Perfume Enigma: Getting to the essence of Agarwood fragrance

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Dubai:

The world of perfume never ceases to lure. But a lot goes into making a fragrance. In some cases, it starts with mould-infected agarwood. To fight the mould, the agarwood tree secretes a substance called oudh.

The extraction of oudh, which takes over 25 years to manifest, is also a tricky process as not every tree yields oudh.

The same stretch of bark can yield different kinds of oudh, explained Abdulla Ajmal, Consulting Perfumer India for the brand, which traces its origins to the Northeast Indian state of Assam but has manufacturing units here.

The extraction process is laborious. The wood has to be chiselled by hand to ensure the oudh remains intact. It takes 40 hours to get 1 kg of oudh.

The first ‘zaal’, or extraction, is considered the best - 1 kg of wood gives 1.2 ml of oudh, which is why it is referred to as ?liquid gold? by those in the business, Abdulla said.

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Ajmal, a leading name in the fragrance industry in the UAE since 1976, operates over 140 outlets across the Middle East and the Far East, with a distribution network spanning 45 countries. It was started by Haji Ajmal Ali, who began his life as humble rice farmer in Hojai, Assam.

Abdulla, the third generation of the family in the business, said his grandfather got curious about the popularity of oudh with traders from the Middle East traders and set up shop in Mumbai.

The family became quality traders of oudh and oudh oil. Eventually, Haji Ajmal, realising the potential of the material, sent his younger son Fakharuddin to set up a store in UAE in 1976.

Like cooking, making perfumes is an exact art measuring the weight of the smallest of ingredients, their concentration, the viscosity and their ability to withstand pressure and humidity.

Every aspect—from formulation and manufacturing to filling the bottles and retail—is controlled by the brand as having franchises leads to dilution in policies and payments, said Abdulla.

The wood comes from different countries, including India, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. A worker needs to have an average experience of 10 years to be able to be trusted with the expensive logs of wood, Abdulla said. A good agarwood containing oudh should burn for at least two-three minutes, but the impact is so intense that the fragrance lingers for hours.

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He said Indian oudh is strong in its fragrance, sticks to clothes faster than any other and has a stronger after-effect.

“When it comes to oudh it’s unisex. Women, too, here in the UAE like using the strong smell. The Sri Lankan type is very, very expensive as it’s rare. It is a mix of the qualities of Indian and Cambodian. It stays long, burns longer till about one minute or more," he said.

Regular Arabic homes keep a cluster of perfumes near the door as an offering to the guest. Like a newborn is fed honey as part of the auspicious celebrations, oudh in the UAE is used by elders for ?nisbat? (bless the child). According to Abdulla, fragrance/smell and music are the two biggest memory triggers.

“It doesn’t have to be a perfume. It can be a whiff of, say, pav bhaji or a basmati rice. Especially, people who have travelled so much, they have different memories associated with different things,” he said.

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