Dedication to quality, an emphasis on olfactory authenticity, a passion for the materials, and a vision for how they can be presented in the very best, truest, and most beautiful fashion possible — these are some of the key traits common to the artisans who make the biggest splash in the fragrance world. These men and women put their products ahead of any price tag or marketing trends, desire for fame, or interest in the spotlight in the pages of glossy magazines. They do their own thing, by their own rules, following their own internal vision, and any plaudits which may ensue are merely a nice side recompense.
The world of luxury niche oud is a parallel but completely separate universe to the fragrance one and, while there are fewer artisan stars in its firmament, the same rules hold true for what makes them special. There are several names which stand out in this small niche world — Ensar Oud, Agar Aura, and Russian Adam of Feel Oud — but one seems to shine the brightest and is frequently spoken of in almost reverential tones: Ensar Oud.
He is spoken about in ways that I, an outsider, often marveled over and have never otherwise observed even in the most fanatical, slavish fans of the perfume legends. Whatever adoration you may have seen for someone like Serge Lutens, a pioneering trailblazer in our world, pales before the esteem shown to Ensar Oud by his fans in his world. I can only describe it as “hushed breaths of reverential awe” — and after trying some of his oils, I can understand why. My hope with this piece is to explain why to you, in turn, but also to explain the world of oud as a whole.
Let me warn you in advance that this is an extremely long article which covers a lot of ground, far beyond a basic Oud 101 primer, although that is included as well. The topics include: the role of the distiller versus the creative director; the hierarchy of agarwood types, like the incense-grade favoured by the Japanese and Chinese; market prices for different grades of wood and changes thereto over the years; general production costs spent by the big oud fragrance companies or producers, and the sorts of wood that they use as compared to a small artisan like Ensar Oud; the set-up of the big Arabian Gulf fragrance companies and how their executives have influenced tastes; the oud varietals favoured by the Arab market over the last 40 years and how that has impacted supply; criticism against Ensar Oud; oud as Art; the affordability factor, or lack thereof; oud oils as an investment and what the rate of return can be for some of them; and sustainability concerns and the belief that organic oud farms are the way going forward.
ENSAR OUD — THE MAN & HOW HE BEGAN:
Ensar Oud is a private man when it comes to his life outside of oud (or before it), but there are a few nuggets which can be gleamed from a careful perusal of his website. My favourite is a sentence from his account of “Mission: Cambodi Kinam” which exemplifies the colourful nature of his hunt for oud perfection: “Here I am, a New York Muslim convert, accompanied by a South African boer on a rubber tree farm run by an aspiring Buddhist monk, in Thailand, distilling 12.5 kilograms of incense-grade Cambodian Oud wood harvested over a span of two decades by a survivor of Pol Pot’s Reign of Terror.”
Ensar Oud launched his company in 2004 under the name Oriscent and with the goal of creating the purest, truest, most complex, and luxurious high-end oud oils. The brand name was officially changed to the eponymous “Ensar Oud” in 2012 after some copycat problems. The business operates out of New York and Amman, Jordan, but I think he actually lives in Singapore.
The Sufis were responsible for Ensar Oud’s original discovery of oud, but it was a Jordanian sheikh who was responsible for what followed. In an article with Model News which is posted on his website, he explains how his oud journey started after he began “attending the mystical gatherings of the Sufis” and the events after that:
They’d always have these little stalls at the ‘bazaar’ section, where all sorts of Sufi goods would be on offer, among them little greasy vials of oil called ‘oud’. Most of them nameless oils obtained from nameless sources. But the scent had its mysterious appeal.
Being somewhat of a snob by nature, I could never be pleased with anything but the finest quality in things, and I started looking for higher and higher quality oils. The quest, needless to say, was extremely difficult.
Believe it or not, as recently as 2004 there was almost no awareness of oud in the West. Far from the fad it has now become, most folks did not even know oud existed. I packed my bags and started looking around the Gulf, initially, for the ‘perfume of the sultans and rulers of Eastern lands.’
This led nowhere, and all I ended up with was a collection of DOP-laced oils similar to the offerings of the major oud companies from the Gulf: Arabian oud, Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Al Haramain, etc. These companies openly mix their oils. I’ve visited their factories in the UAE, met the staff, the chemists, and the ‘artisans’ as some rookie internet entrepreneurs like to call them. There was nothing artisanal about it is all I can say, and I was grossly disappointed.
Heading to Amman to live by my Sheikh in early 2005, the Sheikh ordered me to travel to the Far East in quest of oud. ‘I want you to bring me back the finest oud oils in the world,’ the Sheikh said to me. He even paid for my plane ticket, may Allah reward him. The story is re-told in my blog.
With his blessing, and by the grace of God, we were able to fool certain Quixotic souls into the profitless venture of distilling Artisanal Oud oil for us. Not caring about the costs, the potential major losses if the distillations went bad, we soon ended up with oils that are to this date referred to as Oud Legends by fellow distillers, collectors, entrepreneurs, what have you: Kyara LTD, Borneo 3000, Royal Kinam, Borneo 4000. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
“DESIGNER” & “ARCHITECT”:
In my opinion, there are two central, fundamental elements which made Ensar Oud a pioneer in the world of niche oud and which continue to make stand him out from so many others producing oud oils: first, the quality of the wood and, second, what he does with it. I’ll talk about length about the actual agarwood later on, but we should begin with Ensar Oud’s role as the architect in carrying out a particular vision. While Ensar Oud occasionally distills oils himself or with his team, he acts primarily in the capacity of “Creative Director,” to use fragrance parlance and terminology. He works with a handful of master distillers in small villages in Thailand, Cambodia, or other parts of Asia who have distilled agarwood for decades, often raised and bred to the job from generations past, and who treat the top grade of wood to Ensar Oud’s specific, particular, and highly detailed instructions.
When I asked him about the specifics of the situation, Ensar Oud used the analogy of a fashion designer, like, for example, Armani, who works with expert tailors to bring his vision to life. What he emphasized was the role played by the “design” in the process or, to put it another way, how a specific, overarching vision dictates a particular type of end-product. One of the criticisms lobbied against Ensar Oud concerns his role versus the expertise brought by the master distillers that he employs (more on that at the end), so I think his explanation about how he sees his role in the distillation process and his elucidation of his overall philosophy are worth reading, even if it’s a bit long:
It’s like someone who’s into fashion and sets out in search of ‘tailors.’ In reality, what they’re wearing and seeing is the work of a designer – not the stitching job of his tailor (or more accurately, group of tailors). Of course, the stitching means everything to the final product, just as the execution of the distillation needs to be spot on, but the whole thing happens through the lens of the designer, not the person who cuts the fabric, those who print the patterns, or the guy who calibrates the sewing machine.
Every distillation project involves many people, and in more accomplished distilleries ‘the distiller’ assumes a role much more akin to what I’ve described, where he’s the one who knows the setup and the process, not the one who climbs the tree, does the harvesting, chisels every piece in search of a particular strain of resin, lights the pot, collects the oil, etc. But he needs to be intimately familiar with every detail and have the right people in place for each step of the process.
