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Tripping out on incense

By Tan Weiyun (Shanghai Daily)

10:29, November 15, 2011

Chen xiang can be carved into jewelry for appreciation.

Agar, the world's most precious aromatic substance, is far more valuable by weight than gold. Collecting and inhaling are the latest pastimes of wealthy connoisseurs. Tan Weiyun takes a deep breath.

The incense of kings and royalty has become the incense of choice for newly wealthy Chinese and a piece of agarwood from which it comes is very hot in the auction market.

A piece of resinous rainforest heartwood infected by fungus is one of the most highly sought-after items on the luxury market today. Ritual burning and appreciation requires a connoisseur's sense of scent and sensibility. But new riches snap it up and display it like old Bordeaux. Some is carved into jewelry or religious statues.

It is known as agarwood, agar, aloeswood, eaglewood, jinkoh and gaharu and is prized around the world. The fragrance is complex and pleasing and there are few or no natural analogues.

In China it is called chen xiang (literally wood with mellow fragrance). It is used in traditional Chinese medicine, aryuvedic medicine and aroma therapy, as well as various religious rituals.

Earlier this month a piece of agarwood sold for 360,000 yuan (US$55,656) at the 1st Shanghai Fragrance and Wood Furniture Exhibition. But 20 years ago it would have fetched no more than 10 yuan. A fragrant chen xiang bracelet of 17 beads, each a centimeter in diameter, was priced at 80,000 yuan.

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