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Agarwood continues to be an important part of spiritual and secular life for many cultures where it has been used traditionally. In contemporary Middle Eastern and Asian consumer markets, agarwood pieces with high resin content will be burnt directly without any processing or addition of other fragrances. Agarwood with lower concentration of resin is often blended with other fragrant ingredients to create composite incense products (Garcia2015). Incense rituals (kōdō) are still practised widely in Japan today with blends being categorized by one of two key base ingredients: agarwood or sandalwood (Moeran2009). In many Middle Eastern societies, agarwood is used as a sign of wealth and status particularly during religious rites and social occasions and to infuse personal and domestic items with its distinct fragrance (Antonopoulou et al.2010; Jung2011).
The oil extracted from agarwood remains an important fragrant product in traditional consumer countries and demand in emerging niche markets in “western” countries is increasing. Agarwood oil is one of the five most important ingredients in Chinese perfumery (Yunjun2013), an important element of Arabian perfumes (Marian [Olfatory Rescue Service blog contributor]2011) and becoming prominent in the modern western fragrance industry (Burn-Callander2015; Osborne2014). The oil is typically extracted from agarwood with low oil concentration by the process of distillation. It is often used as a prominent base note for perfumes owing to its rich aroma, low volatility, and extended longevity of fragrance (Lias et al.2016).
An increasing global demand for agarwood over recent decades can be attributed partly to increasing population and wealth in several consumer countries (Wyn and Anak2010). Increased demand has stimulated price rises for all agarwood products, making them even more exclusive. This has led to an increase in product adulteration and substitution (Hashim et al.2016; Lias et al.2016) and more intense and illegal harvesting of wild stands and depletion of important natural agarwood resources (Soehartono and Newton2002; Wyn and Anak2010; Yin et al.2016; Zhang et al.2008). According to the IUCN Red List Criteria, sevenAquilariaspecies are classified as vulnerable (A. banaensisP.H. Hô.,A. beccarianaTiegh,A. cumingiana(Decne.) Ridl.,A. hirtaRidl.,A. malaccensisLam.,A. microcarpaBaill., andA. sinensis(Lour.) Spreng.) and face “a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.” The speciesA. crassnaandA. rostrataRidl. were classified as being critically endangered with “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.”
In recognition of the dwindling state of agarwood resources (Newton and Soehartono2001), the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) included all producing agarwood species (not onlyAquilariagenus) in Appendix II (CITES2017). Species listed in Appendix II are “not necessarily . . .threatened with extinction [but] may become so unless their trade . . .is subject to strict regulation in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival” (CITES2017). The high prices paid for agarwood products have stimulated activity in the cultivation of the tree (Hoang Ha and Nghi2011) and renewed interest in artificial stimulation of agarwood formation (Liu et al.2013; Rasool and Mohamed2016; Zhang et al.2012). These initiatives are considered to potentially create alternative sources of agarwood and increase the availability of agarwood product in the marketplace (Nakashima et al.2005; Persoon2008).
Agarwood follows a long tradition of use in both spiritual and secular applications and has been synonymous with luxury, exclusivity, and intimacy. Recorded use of agarwood dates back to at least c 1400 B.C.E. and continued throughout human history including references in many seminal religious texts (Mahābhārata, Holy Bible, Jātaka, and several Hadith), treatise, poetry, pharmacopeia, floras, and trade texts. In the ancient epic Hindu text TheMahābhārata, agarwood was referenced as a welcome offering and also had a prominent place as a luxury item and status symbol. In the Holy Bible, the spiritual significance of agarwood was demonstrated when it was used with myrrh in the anointing of Jesus Christ following his crucifixion. The spiritual importance of agarwood in Buddhism was similarly demonstrated when it was used among other fragrant products in the cremation ofTathāgata(Buddha). Agarwood was also cited three times in the Holy Bible as a fragrant product for intimacy and seduction. In Islamic texts, agarwood was a conspicuous fragrance used in the ritual burning of incense, for spiritual purification, and as one of the rewards in Paradise. Agarwood mixed with camphor was the preferred scent of the Prophet Muḥammad. The citation of agarwood in many eminent religious texts confirms its reputation as an important product supporting spirituality.