So, to answer your question as directly as possible, true, I have personally been involved in distillation, and true, I entrust the process to my distillers whom I have given stringent guidelines to follow for each and every batch we do. Yet, I cannot stress enough that the art of distillation is all about the Design of the distillation, and not the manual labor a distiller does. It is an intimate knowledge of agarwood, its different strains and species and their unique properties, the character of the aroma, and how you want all of these to come together and be expressed in the oil. This is not the work of the distiller – it goes back to the parameters of the extraction as envisioned by the producer of the oil, the one who commissioned the distillation to happen in the first place. This is also the person responsible for procuring the raw materials. He is the one who decides which distillery will be used to begin with. If the parameters at x distillery are not suitable for the aroma he wants in the oil, the distiller at that particular place won’t be distilling anything.
It’s like the blueprint of an architectural design – who is the one responsible for the artwork, the architect or the one laying the bricks?
Focusing on distilling with your own hands is in fact quite detrimental to the creative scope of your artistic output. You cannot be watching the pots and inspecting raw materials in different countries at the same time. It just doesn’t work that way. Many hats need to be worn for a distillation to happen, and so long as the distiller is the one wearing them all, he will accomplish very little.
At the end of the day, the number one task which a distillation project depends upon is the sourcing and careful selection of the wood, full stop. Technically, at this point, the distiller isn’t even on stage yet…
So, am I a distiller? Is Armani a tailor? No. I am a designer. I decide on the kind of smell I want to make. And the distiller does what he needs to do; and if he’s entering uncharted terrain, it’s on me to make sure the stitches go in the right place, in the right way, with the right needle, through the right kind of linen. If the scent doesn’t come out as envisioned, it is my time and money in jeopardy; not the distiller’s. [Bolding emphasis added by me.]
His design and his emphasis on a certain caliber of raw materials helped to transformed his small sector of the oud world. Granted, it’s a particularly niche world — and his critics claim that the people whose eyes he opened are merely a small group of uneducated Westerners who previously thought “Oud=Montale” — but I think there is little doubt that Ensar Oud has played a role in changing quite a few people’s perceptions, appreciation, and valuation of oud, regardless of their geographic location or oud background.
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to discuss the fundamental basics and to answer the question: what actually is “oud”? In the simplest terms, and to quote the Wikipedia nutshell summation for it, “oud” refers to agarwood or aloeswood which
is a fragrant dark resinous wood used in incense and perfume. It is formed in the heartwood of aquilaria trees when they become infected with a type of mould. Prior to infection, the heartwood is odourless, relatively light and pale coloured; however, as the infection progresses, the tree produces a dark aromatic resin, called aloes or agar (as well as gaharu, jinko, oud, or oodh; not to be confused with bukhoor), in response to the attack, which results in a very dense, dark, resin embedded heartwood. The resin embedded wood is valued in many cultures for its distinctive fragrance, and thus is used for incense and perfumes.
“Oud” isn’t a monolithic or single entity, and neither are agarwood trees. On his website, Ensar Oud makes a great analogy to fruit-bearing trees in an article entitled “Oud Oil 101,” explaining that Indian, Cambodian, and Bornean trees are “agarwood” in the same way that oranges, bananas, kiwis, and mulberries are all “fruits.” But that’s where the similarity ends. “All further comparisons, whether in chemical make-up, olfactory profile, method of inoculation, peak maturation, fermentability, and optimal extraction techniques.” On top of all that, even when you have the same type of tree — say, apple in this analogy — there can be multiple sub-strains within that type, and the differences can end up being as great as those between a Granny Smith, a crab apple, or a Golden Delicious.
Terroir is one reason for the differences between the same type of tree growing in India versus one in Borneo, China, or Indonesia. The term refers to the unique environmental composition of a piece of land from its topography to its soil, climate, moisture levels, and so on. Terroir can affect or shape the type of resin that they produce; and the molecular composition of that resin (called “oleoresin“) impacts, in turn, the particular olfactory characteristics which ensue when the wood is distilled. It’s the resin which determines whether a piece of oud smells animalic, floral, fruity, camphorous, medicinal, musky, leathery, mossy, bitterly mentholated, or something else.
Even between the same type of tree from the same area, there will be differences in amount of resin from one tree to the next, and these differences impact assessments of the wood’s grade, quality, function, and use. Basically, in a nutshell, the higher the resin count, the larger the resin core/streaks within a piece of wood, or the more the resin fully fills every part of the wood, then the higher its quality and the more likely it is that the wood will be sold for non-perfume purposes. Specifically: to scent personal spaces by burning it like incense; to carve into sculptures, bangles, or jewellery; or, as many wealthy Chinese collectors do, to simply to display the piece of wood, as is, like an art work.
There are really two top-tier grades of oud wood. The first is called “incense-grade.” This is wood with a significant amount of dark resin so it’s extremely expensive. Consequently, as the name implies, people think that it’s too good to grind up for mere oils and that it is better suited for personal or special incense use, like, for example, the Japanese Kōdō (香道, “Way of Fragrance”) incense ceremonies, although I should add that the Japanese are hardly the only ones burning agarwood. In some cases, the incense-grade wood is so expensive that people think even burning it is a waste, so they opt instead to turn it into art and carve sculptures out of it.
One of the most coveted and renowned types of wood is called “Kinam” or “Kyara.” It’s a varietal which is used in two “Legends” that I shall be reviewing, Purple Kinam and Kinam Rouge, so it’s worth a brief explanation here. According to Ensar Oud: “Kinam is a very particular strand of agarwood (with several sub-strands as well). The term originates in Japan, and the Japanese were the first to categorize it. It’s rare and super expensive (generally around $300 per gram, but certain qualities go for $1,500+ per gram, and large chunks even more), and is mainly traded in Japan and China.” If you’re interested, you can read more about this subject in Ensar Oud’s blog piece, “Kyara: An Exposé,” but all you need to know for our purposes is that Kinam or Kyara is one of the highest echelons of wood and that it’s had a big effect on Ensar Oud’s work. He told me: “Kinam has been a huge influence and the struggle to capture echoes of its scent in my oils is a theme found throughout my portfolio.”
The ultimate pinnacle of the overall agarwood hierarchy or pyramid is something called “sinking-grade” wood. This is not about varietals or species of oud, but about inner content. Kyara/Kinam can be “sinking-grade,” but so can a different strain of tree from, say, China or Borneo. According to Ensar Oud’s Oud 101 article, this is wood that, in a nutshell, is so massively filled and heavy with resins that it sinks even when all the moisture is dried out of it. That distinguishes it from other types of wood, even ones with a fair amount of resin, which float or which sink only when moisture remains in the wood and it hasn’t been dried out yet.
It’s complicated, and you can read Ensar Oud’s more precise explanation if you’re interested, but the key thing to know is that this is wood which is so rare and so top-grade that even a small amount costs a crazy amount. On his blog, Ensar Oud has an article from 2012 which talks about an Asian collector who had a piece of sinking-grade Cambodian agarwood and its price back then: for a small 1.1 kilogram piece, someone offered him $50,000. The owner turned it down, insisting it was worth $100,000. That was 5 years ago, for a piece of wood that weighed a mere 2 pounds or 38 ounces!
Few people are mad enough to use such costly wood in oils, let alone frequently, but Ensar Oud does. For example, one of the few Oriscent oils still available online is Nha Trang LTD and 25% of it is composed of sinking-grade agarwood. There is also a fair bit of sinking-grade oud in: Borneo 50K; Purple Kinam; Kinam Rouge; Kyara de Kalbar; and Sultan Ahmet.
Some of Ensar Oud’s previous oils have been composed almost entirely of sinking-grade oud: Brunei Kinam; Oud Royale No. 1; Borneo 3000; Oud Sultani (there is a related sibling scent, I think, called Oud Sultani 1990 which has just been released after years of maturation and is available for pre-order, but I don’t know if it is almost entirely sinking-grade); and Oud Ahmad.
