For millennia, oud had spiritual associations for many Asian cultures, which believed that its smoke aided contemplation. It is mentioned in the world’s oldest written texts - the Sanskrit Vedas - and appears in the Bible, the Torah and Buddhist and Islamic scriptures.
It is believed to have come to the Middle East with Chinese traders following the Silk Road – and, today, it is the Chinese who are again having the biggest impact on the market.
According to Mahaffey, Chinese have become major players in the oud business over the past 15 years, and sales worldwide are booming.
"It started recently, because there’s more and more rich Chinese and it’s really fashionable now for them. They buy all the highest quality and so the price is rising very, very fast - every year it can rise by 20 percent," says Mahaffey.
Many Chinese use the precious wood for decorative purposes, for feng shui and also as traditional Chinese medicine, he explains.
"They burn it also, but nowadays because of the value, the rising price, the skyrocketing price, they also invest in it. Like we can invest, for example, in a painting, they invest in agarwood."
People’s reluctance to part with something that is as good an investment as kynam is an obstacle Mahaffey constantly encounters when trying to secure the precious wood for his customers.
Mahaffey has more than 200 agarwood contacts - suppliers, growers, and customers in Southeast Asia. One of his most trusted in Thailand is Witsawa Sripetkla, who started out harvesting wild oud, but has changed to plantation business.
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.
Generally, plantation agarwood is harvested when the trees are between five and 10 years old. Yet, for the very best quality of oud, it can take up to a century before it is ready to be harvest.
"It takes time. You cannot hurry kynam and you can’t say, ‘OK, next month I want the kynam’. It’s not possible. It’s not like buying a Ferrari. It’s easier to buy a Ferrari, as long as you have the money. You can just go to the shop and say ‘I want this one’. For kynam, it’s different."
How to 'infect' a tree
"If we harvest the tree from nature, it’s a waste to cut it down only for a few pieces," Witsawa says. "So I have started doing plantation business, first because of money and second to save natural agarwood trees in the forest."
When the tree sounds hollow, it’s time to harvest the tree, explains Witsawa. But after the agarwood has been harvested, it still needs to be separated from the healthy wood around it.
How to separate agarwood from the tree
Many believe that plantation chips tend not to be the best quality because the wood is harvested after a few years, meaning the resin is less concentrated than it is in the wild. It varies from country to country how long it takes for high-quality oud to form, but Asia Plantation Capital, who are one one of the largest oud plantation owners, claim that eight years is enough to cultivate decent oud.
Yet, whatever the quality of cultivated oud, in the near future it may be the only option available to those who aren’t super-rich.
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