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.