OUD IN THE MIDDLE EAST, CHANGING TASTES IN THE ARABIC MARKET & THE BIG GULF FRAGRANCE COMPANIES:
Now that you know something about agarwood, let’s move onto the way that it has conventionally been treated in perfumery. Ensar Oud explains it best in his Oud 101 article. There, he begins by distinguishing between companies who produce fragrances and those who sell perfumery ingredients and/or oud oils.
The first group offers a box, a container, and a fashion statement. The second group offers an artisanal, crafted, natural substance which may or may not be employed in the production of the wares of the first group.
“Oud” is different things to different people, particularly the average consumer and the big houses, both Western and Middle Eastern:
For John Doe, ‘oud’ could be any ratio of that oil in combination with any other oil, be it of natural or synthetic origin. For yet a third, it might be any combination of dioctyl phthalate (DOP) in conjunction with other chemicals. And for the ‘big houses’, it is a scent category.
Just as musk is for the ‘big houses’ of French perfumery, so is ‘oud’ for the big Arabian houses – a type of smell – regardless of what substance is used to give off or emit that smell. [Emphasis in the original.]
That’s a great summation of “Oud” products from the big houses, but I would include many Western ones in this now as well, given the way that “oud” has taken off in both niche and mainstream perfumery. It’s become a generalized scent category, irrespective of the actual materials used, their authenticity, or their quality.
One of the things that intrigued me when I began my research into Ensar Oud was the occasional passing reference to the inner workings of the big Arabic/Gulf companies, as well as the way that the type of oud which dominated their markets and passions has changed over time. One section in the Oud 101 piece discusses the recent history of oud in the Middle East, and Ensar Oud’s evocative writing reads like a novel:
In the beginning, there was Oud Hindi. This was the deep, reddish-brown juice that was presented to the Sheikhs and Emirs, Sultans and dignitaries in fancy crystal flasks back in the 1970s as the ultimate olfactory wonder. Then, there came a stage when the jungles of Assam felt like they were coughing up the very last trees they had in store, so the Bengali and Indian tycoons of the Oud trade started sniffing around for a solution. Laotian Oud being too sharp when distilled the Hindi way, and Burma being impenetrably closed off for the most part, they could only turn to the ‘next best’ thing down the block, which was ‘Oud Cambodi‘.
As the sheikhs in white headscarves flew back and forth, from Delhi to Phnom Penh, from Dakka to Phnom Penh, from Dubai to Phnom Penh, from Dammam to Phnom Penh, from Doha to Phnom Penh… all the while repeating the oft-chanted mantra of ‘Oudh Combodi’… the term stuck in the mind of the Oud consuming world. It gained such hold in the brains of Saudis and Emiratis that you could hear them chanting among themselves, as they ate camel mandi, ‘Com-Bo-Di! Com-Bo-Di! Com-Bo-Di!’ And they whispered it in the ears of their spellbound children as they put them to sleep, ‘If you behave yourself, you get a bottle of Combodi.’
Now, as the Bengalis who run the Oudh conglomerates of the Emirates rapped on, something alarming started to happen in the forests of Kampung Speu. And then Pursat. And then Koh Kong… The hunters of Oudh Combodi stopped finding any trees to make their Oudh from. But it was too late. The people had been told that there is nothing as precious or as chique as Oudh Combodi. And so Oudh Combodi they had to have. What to do? It was a decisive moment in the history of Oudh, as the white head-scarfed Sequoia drivers and their Bengali tigers decided it was time to move yet further East in search of their juice. (All the while, the people kept chanting all over the streets of Riyadh, ‘Com-BO-DI! Com-BO-DI!’). [Bolded emphasis added by me.]
I asked Ensar about the big Gulf companies, their executives, and their focus. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Middle Eastern ouds is bound to have heard the names of Arabian Oud, Ajmal, Al Haramain, Swiss Arabian, and the like. Plus, thinking about it in hindsight, I think all the middle or executive-tier people that I’ve ever dealt with at Arabian Oud have, in fact, been Bengali or Indian, including the loveliest fellow in charge of their London store.
Ensar Oud’s answer provided a lot of insight into the Arabian Gulf companies, how they’re run, and what they’re interested in:
You’d often run into the notion that the Saudis and Emiratis are the chief oud connoisseurs and that they’re the ones who carry the banner of all things oud. Ajmal owns all the plantations, Arabian Oud has contracted distillers all over the place, and this idea that the best oud is in the Middle East… or the widespread belief that agarwood actually grows in Arabia! The reason behind the Bengali talk is to expose the fact that the bulk of the Saudi/Gulf market is in fact run by non-Arabs. It’s (literally) the Indian and Bengali bosses running the show. They brought a particular kind of oud to the market, which happens to have dominated the oud world ever since, and that just happens to be the reason so many people believe ‘Oud al Hindi’ is the best oud…
I know many of these CEOs and have sat with them numerous times. They are by no means ignorant about good oud and they are in tune with the state of affairs. Many of them were around in the early days and they probably have one or two oldies in their private stashes. But they know their market and the scale at which they’re operating. They supply and continue to supply hundreds of shops, internationally. That’s why, more importantly than distillers, they have chemists on the payroll. Even with their spending budgets combined, I’d still only get a tola or two of certain oils at a time. That’s the difference. [Emphasis in bolding added by me.]
“Chemists on the payroll” — that speaks volumes, in my opinion. That said, don’t take it to mean that the oud in oils from companies like Arabian Oud is solely synthetic. They do use some actual distilled oils in a number of their products. The issue is the type or quality of that wood….
CHEAP WOOD, WHITE WOOD, PAINTED WOOD & FAKED WOOD — CHANGES IN SUPPLY & THE MARKET:
In his post, “A Word on Cheap Oud,” Ensar Oud visually demonstrates the differences between the wood that he uses and the sort used elsewhere, either in mass-produced oils from the big companies or in the cheap, affordable ones from some artisans.
“This is the kind of wood that makes up most distillations”:
In contrast, this is the sort of dark, resin-filled agarwood that Ensar Oud uses in his oils and the reason why the cost of some of his distillations can be as high as $500,000, a figure that always makes me blink:
Purely on a visual basis, the colour and resin differences between the white wood and the sort that Ensar Oud emphasizes is most graphically demonstrated by contrasting photos of the white wood with a photo of “sinking-grade” wood turned into a bracelet:
As you’ve gathered by now, the prices for really good agarwood are high, and that is true even if you cut out the middle man. In fact, all the top artisans like Ensar Oud, Agar Aura, or Feel Oud typically go straight to the source, dealing with the men who go deep into the jungles to find the best, wildest, oldest, and most resinous pieces of wood. In a 2012 article entitled “Face to Face with Ensar Oud,” he states bluntly:
We don’t deal with middlemen, so there’s no value added to what we pay for oud wood. The same cannot be said of other vendors who, without exception, have to deal with second, third, or fourth parties. By the time the wood (or oil extracted from it) ends up on the market, the price has gone through several mark-ups along the way.
Even without the middleman, prices have gone higher since he started in 2004 and the market has changed. In that 2012 article, he compares the wood used in two prior oils — his Chinese Exclusive (distilled in 2004) and Kalbar 3000 (distilled in 2008) — to what was available in the (then present-day, 2012) market. “If we wanted to simulate these distillations today, we’d be faced with two obstacles: finding the same quality wood, and having enough cash to pay for the wood.”
