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August 19, 2013

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Chinese fragrance more precious than gold

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Many rich Chinese are buying luxury brands of famous designer perfumes, but the ultimate luxury fragrance — one far costly than gold — is agarwood or chen xiang (沉香), an ancient Oriental fragrance.

Increasingly Chinese are rediscovering their appreciation for agarwood, which played a role as incense and oil in religious rituals throughout Asia and the Middle East. The deeply aromatic fragrance is considered an aid to meditation and was very popular in ancient China.

Pieces of natural wood and fragrant carvings are sought by collectors. Incense and essential oil are precious. Whenever it is burned, heated or simply placed at room temperature, it gives off a pleasant aroma — from subtle to intense.

What could be more luxurious than simply burning a piece of high-quality chen xiang that costs 10,000 yuan (US$1,629) per gram of highest quality and savoring the fragrance. And then it’s gone, up in smoke. But worth it, many people say.

Arguably the most costly fragrance in the world is complex, layered and difficult to describe. It is sweet, rich and deep but balanced. It’s also called earthy, smoky and sweet — deeply pleasing.

For most people, chen xiang (literally “wood with mellow fragrance”) is just a piece of rotten wood.

It literally is rotten. Agarwood is a dark resinous heartwood that forms in aquilaria and gyrinops trees when they become infected with a particular fungus. Before infection, the heartwood is relative pale in color, but the tree produces a dark aromatic resin in response to the attack. It is this resinous wood that is valued in many cultures.

The trees are large evergreens native to Southeast Asia, but most have been cut down and now trees are commercially raised and infected with fungus in a long process.

The best and most expensive chen xiang is natural and old, and some areas produce better wood than others. Although commercial agarwood has an alluring fragrance, there’s nothing like the real thing.

The cost is so high because trees in nature are scarce, and the commercial farming and processing is costly. Throughout the region, locals hunt for old wood and may happen upon buried pieces that they treat like gold.

Trees grow in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and India. Only very small amount is produced.

For chen xiang collector Wang Yinan, this is the ultimate luxury, without parallel.

“The reason is clear. If you buy a house, antique or jewelry, they remain as concrete items,” he says. “But chen xiang is different. It is burned for its fragrance, the fleeting moment of enjoyment. Nothing is left, but the fragrance, the temporary fragrance. Isn’t this the most luxurious thing on the world?”

Wang, a famous TV host, is director of the National Chen Xiang Research Association.

In ancient times, chen xiang could only be appreciated by imperial families and high-ranking nobles. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine as a tonic, diuretic, stimulant and aphrodisiac. It was used to treat heart pain, stomach pain, fatigue, stress and anxiety.

Today the price of a piece of high-quality chen xiang can reach several million yuan. At 10,000 yuan per gram, it is 35 times the price of gold which now costs 260 yuan per gram. Some is carved into artwork.

As such, it’s coveted.

“I always say that if you want to start collecting something, the best way is to study and learn,” Wang says. “Today the antiques field is chaotic, filled with traps and fakes and chen xiang is no exception — even worse. I would say that 90 percent of the chen xiang in the market is faked or artificially/commercially produced.”

An educated nose is the best guide to authenticity, Wang says.

“Because there is no physical way to judge the authenticity of real chen xiang, the only reliable tool is your nose,” he says. “I’m not opposed to commercially produced chen xiang, but the fragrance is a thousand miles away from original one, which could only be distinguished by the nose.”

Wang once visited Vietnam to see how chen xiang is discovered.

“It was a magical journey. Locals searched along the river and suddenly they spotted something in the mid. After washing and cleaning, it turned out to be chen xiang, an ordinary-looking piece of wood or enormous value,” he recalls.

“I am enamored of chen xiang not only because of its profound fragrance but also because the fragrance envelops everyone, rich and poor, and it lingers. But when it’s burned, it’s gone, it’s a memory,” Wang says.



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