The Commercial Artisan

These days I'm pondering deeply some questions that have been silently bothering me for quite some time, but finally found the courage to voice them to others but my artists and designer friends. This has to do with the position of the independent perfumer as an artist in a market that is not only competitive, but also very dismissive towards the creators of the products that it is trying to sell.

Just a few days ago I was at Shoppers Drug Mart, and saw a line of no less than 4 different "Twilight" glitter perfumes, elegantly bottled in thin plastic spray bottles (my special spray for clearning my computer screen comes in a fancier and more durable packaging) and displayed on the clearance shelf. 4 days later, before I even got a chance to find out what their price was, the entire shelf was gone (but I can assure you it was no more than $19.99, because that's what this shelf is known for).

The current economic climate (in North America, anyway) has some grave implications on artisans and artists that just a couple of years ago were beginning to get recognized, and begin to be able to support themselves through their art. And independent perfumers are no different. The recession has nurtured a culture era of cheapness that is so much worse than ever. If in similar scenarios in the past (i.e.: The Great Depression, WWII...), small luxuries were still valued and appreciated at whatever cost (lipstick, silk stalkings, cigars, perfume...), nowadays, consumers are so cheap-savvy that unless there is a groupon or some steep price reduction, they won't even consider reaching for their wallet. But boy, do they spend on all the above-mentioned cheap "thrills" - which are really not all that thrilling, if you think a little deeper at who's actually paying for these bargains. A product's true price tag does not equal the amount missing from our wallets (or that appear on our credit card statements). We borrow our little pleasures of bargain hunting either by exploiting the environment, workers in other countries, and by paying extremely low wages to local artisans, who have to cover the cost of production (materials included) out of their own pockets just so they can stay afloat.

There is very little known about perfumery, and even though hardly anything can shock me, I've been taken aback on more than one occasion, when even people who should know better (including fellow artisans that make their own stuff - perhaps from other materials, but still, they should know that there is a lot that goes into producing anything - much more than meets the layperson's eye!). People often don't realize, that each drop of essential oil is the essence of so many plants, and there was so much work involved in the process of producing it (without even beginning to talk about the perfumer's research and creative process): the plant had to be planted, attended to carefully, harvested with more care than the average produce requires, and then distilled and extracted to produce only a fraction of the plant's original weight in its fragrant essence - 400kg of roses yield only up 600gr of rose absolute, and this is not the most expensive example... Some other essences are worth more than their weight in gold!

Somehow, the beauty and the value of what perfumers do becomes under-appreciated, even inside their own industry. And although as an independent perfumer I'm at liberty to create what I want, how I want and when I want it - the kind of treatment perfumers get in the industry, such as lack of recognition for their own creations (even in the FiFi awards, from what I hear), perfumers are still to a great extent "ghosts" creating "vaporous" products that are now seen as frivolous and necessary (except for, ahum, the fact that so many products are selected by consumers entirely on the basis of their scent, but no one remembers that when they're counting their cash...).

I would like to end my rant here before it gets out of hand, with this fascinating story from a perfumer who knows far better than I about what perfumers are facing in the corporate world:

"I remember one day, after having worked a combination of honeysuckle, musks and sweet balsamic notes for a long time, a combination that I judged as beautiful, full of harmony, warmth and creativity, I was met by one of the heads of the marketing department who, after smelling my work for about one or two minutes, told me that it was “not bad,” but I was missing 0.1% of aldehyde C.12 MNA to finalize my creation. Knowing my weakness in front of him, I agreed, showing him after half an hour the “modification” that was found to be perfect. I had not placed the aldehyde as suggested. I showed him the exact same product, and it became a big hit in the market"
- Arcadi Boix Camps,
Perfumery: Techniques in Evolution

Dao Tea - Farm To Table Teas from China & Korea

Here are some videos that Pedro Villalon took in his travels to China and Korea when meeting the tea farmers whose teas he imports to Canada and Mexico. His teas are available through online DaoTea.ca

For more stories from Pedro's travels and the tea masters and farmers he works with visit his blog.

Making Sejak (the Korean green tea that Pedro served at my tea party)

Tea Master Zhan Zimei and her husband - making Wild Chrysanthemum tea (this is so far my personal favourite from Dao Tea). We served this tea chilled with spearmint at my Midsummer Tea Party.

Kim Shin Ho Handcrafting Korean Green Tea

Dai People - great folks that Pedro met searching for tea in Yunnan

Decoding Obscure Notes Part IX: Precious Parasites

Gaharu Buaya, originally uploaded by naz1098.

Did you know that the two most prized woodsy perfume and incense materials owe their existence to parasites?