One obstacle to finding the same quality material was the sudden rise in tampered wood on the market. This is wood which has received a certain amount of “help” via a facelift of sorts (painting, lacquering, injections, gluing, metal dust, stuffing, etc.) to appear far superior in quality or grade than it actually is. It’s an inevitable outcome of shrinking supply, rising prices, and high demand. Ensar Oud says it’s something which occurs at the source with some of the shadier hunter-sellers. On the surface and to an untrained eye (like mine), the wood looks great because it’s immensely dark and “resinous.” One would be forgiven for thinking that it was something very aged and special:
In his “Face to Face” article, Ensar Oud explains the significance of these photos in terms of the larger oud market:
what these pictures show is that since 2004, 2005, and 2007, some things have changed. [¶] Back then, we never found wood that was painted to appear more resinated. We never found ‘stuffed’ wood, meant to add weight to a batch.
Chips weren’t glued together to appear more suitable for carving purposes. Before, when you’d break open a chunk of wood, you wouldn’t find metal dust implanted to give the wood that nice ‘sinking’ feeling. In short, wood was never manufactured to make you believe that you were getting a certain kind of quality – incense-grade, sinking-grade, or otherwise. [Emphasis in the original.]
Even when wood wasn’t painted, glued together, or manipulated to resemble top-grade agarwood, even when it actually was both authentic and at the minimum quality level for distillation, even then the 2012 prices were too high to successfully replicate or simulate earlier limited-edition “Legend” oils:
One of the batches of raw oud wood we found was of a quality worth considering for an upcoming distillation. It wasn’t incense-grade, but still excellent for making oil. Only 12 kilograms were available. Price: $12,000. Expected yield: 4-5 tolas. Supposing we got the four tolas, that would mean that the minimum cost of only the wood going into the distillation would have been $750 per 3 grams of oil.
We can cite many examples like this one (and others, where higher asking prices would seem too far-fetched to even mention here). We are yet to track down wood of the same grade as what went into our other Vintage LTD oils. […][¶]
The retail price for Kalbar 3000 used to be $790 per 3 grams, making it the highest priced oil in our Vintage LTD Collection at the time. And we continue to receive complaints about it being too expensive. Yet, how can we be expected to continue to produce oils of the same standard, when just the cost of the wood alone needed to conduct the distillation already exceeds the retail price of an oil that’s ‘over-priced’? [Emphasis in the original except for the bolding which was added to the prices by me.]
As Ensar Oud explains in “What Makes An Oud Legend,” it’s not the overall quantity of basic agarwood out there that is the issue, but the quality, the health of the tree, its resin count, and “differentiation:”
As I’m writing this, looking out at the distillery, a tractor offloads a freshly harvested agarwood tree. In a couple of hours there’ll be another. And another. The workers are at it seven days a week, the pots keep cooking and the oud oil dripping. I certainly don’t see any shortage of agarwood ‒not in Laos, nor in Thailand.
It’s a matter of differentiation. You find salmon all over the place, yet why are activists fighting for its survival? […] If agarwood is overabundant, why leave your family at home, spend your days and nights surrounded by a foreign tongue searching for oud wood, supervising distillations, spend $50 per gram instead of $50 per kilogram of agarwood?
“Sure, they have tons of agarwood… but no resin,” a local distiller answered when I asked him about all the wood in Laos. His answer says it all, really. When you make oud oil, the amount of trees doesn’t matter; the health of the agarwood tree does.
THE ENSAR OUD APPROACH, COSTS OF PRODUCTION & THE QUEST FOR PERFECTION — “EVERYONE THINKS WE’RE JOKING“:
Right from the start, back in 2004, Ensar Oud thought differently from many distillers and from all the big companies about the type, quality, and cost of wood that he would use, and this is one of the things that has made him a pioneer and a legend in parts of the oud world. I should note that his critics argue that it’s merely a small, highly niche sector of the Western oud world and that the acclaim comes from people who have not actually been raised with oud from childhood, who don’t have it in the blood, and who are influenced by Ensar Oud’s writing, marketing, and “gift of the gab.” I will address this and other criticisms later on, but there is no doubt in my mind that his creations smell like nothing that I’ve encountered from the big Arabian companies, and that the quality and age of the raw materials are a major reason why.
From the start, Ensar Oud was focused on using the highest grade of oud that he could find. He says that he was often laughed at by seasoned, expert distillers or oud producers who thought he was completely mad. No-one used that kind of wood to grind up for oil, and certainly no-one spent hundreds of thousands on an artisanal distillation!
“Everyone thinks we’re joking” is the sub-heading in a post entitled “The Secret Behind Olfactory Perfection” which helps to explain both the nature of the larger oud market as a whole and also why, in my opinion at least, his creations stand out. It is a long but fascinating article that riveted my attention (particularly the opening bit on the hunt for wild agarwood trees in the Far East and how you can be shot on the spot in Brunei for harvesting oud), and I recommend reading all of it if you are interested, but I’ll quote a few salient sections here, starting with some background context on prices in the general oud market and costs of production:
Today, distillers produce their oud according to a cost-yield analysis. To them, it seems outrageous to distill certain grades of wood because they’ll be sure to lose money. Those who really go out on a limb might distill a batch of agarwood costing up to $150 per kilogram, but realistically speaking, this is something that to this day remains generally unheard of. The standard cost per kilogram is closer to $20, and maxes out at around $50. This kind of quality is referred to as ‘wood for making oil’, because there’s enough to fill several distillation pots with, and the oil extracted can be sold to the mass market at a competitive price.
Every producer I’ve met believes that there’s no point in distilling higher quality wood than what it takes to produce this kind of oil (the kind that satisfies the mass market). To them and to their market, the resulting oil smells pretty much the same, regardless if it were distilled from $20, $50, or $150 per kg wood. They all believe that up to a certain point, increasing the quality of the wood does not result in an increase in the oil’s quality, or hardly makes a difference.
The norm of distilling only ‘wood for making oil’ has remained with us till this day. Agarwood used in oud oil distillation should not exceed $50 (to some eccentric folks, maybe $100, or even weirder folks, $150). This is the rule. Any grade higher than this is exclusively reserved for burning as incense. So, the higher echelon figures – $300, $500, $1000+ – you expect to pay for the higher quality agarwood is referred to as ‘wood for burning’, and is to every (e-v-e-r-y!) producer the kind of wood that should never, ever be distilled into oil. [Emphasis in the original except for the underlining and bolding of prices which were added by me.]
And, yet, Ensar Oud persisted (and continues to persist) in his emphasis not just on quality, but also on the absolute best and oldest wood he can find, whether it’s oud or sandalwood. He won’t yield his standards or expectations, even if he has to go further afield for some of his finds nowadays. Like, for example, using Tanzanian sandalwood to combine with his Aceh (Indonesian) variety in the sandalwood oil that stole my heart, Sandal Sultan. Or going into the jungles of Asia, accompanied by his trusted colleague, “Kruger,” where they meet a renowned, monkish Buddhist distiller who survived Pol Pot’s Killing Fields and have colourful encounters with the local Mafia. (It’s fantastic reading, by the way. Ensar Oud could well be a novelist as he has a knack for bringing situations to vivid life. And that is, in fact, one of the common criticisms lobbied against him: he writes too well.)
