Here’s a commodity quotation listing unlike any other, guaranteed.
I’m applying heavy automation so that it should be easy to crunch all the math
and keep everything updated on a monthly basis.
These three dozen-plus goods fall roughly into three categories: scientific
marvels, legendary comestibles and personal care items, and aberrant
currencies. They range from surprisingly cheap to breathtakingly expensive.
Of the latter, some additional items beyond the ones that I’m able to
quote but will mention are, in fact, so elusive that they have no real
market and are therefore literally priceless. While others, like the
Vietnamese Dong, owe their curiosity value to being so
The figures for most of the non-currency items reflect an average of the asking prices
of several parties1. They should be reasonably close for small, tabletop
quantities. Obviously if you decide to stock up on heavy water in 55-gallon
drums you could cut a better deal. Each graph displays the values for the
same given quantity so they’ll compare on an equal footing. To
approximate Euros for December 2014, multiply dollar
amounts by 0.80; for
Pounds Sterling, 0.64.
As different as these seven items are from one another, I'm listing them first because they
all come in at, effectively, under
$300 per troy ounce.
Uranium is normally bought, sold, and stored in the form of its chalky yellow
oxide — better known as yellowcake. Back during the Beaver Cleaver era they used
to give bottles of the stuff away to tourists visiting the mines. The pure metal itself
is by far the cheapest superheavy substance which is the main reason the military craves
it for bullets and artillery shells. Unenriched uranium is mildly radioactive and
despite much hue and cry pretty safe unless it’s finely divided and inhaled.
Which, of course, during warfare, it is.
At around $18
per 100 ml (3.4 oz) bottle, Manni extra virgin olive oil costs
twice as much as
uranium and so far appears to be the world’s costliest. Maybe its
farmers sing to the trees. Chefs use Manni very sparingly but many insist
it’s worth it. Unfortunately for the more workaday product, terms like
“extra virgin” have no legal meaning in the US so you’ll
find just about any old crankcase sludge marketed here under that rubric (heads up,
|Are two Ns better than one?
Now I also see an oil called Mani
(spelled with one N) being sold. It’s properly labeled as coming from Greece, as opposed to
Italy for the legendary two-N version2, and you’ll notice it’s also vastly
cheaper. The marketplace holds Greek and other non-Italian olive oil in far lower esteem than Italian and there
continues to be a lot of scandal
brewing, if not outright physical violence, over the covert substitution of one for the other. For all I know,
may well be a perfectly good product; but as with everything, caveat emptor.
Shilajit or shilajeet is a highly prized tar that seeps to the surface in the
Himalayas during summer thaw. It’s a traditional Nepali tonic and cure-all. In
1870 British explorer Sir Martin Stanley reported that monkeys living in the higher
elevations where they could find and eat shilajit aged much more slowly, Lost
Horizons-like, than their brethren who did not. Shilajit contains humic acids —
large, complex molecules that arise from plant decomposition. So far little or no
clinical evidence suppports any benefits. (It’s also worth knowing that quality
control of shilajit is often nonexistent and that unacceptable levels of heavy metals
like lead and mercury, plus enough iron to give some people an overdose of it, have
Heavy water or D2O is water made of the alternate stable isotope of
hydrogen called deuterium. It’s used to slow neutrons in some nuclear
reactors. D2O weighs 11% more than ordinary water and has slightly
higher melting and boiling points. It lies midway between ordinary water and
skim milk in viscosity, so although it doesn’t taste any different it
might conceivably feel a bit unusual in your mouth. Animal studies show that
restricting your fluid intake to 50% D2O or more would cause no end
of grief. Its chemical reactions run a bit slower so your body would have
difficulty dividing cells and repairing itself and would give up the ghost
before the week is out.
is actually more red than yellow. It consists exclusively
of the saffron crocus’s stigmas, not the stalks supporting them which,
brine they inject into supermarket chicken, add little more than dead
weight. Technicians grade saffron by how well it absorbs a 440 nanometer
wavelength of light, a deep violet-blue, resulting in a correspondingly high
reflectance at the other end of the spectrum, red. The best earns an ISO color
strength rating of 230 and above. The spice’s chief active ingredient is
crocin, a deep red crystalline solid that’s also plentiful in gardenias.
Claims circulate to the effect that crocin shows antioxidant and cancer-suppressing potential, so a
number of firms are investigating gardenias as a far
(Note the superfluous yellow stalks.)
You’d probably no more relegate 100-year-old balsamic vinegar to
a salad than you would pour Manni olive oil into a turkey fryer. The classical
balsamic — the only one legally marketable as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale — consists of
Trebbiano and/or Lambrusco grape juices that have been gently boiled for 24-30 hours down to a syrup, filtered, injected with a starter culture,
and then ritualistically fermented through a series of progressively smaller casks made of varying types of
wood. Aging categories break down into twelve years (labeled red), eighteen (silver), and finally 25 to 100 or more (gold).
At the century stage the vinegar is thick, almost black, and entirely non-acidic with an
intense, indescribably complex flavor. Connoisseurs dollop it gingerly onto
meat or fruit or just sip it straight from shot glasses. Clans in
Italy’s Emilia Romagna region have been crafting the product which now
Il Grande Vecchio Mussini,
and other brands for over a thousand years. (The oldest stock I’ve ever seen for sale dated back to the mid 1600s, though
despite that it was priced more in line with its century-only peers at around $100 per fluid ounce.)
The red wines of Châteaux Lafleur, Le Pin, and Pétrus figure
prominently on most short lists of the world’s most exalted. Château
Pétrus was served at Queen Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947 and
became a favorite of the Kennedy White House. I’m tracking the price of
1982 Pétrus Pomerol on my graph because it was a particularly good year and
because there’s enough of it around to assure a sturdy market.
