THE LIQUID GOLD CALLED OUD
WHERE TO FIND IT IN NATURE
- Agarwood, aloeswood, gharuwood, aoud, oudh (or just oud) is a fragrant dark resinous wood used in incense, perfume, and small carvings. It is formed in the heartwood of the aquilaria trees when they become infected with a type of mould (Phialophora parasitica).
Prior to an infection, the heartwood of this tree is odourless, relatively light and with a pale colour; however, as one infection progresses, the tree produces a dark aromatic resin called aloes or agar, that is harvested to produce oud.
OUD IN ANTIQUITY
In the Old Testament, “aloes” is mentioned several times. Four of the five times that it is mentioned in those ancient scrolls, aloes is used in conjunction with myrrh.
Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes as an offer to Jesus, and in the “Garden of the Beloved”, it smelled like “...scents from all the trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, from all the chief spices…”
Agarwood was not only present but was also held in high regards as well was myrrh.
In the Quran and in the Bible, the fabulous Queen of Sheba offered gifts of agarwood - among other valuable offers – to the all mighty King Solomon, as a sign of admiration , respect and probably love as well.
In the southern Middle East, Yemen was already trading goods with India by the time of King Solomon. Since a lot of the Middle East ancient perfumes and fragrant goods, such as myrrh and frankincense, found their way into Chinese and subcontinental cultures. It would be reasonable to assume that the Arab traders were bringing back agarwood from India and the Far East where they originate.
Ibn Battuta, a traveller in the 14th century gives wonderful accounts of the agarwood harvesting and trading he saw in Hindustan, Java, and Ceylon:
“On the sea-shores, aloes like seed-aloes, sold by measure, just as meal and millet is…The whole of its shore abounds with cinnamon wood, bakam, and the kalanji aloe.”
To highlight the abundance of aloeswood, Ibn Battuta also mentions how Ayari Shakarti, a local ruler, kept a saucer made of ruby filled with aloeswood oil.
Sindbad, the arabian protagonist of one of the Arabian Night tales, is described to buy aloeswood from Ceylon before he returns home from his fifth voyage.
Oud has allways been associated to vanity, alluring and erotism, besides religious purposes. The use of agarwood also finds itself described in the works of Kalidasa, a renowned classical Sanskrit writer:
“Beautiful ladies, preparing themselves for their master feast of pleasures, cleanse themselves with the yellow powder of sandal, clear and pure, freshen their breast with pleasant aromas, and suspended their dark hair in the smoke of burning agarwood”.
Agarwood was probably used socially as much as it was used in religious settings, in the forms of fragrant
incense. The Vedas prescribed the methods and ingredients needed to create incense. And because incense gave pleasant aromas they began to be used in the Ayurveda to heal.
As Buddhism appeared in India it absorbed some Hindu customs—incense use permeated Buddhist traditions as well. Agarwood was mainly used as an incense flavoring. Though the transition is not very well described or recorded, the use of agarwood in incense influenced the development of using agarwood to make prayer beads. Till the present day Buddhist monks still use prayer beads made of agarwood. The Buddhist monks using agarwood in incense and in their prayer beads may have been responsible for introducing the agarwood use in China, when they wandered across Asia to spread the Buddhism faith.
By the early 3rd century China was already facing an increasing demand for imported agarwood because the aquilaria tree did not grow there then. Besides being used for incense manufacturing, agarwood was also ingested as a traditional medicine in China.
There is no information on how that trend emerged. The increasing demands for agarwood in China led to a particular increased sophistication in agarwood grading that is still more sophisticated than any other grading system in the market. While the present traders from the United Arab Emirates use a six-point grading system, the Chinese traders had and have a more elaborate and complete system.
The increasing demand for agarwood lured Chinese traders as far as Vietnam, which was a large producer of agarwood then. In her book, “Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” Tana Li states that the Nguyen Lords established a “monopoly over the sale of Calambac”. “Calambac” is issued from the Malay “kalambaq", meaning “king of fragrant wood”.
In their report, “The Use and Trade of Agarwood in Japan” compiled for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), James Compton and Akikio Ishihara, quoting the Nihon-shoki (Chronicles of Japan), informed that:
“…aloeswood drifted ashore on the island of Awaji (near Kobe). It was six feet in circumference. The people of the island, being unacquainted with aloeswood, used it with other firewood to burn for cooking; the smoky vapour spread its perfume far and wide. In wonderment, they presented it to the Empress...”.
They mention that agarwood was introduced in Japan along with Buddhism in the 6th century and how it continued all the way into the 19th century until the Meiji Restoration. They also mention how it had become a symbol of wealth and power in feudal japan. Nobles were known to burn huge pieces of agarwood to flagrantly demonstrate their wealth and power over their vassals, and to their enemies.
WHAT IS OUD?
The Aquilaria species have adapted to live on rocky, sandy or calcareous slopes and ridges, well drained, and in land near marshes. They usually grow between altitudes up to 850 meters, or up to 1000 m in locations having an average daily temperatures of 20-22 ° C.