A genuine passion for oud drips from his every word, whether it is something on his website, something he wrote to me in an email correspondence, or the way he waxes lyrical about the nuances of his beloved agarwood. On his website, he has an article entitled, “Agarwood: A Sacrificial Rite to Life,” where he begins by discussing the four fixative bases of classical perfumery: “deer musk from the Himalayan muskdeer, ambergris from the sperm whale, castoreum from the male beaver, and civet from the civet cat.” He gives them each their due credit, briefly, before describing his heart’s passion and why he thinks it’s different.
I don’t think Wordsworth or even Yeats (with whom Ensar Oud seems quite enamoured and has mentioned a few times) waxed quite as fervently about their favourite subjects as he does:
The world of perfume is a strange and wonderful place. And in this world, nothing quite compares to Oud oil; in its complexity, its variety, its sheer other-worldliness.
As a fragrance, Oud is a landscape in which you’ll find something of everything – from civet cats to rose petals, from patchouli to violets, farmlands to lilies, from figs to forest leaves, from raspberries and honey to leather to lavender. Oud is a microcosm of everything fragrant.
Whereas all essential oils are derived from an inherent quality present in a particular leaf or flower, Oud is something even more wondrous.
Oud oil is only given life by the event of dying. The agarwood tree is infected by a fungal disease, in reaction to which the tree produces a self-generated cure – the resin we know as Oud oil. The reality of Oud, then, is a struggle for life.
I confess, I’ve never viewed agarwood in such life/death, sacrificial, or Grecian tragedy terms, but there is something about dealing with Ensar Oud, hearing how he thinks, conversing with him (via email), and smelling his creations which has made me see oud in a new light. I’m not an oud addict, I’m not an aficionado who is well-versed in this particular sector of the fragrance market, and I actually have a difficult time with some varietals of the real thing (dear lord, Hindi oud!), but there is just something about Ensar Oud — both the man and his oils themselves — that has made me understand the sheer fervency, addiction, passion, and obsession which so many “Oud Heads” feel. I doubt I will ever share the full degree of their feelings, but I suddenly understand it.
HIS OILS: DISTILLATION, THE WOOD, THE AGE:
Ensar Oud is best known for his oud oils, but he releases a handful of sandalwood ones each year as well. In both cases, there are a few common and critical elements:
- he searches out for the top grade of wood that is typically also the oldest wood he can obtain;
- the wood is subjected to a long, careful, elaborate, and laborious distillation process in order to bring out the maximum number of primary and ancillary (auxiliary) aromas in accordance with his particular vision for that wood;
- he frequently lets the subsequent oil age before releasing it.
Ensar Oud briefly references some of the technical elements of what goes into “Factor 2” in his Oud Oil 101 article, like, for example, the impact of water’s mineral content, the length of the soaking period, and so on. (For a complete explanation of the critical elements, methodology, and stages involved in the distillation of high-end luxury oils, you can read Part I of my piece on Russian Adam of Feel Oud which covers the process in detail.) However, Factor 2 is actually not what distinguishes Ensar Oud’s oils from those created by other meticulous artisans at this level; it’s Factors 1 and 3: using the finest, oldest wood and, then, subsequently, taking things even further by aging its oil.
Think of it like brandy. Ensar Oud often takes a piece of incredibly old agarwood or sandalwood, distills it, and then lets it sit for 5, 8, sometimes 12 years or more before releasing it. Just like brandy or the best scotch, all or almost all of his oils come with a signifier of age via an original distillation date.
OUD AS “ART”:
Ensar Oud rebelled against conventional wisdom, had a different approach for oud that broke all the rules, and put money (an astounding amount of money in some cases) where his mouth is, but I don’t think any of this would explain the reverence in which he’s held in some sectors of the niche oud world if it weren’t for his underlying vision for each oil that he produces. I am not an oud aficionado or expert “Oud Head,” but the oils that I’ve smelled thus far has been different in profile and extremely evocative. They were also on a completely different level from the vast majority of ouds I’ve tried in their quality, smoothness, clarity, complexity, depth, and range, although a few of the Feel Oud oils have been similar.
Even so, it’s the sheer range of nuance and development in some of the Ensar oils that amaze me. If this is a function of the “Design” that Ensar Oud spoke of and which is discussed at the start of this post, then it’s a design that is more complex than most. When I tried Hainan 2005, made from rare Chinese agarwood that is now officially extinct, it was such a roller coaster ride with so many highs and lows as a rumbling (animalic, barnyard) bass turned into a sweet, lilting (lilac, peach, vetiver floral) alto, that I was reminded of Yo-Yo Ma playing a particularly complicated piece on the cello. (Paganini, to be precise). It also made me think of Picasso who deconstructed elements before rearranging them in different, unexpected ways. Other oils brought to mind the vivid slashes of colour and tropicality of a Gauguin painting. And his sandalwood oils, don’t get me started on the utter gloriousness of Santal Sultan, although the musky Santal Royale is beautiful, too.
I’m not the only one who views Ensar Oud in an artistic light. After I posted my teaser piece the other day, one of his admirers, Bryan Hanrahan, left a comment that echoed similar points, and it helps to explain why some people think Ensar Oud is so special:
He broke every dirty myth I ever believed surrounding oud. […] He truly is a pioneer in his trade, I would go a step further and say he is revolutionary and one of those once in a lifetime prodigies, much like Beethoven or Van Gogh. Obviously artisanal oud is a smaller niche, but his vision and how he absolutely changed the world of oud has been no less brilliant.
Not all oud aficionados feel that way, and many take great umbrage at the claim that Ensar Oud has “revolutionized” anything. To a number of them, he is little more than a marketer. I’ll talk about that further later on, but I feel differently. To me, someone like Tom Ford is a “marketer,” as demonstrated by a long list of things, including the name of his upcoming release, “Fucking Fabulous,” which is intentionally designed to draw the maximum amount of global attention and to court controversy.
From what I’ve observed, Ensar Oud isn’t someone who is driven by bottom-line sales figures or who engages in cheap theatrics. In my opinion, there is photographic, video, olfactory, and on-the-ground factual evidence to validate both his assessments of the larger oud world and the quality of what goes into his own creations. Everything I’ve read or smelled demonstrates to me that he is someone who is intent on creating art and setting new standards for both quality and luxury. I believe him absolutely when he writes that increasing the quality of the raw materials does, indeed, make an actual difference to the end-product because its my own personal belief about conventional perfumery. I’ve smelled enough things ranging in price from $60 to $3,500 to know that quality makes a fundamental impact and radiates through the scent.
Another factor that, in my opinion, plays a large role in the originality or uniqueness of a scent — whether oils, attars, or blended fragrances — is a creator’s desire to make Art, no matter what the cost involved, rather than just a nice, even lovely, wearable product. “Art” was what drove Serge Lutens in making his most famous “Bell Jar” fragrances, even if the results are sometimes more ground-breaking than easy to wear (hello, Iris Silver Mist!), and “Art” is what seems to motivate Ensar Oud as well.
He explained his thoughts on both quality and art in a piece entitled “Oud and Art: The Affordability Factor“:
The common producers’ belief that increasing the quality (and cost) of the raw material does not result in an increase in the oil’s quality, or hardly makes a difference, contradicts the existence of every oil I’ve released. Every bottle listed on our Legends page bears testimony against this belief. Increasing the quality of the raw materials has every bit to do with the oil’s quality, and to the trained nose makes all the difference.