$208 per troy ounce approximates
$5100 a bottle.
The willingness of prospective customers to part with that kind of cash for something a
couple can drink inside of an hour depends entirely on how much they trust the people who
have warehoused it. You can infer something by the condition of the bottle’s label
and the size of the empty space inside the neck. If the latter (called
“ullage”) extends down too low, the cork hasn’t been doing its job and
the wine has probably gone bad. Twist tops are vastly superior in this regard, taking an
average of three years to leak in each cubic centimeter of oxygen.
When I was a kid I remember buying, from one of those coin operated
gumball-type machines, some big plastic capsules of folded up Brazilian
banknotes. No wonder, because for most of the 20th century Brazil was the
poster child of runaway inflation. Authorities had to hack off three zeros
four separate times and rename the currency seven times, such that one
modern Brazilian Real is now worth 2,749,025,730,000 (2.75 trillion US)
pre-1942 Brazilian Reis.|
The Land of Xuxa now seems to have things well in hand, so meanwhile here’s an
up-to-date comparison (left) of the world’s five tiniest currencies. The Vietnam (Dong) wins this month at about
27000 to the Dollar. Look for them to perform a
zero-ectomy and innaugurate a New Rial at some point if things
get too much further out of hand.|
Somalia’s Shilling has been reported to be in even worse shape from time to
time, with its Central Bank quoting 33,300 to the US Dollar in February of 2010. But
quite unlike hyperinflated currencies of the past, there are no printing presses
to turn out any more. Certifiable pre-1991 Somali Shilling notes have settled into
a peculiar stability because of this and they continue to circulate for local staples. In fact
their value against the Dollar has been rising steadily since mid-2013. At that time the Shilling was 15,000 per USD,
but as of this month it stands at 825. This track record makes it now, technically, the world’s strongest currency.
Conversely here are the world’s largest currencies. In case you’re
wondering, Seborga is a principality perched above the Italian Riviera
within sight of Monaco. Though many dismiss it as a pseudostate playing dress-up, its historical
precedents for sovereignty go back over a thousand years and its citizens
seem perfectly serious about it. Seborga earns its living exporting flowers
and offering its tourists and gourmandizers a better bargain
Finally, here is some of the world’s least-known money.|
The Mauritanian Ouguiya [$0.00344]
is one of only three currencies (the other two being the Scudo [below] and the Malagasy ariari)
not divided decimally. Rather, 5 Khoums equal 1 Ouguiya. The
685-year-old Kremnica Mint in Slovakia strikes their coins.
The Transnistrian Ruble [$0.0901] is about as obscure as you can get but also
perfectly legal tender — if only in Transnistria, a scrappy breakaway
republic of half a million inhabitants tracing the Dniester River’s left bank between Ukraine and
Moldova. The Russian and Transnistrian Rubles currently trade at around
5.9 to 1.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Dram [$0.00216]
and the Abkhazian Apsar [$0.152] fall into a similar,
negotiable-only-locally-but-still-cool-looking category, with the former fixed to the Armenian Dram
at par and the latter to ten Russian Rubles. (To the right, a ten Apsar
coin commemorating Abkhaz literary pioneer Dmitry Gulia.)
Like Seborga, The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of
Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta or SMOM is a darling of
micropatrologists — that is, people who groove on tiny states.
In its glory days SMOM waged naval warfare with the Ottoman Empire but it now exists primarily as a Catholic service
organization. Its currency divides as follows: 6 Piccioli =
1 Grano; 5 Grani = 1 Cinquina; 2 Cinquini =
1 Carlino; 2 Carlini = 1 Taro; and finally 12 Tarì
= 1 Scudo [$0.298]. So in effect
the Scudo’s smallest division is 1/1440 of it or about $0.000207 at the present exchange rate.
Long gone are the days when circulating coinage held substantial bullion
value. But what the heck. Here’s the current worth
of each of the four base metals in the new gold-colored US presidential
dollar coin. They total $0.05071 or 1084 Dongs, down 4% from last month. That’s not
bad for a one dollar face value. The big money loser for the US mint
is the nickel, whose metal content alone now comes to about
|Copper||$ 0.04636 (-4.4%)|
|Nickel||$ 0.00266 (+5.8%)|
|Zinc||$ 0.00105 (-4.1%)|
|Manganese||$ 0.00064 (-11.3%)|
|Dollar Coin Components
In 2004 the Austrian mint struck fifteen copies of a 1000-troy-ounce
24-karat gold “coin” picturing the Vienna Philharmonic
Orchestra hall on one side and violins, a harp, a French horn and a
bassoon on the other. Half the weight of a typical manhole cover, it
measures about 15 inches (37 cm) in diameter and 5/8 inches (1.5 cm)
thick. At current gold prices its bullion value would be
Canada went one better in 2007 with five specimens of a 99.999% pure 3215-troy-ounce (100 kg) gold coin,
representing a [current] bullion value of around
Since gold of that fineness is so absurdly soft and pliable, such a heavy yet
skinny platter of it would be vulnerable to dents and gouges at the slightest
Australia’s Perth mint answered that in October 2011 with a far
larger and proportionately thicker (albeit more rustic-looking) specimen. That one weighs 32,537 troy
ounces (1012 kg). Multiplying the value of the Canadian article above by 10.12 yields
Naturally this one displays the Queen on one side and a kangaroo on the other.
One wonders, though, how long they’ll want to keep all that gold
bottled up into a single mass.
Currently the world’s largest silver coin is the medieval-styled
commemorative European Taler struck by the Austrian mint in 2008. It
weighs 645.59 troy ounces (20.08 kg or 44.3 pounds) which at the moment would total around
Proceed to Part II (red mercury, agarwood oil, Escorial wool, etc.) »
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