hen a German writer
nosed pure oud oil for
the first time in his life at
a centuries-old Indian
perfumery in northern
India many years ago, his
reaction was explosive.
"This smells like a cow shed," he exclaimed! The Arab
world and India boast of ancient heritages and
traditions of non-alcoholic perfume oils, where the
perfumer places a drop of fragrance on the back of
the customer’s hand rather than on a paper strip, to
get an idea of how the fragrance unfolds on the skin.
The kind perfumer took no offense to the German’s
sudden reaction as what was smeared on his hand
truly smelled of manure, the real oud ingenuity test!
Talking about oud is like penning down the biography of the fragrance world’s sovereign monarch. What
is most intriguing about this natural substance—
which rightfully smells obnoxious to many—is that it
is the most sought-after perfumery ingredient in the
world and more expensive than gold.
Originally known as agarwood from the word
“agar” in India’s ancient Sanskrit language, the
Arabic term oud (meaning wood), is more widely
used. Additionally, aloeswood is another name for
oud, among others.
In the forests of South and South East Asia,
Assam in eastern India, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand
and Borneo to name a few, the infected, fungoid bark
of the aquilaria tree produces an aromatic hardwood. While slices and flakes of this wood are used
as incense, the wood is distilled to extract the oil.
Agarwood oil is used in a variety of ways, by itself as
fragrances and for medicinal uses, and as a perfumery ingredient for fragrance blends.
Each of these regional forests produce its own
variety of oud, each bearing the stamp of distinction with its unique fragrance. Assam, for example,
produces a variety that is animalic and intensely
deep. Naturally aged agarwood, which is derived
from naturally occuring fungus infecting a live tree
over time, is usually of highest quality. It is said that
fungus is often artificially induced in aquilaria trees
in recent times for quicker production. This yields
much inferior quality agarwood.
Tajul Islam Bakshi of Assam Aromas, one of
India’s renowned agarwood distillers, believes while
it takes the aquilaria agalocha tree around five to
six years to mature that it may often take more than
twenty years for resin formation through natural
fungus infection, depending on climatic and environmental factors. The aquilaria, a self-germinating
plant, has short-lived seeds and requires humid
climates to flourish. “Agarwood has become less
animalic today as we seldom find animals regularly
With its rigorous and delicate harvesting process (picture above is the preparation of carving the oil-rich sections of the wood), it’s no wonder oud is worth more than
gold. Depending on its purity, oud oil can cost more then USD $30,000 per kilo, according the International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences.