Smoke, Mirrors and Sustainability
The Aquilaria tree grows mostly across South East Asia. When this tree becomes infected by a particular mould, it produces a resinous substance in defense. The resin ladened agarwood is harvested and oil extracted by distillation. This oil is popularly known as oud.
Oud is used heavily in perfumes across the world. Across the Middle East and Asia the agarwood and oil are used traditionally for incense and medicinal purposes. With a starting price of around $50000 a kg, this makes oud a highly lucrative business.
The problem is that deforestation has caused a decline in the Aquilaria population by 80% in the last 150 years. Increased demand has contributed to this but so have poachers chopping down healthy trees as they do not know which trees have been infected. With only 10% of the trees infected - it is easy to see where things go wrong.
Within perfumery there is a constant battle over "naturals" vs "synthetics." When it comes to animal derived products such as ambergris; very few perfumes now include the real stuff. Firstly, this means people who don't want to use animal derived products can enjoy them. Secondly, it avoids unnecessary harm to animals (deer musk, for example) and finally, these products are expensive and often don't last long on the skin. There is however a certain atmosphere of "luxury" that still surrounds these ingredients. The same applies to oud.
We are lucky as perfumers to have a vast range of aroma chemicals and synthetic ingredients available to us. The big aroma chemical manufacturers are producing synthetic ouds (either entirely synthetic or containing a very small amount of the natural) but these are really only a nod to the real thing.
Our scent, Rook by Rook, has agarwood at its heart. I was born in the Middle East to a Jordanian mother so it is a scent I am very familiar with. Rook contains no real oud at all. I created an "oud accord" which is a combination of notes which together produce what most customers interprate as oud.
One of the reasons perfumery brings me so much joy is exactly this. We can recreate complex scents with a combination of notes or textures designed to be interpreted as whatever we desire. We can guide the nose down the path of our choosing and even use "colour" in its literal or abstract definition to help. When I created the scent Rook, I wanted it to be a dark brown perfume. This is the colour I associate with earthy notes, the bark of a tree, smoke pervading the air, an old wooden table, a vintage leather jacket and even rich oud oil. Seeing that dark brown liquid in the bottle starts the story telling before the first spray. It would take more convincing that a crystal clear solution was going to smell of agarwood. Luckily some of my favourite ingredients such as benzoin and cade help to achieve this hue without using artificial colourants.
We can take inspiration from nature and create amazing scents without harvesting or destroying it. Using accords, colour and texture is part of the art of creating perfume. This way we enjoy beautiful scents in a way that is sustainable for our environment and we continue to nurture the natural life we take inspiration from. This can be helped by changing attitudes towards synthetic materials. They often function better in terms of longevity and cause far less allergic reaction or contact dermatitis than essential oils (I say this confidently with my Dr. hat on).
It is important to smell wonderful but it is also important to consider sustainability. The art of perfume can be about convincing the nose something is there when the perfumer knows it isn't. Similar to the magic of theatre. You smell great and the trees are left in peace. It's a win win situation.