Discovering Oud - Part I : Entering the Jungle


Arguably, the noblest, most precious, elusive and magical of all aromatics, Oud / agarwood  has a long and fascinating history, but also amazingly rich and diverse artisan “living traditions” today.

The story of humankind (From India, China, to Japan and the whole Arab world) fascination with oud is multi millennial, but Until quite recently Oud was unknown to Western audiences (despite being known as a materia medica since the middle ages at least). This changed abruptly until the late 2000’s when it suddenly became a big trend in Western alcohol based "luxury" industrial perfumery, mostly for the reason that the Arab world, middle east  (and China to an extant) became their biggest world markets and are avid of Oud, and also secondarily, of course,  for the novelty within western perfumery.


Around 2016, I was hired by a famous brand to become their "Mr. Oud" resource person (part time, of course) for a few years: the time for them to understand the material and design a flagship collection around them (you can read a bit more about this here, in the second half of the text). The process was for me a blessing: suddenly I was paid to explore in depth all aspects (from production to perfumery creation, to cultural history) one of my favourite aromatics, which prohibitive costs would have been preventing such in depth exploration just for my personal pleasure or scholarly interest. Instead of quenching my curiosity and my thirst, this process only made me dive deeper into the magic cauldron, and until that day I keep researching, learning both from literature, experts in the field and direct fieldwork, sourcing and co production, etc. I reinvested all my earnings from that blessed job into learning, sourcing and then gradually co-producing ouds.

As the base of my practice is in Switzerland / Europe, many people (most) are still not at all familiar with oud at all, some others who are perfume aficionados know of it and have experienced  in synthetic industrial fragrances and have little idea bout the substance, or its actual olfactive realm of possibilities, so far are those products form the real thing. 

I enjoy sharing information, and facilitating experiences and access and is is one of my favourite aromatics, so I intend to blog regularly about it. This introduction series will be three parts. The first part, and present post, covers some basics: what is it, how is it named ; the second part will cover in broad strokes its amazingly rich and diverse cultural history, and the third will focus some of the many contemporary problems linked to the craze about oud, and its price (up to 100K $ per kilo for the rarest stuff, rare oils can fetch thousands dollars per millilitre.). I let you imagine the amount of forgery and environmental problems this generates.

Detail from the recently rediscovered Seldon Map from the Bodleian Library (Bodleian Library, MS.Selden supra 105). This map of East and Southeast Asian shipping routes was one of the first Chinese maps to reach Europe. In this detail we can see the economic significance of agarwood, which is depicted by a row of eight Aquilaria trees (the source of agarwood) on the Malay Peninsula.


In short, what is it ?

Agarwood / oud is a resin naturally produced by trees by different species belonging to the Thymelaeceae family. The most well known, and wide ensemble are Aquilaria (=genus) species, with a bit less than 20 oud producing species,  but there are many others and the number of genus, species and subspecies recognized as producing oud interesting for perfumery or medicine,  vary with sources.  The pictures is still evolving (refining or questioning taxonomies, horticultural experiments, etc.), let’s say between 25 to 50 without any great certainty, except that it will still evolve. On the field, identification is most of the time uncertain, and in cases "most likely guessed". Most harvesters do not have academic botanical skills nor interest for such identifications: they are simply looking for worthy wood to collect.

The tree is found in the closed and continuous tree canopy, moisture-dependent vegetation rainforests of India, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia,  Bangladesh, the Philippines, Borneo, Brunei, and New. Guinea. 

Tropical rainforests have been called the "jewels of the Earth" and the "world's largest pharmacy", because over one quarter of known natural medicines have been discovered there.

The divinely fragrant resin is produced over the years, as a defence when a tree is naturally attacked by different elements of its environment. Such aggressions always happen after some years in a jungle ecosystem). The  area  of  wood  charged  with  the “infection” grows with irregular patches of streaks, generating  deposits  of  the  precious oleoresin  in  the  tree  cell  structure.  

Cell structure within an Aquilaria tree with agarwood resin deposits


These parts  of  heartwood  become  increasingly  dark  and  heavier than the rest of the wood (some of the highest qualities become even "sinking wood" grades : heavier than water). In natural forests only 7 percent to 10 percent of Aquilaria trees become infected and produce agarwood, without agarwood, the tree had nothing special in terms of uses or value.

Aquilaria crassna, Khao Yai, Thailand. Poachers removed the bark from the trunk by scraping the bark and aggressing the tree mechanically, with the idea of, collecting the diseased and blackened wood. Disturbed, they did not complete their harvest. Poaching wild trees is completely forbidden in Thailand, and subjects to extremely severe penalty. Photo: Blaise Droz.

