Healing through Beauty: Adventures in Olfaction
The funny part, in retrospect, is how much I resisted. Contemplating the hundreds of vials I would need to obtain for even a basic perfuming palette (or “perfume organ,” as it’s known), I balked at the expense; I told myself perfume was a black hole from which I’d never emerge. I think I feared that the spell of the scented would siphon all my skill, leaving no creative juice for other pursuits. That I would become a slave to smell.
I won’t say my fears were completely unfounded. Even samples vials of aromatics quickly added up—precious natural extracts are much costlier than synthetic aroma chemicals used by commercial perfumers. Hours spent at the perfume organ vanished like so much jasmine on the breeze. The cost was high indeed, by most any measure: money, time, attention. What I hadn’t counted on, though, was how much the path of perfume would give back, in sheer pleasure and in something more profound: a type of healing I didn’t know I needed, something like an unfurling of inner petals.
My eventual surrender to the pull of perfume was inevitable. The credit for my conversion nevertheless accrues largely to one man, and to the tree with which he shares a name. That name is Oud.
I first came across Ensar Oud on Kafkaesque, an anonymously-written perfume blog that I stumbled upon while busy, eh-hem, not letting myself get into perfume. According to the blog, Ensar, a Muslim convert from Queens, is revered as a man of impossible standards, a producer of oils and perfumes of unsurpassed quality, with prices to match. Ensar’s own website certainly supports this pictures: “Ensar’s OCD drives distillers mad,” one page boasts.
According to that same sales sites, it was Ensar’s Sufi master who charged him with the task of finding and distilling the best oud possible—oud being the Arabic term for ‘wood,’ but referring in this context to agarwood, the resin-impregnated wood that certain tropical hardwood species produce in response to fungal infection. This strange-sounding product sits at the pinnacle of the world’s of incense and perfume, a holy grail of sorts.
Its pursuit brought Ensar into contact with figures like the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman, a serious fragrance cognoscento with pockets deep enough not only to finance his passion and push the limits of what was possible in the field, distilling higher grades of wood than anyone else. Inspired and encouraged, Ensar began his own forays into small-batch oud, turning a “timeless tradition into an artisanal culture,” as his site would have it. The fruits of his early labors, under the Oriscent label, are now collector’s items often worth significantly more than their original (and hefty) price tags (oud is valued as an investment because, like wine, it can improve with age).
Though few inspire the kind of devotion that Ensar does, other artisans have since followed suit, making a wide array of high-quality oud available even at a time when wild stocks have become vanishingly scarce in many places. It is not so much that agarwood species are endangered; because collectors, whether legal or poaching, are interested in mature trees--the older the better—they have no reason, at least in theory, to cut saplings below a certain age. Still, with no shortage of unscrupulous collectors, and the trees’ tropical habitat under threat from logging for palm oil plantations and the like, the future of agarwood looks increasingly to be a matter of tree farms.
Good agarwood itself can cost upwards of a hundred dollars a gram, or even ten times that for the superior grades, whose shavings are destined to be lovingly heated on dedicated burners, their vapors obsessed over like a lover or a favorite piece of art. Given the value of the wood alone, the general practice has been to distil less highly resinous pieces of agarwood, i.e. lower grades, for their oil. Why distill the best stuff when it’s already so valuable? Not for profit. But, to the obsessive, the exacting, the ultimate oud head and connoisseur, the thought of distilling the best aloes for its essence, of being able to smell the rarefied and state-altering vapors of kyāra (the highest grade of agarwood) from a sheen of oil on the wrist, is too much to pass up. Someone had to do it. Ensar stepped in and channeled his single-minded obsession to drive the genie of such legendarily fleeting scents into little glass vials.
If he an exacting artist then he is also, it must be said, a consummate salesman. His trick, evidently, is utter conviction in the quality of his own products—not just conviction, in fact, but obsession. I’ve rarely seen anyone so single-mindedly focused on their craft, so dedicated (or presumptuous?) as to name themselves after their art.
Ensar’s YouTube channel offers a window into the man behind the smells. On his “Morning Oud show,” Ensar plays host to a rotating cast of guests including the late Sheikh Ehab, a cleric originally from New Jersey. Ehab plays the everyman to Ensar’s connoisseur. In twenty or thirty minute episodes, we watch Ensar discussing the ins and outs of different regions, different methods, different kinds of oils while he offers his guest precious swipes of the goods. In between Ensar’s explications, there are plenty of long inhalations and contented sighs, which doesn’t sound like it would make for very interesting viewing—but there’s something charming about the camaraderie, the geniality of this salon, something appealing about two intelligent, sensitive men devoting themselves not to politics or sports or even to the religion they share, but solely, for those few minutes, to sensory beauty.