The long historical use of agarwood has been associated with cultures where aromatics are deeply ingrained in cultural experience, such as the Middle East, India, China, and Japan. Among the many available plant-based aromatics, agarwood has always been considered to be among the most respected for its use as the basis of incense, perfumes, other fragrant products, and medical preparations. The medical use of agarwood has been recorded in Greek and Roman, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and European literature. It is not unusual to find agarwood included in the long lists of valuable items as offerings to important people or tribute to other nations. The popularity of the agarwood aroma has been consistent throughout history and continues to remain in high demand today for use in traditional and contemporary incense and perfumes.
Yoshnobu (1983) confirmed that during the Song Dynasty (960–1270 C.E.), the Chinese were eager to obtain spices and incense from abroad, and agarwood was the most preferred among incense woods. Ju-Kua (1911) published an interpretation and annotation of the Song Dynasty literary account “Record of Foreign Nations” (Chu-fan-chi) by Chau Ju-Kua. It contains detailed descriptions of China’s trading partners and commodities during this time, including insights into the sources and product qualities of agarwood (Table 3). Agarwood was acquired from a variety of east Asian sources, including northern (Kiau-chi) and southern (Chan-ch‘öng) Vietnam, Cambodia (Chön-la), Thailand (Töng-liu-meï), the Malaysian Peninsula (Tan-ma-ling,Ling-ya-ssï(kia), andFo-lo-an), eastern Sumatra (San-fo-ts‘i), Java (Shö-p‘o), Borneo (P‘o-ni), and Hainan (Hai-nan) as well as being traded with the Arabs (Ta-shï). The aromatic qualities of agarwood traded during the Song Dynasty were strongly influenced by type (possibly variety or species) (Table3), regional source (geographic location), biological source (branch, trunk, roots), and maturity (“fresh” vs. “ripe”). The maturity of agarwood products was not necessarily related to the age or size of the tree, but to whether the agarwood was harvested from a living (fresh—shöng) or decayed (ripe—shóu) branch or tree. Freshly harvested agarwood was described as having a lasting fragrance and superior to the often “singed” aroma of ripe agarwood. The ripe agarwood has parallels to two grades in current Chinese trade described as being formed in broken branches or from a tree that has been buried and decomposed under aerobic (tu chen) or anaerobic/swampy (shui chen) conditions (Mohamed and Lee2016). While the aromatic qualities were of greatest importance during the Song Dynasty, the shape of a given piece of agarwood was also classified according to whether it resembled a rhinoceros horn (si-kio), swallow (yen-k‘ou), “aconite” (possiblyAconitumspecies)roots (fu-tzï), and a shuttle (possibly the device used in weaving to carry the weft) (so).
Five types of agarwood were described (and two others cited:P‘ong-lai[north Vietnam and Hainan],Chö-ku-pan-[Hainan]), which approximates a combination of different species, product type, and degrees of maturation. Agarwood originating from the more northerly origins (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Hainan) were considered superior from those from Indonesia, which were used regularly for medicinal rather than aromatic purposes (Ju-Kua1911).
Of all the types described,Ch‘ön-hiangwas recognized as being superior in density (with a high resin content and sinks in water) and fragrance to all other agarwoods and sourced from the heartwood and branch nodes.Tsién-hiangwas similar in fragrance, more fibrous, less dense, and considered of inferior quality toCh‘ön-hiang.Su-andChan-hiangare two closely related products, with the former regarded as superior incense, and the qualities of both often influenced by maturity (i.e., fresh or ripe).Huang-shóu-hiangis described as ripe (shóu) yellow (huang) agarwood, which can sometimes be hollow and typically root material.Shöng-hiangdescribes the “fresh” and possibly underdeveloped agarwood extracted from young branches. The reason that it may be considered immature is that the quality of the agarwood from branches was considered to improve with the thickness of the bark over the agarwood: low-qualityshöng-hiang(with a bark thickness of ~ 7.5 mm), moderate-qualityTsién-hiang(~ 12 mm bark), and high-qualityCh‘ön-hiang(~ 25 mm bark).
