Smell O’Rama. Which once again is paradoxical because the West has done more to advance the art of perfumery in the 20th and 21st Centuries than any other community. We are spoiled for choice on lovely scents from our perfume to our floor cleaner and the rare herb in our crystal bottle loses it’s divinity in a consumerist olfactive culture and becomes just another seasonal trend.
Modern rituals of altered states
If you have a perfume that contains old-growth Oud, you may want to save it, because your kids will probably never get to enjoy it (that and your Mysore Sandalwood). As mentioned earlier in the post, the old trees are already gone, and the plantations are not giving the trees enough time to develop. The wild trees died out in India in the 12th century and are now considered endangered in Southeast Asia due to overharvesting. The trade of Oud is now monitored by TRAFFIC, and it is illegal to harvest wild trees, but it still happens. Often whole sections of forests are cut down as poachers look for the trees with the black hearts without any real understanding of the value of their forest and the trees they seek.
In Hong Kong illegal loggers use toilet paper to mark possible wild Agarwood trees Credit
Synthetics aren’t much help here either. Oud is too complex to be synthesised profitably. The major chemical components responsible for the characteristic fragrance are 15-carbon chain compounds called Sesquiterpenes. They can, in theory, be synthesised, however, these are very complicated structures that are extremely expensive to make in a lab. It would not be profitable for scent manufacturers to make these sophisticated synthetics for perfume at the moment. Facsimile chemical profiles are in use, but they do not stand up to the real thing. However, I have heard of perfumers cutting synthetics into lower quality natural Oud to bring out certain qualities with positive results.
We as lovers of perfume need to be the driving force behind the protection of these trees. No more Aquilaria trees, no more Ambrosia Bettles, no more Oud. We need to buy smart. Either skip the Oud, accept a lesser quality Oud or synthetic as an accompaniment in a complex fragrance, or hold out for ethically sourced old-growth Oud with a much higher price point. We need to reach out to our perfumers, especially in the Artisan, Niche, and Indie markets, to ask where are they getting their Oud and that it matters to you as a consumer. We need to write letters urging larger manufactories to invest in conservation and support the plantations to allow at least some of the tree to grow to maturity. We need to support projects that are trying to save the trees like the Agarwood Project.
Most importantly I think we need to cultivate the awe we once had for these ingredients. They were unique and rare, you were lucky to smell them once let alone own a bottle of them. We need to treat our perfume like olfactive jewels, not fast food. Our market culture gives us the false sense that the fragrance we love will always be there. We go into the shop, and we see bottle after bottle, and if they don’t have it we can always go online, but if the Agarwood and Sandalwood trees are gone what do we do then? What do we do when there are no more sperm whales to give us Ambergris? We need to be olfactive stewards, not just olfactive consumers.
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright owner, Nuri McBride and can be found on her blog, Death Scent, at https://deathscent.com/.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Ouddict community.