The effect is soothing, reassuring: whatever else may be going on in the world, it tells us, it’s still possible to come into presence, to return to the senses and experience not just pleasure but reverie, communion. And not just possible, we begin to suspect, but essential.
In other interviews, Ensar can tend towards a dark mood, full of a scorn typically reserved for purveyors of inferior products, agarwood counterfeiters and the like. But in the Morning Oud Show his sociable side comes to the fore along with a pedagogical streak. Watching the episodes is an education in natural perfumery, with episodes devoted not just to oud itself but to deer musk and other “animalics,” to vetiver, sandalwood and so on.
Though a self-professed “oud man,” Ensar also and increasingly devotes himself to producing French-style spray perfumes of a high caliber. What’s unusual is that, unlike the vast majority of perfumers, he (along with a small cohort of colleagues) works strictly with natural materials: flowers such as rose and iris and jasmine, spices like pink pepper, fruits like bergamot; woods like sandal; animal products such as castoreum (from beaver), the vanishingly rare true musk from the Asian musk deer and ambergris from the sperm whale.
Natural perfumery occupies a strangely marginal position in the fragrance world--strange because, for most of history, perfumery was natural perfume; it’s only in the last century or so that the advent of synthetic “aromachemicals” has displaced their costlier natural counterparts in the perfumer’s palette. These days, reviewers barely give a second thought to those few committed to actual botanical and animal extracts, to those using real roses. Because natural perfumers thus “limit” themselves, it’s claimed that their work is of lesser interest or value. This is a bizarre state of affairs. It’s as if natural foods—vegetables grown in soil and meat cut from real animals—were deemed inferior to food from a lab; as if the elite food critics snubbed their noses at the restaurants painstakingly sourcing local, organic and wild ingredients in favor of chefs concocting their flavors in a lab—unthinkable, in other words, and yet strangely the case.
One suspects that the real reason for commercial perfumers’ contempt for their natural perfume colleagues lies in envy: they themselves are restricted to ingenious but ultimately flat and lifeless facsimiles of the splendors—flowers, woods, even animal scent glands—that humans have always valued for their aroma. There’s an argument to be made that the flavor chemists are the ones who are limited, cut off as they are from the roots of perfumery because the scale of their production and the need for perfect consistency preclude them from using most natural materials. There’s likely not enough deer musk in the world to put even a tenth of a percentage point in a mass-produced eau de toilette by Polo or Chanel. It’s doubly ironic, therefore, that oud has become fashionable in the world of commercial perfume: the great majority of the flood of new fragrances with “oud” in the name contain either no actual oud at all, or a tiny token amount of low-quality oud just so the company can claim that the scent is made with “real oud.” The reason, of course, is that genuine article is simply too expensive, too variable, too difficult to source. Since the big guys can’t, therefore, work with the best stuff, they have pulled the wool and flipped the script.
It’s in this context that Ensar and a handful of other natural perfumers—other names include Ayala Moriel, AbdesSalaam Attar, JK DeLapp and Russian Adam—operate, producing high-end fragrances whose priciness—as much as $1,500 for a bottle of spray perfume--is rooted in the preciousness of their ingredients rather than in brand-name chic. In this game, batches are necessarily limited as with an estate Burgundy, say, or a single-malt Scotch.
Their followings, particularly Ensar’s, tend to be passionately loyal, not to mention vocal; like wine connoisseurs speaking on the ins and outs of terroir and vintage, they are often well-educated on the nuances of deer musk, the types of rose, the precise distillation method by which an oud oil is coaxed from the wood. For, to be clear, oud itself holds pride of place for perfumers like Ensar, Russian Adam, and JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumes. Oud provides depth, intrigue, richness and staying power, a monumental foundation upon which lighter florals and spice notes can frolic without risk of seeming flighty. In the world of modern artisanal perfumery, there’s no getting around oud.
To be clear, In the perfume context ‘oud’ refers not to the wood itself but to its essential oil, extracted through steam or hydro-distillation. Oud in this sense is the very essence of the wood, the soul of the tree captured in a tiny crystal vial—thick, faceted glass cut to magnify few dozen drops within.
