OUD! The Scent From Heaven 

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Known as black gold in the Middle East Oud comes from one of the rarest and most expensive woods in the world. While global tastes are warming up to its aroma, supplies are dwindling so fast that the Aquilaria tree from which it is produced is just one step from extinction.

Legend has it that when Adam was expelled out from heaven, he covered himself with the leaves of Aquilaria and then descended to the Earth. When these leaves dried, they were as a defense mechanism to fungal infection. Not all Aquilaria trees produce this resinous heartwood. It is said that for every ten trees in the wild, only one will have it’s heartwood infected. Also, no human intervention through artificial inoculation has been able to replicate the infection.  In a plantation of 100 trees, only about 10 have the aroma. The tree has also been the victim of poachers in a quest for the resin. This has led to large scale loss of these trees as poachers being unaware which trees are infected, chop down healthy trees too. The trees are now endangered species protected world-wide under the CITES-convention and bylaws in the different countries. In Assam, a few families have started plantations with the Aquilaria to ensure the survival of this precious tree. Their success has inspired other countries including  Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other areas in Southeast Asia to follow suit.

Oud has a long history of use in the eastern parts of the world; Buddhist monks use it for meditation, saying it aids in the transmutation of ignorance. Tibetan monks use it to calm the mind and spirit. Sufis use it for esoteric ceremonies and in China, it is considered to have psychoactive properties. According to Ayurveda, Agarwood oil illuminates the mind and strengthens the power of thought, elevates your emotional quotient, and when used in meditation can set you on the path to spiritual enlightenment. When inhaled, the fragrance of Agarwood essential oil helps focus the mind and get rid of negativity.  It is mentioned in the Bible (under the name of Aloewood): “Nicodemus used pounded aloe wood to embalm the body of Christ”. Prophet Muhammad mentions in the Koran 1400 years ago; “Treat with Indian Oud, for it has healing for seven diseases”. In Egypt, it was used by the Pharaohs for embalming. Buddha called it the “Scent of Nirvana

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Found in dense large forests, India is the original homeland of Agarwood. Today Agarwood is also found in Cambodia, Viet-Nam, Laos, Bangladesh, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. There are many kinds of Agarwood, and each kind has its characteristics. The quality of Agarwood is considered better when the tree is infected more – a dense, pitch-dark, and resinous wood that would otherwise be light and pale-colored when uninfected.  Oud Essential oil, traditionally prepared by steam or hydro-distillation of the pulverized wood, is now being made using a CO2 extraction. The species of wood used, the method presoaking, method of distillation, the vessel used for the distillation all the factors affect the scent characteristics of the produce. 

There are many grades of Oud oil- First-grade (the highest quality) is one of the most expensive natural products in the world. The pricing lies around USD 13000/pound of oil.  The oils from wild trees (illegal) catch an even higher price, more than USD 27000 /pound. The wholesale price for a decent quality oil is around 1000-1400 dollars/ounce. 

Oud is used mainly as a fragrance ingredient in making perfumes. Its essential oil has medical uses too. It is used medically as Anti-rheumatic, Anti-stress, Antimicrobial, Carminative, Anti-asthmatic,  Antioxidant, Anti-convulsant, and as Aphrodisiac for its properties. But it is in its long history of use for spiritual purposes that probably sets it apart.   Complex, balsamic, deep woody fragrance- Tenacious base-note, it lingers longer than any other known scent. Blended with other precious oils such as Rose (r.centifolia, r. Damascena)Jasmine (jasminus Officinalis),  Sandalwood  (santalum album), it enhances them and creates a deeply soulful blend.

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Oud is prized for its aroma, depth, and the longevity it gives to fragrances. It has been finding its way into western perfumery over the last 20 years. Versace’s oriental, YSL Splendid wood, Lancôme’s L’Otre h, Tom Ford’s  Fleur, Dolce & Gabbana  Velvet Desert, and Armani Prive are few examples. It is rich in antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and can slow the aging process. Hence it has been incorporated in skincare as well.  Oud Essentials created by entrepreneur Jean-Marc Dufat is a skincare brand inspired by the world of fragrance. The line features Oud as the main ingredient. The Oud Essentials line includes the patented “Oud Active+,” an ingredient is described by the company as, “a super-refined, purest of the pure, essential oil that enhances both physical and spiritual wellbeing.” Talking about Oud Essentials, Dufat explains, “We’ve created some truly innovative products that will positively impact the global skincare industry, and we know that in Oud, we have a cutting-edge ingredient that will make a major difference.”  

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Presently, demand for agarwood far surpasses supply, resulting in indiscriminate felling of trees and degradation of habitats. This has ended up causing a loss of agarwood producing species and a dramatic decline in wild Aquilaria species. Local communities have developed several techniques to artificially induce the generation of Agarwood. Another, more recent way of producing Agarwood, is to grow trees in plantations. But farmers and investors have been hesitant to invest in cultivation because of the 5-10 year wait for returns, and perhaps because of fear that Agarwood produced in plantations may be of lower grade, and therefore unprofitable. Concerns are being raised that cultivation may not necessarily reduce the demand and may well increase wild harvesting. Furthermore, increased production may flood the market and cause price deflation. As a result, many questions remain regarding the successful conservation and sustainable management of Agarwood. Knowledge gaps about the biology and ecology of Agarwood-producing species need to be filled and traditional, management practices should be integrated with the latest scientific research findings. Besides, it will be essential to devise mechanisms to allow benefits to return to local communities that have made available their knowledge of management practices for Agarwood production. It is time for the Indian F & F industry players to unite and seize India’s fragrant heritage!!

Author : Sheela Iyer 


Sheela Iyer is an observer of the Indian Cosmetics & personal care industry and the editor of ‘Cosmetech’. She regularly video interviews industry experts on Cosmetech TV and has her fortnightly podcast ‘Cosmetics Today’