East Indian Sandalwood (Santalum album) is, in fact, a parasitic tree which feeds on neighbouring trees through its roots system. And the most expensive natural raw aromatic in the world, agarwood, smells like nothing special until the tree is injured and becomes infected with parasitic molds and fungi, which causes it to produce a dark resin in the heartwood and inside the roots.

Formation of Agarwood
Agarwood is a resin that develops in several trees from the genus Aquilaria. Several different fungi are associated with the presence of agarwood, including Phaeoacremonium parasitica, but it remains unknown what exactly causes the formation of agarwood. It has been associated with physical injury of the tree, bacterial and fungal infection that cause production of resin, and also is reputed to be more likely found in older trees (between 20-50 years old).

The resinous (meaning infected) Aquilaria heartwood, aka agarwood, is unusual comparing to other woods, because it sinks in water. The Chinese name for it Chén-xīang means exactly that – “wood that sinks”; and the Japanese Jin-Koh means incense that sinks.

Only the resinous wood is called “agarwood” and is valued for incense and essential oil production. There are about 8 out of the 15 of the genus Aquilaria that produce agarwood. Aquilaria agallocha, aka Aquilaria malaccensis is the most highly prized in most places (also called “black agarwood” in Tibet).

The Trees

Agarwood is formed in several indicidual species, all from the Thymelaceae family. The main one know is from the Aquilaria genus, and to a lesser extent Gyrinops, It is very difficult to tell from what species a piece of agarwood was originated from, even with sophisticated technology and expert knowledge. Most of the time, agarwood’s species of origin is recognized by its place of origin, which can indicate what species grow there that form agarwood. For a full list of agarwood forming speices click here.

Aquilaria malaccensis aka A. agallocha is an evergreen tree, about 15-30 meters tall with a trunk up to 1.5-2.5 meters in diameter. It is native to Southeast Asia and is widespread in that region. It grows in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Aquilaria is quite an adaptable species, and grows in many different habitats and altitutdes, including sand, rocky slopes and even near swamps. They grow in areas with average daily temperature of 20-22 degrees C.

“Spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all frankincense trees, myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices.” (Canticles, 4:14).
Agarwood is also referred to in the bible as “ahalot” or “ahalim” and is mentioned in the same breath with myrrh in several books of the bible (including Canticles and Psalms).

Agar is the Hindi name for it, where as in Assam it is called ogoru. In Western literature it is called aloes, aloeswood or eaglewood; in Arabic and Muslim countries where it is most admired, it is called oud, aud, audh gaharu; in Indonesia and Malaysia; and kyara is the name for the highest grade of agar in Japanese – to name just a few of the titles it goes by.

Description of the Scent
Agarwood oils posess a woody, animalic, musty, fungus-like, slightly medicinal, warm, musky scent. Some agarwood oils resemble sandalwood and spikenard, especially ones that are lighter in colour. Darker agarwoods, such as the cultivated agarwood CO2 produced in Assam, India have a scent like no other woody oil, that can be described as intensely animalic, reminiscent of ambergris but stronger and more penetrating, with an underlining note that is sweet and raspberry-like.

As for the incense, which is how agarwood is used more than any other – it varies greatly depending on the quality and resin content. The one agarwood incense that I have experienced was a Japanese incense stick of Kyara, and it was extremely refined and transcended above any other incense experience I’ve had. It was smoldering yet delicate, and brought an immediate sense of peace and depth to my existence. I have 4 little agarwood chips from 4 different places in the world, and some very basic koh-doh incense tools, but I am still waiting for the right moment to burn them. With this feature article, the moment have arrived, and once I have burnt them I promise I will write about each of them here on SmellyBlog.

Harvesting, Sustainability and Ethical Issues
Although only infected trees are odorous and possess potential for monetary value, many uninfected trees are felled and chopped in hopes of finding agarwood within the trunk and roots. This poses a serious danger to the species of Aquilaria in general, and Aquilaraia malaccansis in particular.

Pemilihan Kayu/ Teras Minyak, originally uploaded by azizilajis.

Only 7-10% or wild Aquilaria trees will develop agarwood. There are varying opinions and evidence about relationship between the age of the tree, its size and the yield of agarwood it may offer. Some say that the larger the tree, the higher agarwood content it will have – and that trees should be harvested between ages 20-50 to maximize yield of agrawood. On the other hand, there is evidence that agarwood occurs in trees as young as 3 years of age.

Although there could be some relation between dying trees (indication to that are dry brown leaves, leafless branches and bumps on the trunk and brances), aquilaria trees may show little or no signs of having agarwood within them. The tree has to be felled and split open to discover the precious resinous agarwood within. Unfortunately, this led to over-harvesting of aquillaria and the trees have become an endangered species to various degrees as a result. The (misinformed) belief that agarwood develops in the tree after it is chopped down also did not help in the matter.