Oud, agarwood, comes from a dozen or so tropical hardwood species in the genuses Aquillaria and Gyrinops, species that share a particular property: when under threat from the molds that would happily rot them to the core, these trees can produce a resin that protects them from infection. The resonated wood, also known as aloes, is dark and dense, and highly, hauntingly aromatic.
Its scent is, of course, impossible to capture in words, but likely descriptors include: woody, resinous, hypnotic, mesmerizing, floral, fruity, sweet, heavy, rich, ethereal, oceanic, gamy, narcotic. If some of these descriptors (‘heavy,’ ‘ethereal’) seem to contradict one another, that is in part a sign of oud’s variability; oud has been called a microcosm of the world of scent, with a breadth and depth of flavor comparable to that of wine or whisky.
But we’ll see, a paradoxical element is also part of the nature of oud, a subject which conceals as much as it reveals. At the heart of agarwood’s abundant beauty, whether as incense or oil, is something ineffable. Oud lovers seek that mystical heart, yet they seek it through the senses.
Let’s begin with sight. The oils range in color from pale yellow and translucent through shades of orange and red to green and blue, purple, brown, and black. They can be as viscous as molasses or as thin as a light syrup. The variation in aroma is as great as the color range would suggest. Broadly speaking, most oud has a woody-sweet quality, often with fruity or floral notes; there is often a richness, as of honey or cognac, often an element of spice or even of menthol. Animalic “barn” notes of leather and hay can be present, or even the notorious fecal notes present in “Hindi” (Indian) oud resulting from long soaking and fermentation of the wood prior to distillation. Combining these various elements, oud can smell soft or sharp, gourmand or medicinal, earthy or ethereal. It can be alluring, assertive, even aggressive. The common thread is the ineffable quality that oud heads, despairing of further description, simply dub “oudiness.”
The differences in aromatic profile result not just from distillation technique but (again as with wine), from the type of tree (an actual difference in species, not just in cultivar) and from the growing region or terroir. With oud, too, there is a distinction between wild and cultivated wood, the latter signifying plantation-grown trees whose resin-triggering infections are either left to develop naturally or that come about as a result of inoculation.
Wild agarwood is under heavy pressure, with large specimens all but extinct in much of their original habitat. The rarity only further drives up the price for wild wood in a vicious cycle. One result is that certain large trees are under armed guard against poachers: their wood is worth millions. Though agarwood species may not technically be endangered, as collectors have little reason to harvest young saplings, it is nevertheless under heavy pressure as a result of human appetite. At the same time as this dwindling of mature wild stock, there are more agarwood trees than ever, if one considers plantations. As a crop, agarwood is lucrative but requires patience: at least 5 or 6 years for trees to be big enough to inoculate or scar, at least another year or two after that before the resulting infection results in significant resin production. But these figures are bare minimums. Older wood is almost always better, as are older infections—and, some would say, natural ones that have occurred without benefit of inoculation. Good as organically cultivated agarwood can be with a few decades age—and it can be exquisite—the passion of oud enthusiasts is mainly reserved for wild wood, with its unpredictable fragrance explosion. Variety, again, yes: but also depth and intensity.
The most revered agarwood of all is called kinam or kyāra. This is the holy grail of oud, the crème de la crème. Vanishingly rare in the wild, it is traded in backrooms in East Asia at staggering prices amongst dedicated oudheads, collectors or investors. In some families it is passed down from one generation to the next, mostly famously in the Japanese imperial court: an enormous 11 kilogram agarwood log known as Ranjatai was originally presented as tribute to Emperor Shomu (AD 724-748) by the Chinese and is still extant today; slips of paper mark the places where wood was cut away for use by the royal family, or as an imperial gift.
The monetary value of such a piece is beyond estimation. For comparison, on Etsy.com’s bustling virtual agarwood market, kinam retails for around $1,000 per gram—a chip of wood roughly the size of a finger nail. The ritual for burning this wood is inspired by the Japanese Kodo tradition, in which the wood is ever so gently heated on a mica plate buffered against a coal’s heat by a small mountain of ash. With the heat thus controlled, the kyara can reveal itself layer by layer over the course of hours. (Today, variable-temp electric burners are popular for achieving this effect) Rather than merely a means of perfuming one’s environment, burning these grades of wood is an activity in itself, a meditation, a form of rapture.