Agarwood is formed when Aquilaria trees are inoculated with a specific type of fungus or mold. Some wild trees become randomly infected with some fungi or fungi and begin to produce resin at the core as an immunity response to the attack. However, because evolution prefers the survival of healthier trees, not that many trees become infected or developp the imunity. Only about 10-20% of wildwood trees produce agarwood. In addition, the process of immune response of agarwood develops slowly, taking from 10 to 20 years to produce the highest quality agarwood. Seasonal variation, soil conditions, amount of sunlight and genetic variation play an important role in the formation of agarwood. However, not much is known about the process that turns wood into agarwood.
Before the infection spreads, the unaffected wood of the tree is light colored. Over time, the resin increases the mass and density of the affected wood, changing its color to dark brown or even black. This random natural process is still the preferred one, as the essential oils of agarwood are difficult to synthesize artificially.
There are, however, synthetic ouds produced. These are a disappointment compared to the naturally produced essential oils. Synthetic oud tends to be leathery and woody, and is far less warm, less sweet, and less balsamic. When used in a perfume composition, oud is most often designed as a base note. Essential in every perfume, unlike top notes and middle notes, base notes tend to stay in the skin long after the others dissipate. In one fragrance with an oud base, it's likely you'll catch a whiff of oud only hours after applying it.
Oud (in Arabic oudh) is highly valued by perfumers for its warm sweetness mixed with woody and balsamic notes. It is a very aromatic and complex scent. It is used in the form of oud oil (dehn al oudh) or a resin (oudh mubakhar).
The oil of oud can be extracted by distillation from the wood or by melting the resin. It is non-irritating and can be applied directly to the one’s skin.
Different trading companies report that the raw essential oil can cost up to $5,000 per pound. Oud retailers, such as Ensar Oud, sell a 3 gram mini bottle for $300 or more. They also note that you only need a little oil, so that a single bottle should last an entire year to an average daily user.
The oud value will vary depending on the raw material source. Certain tree species produce more valuable oud and the region where those trees grow is a pricing factor as well. Also, oud that occurs naturally is more expensive than oud produced by an artificial infestation of the mold.
Due to its rarity, high demand, and the difficulty of harvesting it, the oud dark oil is perhaps the most expensive oil in the world. The annual oud market is worthy around $6 billion and its value is often estimated as 50% more expensive than gold. For these reasons, oud oil is sometimes referred to as black gold or "liquid gold".
The Oud trade
In Dubai, the Oud capital of the world, the raw material is bought and sold on a large scale. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Ajmal Perfumes, the most famous dealer in the Middle East. The Ajmal store, inside the souk in the Dubai Mall, is considered a reference point for connoisseurs.
According to Abdalla Ajmal, grandson of the Ajmal Perfumes founder, "For us, remember, it's not just a fragrance. It's an entire culture. It's something we can't really explain to outsiders. It's the very scent of the Muslim culture, in a way. It gives us all kinds of emotions, memories." He added that in a culture in which almost all men wear white and all women wear black, perfume was a way of expressing style and personality.
Ajmal sells wood chips, oil, and perfumes made with oud and other ingredients, such as jasmine and rose.
The oud business is booming. There are now nonstop flights between Assam and Bangkok because of the oud trade. Real wild oud wood is impossible to find nowadays. "In the old days—ah, you could find oud that we couldn't even imagine now," comments Ajmal. "Yet the prices have soared. They call it black gold.
Western perfumers prefer to create a sphere of aroma around the wearer. Middle Eastern perfumers, on the other hand, like to create a kind of tadpole—a scent bubble with a long tail. Wearers want their fragrance to be noticed by all the people in their olfactory wake. Westerners, by contrast, hate wearing anything that smells too strong. For us, perfume is a mark of status. We can smell even at 50 feet the difference between genuine high-quality oud and the cheap artificial stuff being made in labs," Ajmal said. "Most Western perfumers use the synthetic versions, which convey an idea of oud rather than the actual ingredient itself"
Traders and perfurers are tight-lipped about where one might find the rarest, wildest examples of oud. Every trader has their sources, and they are quite secretive about it. Only the dealers on the ground know where wild aquilaria trees can be harvested.
Albert Vielle, a supply company based in the European perfume capital of Grasse, in France, is devoted to acquiring agarwood. The company's CEO, Georges Ferrando, is well known in the secretive French scent business as a fanatically scrupulous procurer of botanicals and woods from many sources, whether it's neroli from Tunisia or top-quality agarwood from Laos. He supplies material to a lot of designers or niche artisans like Francis Kurkdjian or Pierre Montale, among others.
Based on an experience of over a century, Albert Vieille SAS has become an history and know-how center related to perfume plants. The company specializes in 100% pure and natural aromatic raw materials for professionals in the perfume, aromatherapy, cosmetics and food markets. More than 200 aromatic products - essential oils, floral waters, absolutes, concretes, resinoids and gum-resins - are at the service of the perfumed creations.
Albert Vieille only offers aromatic products that are 100% pure, that is to say that come from botanically identified plants, coming from one and the same geographical origin. The products are also 100% natural since they are obtained from physical processes and they do not undergo chemical modification or denaturation by molecules derived from petrochemicals.
Today, the marketing of agarwood is regulated by the CITES convention. The essential oils of Albert Vielle, 100% pure and natural agarwood oils, come from Aquilaria plantations located in Thailand, and certified by CITES.