Known as the ‘Wood of the Gods’, agarwood is the basis of some of the world’s most extravagant perfumes. Derived from the resinous bark of a tree that grows exclusively in parts of Southeast Asia, it is also one of the world’s rarest and most expensive commodities – kilo for kilo, it is more costly than gold.
For thousands of years, it has been used in the Middle East and Asia in the form of wooden incense chips, body oils and fragrance and is synonymous with hospitality in the region. The oil is known as oud, and it is made from agarwood, also known as gaharu, the dark, resinous heartwood of a large tropical evergreen tree called
Aquilaria Sinensis (aquilaria) that comes in 15 distinct species.
Origin of oud: then and now
Despite its popularity in the Middle East, oud comes mainly from Southeast Asia. When the inside of the aquilaria tree becomes infected (usually by insects), fungus or mould develops and bores into the tree, which attempts to defend itself by creating agarwood, a resinous heartwood; this slows down the infection and makes the surviving wood more durable. The process is called tylosis. The infected tree can carry on this life-and-death struggle for a very long time, sometimes decades. In aquilaria the defensive resin in the heartwood is where oud comes from, and experts prize above all the very old trees, claiming that the resin has an unparalleled complexity and richness of aroma. But such trees are becoming scarce. Some even say that this ‘real oud’ has all but disappeared.
Supplementing the market are modern plantations that ‘wound’ trees artificially in
order to provoke tylosis, and tree poachers, who simply scrape off bark to let the wood become infected by the Ascomycota fungus. This yields a harvest of agarwood, though the oud produced can lack the complexity of that made from ancient wild trees infected naturally. It’s like natural versus cultured pearls.
The best of the best
Kynam is the best of all the agarwood species, with the most prized aroma of all oud. It is the rarest wood on earth, said to be rarer than titanium, uranium, platinum, and diamonds. The price of Kynam could go up to QAR36,500 (USD10,000) for a single gram, with a kilogram costing millions.
As a scent
Oud as a scent ingredient has a long history. The Chinese mentioned its being extracted for incense in central Vietnam in the third century CE. By the late 16th century Vietnamese traders were exporting it to China and Japan, where it has been burned as incense for centuries. In the Islamic world, though, it became prized as an oil and as a personal perfume. But perfumer Frédéric Malle says oud is difficult for Westerners to appreciate and expensive for Middle Easterners, so many of the ouds out there are diluted with patchouli and amyris, a wood considered by many to be the poor man’s sandalwood.
The heart of the Middle East
The very best oud commands astronomical prices, but it also possesses a cultural value, a kind of olfactory nostalgia that is difficult for non-Muslims to grasp.
It is burned in homes, as bakhoor, to give rooms a deliciously purified feel; it is given as a present to loved ones, bosses, and clients; it permeates Middle Eastern life in a way that no other fragrance does. It has no equivalent in the Western world.
Oud on the international perfume stage
Traditionally used in incense chips burned in mosques, and employed sparingly as an aromatic oil on the body, oud has enjoyed a uniquely precious prestige in the Islamic world for centuries. Now nearly all the major perfume brands have an oud-based collection. Western perfumers are paying attention to its wild and intense aroma, be it derived from real or synthetic sources. Top range brands available in Qatar range from Tom Ford’s Oud Wood which was one of the first collections, followed by Christian Dior’s Oud Ispahan to Armani Privé’s Oud Royal. Niche brands such as Kilian, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Montale, Yves Saint Laurent, Lancôme, and Roja Dove all have oud products.
According to market research company NPD Group, sales of oud perfumes are increasing within the prestige fragrance market, which is valued at USD3 billion globally.
Buying oud in Qatar
The use of incense and traditional Arabian fragrances such as oud are part of Qatar’s popular heritage that has been passed down from generation to generation. Qatari demand for oud, oud essence, different kinds of incense and oriental mixes continues throughout the year, but sales go up during Ramadan, holidays and wedding celebrations. Well-known oud blends include Al Safa, Al Moulouk, Al Amira, Al Amir and Al Bidaya, with each offering a distinct fragrance.
Souq Waqif is popular destination if you’d like to buy locally made perfumes. Traditional Arabian and Indian essentials oils are a must-have for those seeking a unique scent. In addition to the perfume shops, the souq is home to many frankincense sellers whose shops are overflowing with piles of different types of oud.
