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World's Rarest Things
Part I  [Part II]

Rose AlbaRose Alba$ 649 (+0.5%) 
BuckypaperBuckypaper$ 1234 (steady) 
Agarwood OilAgarwood Oil$ 1581 (-35.7%) 
BuckminsterfullereneBuckminsterfullerene$ 3022 (steady) 
Tyrian PurpleTyrian Purple$ 126278 (steady) 
USD / Troy Ounce (% Monthly Change)

Like way, way too many mineral waters and vodkas, the true cost of the liquid in a bottle of high-end perfume is only a sliver of the total price tag. But within that liquid’s ingredients, a manufacturer’s greatest outlay tends to be for its rose oils. The very rarest of these is pure rose alba — from the white Damask rose — most of which nowadays retails to aromatherapy enthusiasts. Each gram of this oil requires about 2000 flowers.

And then there’s the oil from agarwood. When fungi infect the trunks of aquilaria trees in southeast Asia they defend themselves by exuding resins which saturate and blacken the affected tissue. The result, the most precious wood in the world, emits a multifaceted, almost intoxicating sandalwood-like aroma. Poachers have hijacked much of the agarwood industry and driven wild-growing aquilaria to “threatened” status, though a number of parties are working to cultivate this singular product. Here is an environmentally sustainable source for agarwood, which can be gently heated for incense.

C-540 Fullerene
One of the Larger
Fullerenes, C540

I once attended a lecture by futurist Buckminster Fuller at the University of Michigan. He didn’t live to see it, but in 1985 Harold Kroto (then of the University of Sussex) and James R. Heath, Sean O’Brien, Robert Curl and Richard Smalley from Rice University (Texas) discovered a variety of soccer ball-like carbon molecules. Owing to its resemblance to his famous geodesic domes, they named the most abundant version, C60, buckminsterfullerene. Countless other sizes and geometries, more generally known as fullerenes, have since flooded out of the laboratories. We now know that many fullerenes had been hiding out all along in soot, meteorites, Damascus steel, and an obscure glassy mineral called shungite.

Buckminsterfullerene itself is a brown crystalline solid, bright purple in solution. It’s harder than diamond. Its manufacturing cost is currently prohibitive, but like anything that should improve with time. C60 and other fullerenes promise to revolutionize electronics, materials science, medicine, energy production, aeronautics, apparel, and just about any other field you can name.

Nanotubes are fibers whose walls consist of chicken-wire-like networks of carbon atoms. They’re typically between 1 and 4 nanometers thick, about 1/3000 the width of a red blood cell, but hundreds or thousands of times longer. Buckypaper consists of nanotubes mashed together and pressed into sheets. It’s black, potentially many times stronger than steel but 3.3% the weight, and more thermally conductive than almost anything else. Perhaps most strangely, it can have a negative Poisson’s ratio which means it gets thicker when you stretch it instead of thinner. The figure you see in the graph above translates to about $0.10/cm2 or $50 for a typing paper-sized page.

Remorse of Nero (Tyrian purple wearer)
“Remorse of Nero”
by John William Waterhouse
Tyrian purple is the legendary purple dye made famous by the Phoenicians. Certain molluscs such as the spiny dye murex, dog whelk, and cart-rut shell yield a clear fluid that turns into a highly saturated violet upon exposure to air. The resulting molecule is a dibromoindigo, similar to indigo but with a bromine on each end. Unlike most premodern dyes it’s supremely stable and fade-resistant, but each ounce required over 3500 molluscs to procure and so only the highly privileged could afford it. Indeed, ancient regimes often passed sumptuary laws to prohibit common folk from wearing TP. Said historian Suetonius of Nero:

Having forbidden the use of amethystine or Tyrian purple dyes, he secretly sent a man to sell a few ounces on a market day and then closed the shops of all the dealers. It is even said that when he saw a matron in the audience at one of his recitals clad in the forbidden color he pointed her out to his agents, who dragged her out and stripped her on the spot, not only of her garment, but also of her property.

2d Tyrian Plum of 1910
Tyrian Plum
With the myriads of modern colorants we have there’s no genuine need or market for Tyrian purple nowadays, but some artists and weavers hanker after it for the romance factor. Orthodox Jews may also seek it out to dye parts of their ritualistic tassels or tzitzit in observance of certain Old Testament directives. Incidentally, there is a classical philatelic rarity called the Tuppence Tyrian Plum shown to the right portraying Edward VII, though it appears no dibromoindigo was involved.

Suspected Red Mercury
Suspected Red Mercury
As the old Soviet Union was dissolving in the early 1990s, rumors swirled about an exotic, super-secret substance that could take the place of the trigger, or at least help it along, in a plutonium bomb. A nuclear trigger has to implode precisely and instantaneously across its spherical area to compress the plutonium powerfully enough to set off nuclear fission. Such a device is by necessity a technological tour de force and thus exceedingly expensive, so any shortcut around that would be a boon to terrorists or dyspeptic dictators.

