Following the Ancient Scent of Trầm Hương 1

Dó trầm Agarwood trees from the cliffs of Central Vietnam.

I love perfumes. I have a small collection that I have carefully curated through the years, picking and choosing until I have the perfect scents for all seasons and reasons.

There are the scents that are just heavenly, like Chanel Coco Mademoiselle and Guerlaine La Petite Robe Noire. I wear them when I leave my house to do my chores, as well as to meet-ups, dates, events, and parties. I even have a couple that I use at bedtime, Gucci Bloom Profumo di Fiori, and L’Occitane Verveine.

There are also a couple that are perfect for divination purposes so I don’t have to burn incense. I mentioned Hermes Le Jardin de Monsieur Li in one of my divination posts, Hexagram 30 – The Clinging Fire. For my most recent divination, Hexagram 18 – Poisonous Dark Sorcery, I used Baccarat Rouge 540 due to its strong scent, which, to my nose, smells like burnt sugar steeped in pencil shavings…but what do I know….

No, I’m not advertising for Versace. It just happens to be the perfume that I like with Oud in it ***

I love to do I Ching readings, wrapped within the depths of a substantive and evocative scent. It elevates the senses out of the world of the mundane and lift the spirits like nothing else can.

The best scent for divination and meditation purposes is Versace Oud Pour Femme Oriental*. It is unisex, in that it is a scent that smells good on both men and women, but it is very evocative.

Coming in a very close second is the Lancôme L’autre Ôud** with a true pure scent that is not overwhelmed by flowers.

I love the fact that these two perfumes uses the rare and luxurious type of scent that my ancient ancestors have been using for thousands of years, that luxurious, unmistakable scent of Trầm Hương.

For thousands of years, all major religions of the world prescribed the use of trầm hương, among other valued scents such as frankincense, and myrrh for worshiping and praying.

Instead of burning a nub of trầm hương incense and risk triggering my asthma, I take a perfume that has major notes of trầm hương and rub it on my hands until the scent permeates the air around me.  For a more personal experience, I also dab some on my wrists, behind my ears, and at my throat, where major pulse points are located.

This has inadvertently caused most of my divination paraphernalia such as my yarrow sticks, my American quarters, and my notebooks and I Ching manual to absorb the scent of trầm hương onto themselves.

All About that Bass

Trầm Hương (Aquilaria crassna) is what the western world knows of as oud.

Trầm means a deepening or lowering of something.  It can mean a deeper voice or a depression in the ground. In the case of a scent, it describes the lowest bass notes. Hương simply means ‘scent’. 

Taken together, it means ‘bass-note scent‘.

Trầm Hương has a scent that is at once feminine, yet masculine, very modern, yet ancient and timeless. It is luxury at its most luxurious. It doesn’t slap you in the face. It simply begins to invade your space until you suddenly realize you have been enveloped in its warmth all the while.

Known as the “five thousand dollar per pound scent,” Trầm Hương is by far one of the most expensive raw fragrance ingredients in the world. It is a true luxury in a world filled with cheap imitations and watered-down versions of luxury. This is the scent worthy of emperors and kings.

I am going to refer to oud as trầm hương simply because SE Asia (specifically the region where Vietnam is currently located) is where trầm hương originated.

We not only used trầm hương for ourselves, we also exported them to other regions, kingdoms, and even other continents. There were even records found in Egypt of trầm hương sent to the Egyptian monarchy by a Viet Prince around 2,500 years BC (which was around 4,500 years ago). This shows that Egyptians were already burning trầm hương resin at that early timeframe, and that the Viet people were already manufacturing this precious commodity for international trade.

Since agarwood is not a native tree to North Africa or the Middle East, lacking a historic name, they simply called it Oud, which means ‘wood‘ or ‘stick’ in Arabic. But to call Trầm Hương a type of wood or a stick shows a lack of the basic understanding of what it is and how it is produced. It is simply WRONG.

Allow me to explain.

The Resin of the Gods

Trầm hương is the Viet word for a type of resin that is produced within the trunk of a specific type of tree in the family of Dó trầm (aka agarwood, the common name for the plant genus Thymelaeaceae Aquilaria.)

This resin is formed when the heartwood of a dó trầm tree becomes infected with a fungus called Phialophora parasitica. The tree then produces the dark, oily, heavily scented resin called trầm hương as a form of protection.

This is not a quick process. The fungus can take up to 300 years to develop, if they develop at all. Most healthy dó trầm can resist the fungus and successfully fight off the infection. Only an estimated 2% of dó trầm succumb and develop this resin. The older the tree, the richer and more potent the resin. The stronger the resin, the more expensive it becomes. It is the fortuitous combination of these conditions that results in the rarity of naturally occurring aged resin which commands a premium price all over the world. 

There are 21 species of Thymelaeceae Aquilaria (agarwood). Of these, only three varieties are found in Vietnam. They are the Dó Bầu (Aquilaria crassna),  Dó Me (Aquilaria banaense)  and Dó Liệt (Aquilaria baillonii).

Lucky for us, these three are highest quality agarwood in the world, and the Trầm Hương that is produces in Vietnam is top of the line, grade 1 agarwood. This is due to Vietnam’s unique geography.

Hang on tight. I’ll get into the deeper end of the history and biology of trầm hương in my next post.

*Sadly, Versace has discontinued their Oud line, so the only places that are still selling this luxurious gold Versace bottle is the grey market.

** As of this writing, the Lancôme L’Autre Oud is still available directly from the Lancôme website.

*** I link the products for information purposes only. I am not sponsored by any of these perfume companies. These are just my unbiased thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Following the Ancient Scent of Trầm Hương 1

  1. I really enjoyed reading your essay on tram huong. I’m an avid perfume collector, but I never knew about oudh from the Vietnamese perspective until now.

    Do you by chance read a blog called Aromatica de Profundis? It’s written by Nuri McBride, who is a perfume lover and anthropological scholar. In her latest blog entry, she said she’s soliciting essays for a brand-new journal called “Alabastron,” which “seeks to bridge the gap between academia and the public to create an inclusive and accessible learning environment where aromatic history, culture, and practice can be shared freely.”

    Your blog entry on tram huong might be a good fit for her project, since most people who are knowledgeable about fragrance don’t know a lot about the Vietnamese experience of oudh. If by chance you’re interested in participating in this journal, details can be found at this link:

    https://alabastronjournal.com/call-for-papers

    The deadline is February 1st, and previously published essays are eligible, so perhaps your blog post can be submitted as-is.

    I’m not affiliated with this journal. I just felt compelled to tell you about it since your essay is so good and it deserves a wider audience. Also, I didn’t see a way to contact you privately, so I apologize if this public comment seems spammy. Feel free to delete this without publishing it. Either way, I love your writing, and I hope more people get a chance to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Emily
    Thank you for your response. I appreciate your feedback.

    I really love perfumes. In fact, I just added another one to my collection. It is called Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria: Mandarine Basilic. The orange is an intense burst of juicy flavor and the basil is to die for. As with all citrus scents (including my favorite verbena from L’Occitane), this one doesn’t last long, so I carry the bottle around with me and give an occasional spritz several times during the day. It’s worth it though.

    I just now finished the second (and final) part of the tram huong posts and finally have time to look at the website you linked. Thank you for that suggestion. I will take a look and see what this is all about.

    Take care.

    Like

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