You will also find perfume shops at any of the country’s malls. Additionally, you could opt for one of the many world-famous brands that now have oud scented perfumes on offer.
Here, oud perfumes are predominantly bought by Qataris, followed by Gulf nationals and other Arabs, then by Europeans and other nationalities with a preference for Arabic blends and oud oils.
The craft of perfumery has been a essential part of Islamic culture. Steeped in exotic and local traditions, oud aromatic oils have long been alluring this part of the world with its distinct fragrance and now synonymous with ancient heritage as well as fine luxury.
In the Middle East it is known as black gold, a pungent and prized fragrance ingredient that comes from one of the rarest and most expensive woods in the world.
But as Western tastes warm up to the intoxicating but divisive aroma of oud, dealers are scrambling, supplies are dwindling, and the real thing becomes ever more elusive.
Step into a Qatari home, or walk down the aisles of many of the souqs in the country, and you will find yourself enveloped by a light smoke scented with floral rose, earthy oud, sweet frankincense, or some combination of these exotic fragrances. The perfumed air emanates from a bakhoor, which in Arabic means vapour or fume.
In the Middle East the heady bakhoor smoke continues to be the most popular choice for perfuming one’s home and clothing. Incense is believed to have initially been used by the nomadic Levantine tribes who burnt agarwood chips (the base ingredient of bakhoor) to perfume their surroundings, and to cover up the smell of
cooking. It was also believed by some to ward off bad luck. Even today, many strongly believe that the sacred aroma of bakhoor can keep away jinn (evil spirits) and attract angels, as it has a cleansing, purifying, and healing effect.
Both men and women stand over the burners to allow the smoke to perfume their clothing and hair, as the bakhoor one selects is a way people express themselves through fragrance, mixing and matching multiple scents according to season, whim, or social occasion. A favourite bakhoor blend is often given as a gift and as a gesture of hospitality.
The exact ingredients that go in the making of bakhoor are carefully guarded secrets of each maker, with ingredient lists and instructions passed down through generations, but the most common elements include rose, sandalwood, frankincense, oats, resins, powdered flowers, perfumed oils, ground seashells, and other aromatics.
Creating bakhoor: One method of making bakhoor is by cooking the traditional wood with perfumed oils in an earthen or copper pot. The base ingredient for it is agarwood or sandalwood (these are available in the market in the form of chips or powder), which are mixed with fragrant essential oils (one oil at a time), and slowly stirred until a smooth paste forms. Then the pot is set over a low flame
where the mixture cooks until it thickens. It is then removed from the fire and set aside to cool. The mixture is completely cooled and crumbled to form a coarse powder or small blocks that are ready for use. Whether you make your own or buy the fragrant powder from a shop, bakhoor must be stored in air-tight glass jars to retain the purity and strength of their perfume.
Buying bakhoor: Bakhoor is available at most shops in Qatar, from the traditional souqs, to kiosks in malls. Different scents and qualities are available at varied prices, but no matter where you buy, always make sure that your bakhoor has been packed in sealed containers, preferably glass jars. Though there are no set rules for choosing bakhoor, fragrances like oud, frankincense, sandalwood and lavender are usually preferred for perfuming your home, while fragrances like rose, jasmine and citrus scents are popular for perfuming garments.
Did you know?
- Agarwood – also known as oud, oodh, agar, aloeswood or lign-aloes, is a dark resinous heartwood that forms in the aquilaria tree when they become infected with a type of mould. Prior to infection, the heartwood is odourless,
relatively light and pale coloured; however, as the infection progresses, the tree produces a dark aromatic resin in response to the attack, which results in a very dense,
dark, resin embedded heartwood.
- The resin embedded wood is commonly called gaharu, jinko, aloeswood, agarwood, or oud (not to be confused with bukhoor) and is valued in many cultures, predominantly in the Middle East, for its distinctive fragrance, and thus is used for incense and perfumes.
- Since 1995 aquilaria has been listed as a potentially threatened species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
- Assam in India was originally home to one of the largest areas of wild and
naturally occurring agarwood trees. But indiscriminate logging has changed all that, and now a country that was once one of the main suppliers of agarwood has banned its harvesting and has to import it.
- Generally, plantation agarwood is harvested when the trees are between five and 10 years old. Yet, for the very best quality of oud, it can take up to a century before it is ready to be harvested.