The substance went by the name “red mercury.” Pravda reported many arrests of would-be red mercury smugglers and asking prices ranging from $100,000 to $6 million per kilogram for the stuff. Mobsters were supposedly standing in line to sell it to the Saudis and Saddam Hussein.

One unnamed Russian scientist asserted that red mercury was quite real and described it as a semiliquid mercury antimony oxide prepared by heating antimony trioxide (commonly used in the ceramics, glass, and pharmaceutical industries) and mercuric oxide together at 500°C for no less than 48 hours. But most in a position to know sooner or later dismissed the whole thing as a scam. Specimens seized in transit invariably consisted of red poster paint, common mercury compounds, or other refuse.

Silphium or laserwort was a weed related to the asafoetida and giant fennel and extolled for its flavor, aroma, and innumerable medical applications including birth control. The Greek city of Cyrene in present-day Libya based its economy on silphium and frequently pictured it on its coins.
silphium Semper Augustus
Much of the plant’s mystique arose from its truffle-like resistance to cultivation, so it was only a matter of time before over-harvesting did it in. Though botanists believe silphium survived until the third or fourth century, according to legend Nero (who else?) was among the last to dine on it.

At the height of the tulip speculation mania from 1636 to 1637, thousands of Dutch investors from all social strata sank their fortunes into various super-rare bulb varieties anticipating vast profits. The highest prices ultimately paid were for the maroon and white striped Semper Augustus, shown far right, one bulb of which sold in Haarlem for 6000 guilders or about 30 times the typical annual salary of the era. One buyer of such a bulb later found to his horror that a sailor had eaten it after mistaking it for an onion. Inevitably the bubble burst and most speculators lost everything. Like silphium, one can now describe the Semper Augustus tulip as infinitely rare since it no longer exists.

The noble pen shell is an enormous mussel living in the Mediterranean which secretes fine golden threads to anchor itself to the rocks. From ancient times artisans have collected these threads and woven them into an ultra-sheer textile called sea silk or byssus. Like Tyrian purple, byssus was always stratospherically expensive. Pharaohs, high priests, Roman emperors, and other potentates luxuriated in byssal shawls, gloves, hosiery, and the like.

St Veronica's Veil
St. Veronica, beating the hell out of all those tortillas and garage door water stains
The most famous swatch of byssus is quite likely St. Veronica’s Veil, also known as the Vernicle or the Sudarium. Legend tells us St. Veronica comforted Jesus on the way to his crucifixion by drying his face with the Veil, which thereafter miraculously displayed his portrait. Among competing specimens claiming to be the Sudarium, the Abruzzo Veil, tightly guarded at a Capuchin monastery east of Rome, is easily the most impressive. Though the cloth’s actual image falls far short of what you see in the El Greco to the left, it’s hardly less mysterious.2

Byssus is now so rare that it has no real market or quotable price. A devoted Sardinian named Chiara Vigo may be the only person in the world still producing it.
Philip II of Spain
Felipe Segundo
de Habsburgo
She has visited the Abruzzo Veil and has certified it — whether miraculous or not — as byssal. As for the noble pen shell, its populations have slumped alarmingly from overfishing. (For food, in this case.)

No discussion of largely unobtainable yard goods would be complete without mentioning vicuña and Escorial wool. The former comes from the smallest South American camelid and the latter from ultrafine-follicled sheep descended from a single flock belonging to King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). Both vicuña and Escorial wool are finer than cashmere and Escorial in particular is every bit as soft but wears much better. Sweetheart deals ensure that only four firms — Brioni, Chanel, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton — buy up all the wholesale Escorial each year.

The conquistadores and their successors nearly wiped out the vicuñas altogether but they’ve now rebounded thanks mainly to the efforts of the Peruvian government. Recently the Scottish textile firm Holland and Sherry has announced it will be offering 100% worsted vicuña — presumably with all the proper anti-poaching documentation — for about £3000 ($2400) per yard. In the classic film Sunset Boulevard, back in the days when they mowed the poor suckers down with rifles from jeeps to score their fleece with the minimum of fuss, a sales clerk murmurs to William Holden’s character, “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the vye-KOON-uh?”

« Back to Part I

World’s Rarest Metals
Ten of the World’s Rarest Gemstones
Asteroid Facts
Weird Word of the Week
Text © Peter Blinn

1. In total there are now seven known isotopes of hydrogen, though numbers 4 through 7 have half-lives on the order of 10-23 and 10-24 seconds.
2. This is not to say people don’t wonder how St. Veronica could have possessed the astounding foresight, not to mention extreme personal wealth, to show up at the crucifixion with such a cloth at the ready.