The scent that sent many to heaven and some to hell
What would you say is the most expensive natural raw material in existence? Most people, I am certain, would immediately think of gold. If not gold, I’m guessing the first associations would be diamonds, silver, platinum or pearls and gemstones. While certainly prized, the value those materials is not even close to the absolute winner.
You can probably recall the often used trope in adventure and treasure-hunting movies where the hunter finds a treasure chest only to be bitterly disappointed upon opening it because instead of shiny gold coins and diamonds the chest contains brown pieces of wood. Believe it or not, in the world that we live today a chest full of certain type of wood would make you a millionaire!
This is a story of ky nam and agarwood – resources so rare and sought for that it easily reaches 30 times the value of gold per same weight! As an example, a 61 gram piece of ky nam is currently being offered on Ebay for a bit less than $100,000!
Why is this material so valuable and who would buy a piece of wood for that amount? After all, you could buy a three-bedroom-two-bathroom house in Dallas for that amount. If your first guess was “it must be those absurdly rich guys in the Gulf States” – you got it right, although that’s only the partial answer.
Ky nam is actually the rarest subset of agarwood – a special resinous wood formed in heartwood of a tree that only grows exclusively in parts of Southeast Asia. Agarwood is formed when the tree becomes infected with a type of mold. In response to the attack the tree starts producing dark aromatic resin that inoculates the infected areas. Agarwood has a distinctive and unique fragrance that has been valued for centuries across different cultures: it is extensively burned in form of incense chips in Middle East (where it is known as oudh), in the West it’s highly valued and used for body oils and perfumes and in China, Japan and India people use it for festive and religious purposes. Moreover, in China agarwood is still used as a traditional remedy for colds and digestion problems.
Agarwood is produced mainly in trees that belong to the species of genus Aquilaria, an evergreen tree. Aquilaria crassna is now critically endangered. The most important resin producing species are now protected worldwide under the CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) convention as well as by the World Conservation Union, IUCN.
Close to the Cambodian border, inside the Wat Bang Kradan temple there is a 200-year-old agarwood tree. It is considered to be the world’s most expensive tree. Because of its age it is so rare and precious that near it the military erected a checkpoint where soldiers watch the tree around the clock. The monks of the temple consider the tree to be holy and rumor has it that Japanese investors offered 23 million dollars for the tree! The monks, of course, refused the offer.
By some estimates, fewer than two percent of wild agar trees produce agarwood. “It is quite a rare occurrence naturally …. [Around] one in 10 trees usually show signs of agarwood production while the other plants in the same population may not necessarily have agarwood,” says Joachim Gratzfeld, who works for Botanic Gardens Conservation International and for years has been trying to preserve the trees that produce oud or agarwood.
Today agarwood became a $6 to 8 billion per year business and illegal poaching is a serious threat. With such high cost the deaths and injuries of forest guards is increasing every year in Southeast Asia. Heavily armed poachers spend months in the jungle trying to find agarwood infected trees, they are more than ready to kill anyone who would try to take the precious bounty from them.
Agarwood is exported in various forms (wood chips, powder, oil and as finished products such as perfumes, incense and medicines). The highest price gets agarwood from old trees in the wild. One more reason of its high value, besides the rarity of agarwood in nature and complexity of extraction, is the fact it is extremely expensive to synthesize. Even if synthetization succeeds the products is distinctively inferior to the natural one. Experts say that agarwood smells heavenly, woody and balsamic and surrounds a warm aura of bitter sweet and woody nuance. Whereas, synthetic agarwood smells plain woody, leathery and lacks that warm balsamic aura.
As wild harvesting has been banned in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, there has been a boom in plantations growing cultivated agarwood. The trunks and main branches of aquilaria trees are induced into generating their precious resin through chemical injections.
Many fragrance connoisseurs believe that agarwood from plantations is far inferior to the natural occurring one because it is usually harvested when the tree is only between five and ten years old. Agarwood is like wine or whiskey – the more it ages the richer the fragrance it produces. However, with natural resource becoming so scarce and with the prices soaring every year – by some estimates the price increases 20% each year – agarwood from plantations may be the only option available in the future. That is, of course, if you are not an oil magnate who can afford to part from tens of thousands of dollars just for a few whiffs of the heavenly fragrance.