In Li Shizhen’s seminal Compendium of Materia Medica (Ben Cao Gang Mu), a simplified system of grading agarwood was described based on its density (sinking properties in water). Three grades were defined:shui chen(total sinking),zhan xiang(partial sinking), andhuang shu xiang(does not sink [floats]), with the depth of sinking positively related to the concentration of resin (wood density) contained within the agarwood (Mohamed and Lee2016; Shizhen2003).
The use of aromatics in Japan began during the 6th century C.E. and, as with China, coincided with the arrival of Buddhism. The first written record of the use of fragrant wood is found in the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan) when Emperor Kimmei (549–571 C.E.) commissioned the carving of two Buddhas in 553 C.E. from camphor wood that was found floating in the sea by one of his noble attendants. The first Japanese written record of agarwood was also reported in the Nihongi when, in 595 C.E., a large piece of agarwood drifted ashore on the island of Awaji. The islanders noticed in wonder that it produced a strong fragrance when used as firewood, and later presented an unburnt piece to Empress Suiko (Aston1896). Early mixtures of aromatics burned in Japanese Buddhist ceremonies includedjinkoh(the best incense: agarwood), sandalwood, cloves, cinnamon, and camphor. When Emperor Tenji (671 C.E.) fell ill, during his final year, he sent a tribute to the Buddha ofHōkō-ji(Kyoto) of a range of valuable items including agarwood and sandalwood (Aston1896).
A recurrent story about incense use in Japan refers to a highly revered and large piece of agarwood known asRanjatai, which was a gift from the China Court to the Emperor Shômu (724–748 C.E.) (Bedini1963; Brinkley1902; McKenna and Hughes2014). Small pieces have been removed from Ranjatai over time but only during prosperous occasions or for special tribute (Bedini1994). Ranjatai continues to be located at the Shōsōin repository in Nara and is exhibited periodically. During the Nara period (710–794 C.E.), the burning of incense became a secular activity (Gatten1977). Kneaded incense blends imported from T’ang, China (618–907 C.E.), contained aloeswood, sugar, and plum meat and were highly prized in Japan (Aston1896; Schafer1963).
Incense ceremonies (kōdō) began to emerge during the Heian period (794 to 1185 C.E.) and were one of the emblematic practices of aristocrats where aromatics were at the center of focus of the ceremony. In the ceremony, participants discriminated and judged the qualities of different aromatics, including local products pine and cedar and exotics such as agarwood, sandalwood, cinnamon, and cloves (Brinkley1902; Morita1992; Morris1984). During the period 833–850 C.E., Japanese aristocrats ceased importing incense from China and began the manufacture (and blending) of their own incenses. Prince Kaya formulated the famousSix Scents(described in theKunshū Ruishōc 12th century C.E.); all theSix Scentsare compounded of the same six elements in different ratios: aloes, cloves, seashells, amber, sandalwood, and musk. A characteristic seventh ingredient defined the final scent, for example, if frankincense was added, the scent created was known as theBlackincense (Gatten1977).
The popularity of agarwood in Japan increased in the late 16th century C.E., and connoisseurs appointed by Shoguns Ahsikaga Yoshimasa defined the fragrances of six recognized types ofjinkoh(Table 4). Some elements/components of this system are still used today. At this time, the six agarwood types were both rare and costly and mainly traded to serve as gifts to distinguished individuals (Bedini1994). To this day, agarwood is held as sacred in the Kareki Shrine located in the northwestern shore of Awajishima (Whelan2014).