In this age of H&M, those of us brought up on cheap, mass-manufactured widgets will probably never know the pleasure of living with artisanal objets.
But we might console ourselves with the fact that things weren’t that different in the old days.
Sure, oriental emperors had their hand-wrought bejeweled back scratchers, but the unwashed masses then, as now, had to make do with the Balmain for H&M equivalent.
Take the case of camphor.
What most of us know today as camphor is the resin of the Cinnamomum camphora tree native to China and Japan, but historically, it was a cheap Chinese knockoff of the genuine article.1
(Further proving the adage that there’s nothing new under the sun, C. camphora from Japan was even then considered superior to the Chinese version.)
The original camphor was a resin of Dryobanalops aromatica, a tree native to Borneo and Sumatra and a highly prized aromatic in international trade long before the Common Era.
Even the Chinese readily acknowledged the superiority of D. aromatica, poetically dubbing it “dragon’s brain perfume” or long nao xiang.
Records dating from 977 C.E. show that D. aromatica was frequently sent as tribute to the Chinese Emperor.
In the Song Dynasty, rarefied aesthetes, who were in the habit of matching perfumed incense to the flowers in their gardens, liked to pair D. aromatica with fragrant olives or Osmanthus fragrans.
Undoubtedly, the pageantry involved in the extraction of D. aromatica also formed part of its exotic allure: tribesmen in full war regalia, spirit offerings and sometimes even human sacrifice.
At this time, camphor was used for every conceivable purpose: perfume, bug-resistant boats and furniture, embalming the dead, religious rituals and all sorts of medicine.
As demand was vociferous across Asia, it was only a matter of time before an enterprising soul would come up with a cheaper substitute.
C. camphora cost almost a hundred times less than D. aromatica. Transplanted to more favourable environments where it could grow unchecked and sold in distilled form, it soon came to dominate the market.
One precipitating factor in its popularity was the Black Death in Europe–since camphor was thought to be the eastern cure for this eastern disease, exceptionally large amounts of C. camphora flooded the European markets.
Still, connoisseurs in Asia and Europe were willing to pay a premium for D. aromatica well into the sixteenth century. And wily merchants would sell them what purported to be pure D. aromatica but in fact was adulterated with C. camphora, pocketing a tidy profit in the bargain.