In Nouméa, New Caledonia, it is:
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Holy Grails
Ten of the World’s Rarest Gemstones
Ten of the World’s Strangest Gemstones & Minerals
World’s Rarest Metals
And here’s some super-rare CHEESE




World's Rarest Things
[Part I]  Part II

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 suffocatingly abundant.

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 September 2014, multiply dollar amounts by 0.75; for Pounds Sterling, 0.60.


UraniumUranium$ 2.06 (+5.8%) 
Manni olive oilManni olive oil$ 9.58 (-1.6%) 
Shilajit (Standardized)Shilajit (Standardized)$ 12.52 (steady) 
Heavy WaterHeavy Water$ 19.67 (steady) 
100-Year Balsamic100-Year Balsamic$ 130.00 (-49.6%) 
Saffron (200+)Saffron (200+)$ 137.00 (-20.8%) 
Château Pétrus ‘82Château Pétrus ‘82$ 240.00 (-9.1%) 
USD / Troy Ounce (% Monthly Change)
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 $31 per 100 ml (3.4 oz) bottle, Manni extra virgin olive oil costs 5 times 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, Rachael Ray).

[Late note: I see an oil called Mani (spelled with one N) being sold through Amazon.com. It comes from Greece, as opposed to Italy for the legendary two-N version, and you’ll notice it’s also vastly cheaper. Greek and other non-Italian olive oil is held in far lower esteem than Italian and there continues to be a lot of scandal brewing over this very subject. For all I know, “Mani” may well be a perfectly good oil; but as with everything, caveat emptor.]

Mt. Everest
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 been reported.)

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.

So-So Saffron
Third-Rate Saffron
(Note the superfluous yellow stalks.)
Top-drawer saffron is actually more red than yellow. It consists exclusively of the saffron crocus’s stigmas, not the stalks supporting them which, like the 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 cheaper source.

really OLD Balsamic Vinegar
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 includes Il Grande Vecchio Mussini, Modena Extraveccio, 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 its age it was priced more in line with its century-only brethren 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
Chateau Petrus Pomerol
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. $240 per troy ounce approximates $5800 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.

Iran (Rial)Iran (Rial) 26541 (+2.6%) 
Vietnam (Dong)Vietnam (Dong) 21185 (+0.1%) 
Saõ Tomé (Dobra)Saõ Tomé (Dobra) 18320 (+1.6%) 
Indonesia (Rupia)Indonesia (Rupia) 11710 (+0.3%) 
Belarusian (Ruble)Belarusian (Ruble) 10390 (+1.2%) 
Hyperinflation Olympics! Per USD
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 Iranian Rial wins this month at about 26500 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-1992 Somali Shilling notes have settled into a peculiar stability because of this and they continue to circulate for local staples.
Seborga (Luigino)Seborga (Luigino)$ 6.00 (pegged) 
Kuwait (Dinar)Kuwait (Dinar)$ 3.53 (-0.5%) 
Bahrain (Dinar)Bahrain (Dinar)$ 2.65 (steady) 
Oman (Rial)Oman (Rial)$ 2.60 (steady) 
Latvia (Lats)Latvia (Lats)$ 1.91 (-1.6%) 
Largest Currencies, USD per Unit
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 than Monaco.
Mauritania (Ouguiya)Mauritania (Ouguiya) 290.50 (-0.1%) 
Vanuatu (Vatu)Vanuatu (Vatu) 93.60 (steady) 
Maldives (Rufiyaa)Maldives (Rufiyaa) 15.40 (+0.3%) 
Transnistria (Ruble)Transnistria (Ruble) 11.10 (pegged) 
SMOM (Scudo)SMOM (Scudo) 0.32 (-1.6%) 
Least-Known Currencies, per USD
Finally, here is some of the world’s least-known money.

The Mauritanian Ouguiya is one of the very few aside from the Scudo [below] not divided decimally. Rather, 5 Khoums equal 1 Ouguiya. The 685-year-old Kremnica Mint in Slovakia strikes their coins.

The Transnistrian Ruble (PRB) 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 3.3 to 1.

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 study tiny states. Dating from 1080, the SMOM now exists primarily as a Catholic service organization. After Napoleon defeated the SMOM’s navy and evicted it from Malta in 1798, it ultimately set up shop in Rome as an “extraterritorial” state. 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. Negotiable or not, the SMOM’s coins are exquisite and procedes from their sales go toward its many humanitarian efforts.

US Dollar Coin
Copper$ 0.04948 (-3.2%)
Nickel$ 0.00301 (-3.3%)
Zinc$ 0.00111 (-1.4%)
Manganese$ 0.00070 (steady)
Dollar Coin Components
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 $0.05430 or 1150 Dongs, down 3% 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 $0.0494.

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 $1,296,000.

Canada went one better in 2007 with five specimens of a 99.999% pure 3215-troy-ounce (100 kg) gold coin. That makes it the world’s second largest, with a current bullion value of around $4.2 million. 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 mishandling.

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 $42.2 million. 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 $12800.

Proceed to Part II (red mercury, agarwood oil, Escorial wool, etc.) »


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Text © Peter Blinn
1. For informational purposes only. Don’t hold me to it.

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