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Plants of The time: Agarwood

Plants of The time: Agarwood

Agarwood has long been prized for its olfactory splendor. Its essential oil is even known as liquid gold today.

An anonymous handwritten note tucked away in an archival box of miscellaneous seventeenth-century travel accounts, news reports, and other disparate documents from the late Medici Court in the Florentine State Archive describes the use and value of a curious odorous wood. The note names the wood “Calambà” or “Lignum Aloes” and describes it as so valuable that the king of Cochinchina (a kingdom in present-day Vietnam) kept a piece the size of his palm in his treasury.

It is likely the note was originally paired with a letter and possibly even a piece of Calambà, today known as agarwood, and dispatched to the Grand Duke of Florence by one of the court’s agents in Southeast Asia. The Medici Grand Dukes of Florence were known for their collections of exotic naturalia. Agarwood, used in medicines as well as incense and perfumes across Asia and the Near East for centuries, would have been a rarity and a welcome addition to the Medici collections. In fact, a contemporary catalogue of a Milanese cabinet of curiosities notes that Grand Duke Ferdinando II de Medici (1610–1670) purchased a large piece of agarwood for 4,000 ongari (a type of gold coin).

It is hard to translate this extraordinary price tag into a dollar amount today, but you can get a sense of just how much it was by looking at the average daily wage of a worker in Florence at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Economic historian Richard Goldthwaite estimates that in the year 1600 the average daily wage in Florence was 20 soldi. Approximately 140 soldi equaled 1 gold florin. If the average Florentine worker earned approximately 52 florins in a year, it would have taken them nearly 77 years to earn enough to purchase the Grand Duke’s piece of agarwood. Fast-forward three centuries and agarwood remains one of the most expensive woods in the world. First-grade agarwood can cost as much as $100,000 per kilogram.

Agarwood was prized well beyond early modern Italy. To quote the eighteenth-century British naturalist John Ellis, it had long been “precious in the East.” The earliest use of agarwood is recorded in the four Vedas of ancient India (approximately 1500–1000 B.C.E.). It was used as a religious offering as well as a fragrant smoke that was thought to facilitate spiritual connections. It was also used by the nobility to perfume their homes and signal wealth. From India, taste for and customs associated with agarwood traveled east and west along the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade and commerce that stretched from southern Europe to East Asia. As it traveled west, agarwood was incorporated into Christian and Islamic cultures as both medicine and incense and, by the time of the late Medici Court, also as an exotic object of natural history.

It was agarwood’s introduction to China and Japan, however, that would transform the fragrant substance into one of the world’s most prized and expensive woods for more than a millennium. Agarwood was first introduced to continental China from Southeast Asia sometime in the third century and was integrated into local incense and perfumery traditions. In southern China, agarwood was considered a prestigious luxury and quickly became an important import. Anthropologist Dinah Jung argues that the “gradual establishment of Buddhism in China supported the promotion of agarwood, since this movement generally emphasized the positive value of fragrance.” The rise of Buddhism only increased the significance of agarwood as incense became increasingly tied to religious practices. By the twelfth century, the value of agarwood had become equal to that of silver in southern China and across Southeast Asia.

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