Someone might have told Bruce Lee that training twenty minutes a day would have sufficed. Someone might have told Monet that using watercolors is enough. Someone might have told Rachmaninov to forget about the sharps and the flats, that a C is a C is a G. If I took the advice of all the distillers, our Legends page would be blank.
Many people might not be able to tell the difference between a painting by Monet and that of the local art school teacher, or the difference between a C scale and a chromatic, or… between oud oil and artisanal oud oil. But some can, and do.
There is an implicit statement of equality underlying comparisons to such legends as Monet or Rachmaninov, and some of you might raise an eyebrow at the inescapable whiff of ego. After trying his oils, I shrug at that. When you have it — really, really have it — and when you’ve worked hard to stand out or succeed the very highest level possible, then having an ego is rather human and gets a pass from me. Or, at least, I ignore it. Mozart boasted about how he wasn’t ordinary; and no prima ballerina or Olympian who devoted years of blood, sweat, and tears to reach their zenith would pretend that they were run-of-the-mill, average practitioners in their fields, either. I may not be an oud aficionado but, to me, Ensar Oud is not only an artist but also an artist who is operating at a completely different level to many others. False modesty would be precisely that, “false.” He knows he’s good, and why not? He actually is.
Having said that, however, let me add that Ensar Oud has never once been arrogant or cocky in any of my communications with him. He comes across as an intellectual with a poetic and philosophic soul, a complete obsession with his subject, a natural inclination to be a teacher, and a dry sense of humour mixed with polite reserve and old-fashioned courtesy. I admire him. A lot. And I don’t see his intellectuality as pretentious but as a positive thing. He’ll never be the sort of fellow you can just joke around with, but I chalk that up to him being serious, an introvert, reserved, and having a one-track mind that is completely consumed by oud and nothing but oud.
THE CRITICS & THEIR PERSPECTIVE:
Everyone has their critics and no-one is immune — not you, me, the passing Facebook commentator on a newspaper article, the President of the United States, or even my beloved (and in my entirely biased opinion) utterly perfect German Shepherds. (They are, you know. I will fight you to the death about their sheer gloriousness, no matter what their breed health problems might be nowadays.)
Ensar Oud has his critics as well. I knew the general gist of their arguments before I wrote this piece, but I received an email on Tuesday night after my “Teaser” post which calmly and very politely presented points in detail as a counter-perspective, and then a few subsequent emails, clarifying or adding a few points, while we had a polite debate. I want to emphasize the reasoned civility of the critic; this was not some heated, crazed troll on a rampage. It was someone who simply had a very different perspective, and thought it was worth politely sharing his thoughts as another side to the story.
I completely agree with him that it’s important to present both sides to a situation. It’s the very reason why I, unlike the vast majority of fragrance reviewers or bloggers, have made such a deliberate point of presenting and quoting other opinions even if it adds to the length of a review. Other perspectives are always worth knowing! Then, it’s up to you to smell something and to decide how you feel about it for yourself, but it’s worth knowing the other side of the argument beforehand, and even more so when the item costs a lot of money.
I told the person that his perspective would be heard and that I would present his side in the profile to have a more balanced picture, although I warned him a few times up-front that I was a lawyer and would rebut his points with counter-arguments. It was all very civil, and we parted amicably.
The points against Ensar Oud in the emails which I received can be either summarized or quoted (in italics) as follows:
- From a consumer perspective, the oud world can be divided into: the Japanese Market, the Chinese Market, the Gulf Market, and the Western Market. Ensar Oud is only known in a tiny online segment of the Western market: “a few hundred enthusiasts, [the] majority of whom do not come from an oud culture, this is where Ensar Oud operates. Ensar Oud has pioneered oud to the online community through his creative writing skills and understanding what this niche of people would appreciate.“
- Ensar Oud is unknown to the big players and tycoons who dominate each one of those four markets: “In the real oud world, Ensar Oud is unknown, whether it is the Japanese Incense Kodo Masters or the Chinese oud Wood Tycoons or the tribal families of the Arabian Gulf who utilise tens of thousands of dollars worth of oud annually, or even the Western Perfume houses that purchase litres of Oud from SEAsia, Ensar Oud is unknown to them. […][¶] I believe this perspective is important because Ensar Oud’s fans would have one believe that ‘Ensar has revolutionised the oud world’ and this couldn’t be further from the truth.“
- In addition, “Ensar Oud has not brought anything new to the online market that was not already available in the offline market. His oils are a resell of oils from distillers in villages in the far east. These oils are readily available across the middle east and SE Asia.”
- “Ensar does have a small, yet cult like following online. These individuals actively promote Ensar Oud all over the net. […] The promotional activities that his fans do on his behalf has created an inaccurate image of Ensar Oud and their real abilities.“
- “Ensar is only known to the online market, he does not operate to the broader, larger oud world. Therefore whatever he is or isn’t, is for the online market.“
- As compared to certain small artisans, Ensar is not down-to-earth, transparent, happy in his own skin, and honest. What he appears to be is merely an image — one that is created by his marketing team, his supporters, their hype, and their claims that he is a revolutionary in the oud world when, in reality, the larger oud world has never heard of him.
- “Finally, Ensar has been given the gift of the pen and gab, his writing is what essentially sells his oils, creates the persona and image. The online community most of whom have never indulged oud prior to coming across Ensar Oud, are in a vulnerable position. Their source of information is the same vendor who is trying to also sell them his products.”
Throughout the first email there were actually several references to Ensar Oud’s literacy, eloquence, or writing skill as well as how those things constituted a form of marketing which, the person argued, implicitly and explicitly, amounted to misleading marketing.
I respect differences in opinion, I deeply appreciate people who can convey their differences in a polite, calm, and respectful manner, and, again, I think there is great value to hearing other opinions from the other side of the aisle. But, at the end of the day, I’m a lawyer by training and mindset, and I tend to rebel against arguments when they are, in my opinion, based on questionable premises. Here, with all due respect, several of the underlying premises or attitudes are debatable, if not, at times, a little insulting to some consumers, in my opinion.
To me, there seemed to be several unspoken postulations underlying many of critiques of Ensar Oud. The first is true and accurate: the majority of average Westerners can’t understand, interpret, or know oud to the same degree or in the same way as a native Asian or Middle Eastern smeller who has been raised with the scent from childhood. On the flip side, however, as a counter-argument, I think everyone can become an expert in something if they study and work at it hard enough. Luca Turin was not born, raised, or educated as a perfume critic, but he knows more than many people who have only a limited knowledge of scent, merely spraying themselves with something as they pass through Bloomingdale’s or Harrods.
Second, there seems to me to be a real issue of outsiders versus native insiders, and this is where I start to have trouble. The first email told me flat-out that Ensar Oud’s particular niche world
is very different to the real oud world. In the real oud world people come from a tradition of appreciating oud, their noses trained from a young age on how to distinguish oud notes and appreciate its different facets. Where people indulge oud based on smell and not writing skills.
This is actually a common point that I’ve read elsewhere against Ensar Oud and that can be summarized, in my opinion and using terminology from an entirely different socio-economic-historic context, as: he is not “to the manor born.” The first email spoke of traditions, of noses “trained from a young age on how to distinguish” or specialize in oud nuances, but other critics have also spoken of distillation families that go back decades in their tradition, knowledge, and manner of distillation.
From what I have read, observed, and learnt, I think there is a critical context in which these arguments must be placed. First, “Oud” is completely different world, a much more insular, conservative, and hidebound one than the modern perfume world in many respects but particularly in its attitudes.
