Borneo 2012: The Status Quo
Imprisonment, and thousands of dollars in fines. This is what lies in store if you’re thinking about harvesting agarwood in Brunei. And that's putting it mildly.
There are places running deep into the heart of Borneo island where natives live as they have for centuries. Here, you can still track down a tree or two. ‘If the natives find one they cut it immediately and sell it off to the first taker,’ a veteran wood broker who’s been in the agarwood business like his father, and grandfather before him, told me.
‘Back then, we had half a ton of the black (incense-grade) wood, but now it’s far and few between. We found a sinking piece last year, weighing 1.6 kg, that sold for $45,000 per kilo. We also had one earlier this year, about the same size, but for much more.'
‘Who buys it?’ I asked him.
‘The Chinese. For them it’s Feng Shui wood.’
I wondered if he expected to get any more.
‘We can’t be sure. The junglemen come in every now and then with something, but these days not really. Most of the good wood you find in Borneo today either comes from them (the natives) or from Brunei, so the sources are limited.’
‘Brunei... not legal, right?’ I asked.
‘Of course not. It’s completely illegal to harvest agarwood in Brunei,’ he confirmed.
‘What happens if they catch you?’
‘Oh, you’ll be shot on the spot,’ he said bluntly.
Apart form the occasional batch from native junglemen, the hunt for wild agarwood trees in the Far East increasingly leads desperate brokers into protected reserves and national parks, which often leads them behind bars... or worse.
On a recent trip to the Far East, one distiller told me about a shipment going from Thailand to Borneo – a shipment of about 100,000 agarwood saplings. So, in what’s supposed to be the last bastion of king grade wild agarwood – Borneo – the wood you’ll be getting actually comes from the reserves of Brunei or farms of Thailand?
Why Everybody Thinks We’re Joking
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.
This is what makes artisanal oud oil a whole different ballgame. Forget all about ‘wood for making oil’ and instead use ‘wood for burning’ to make oil.
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.
'Never' is a Long Time
The insanity it took to run the risk of distilling sinking-grade wood will no longer cut it. Even if the wealthiest eccentric shows up willing to put down the price of a mansion for a few grams of oud oil, there's simply not enough wood to go around.
But I never said wealthy eccentrics don't spend. They just prefer to take the road more trodden, and use the wood either to burn as incense (like most sane people do) or to get some beads carved.
Below: One of the rare pieces of incense-grade agarwood anybody gets to hold these days.
Below: One of the rare pieces of incense-grade agarwood anybody gets to hold these days; further below, sinking-grade chips.
Below: 'Sinking'-grade chips.
Below: Sinking-grade bangle: $10,000+.
Below: Sinking-grade rosary: $12,000+.
Mighty sinking-grade legends like Oud Sultani simply has no place on any cost analaysis chart. It's the kind of oud you could have only distilled back when it actually was distilled—almost fifteen years ago!. Today, you'd have to bend backwards just to find such high grade sinking wood as was used to craft the Sultani, and even if you find it... who's going to to sign the check to run the distillation?
So, distilling oil of this calibre makes no sense if you’ve got the cost-yield ratio on your mind. Take another example: We distilled Borneo 50K thirteen years ago, when wood of this grade was still available and selling for $6,000 - $9,000 a kilogram. Back then, I was already laughed at for distilling such costly oils when the $20 per kg distillations were readily available. Today, well... no one's laughing anymore.