Agarwood - Gem of Truth
If you want to grow agarwood trees, make sure to feed them plenty of carrot shavings. They prefer to drink rainwater, and will not tolerate the calcium found in pipes. Agarwood trees like it reasonably hot, up to human body temperature, but need the relief of natural shade, like palm trees. The ridiculous trunk tapers the wrong way, like a baobab, and the surface pulsates with thousands of tiny bumps.
There are many truths, sacred and commercial, about this elusive tree and his products. Perhaps the one undeniable truth, true beyond all questions, is his value: considerable. And even this truth is shifting and unclear, if you want an exact number, because agarwood will not give you an absolute; every tree is an individual, every piece of wood has his own personality, and every entity that is gleaned from each piece is alike only to the others taken from immediately around it, and utilized in the same way.
I have paid attention and many dollars over as many years in pursuit of "real" agarwood. I have traveled to the great agarwood markets of Bangkok, Singapore and Bombay and learnt the Chinese grading system in Manchuria. I have talked about the meaning of agarwood with devout Muslims over endless tiny cups of tea all over the Middle East, and I can tell you this: There are as many truths as there are people to tell them. How many times have I found the "real story," and filed the last truth away in the back of my mind, in embarrassment at having believed such a story?
Here is a fairly undeniable truth: Agarwood, both the oil and the wood, come from 2 or 3 species of Aquilaria tree which grows, or grew, from the states of Eastern India through Burma, down through Bangladesh, Thailand, Indochina and along the Malay peninsula to Papua New Guinea and even Borneo. This habitat is now smaller. End of truth. According to CITES, Aquilaria malacchensis is rated "vulnerable" and A. crassna is "critically endangered." There seems to be some confusion over A. agollocha, whether it merits its own rating or if it is in fact the same as A. malacchensis. Consequently, this species is not rated. Not all of the above countries are CITES signees. There is some confusion also about growth in certain regions. For example, these agencies are not able to prove that agarwood comes from Lao PDR. Agarwood is also considered 'Vulnerable" in India where it is most likely extinct already. Although A. crassna is often reported as being the agarwood of Indochina (which is the most valuable,) there are also contradictory reports. When I asked for the botanical name at the Laotian still, my question was greeted with laughter. And of course it's funny. There are no botanists at the agarwood still. I will refer to agarwood as "agarwood" throughout this article and leave the precise Latin naming to your imagination.
It is a fact that agarwood is over-harvested in the wild. It is also a fact that the agarwood business involves vast amounts of money and involves a rare, beautiful and highly labor-intensive commodity that costs more than gold, and is infinitely more precious. It is also a secretive world, with tales spun to accommodate the expectations of the buyer.
Agarwood is now found very occasionally in the wilds of Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia (Kampuchea). It is no longer found in India, Bangladesh, Thailand or China. There are rumors of farms (both successful and unsuccessful) in Vietnam and Indonesia. The only large trees left are in Western Kampuchea, because of the impossibility of collection for many years due to continual fighting and mine laying. There may also be a few large trees left in the very remote forests of Laos. The mere presence of the tree is not a guarantee of fragrant agarwood; there must also be a presence of a certain group of fungi imperfecti, and the synergy that takes place between these fungi and the tree will cause the fragrant compounds to blossom. A completely uninfected tree will not be worth the trouble of harvest, as the wood is soft, white and odorless, suitable for kindling. A living tree, partially infected, will be cut and later used for oil, and a dead tree, or a heavily infected one, will be harvested for its wood. This rarity can be illustrated quite easily: certain Japanese incense companies retain employees along the rural agarwood trade routes all over SE Asia. These people are fluent in the local languages and culture and are employed for years on end to simply pay attention to what comes out of the forest. If a beautiful piece of wood is found, suitable for the private collection of a well-connected Japanese Agarwood connoisseur, it is bought immediately, long before it reaches the Laotian capital, let alone the big markets in Bangkok, Singapore or Bombay.
Agarwood is an acquired taste, at least to Western sensibilities. Deep, rich, earthy and personal, its sweet yet sharp balsamic woodiness will enter you through all of the your senses. Beyond a pleasant smell, a drop of agarwood will softly invade your lungs, your mind, your body and spirit, taking total possession of you. You will smell that drop all day, he won't let you forget him, a constant reminder. The body heats, the heart expands, other scents retreat in the presence of oud. Oud is sexuality, passion, ecstasy and love. Oud is wild, he is primitive, he is the ancientness, holiness and sensuality of the world and all of its history. He is compelling, in a way that satisfies the Japanese obsession with subtlety and refinement, and has gripped the hearts and souls of the people of the Arabian Gulf. The appreciation of agarwood in the rest of the world runs sporadically like veins of resin through a piece of wood. It has always been a part of the French Perfume floracopia. One of the legends of the east has an agarwood cutting being the only plant Adam was allowed to take from the Garden of Eden.