I’ve been comparing oud to wine, and in some ways the comparison is apt: both are delicacies whose value is widely recognized within their respective (and growing) cultural spheres; within them, both are luxuries that border on necessity. The difference is that, much more so than with wine, oud evokes an unmistakable religious devotion in those who partake.
One reviewer of a high-end Ensar oil, Nha Trang LTD ($5,000/2.5 gram vial): “If the Cosmos could speak, its language would be Nha Trang LTD.”
Another writes in response to the same stuff:
“[The] only thing we can utter is Glory be to The Creator of The Worlds…There’s a secret reality to this oud that is very much hidden and can only be discovered if in awe of its creation. It exists, but only as a grant to know Love between The Lord and His Beloved.”
Another writes, simply, “this oil is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever come across.” Not the most beautiful perfume or the most beautiful scent. The most beautiful thing.
Throughout the millennia, oud has been associated with religion. The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was partial to it; aloes is mentioned in the Old Testament and formed a part of Kyphi, the Egyptian ritual incense. Oud is central the incenses burnt in East Asian Buddhist temples; the oil is often donned in mosques before prayer.
Traditional physicians have valued it just as highly. Agarwood has been used to relieve pain and cramping, as a sedative, to settle seizures or convulsions. It has shown potent antimicrobial activity against the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, as well as against shigella. Above all, it has been used for what traditional physicians in East Asian, Tibetan and Ayurvedic traditions called ‘wind.’ This is a large and important disease category which, in broad strokes, we can understand in terms of tension, an overwrought state of the nervous system. Tics and tremors are a form of wind, as is mental agitation.
Agarwood relaxes, opens constriction, restores flow. And yet here we come back to its aesthetic aspect, for relaxation and a tension-less state of well-being are precisely the kind of benefits one expects from inhaling its aroma outside of a medical context. Perhaps agarwood’s true power is to dissolve the fixed notions that would separate art from medicine, medicine from pleasure, pleasure from spirituality. Perhaps agarwood is the cure for the Protestantized soul, a dissolver of rigid categories, an agent of ineffability. In the Venn diagram of medicine, spirituality and intoxication, it occupies the central intersection; its therapeutic potency is ultimately inseparable from its beauty. Agarwood serves as a reminder that it is the bliss of ecstatic union that makes us whole.
It was a winding road, but in the end there was no contest: I surrendered. The vials have proliferated, threatening the crowd the rough table that serves as my perfumer’s organ in a corner of the apothecary. If I thought that 70 or 90 oils would serve, I was sadly deluding myself. It’s not enough to have jasmine, when there are several species of it and several choices of origin, not to mention at least two extraction methods. Roses, too, are a rabbit hole, ranging from the bright and citrusy to the impossibly lush, from pale pink to the deepest red. Sandalwood is similarly variable; here my own preferences surprise me, discovering as I have a preference for the funky spice of Indonesian over the classic buttery Mysore profile. The animalics, too, have proliferated in my tiny little atelier, with leathery tincture of castoreum (i.e. beaver juice) vying with civet for claim to the sweetest funk. So have the spices, the citruses, the herbal notes; the evergreens and the oddities, like fossilized amber or roasted seashell essence (the latter smells like a cheap motel room carpet, according to my wife, but I find it to be possessed of a haunting, almost ozone quality that can lend a certain mystique to floral blends). But I, too, reserve my deepest esteem for the woods, and amongst them, for oud.
Am I a proper oudhead—an ouddict—by now? I don’t swipe my oils every day. But every time I do, I’m glad of it. How many times the haunting scent has smoothed the course of a bumpy day, replacing stress and frazzle with sighs of contentment even while pointing the way towards something more profound at the edge of awareness.
Like any good new convert, I am impelled to spread the gospel. To this end, more than one of my friends has found themselves the recipient of a little glass vial. Not usually of pure oud, for that can be a tall order for the uninitiated nose and an expensive one for the giver—but of something unique to the recipient, my attempt to paint of them a portrait in scent. Almost always, oud is in there, gracing the bass notes, mingling with the likes of castor and rose, or jasmine, sandal, sage and seashell. And for all the beauty that the florals can provide, for all the bracing immediacy of a bouquet of bright or spicy top notes, it is oud that lingers on the skin, unfolding its sublime story for long hours while the mind struggles to catch up. There is no greater gratification than seeing such a friend with wrist glued to his nose, a slight smile at the corners of his lips. Then I can bet I’ll get a text asking, “what’s in here, again?”
My incense and perfumes can be found at Sattva Apothecary on Etsy.