In the past 10 years or so, some actions are finally being taken to reduce the risk of agarwood’s extinction, including research, regulations (mostly by CITES - Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) development of more sustainable harvesting practices, and finally – plantations of aquilaria trees for agarwood production.

inokulasi pokok gaharu, originally uploaded by ahmadkamal.

gaharu subintegra, originally uploaded by ahmadkamal.

By using new methods of harvesting, agarwood trees can stand and continue living: the tree is injured by making a hole in the bark, and once the agarwood is produced in the tree, it is scooped out so to speak, yet without cutting down the whole tree. Sometimes, a piece of round clay is used to keep the hole ajar so that agarwood can be collected repeatedly in the future (see above photos).

Hand repotting of 4 month old Agarwood saplings, originally uploaded by Plantation Capital.
Sustainable agarwood is also produced in agarwood plantations (especially in Assam, India), where using methods of injuring and infecting the trees with pegs carrying the agarwood inducing fungi and molds, to produce agarwood in the trees at a younger age. Similar methods are also used now in the wild, so at least this avoids unnecessary felling of trees that don’t even bear agarwood.

Forms of Agarwood Available, Grading and Pricing
Agarwood is sold in the wood in several forms, or as an essential oil. The wood can be extracted into either an essential oil or by a CO2 extraction, which is a relatively new method.

The wood is sold in powdered sawdust form, wood chips, wood pieces and to a lesser extent – as whole logs of wood.

The whole wood is mostly in demand in Japan for building private shrines. As an incense material, it has a near guarantee for no adulteration; but it will provide no consistency as some parts of the wood will be more infected than others, and some may not be infected at all. So its use for incense is not so practical for the end consumer.

The wood comes in many different sizes, forms and grades. Wood chips are more common, because they are easier to carry, transport, grade and use by shaving off small pieces for incense burning rituals. Wood chips will be graded based country of origin and their quality, which is based on both resin content and the particular demand within the country they are sold. The price for agarwood is oftern based on rarity rather than quality. So if you intend on buying agarwood, you should really know agarwood well and know what you will be using it for - rather than buy the highest price you can afford.

Another important thing to know when buying agarwood pieces for incense is that the appearance alone is not enough for deciding on the quality; neither is the smell of the wood as it is; it must be burnt as incense to fully evaluate its quality and scent.

Adulteration of the Wood
Agarwood powder is the most prone to adulteration or low quality. Agarwood powder is extremely lower in price comparing to agarwood chips and pieces of wood. This is because it is usually either by product of the agarwood oil manufacturing (i.e. the powder of the wood after it has been distilled and the true agarwood resin has been removed from it); or is simply sawdust from the uninfected Aquilaria. It is mostly used for incense production, as an odour-neutral base for incense sticks and cones.

Agarwood chips aren’t risk-free for adulteration either. According to traders from Mumbai, India “common chip adulterants were ‘lodh’ (possibly Symplocos racemosa) and ‘astrang’ (possibly Mandragora officinalum)”. (see: HEART OF THE MATTER: AGARWOOD USE AND TRADE AND CITES IMPLEMENTATION FOR AQUILARIA MALACCENSIS by Angela Barden, Noorainie Awang Anak, Teresa Mulliken and Michael Song )

Some traders will also mix resinous chips with uninfected wood to increase the weight and their profit.

Other forms of adulteration of wood include impregnating sculptures or beads carved from other woods, with agarwood oil. Aquilaria (the non infected wood) is very soft and difficult to work with, and even more so can be said for agarwood.

Adulteration of the Oil
High quality agarwood oil has a unique scent that cannot be reproduced synthetically, and any effort to do so will be very costly. As mentioned before, there is far more demand for agarwood than there is supply (thes supply is only 40% of the world-wide demand).

Agarwood essential oil is the most expensive essence in the world. Grades vary quite greatly, but it is not uncommon to find agarwood oil sold for $14,000-30,000 per kilogram! All of these factors make agarwood very attractive target for adulteration, mostly with other essential oils that have similar odour profile, i.e.: woody, musty, etc.
“Agarwood oil is adulterated with lodh oil, five or six other chemicals and/or agarwood powder that imparts
the fragrance of agarwood”.
It may also be blended with other natural oils that have some resemblance to agarwood and can extend its aroma (although in some cases the cost for using those is still rather high), including sandalwood, vetiver, spikenard, amyris (West Indian sandalwood), etc.

Next: Religious and cultural significance, medicinal uses, and use of agarwood in incense and perfumery.

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