Agarwood trees grow randomly and rarely in the forest, usually in difficult to reach places. The first step is to find one and make sure it is infected or even dead. A healthy tree will give nothing. Local people will know the location of agarwood trees. What looks like impenetrable forest is actually inhabited by humans, with footpaths connecting villages. Once the location of a tree is established, the gatherers walk in. In spring 2001, with most trees gone, the average walk in to an agarwood tree is one week. This walk is through heavy jungle, thick with foliage and bugs and always mountainous. The gatherers sleep on the ground and must hunt their food daily. Malaria is rampant. And Agarwood trees like to grow on outcrops; the actual harvesting usually takes place on the edge of a cliff. The harvesting itself will take several days, and then there is the walk out, fully laden. Each man will carry up to 75 kilos on his back. Dead infected wood fetches the highest price, with infected living wood also being saleable for distillation. As much as possible is carried out. Living wood left on the forest floor will not improve in quality. The agarwood distiller pays taxes to harvest from a certain area of forest the gatherers bring the wood to him where it is examined, and, if of suitable quality, bought. Then it is graded minutely. The wood bound for distillation must be chopped in a particular way, finely, and then left to soak in water for 10 days. After soaking, about 70 kilo is placed in the still and the fire is built. Agarwood distills for about a week. The total yield for 70 kilos of wood will not exceed 20 ml. Like rose, the hydrosol contains many particles that are more desirable to have in the oil. So the hydrosol is cohobated, used over and over, to try and extract the maximum amount of fragrant compounds. Other methods have been experimented with: centrifuge, variations of soaking time, distillation time, etc. However, if the distillation does not go perfectly, the economic repercussions are fierce. Neither solvent nor CO2 extraction is an option at the moment. There are 2 condensers per still. The reason is that the agarwood needs to be cooled very quickly after coming over in the steam, or it will burn. And the temperature must be exact.
There are many stories that illustrate the lengths connoisseurs will go to. There is the tale of the wealthy Arab who found the perfect oud oil and wanted it as an ingredient in the family perfume, paying $62,000 cash for the kilo. Usually, the Middle Eastern or French perfumers who buy oud at source must establish enormous bank accounts in the pertinent countries, as the governments are aware of this trade and capitalize on it. Then deposits must be made and contracts signed. Removing agarwood independently from this system can be hazardous. At least three people have been shot attempting to smuggle agarwood out of Laos in the recent past, two at the Vietnamese border and one at the Thai. There is no upper limit to the price of agarwood, and this will continue to climb as the scramble becomes wilder.
The most costly agarwood product is a large piece of heavily infected wood, preferably of the Kannam (Kyara is a similar concept but not the same,) quality, which means that it contains so much resin that if you scrape it with a knife, the shavings will ball up in your hand like tar. This is so rare and valuable that it is not really even considered agarwood anymore, but just Kannam. This will be worth even more the larger it is, and the value goes up more if the natural shape is interesting and beautiful. I have seen a piece of this; to my knowledge it is the only one in the world. The gentleman who owned it had been offered over a million dollars for it from a Japanese collector and turned it down. It is priceless. In general, you don't find Kannam so we will talk about the agarwood you would typically find.
Dead infected wood cannot be distilled. Heavily infected live wood is not worth distilling, as the wood itself brings such a high price. The only wood that is distilled is live and light colored with a very small amount of resin and maybe some oil running through. Distillable wood is only good for a few months, as the essential oil cells dry out; so oud is distilled from freshly felled trees. By far the greater amount of wood is used in its original form. There is a large market in Chinese medicine for the powdered wood, but that seems to come mostly from Vietnam and it is becoming more common to farm it. The wood is graded and sold through various channels, as incense for Japan, (especially the nicer pieces,) and the Gulf. Then are the lower but still acceptable qualities, which go all over Asia for incense making. Even at the lower level of quality, on the cusp of oil producing quality, the scent is heavenly when smoldering. All of the oil bound for the distillery is graded and sorted so that the still is filled with as homogeneous a load as possible. Higher grades of wood can be distilled by special order.
You can be assured of this. Never mind the United States supply, pure agarwood oil (and sometimes even the wood) cannot even be found in the great markets of Bangkok and Bombay. Most oud is diluted before it leaves the producing region. Once it gets into the hands of a trader, adulteration is certain. The average oud available in the US will have changed hands at least 10 times. By the time it reaches Bangkok, it will be a commercial product bound for the Middle East. The prices in Bombay are similar to Bangkok and I think this indicates further adulteration. There have been a few GCs done on this oil but upon examination of the constituents, the oil appears to have been bought in Bangkok. It may be a fine oil, but it will be a fine oil diluted down or with other things added. It is worth noting that Westerners in general and aromatherapists in particular are the only ones concerned with purity. The Saudis want something that smells great, and they are not as particular about purity.
Agarwood is an aphrodisiac, both in oil form, and as incense. These are generally topical uses but the oil is also sold in Vietnamese pharmacies for internal use with the same goal. Chinese medicine uses powdered Aquilaria as a treatment for cirrhosis of the liver and as a director or focuser for other medicines. It has also been used as a treatment for lung and stomach tumors. Internal use of the powdered wood will also clean you out and give you lots of energy. Don't go grinding up your incense however, unless you are 100% sure of the quality and purity of the wood you are using. There are rumors of Chinese factories churning out luscious smelling but ultimately fake wood chips, made of the lowest possible grade agarwood soaked for a month in synthetic (European manufactured) oud.
As a perfume ingredient, oud is sought and bought by certain Perfume houses as a tiny but essential component of some of their high-class perfumes; Zeenat and Amourage are two examples. The oil of oud is a diaphoretic; it will make you sweat, and beyond that, will connect you with something of the spirit world. It is important to note that there is no research done on this oil. We have access only to our own experiences. Oud symbolizes and calls forth that which connects us to the ancient, to the roots and soul of the earth, to the Garden of Eden and the Hand of God, to the timelessness of the spirit and the vibration of the ethereal world, to the basis of our primal selves and the completeness of existence.
copyright: 2004 Trygve Harris