Monday, May 7, 2012

Eeeewwwoud -- Trading in the Golden Triangle

Do you remember the first time you smelled oud? I certainly do!

It was unfortunate, in a way, that my initial exposure to the oud note in fragrace was the infamous, stonking Montale Black Oud. It put me off synthetic ouds forever, or so I thought — once I found out that the oud was, in fact, synthetic. Off I went as usual, to search for the real thing.

I doubt that I’ve ever found it. I thought I had, with some expensive niche perfumes I’ve sampled this year. 

It seems that the skyrocketing demand for natural, Southeast Asian oud has turned agarwood into gold and put the trees that produce it on endangered lists. The few remaining agarwood trees of Laos and the highlands of Vietnam, sources of the highest grades, are extremely hard to reach (a week’s hike in the jungle or so). That’s only the beginning; getting the wood out of the jungle is even more dangerous. Local villagers, for example, might be recruited to inform members of Vietnamese trading networks about sightings of wood haulers. By one account I read, local police sometimes “confiscate” the harvested wood for the traders, who then sell it up and down the line in an organization known as the Agarwood Mafia. They don’t treat independent wood hunters, who they call smugglers, kindly.
If you are a foreign concern and want to legally participate in the agarwood trade, a very large and very local bank account must be established, and many deposits must be made. If that works out and your deal goes through, your agarwood oil or distillate is likely to have been stepped on — about ten times is the average for a western purveyor. But, in recent years you’d be lucky to get anything at all, because China appears to have cornered the agarwood market.

In parts of China, infected agarwood (sometimes called “sinking wood”) is a good luck charm.  Although the wood itself is difficult to carve, the highest grades are used anyway, because those who hold this superstition want the very best, heaviest, fastest-sinking wood. According to one wood harvester, the Chinese factories do a pretty good business in leftover, low-quality agarwood chips, soaked in synthetic oud and sold as high-grade oud wood. (The beads and charms themselves are frequently carved from other heavy woods and then soaked in the synthetic oud while the buyer stockpiles any real agarwood he finds.)

So, when you buy that big bottle of Steam Oud from an online discounter for around $150 — well, you get my drift. Common sense tells me that a higher — much higher — price point for the latest niche oud fragrance is no guarantee either. I have a small sample — a drop maybe — of oud oil and even the botanical company from which I got it freely admits that it may not be of the highest possible quality. (Hey, at least they admit it!) So I’m wondering what it is, exactly, that I have been smelling all this time. The answer of course is synthetics.  They, like real oud, vary in quality, but many are better than they once were.

One heartening note: Agarwood plantations are in the works now. I’ve even heard of U.S. efforts  in Florida. But properly inoculating the trees with the oud-producing Phaeoacremonium parasitica fungus is difficult, too. A tree planted today will take thirty years to produce the prized infected wood.

Maybe synthetic oud isn’t so bad. 

I have given away quite a few samples of oud-laced fragrances. I kept a large vial of YSL’s M7 because I’ve always liked it, even before I knew what oud was. (Can’t find it today, of course.) And I liked Mona di Orio’s fairly recent oud. And a few other niche offerings. Some imply that their oud is real. After my research for this post, I don’t see how. But, after discovering what goes on in the wild agarwood harvesting business, I’m not so sure I’d want it anyway.

That having been said, I really do love the recent “Trayee” (Neela Vermiere Creations), which was developed by perfumer Bertrand Duchafour. A wonderful reader and I were doing some swapping, and she sent me some — the generosity of perfume lovers always amazes me. It’s the only oud-featuring fragrance I’ve ever liked this much. Green and woody and a little floral, too, it’s hugely strong and lasts forever. The oud in it? Probably  synthetic. And if that’s a problem…well, is it really?

photo courtesy of Google Images.


olenska said...

At first (and admittedly peripheral) glance of this title in my reading pane, I jumped to the insta-conclusion that it was about Puredistance founder Jan Ewoud Vos :D Then stayed for the fascinating essay on oud politics. Thank you!

Carol said...

I still haven't sniffed an oud! I'm planning on waiting until the oud phase is over, and be all retro! ;)

Dionne said...

I'm like Carol, still haven't sniffed an oud. In fact, if something inundates the market like this, I can even get my dander up a bit, and wait until things cool down. Sort of a, "So, three years later, what do people actually wear?"

Olfacta said...

Hi Olenska -- Never would have suspected a name match! The oud trade simply proves, once again, that if the value of something goes high enough, there will be corruption and possibly bloodshed. Way of the world.

Olfacta said...

Hi Carol -- Sniff the pricey ones (samples of course) first -- cheap synthetic "oud" is not what you want to remember! (Trust me on this.)

Olfacta said...

Hi Dionne -- Yeah, the demand for "oud" has resulted in a slew of really bad fragrances. I think the sun may be setting on this fad, though. Perhaps in a few years there will be a plethora of "oud" at online auction. Should be interesting!

Perfumeshrine said...

Great research on the going ons in the eastern markets; thanks for the links as well. Indeed how can oud be of the high grade when there's so much antagonism to get some in the first place?
But you line
"after discovering what goes on in the wild agarwood harvesting business, I’m not so sure I’d want it anyway"
is the one that resonates most with me.
Sometimes, it's nice to finally find out what a prized natural smells like and then throw the towel and decide nothing will come close and there's no need really...

Olfacta said...

Hi E -- Yes, it is uncomfortably close to other goings on in that area of the world. The networks are already there, all set up. Not to mention a long-standing culture of baksheesh and corruption amongst the people involved in this kind of trade, from the villagers to the cops to the banks to the sellers.

That being said, I diluted my tiny bit of oud yesterday with perfumers alcohol and it does smell pretty damned good, nothing like the band-aid synthetic oud smell. But it could be that this is one of the many scents of corruption and even bloodshed.

Vanessa said...

Several of us sniffed a dab of neat oud the other day, courtesy of Claire, the proprietor of Les Senteurs. We all agreed it was like rancid goat droppings, or some unpleasant goat-related odour or other (sweat, bad breath, cheesy hooves).