To remedy the shortage or wild oud, many semi wild and cultivated options are developped in most native countries, and even attempts at new territories. Some with interesting outcomes, many low quality uninteresting results too of course.  Even when you find reliable sources for wild wood where it still exists, one  still needs to make sure it is of good quality and sustainably harvested, as many indiscriminate gatherers will chop anything resembling an oud producing species, even if they are very young tree that are not getting really attacked by their environment yet, therefore containing only very little agarwood and of poor quality. People who harvest mature to old trees consciously are rare (and naturally fallen trees even rarer), and regions were this can be safely and legally done are even rarer, with all the poaching going along depleting resources before both local reproduction and specific trees maturation can take place in some places, in other countries, and with the seriously enforced laws that try to protect what still can be.


The specific olfactive character of  the  scented  wood  results  from  a  combination  of  factors,  such  as the region of origin of the specific tree, its botanical species, its age as  well as the section of the tree from which the piece of agarwood stems, the curing of the wood etc and  the  amount  of  time, and ways through which  the  wood  has  undergone  the  biological-chemical process of self-defence. In consequence, the resinous composition differs, and the agarwood presents itself in wonderfully various perfumery qualities, that will express in the wood, when heated as incense, or distilled.

Furthermore distillation will generate even more diversity as many important factors contribute to  the resulting oil :  specialized prepping (soaking, dry fermenting, traditionally sometimes : burying the wood, etc), the quality of wood selected, the presence or absence of “white wood” (from the same tree, with only little oud), the techniques, length, parameters and materials of distillation, the curing process, the age of the oil, etc. Fragrance-wise, there is virtually an infinity of different oud oils, and some can be so different from one another that no one would ever think they are one and the same thing.


A pearl, by any other name...

Agarwood, aloeswood, gaharu, oud, calambac, Aquilaria, jinkoh... 

Oudh is known under dozens of names (many more than lister here), and many of them are in circulation internationally in connoisseur circles and historical treatises. The many terms by which agarwood are referred to in religious and historic texts add to the complexity when investigating its history. Here I will only present some generic terms. There are certainly much more, especially if we take all the grading qualities in different languages into consideration

The name likely originates In Sanskrit, where agarwood was known as agāru and aguru which means “non-floating / sinking wood” and many names derives in Asian languages from similar  “sinking wood" meanings.


The words agarwood in Greek (agallochum), Hebrew (aḥāloth), and Arab (ālūwwa) are loan words from the Indic names. In China, agarwood is referred to as chén xiang (the sinking incense, derived from the Sanskrit meaning). In Japan, it is known as jinkoh (also means the sinking incense). The main Malay name is kayu găharu, a variation of agaru.

In Arabic medico-pharmacological literature, agarwood starts to be reported as ūd (oud). Many people I meet in Europe imagine there is an association with the famous Arabic musical instrument which goes by the same name in French and English (oud). There is none.

In the English-speaking world today, the most common terms for 'ud are Oud, or agar(s)wood; the first word derived from its Arabic name, while the last preserves a clear link to the original Sanskrit.

 in European classical literature, it is described as aloës, aloeswood, agalochon / agallochum. Most other names are derivations of ancient languages and vary according to the languages/dialects of the traders and places where it originated and was used.  Careful, though: In ancient texts, the word aloes may refer to agarwood, or products of the arborescent succulent species Aloe, whose pulp produces the famous medicinal bitter paste.


In European languages such as Portuguese, agarwood is known as aguila or paod’aguila ; in French, the wood is also sometimes named  bois d’aigle; and in English sometimes also as eaglewood.  The latter made aquilaria which became the botanical name of one the dominant genus, containing many species producing agarwood.

It seems that the association with “eagle” came in the XVIth century trough portuguese traders. The “eagle” name is catchy and of course the eagle is a symbol for many numbers of noble things, but I didn’t find any evidence of eagles being associated with agarwood in the original cultures researched and it might have stemmed form a phonetic mistake from the Portuguese. I will blog about that some other time.

French also used the following: «  calambac », « gaharu », « bois d'agar », « bois d'argile »« bois d'aloès » ou « bois de gélose ».

I have also seen a few mentions of Kalambak too, in English, derived form one of the denominations used in Chinese and Malay.

Beyond that all great cultures have developed refined vocabularies, typologies for qualities, or fragrance families, etc. But they will be matter for other stories, some other time.

In the heart of this dense nomenclature jungle, one thing remains sure: by any other name oud would smell as sweet, complex and mesmerizing.





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