Second, as I see it, Ensar Oud is an “outsider” par excellence: an intense, talkative, opinionated, blunt-talking New Yorker from Queens who arrived on the Asian/Middle Eastern scene out of the blue and up-ended centuries old traditions and practices, as well as the standard, conventional, and traditional wisdom about what sorts of oud should be used. In short, some locals may well view him as an upstart as well as an outsider.
No, he doesn’t come from one of the old distiller families, and, yes, he does have the “gift of the pen and the gab,” no doubt. The latter is one of the things that I like about him. But I can also see how someone from a different culture, someone from the East or Middle East, might interpret that literary fluency, verboseness, intensity, and the sometimes Hemingway-esque accounts as mere “marketing.” Or why their feathers might be ruffled by an American outsider who is indirectly interfering, no matter how inadvertently he may do it, with their methods or, even worse, implicitly and indirectly criticizing their centuries-old conventions as being less than the platonic ideal.
Does Ensar Oud’s approach negate the unquestioned, absolute talent of the master distillers he employs, or how much their expertise plays a role in the beauty of the oils that they create for his brand? No, absolutely not. The skill and expertise of the master distillers should be praised, and no-one should minimize their role simply because they may be some small “villager.” I, for one, don’t devalue them, and I admire both their knowledge and their formidable talents. I have no sense that Ensar Oud looks down on them, either. To the contrary, he praises them often and tries to learn from them.
I have rebuttals to the other arguments as well. The world of oud is, according to the email writer, a large one. So what if an Asian tycoon is not aware of the name of Ensar Oud? Actually, doesn’t that undercut the Great Marketer allegation? If Ensar Oud were really such a great and successful marketer, if he were the sort driven to be the oud world’s equivalent of Roja Dove or Tom Ford, then surely every oligarch and tycoon from Beijing, Tokyo, Dubai, and beyond would have heard of him, no?
In my opinion, all these fame or recognition issues are actually red-herrings that have nothing to do with the issue, because Ensar Oud is a small artisanal overseer with no aspirations to be Roja Dove or the pal of Asian oligarchs. As for the big Middle Eastern houses, Ensar Oud says he knows their executives and CEOs; the writer says he is an unknown quantity. It’s “He said/He Said.”
And it’s also “He said/He said” when it comes to perceptions of whether or not someone is “down to earth,” “happy in their own skin,” or pretentious. Several of my close friends are the most voluminous, outgoing, intense personalities in word and text, but complete aloof introverts in person. Others are the reverse, while others still a mix of the two. Yes, a perfumer’s personality frequently influences subjective perceptions of a brand, but I’m starting to wonder if the oft-repeated attacks on his writing and “the gift of the pen” might not actually be a signifier of something more subconscious? Are a few (not all, but a few) people perceiving literary fluency combined with Western cultural sophistication as patronizing intellectual elitism?
Ultimately, though, does any of this really have any bearing on the caliber of materials used, the scent of an oil, or its quality?
In all bluntness, I personally don’t give a damn about issues of fame, literary ability, who knows who, background, breeding, personality, what’s in the cultural blood, or selling squabbles. In my opinion, none of them are relevant to the fundamental issues of how something smells and whether there is, to my nose at least, clear, evident quality behind it.
One thing that bothers me is the implicit insider/outsider and rather elitist perspective on olfaction. If one took the criticisms to their logical, theoretical end, then: hardly anyone should be in perfumery unless they were someone like a Guerlain scion raised from childhood in the perfume lab; no-one should be distilling oud unless they were raised in the tradition, in the culture, come from a decades-old distiller family, or are a native; no Westerner can have genuine understanding and knowledge of oud that is comparable to that of an Easterner; and Westerners who do appreciate Ensar Oud’s oils simply don’t know any better and have been fooled by a middling, average, pretentious nobody who merely has the “gift of gab.” Frankly, I find it quite condescending, if not insulting.
I also shrug aside the argument that no-one can be truly significant or “revolutionary” in the world of oud if the big companies or wealthy tycoons have (supposedly) not heard of them. Yes, there is a larger world at hand, and Ensar Oud represents only a tiny niche sector of it, but some of the most influential people in their fields were small or unknown artists, scientists, or educators whose impact was felt either indirectly, after the fact, or via a trickle down effect. But even assuming, arguendo, that none of that were true, I don’t believe one has to be as well-known as a Kardashian to have an impact. Fame is not always a signifier of achievement, uniqueness, value, quality, or substance. (Exhibit A: the entire Kardashian clan.)
Finally, I also dismiss the argument that Ensar Oud simply bottles distillations from small artisans. He’s never made any attempt to hide that he uses, to quote the critic’s email, “distillers in villages in the far east” who create oils to his specifications, but I will never believe that comparable oils made by such distillers on their own and for their own sale purposes “are readily available across the middle east and SE Asia.” What tiny villager in Vietnam or Laos is going to spend hundred of thousands of dollars — sometimes as much as half a million dollars worth — for a single distillation? Where would they find the money or even the necessary, nonstop quantity of top-end agarwood to engage in constant, frequent distillations at that level? And even if they did find, save, store up, or encounter wood at that level, just once or twice, what is the likelihood that they would grind it up into an oil instead of selling the wood for carvings?
Everyone has an opinion and I am hardly an oud aficionado, so my opinion probably counts for nothing, but I simply can’t see it. At the end of the day, all I can say is that Ensar Oud’s oils — both sandalwood and oud — smell like nothing that I have encountered before, whether from the big companies or artisans. By the same token, however, at the end of the day, everyone has their own perspective and subjective, personal reasons why, so it’s best to try something for yourself to make up your own mind.
For myself, I’m happy to agree to disagree with Ensar Oud’s critics. The world is large enough for all of us. I think he’s talented; his oils are far from ordinary or basic; and I don’t think that I’ve been hoodwinked by his writing into feeling that way. I also happen to think that intellectuality and literary acumen are positives things in life, rather than a sign of falsity or pretentiousness. Having said that, no amount of linguistic talent or intellectuality would influence me to praise his oils if I actually thought that they were crap. NONE. In my opinion, the fuss about them is not mere hype driven by marketing. I think they’re great or beautifully done, even if a particular oil or two doesn’t always suit my personal, individual, subjective tastes, note preferences, or style. And, to me, the quality is unquestionably there. But what do I know? I’m merely an ignorant, non-native outsider who wasn’t raised with the smell of oud whilst in my diapers. Unless you were, you may want to take my opinions with a grain of salt. Apparently, Westerners know nothing and can’t separate quality from well-written official descriptions.
OUD OILS AS AN INVESTMENT, THE AFFORDABILITY FACTOR & RESALE VALUE:
How you view Ensar Oud is an individual, subjective assessment, but I think everyone would agree that oils of this caliber and price range are frequently more of a financial investment than a typical everyday source of scent, let alone one that you just put on mindlessly and go. I remember reading one comment on the Ensar Oud site where the chap said something about how he was spending a portion of his savings on Ensar’s oils, and I had the sense that he was only half joking. These oils are not cheap. But, as Ensar Oud wrote in “Oud and Art: The Affordability Factor,” it would be fishy if they were:
If your love of oud stems from your appreciation of the artistic pull of this sublime aromatic, surely you cannot expect to find premium agarwood oil – that unearthly elixir admixed with the sweat, blood and tears of the artisan – at a bargain. A ‘bargain’ work of art remains, at the end of the day, a fake.
