Move over, sandalwood. The scent from the rare and complex agarwood is what everyone wants a piece of now.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Mould is not something one typically desires in or on anything, but when it comes to the non-timber Aquilaria tree, an infestation of phialophora parasitica inspires legends and religious purposes – and leads to staggering amounts of money, thanks to a dark resin called agarwood or oud that it produces. When extracted or distilled, the fragrance of oud oil is so remarkable and valuable that it now costs more than gold.

According to the peerreviewed scientific journal Frontiers in Plant Science, agarwood chips can cost as much as US$10,000 (S$14,169) per kilo or US$30,000 per kilo for the wood itself.

“The complexity of the agarwood’s scent spectrum is intriguing. You can’t easily categorise it as fruity, floral or grassy,” explains Jimmy Ho of Agarwood SG. “It might smell woody one moment and then remind you of honey before changing again to sour plum a few seconds later. It’s fascinating.”

Widely used as traditional medicine and as an aromatic food ingredient for centuries, it has also appeared in religious texts and in ceremonies across the world in the form of incense, perfume and beads.

Now, with increased affluence and awareness, as well as prominent figures like Jack Ma and Jet Li sporting agarwood accessories, its popularity has skyrocketed.

Nature, unfortunately, isn’t interested in accommodating big business. It’s impossible to tell how much resin a tree has produced (if any) without chopping it down, thus leading to rampant illegal logging and smuggling.

With the Aquilaria species on the brink of extinction, countries like Thailand and Vietnam started to cultivate their own agarwood.

“Consistency and sustainability are the benefits of cultivation done right. This helps to make it ideal for perfume and medicinal products,” continues Ho. “However, be wary of producers who don’t disclose their inoculation methods because they may not be using materials that are safe to consume or apply.” Compared to wild agarwood, cultivated agarwood also has a slightly weaker scent when burnt.

Whether you choose to wear it, ingest it or display it, it’s best to do your homework to ensure the oud oil comes from a sustainable source before basking in this sacred scent.