True art is never bought secondhand or ‘at a discount’, and is often sold only to the highest bidder. It is never found at a department store or an outlet. Rarely is it found in galleries. Most often, you need to visit a museum or an auction house in order to find it. And the minute you start comparing price tags, you’ve left the auction house and museum and entered the marketplace.
There is a huge difference between something that gets produced in order to get sold, and something that gets produced in order to be kept. ‘Financial viability’ is the last thing to be considered when a true work of art is to be produced. [Emphasis in the original.]
Some of you may wonder what is the point of covering olfactory oils at this level? After all, it’s out of reach for so many of us. It’s a fair question. There are several answers: it’s no different than writing about a Gauguin, collector’s item Bugatti, Fabergé egg, or even a discontinued vintage fragrance that is now out of reach for all but the wealthy; there is value in knowledge and also in knowing about masters in their field; and, perhaps most of all, one can appreciate beauty regardless of access.
For some people, however, there is a very practical benefit to buying Ensar Oud’s creations from a long-term financial perspective. From the start, you get what you pay for, and a $100 oil from a big producer is unlikely to be at the same level as a $500 one from an artisan like Ensar Oud. I’ve tried to explain the reasons why throughout this article: oud supply and market prices; the quality, age, or rarity of a particular oud varietal; sourcing; resin differentiation; vintage aging; distillation methodology; and oil that is intended to be Art.
These same factors are responsible for a sealed, unopened bottle’s asset appreciation over time and thereby render it — in some instances — a financial investment with good resale value. In “Oud and Art: The Affordability Factor,” Ensar Oud writes:
The resale value of our oils speaks for itself. Seldom did someone buy our oud oil and then have to resell it at a discount. 100%, 200%, 300% mark-ups are usually the case with the resale of our oils by collectors and aficionados alike. [Emphasis added to the original by me.]
Judging by what I’ve seen on eBay, those numbers don’t seem to be inflated when it comes to a number of the “Legends” oils and, in a handful of cases, may actually be rather conservative estimates for particularly renowned oils offered in an unopened condition. For example, Chugoku Senkoh was released a few months ago at a special sale price of $790. On eBay, a 3 gram bottle is now going for $1,500. The early Oriscent oils go for even higher, particularly those composed almost entirely of sinking-grade oud. Borneo 3000 was originally released in 2005 for $390. It’s now going for $4,000. Oud Royale Number 1 was also released in 2005 for $390. Twelve years later, it’s being offered for $7,500.
To be clear, not all the Ensar Oud oils command such massive resale prices. When doing an eBay search, I saw several pre-owned or used bottles on eBay for around $345 or $450. There is one Trat (organic) oil going for $150. The difference seems to be two-fold:
- The oils were not made from the very highest echelon of agarwood; and
- the oils were purchased for personal enjoyment, so the bottles were opened and used as a result.
In short, they aren’t the rarest oils, purchased purely as an investment.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it ultimately comes down to the one point that I’ve tried to hammer over and over again in this piece: everything is driven by the quality of the wood (its particular grade, varietal, rarity, scarcity). That’s one of the main things which makes Ensar Oud stand out, but it’s also the thing which dictates whether a particular oil is a good long-term financial investment which will offer a high rate of return when resold.
Unless you have endless money to spare, my advice is to forget about investment and buy what you like for your own use and pleasure. Life’s too short.
THE FUTURE OF OUD — SUSTAINABILITY & ORGANICS:
No matter what one’s opinion of individual artisans, I think every true oud lover shares a concern about how to safeguard their beloved natural resource going forward. I talked at the very start of this piece about Ensar Oud’s feelings about agarwood as “a sacrificial rite to life” and have talked nonstop since then about the changes to both the market and availability, so I think it’s worth spending a few minutes on the future. To quote Ensar Oud from the “Sacrificial Rite” piece:
we should carefully consider how we conduct ourselves when harvesting this sacred tree. We believe that the spirit of the oil can only be captured when the tree is treated with due respect. In practice, this in part means not to harvest any of the last wild trees that remain standing in the jungles; to harvest cultivated trees only when fully infected and already moribund; grown in a natural habitat, safe from hands that spray the earth.
Compare the sight of a three, five, seven, or ten year old agarwood sapling to that of the majesty you see in a forty, fifty, seventy year old tree. What a difference!
Ensar Oud strongly supports organic oud cultivation. In fact, he has four videos on his site focused entirely on the future of oud in which: he talks about the authenticity of “organic oud;” visits an organic oud plantation where three 60-year old wild agarwood trees have been set aside for his use; harvests one tree; and talks about why the future of oud depends on what we do now. I’ve included them below for anyone who might be interested:
You’re undoubtedly overwhelmed by facts, details, and information at this point (and, I swear, I’m almost done!), so the key point is one that Ensar Oud makes in that last video: “the switch to organic is going to have to happen sooner or later worldwide. There is no other way of producing agarwood oil other than to farm the tree. The wild trees are eventually going to finish.”
Ensar Oud has courted controversy with statements beginning in 2011 announcing “The End of Oud.” It’s a four-part series of articles (and here is the link to Part I, if you’re interested) which focuses on the wild trees. Some people railed against a perceived apocalyptic vision and gross over-exaggeration. I’m not going to get into it because my main goal here to give you a more academic or educational glimpse into the world of oud, from its types and varietals to market pricing, costs of production, big companies, standards of quality, and how one niche artisan does things. The experts can fight it out amongst themselves about just how much wild oud is left, how healthy it is, and how good it is for their purposes.
The critical point, as I see it is, is that wild agarwood is a finite natural resource that will inevitably run out given the enormous global demand. It’s a question of “when,” not “if.” Organic oud plantations are the logical answer. They may be the only answer.
We’ve covered a lot of ground today, at least 15 different topics, if not more, so I will not try your patience further and keep this brief. My goal has to be to introduce you to the world of oud through the lens of one top artisan, and to explain its various moving parts, terms, language, and driving forces. For many of us, it’s a completely different world to our own, and quite an alien one at that. We may know what the difference is between a fougère and a chypre, what “MKK” stands for, and how labdanum smells as compared to ambergris, but “Kinam,” “incense-grade”, or “sinking-grade”? Cambodi versus Hindi? Varietal scent preferences by region? The price of production? Materials used by big companies versus the small artisans or distillers? None of it is common parlance to us, what we’re familiar with, or what we’re used to in our world. Prior to my immersion into Ensar Oud’s world, I wouldn’t have known what “Kyara” was if it hit me in the face.
I believe, passionately, that there is great value in learning about other worlds, even if it’s not a world that directly impacts you. I don’t expect any of you to turn into an Oud Head overnight or solely because of this series; in truth, I doubt I will ever become an addict myself, no matter how much fantastic oil I smell. Oud is simply not my greatest comfort zone and I’m not automatically, viscerally drawn to it as an odor the way that I am to other materials. Some of you might be the same way. But at least now you know something about a world whose fans see oud as an elemental force for life, as sacred, as something worth spending thousands (or sometimes tens of thousands) of dollars on, and the reasons why oud is prized to the point of being endangered.
Next time, in Part II, I’ll review three of Ensar Oud’s sandalwood oils. Part III will have reviews for a number of currently available ouds, and there will probably be an eventual Part IV much, much later on for several others.
Disclosure: My samples were provided courtesy of the company. That did not impact this article. I do not do paid posts, and my opinions are my own.
Note: Ensar Oud’s photos were used with permission. All rights remain with him.