December 30, 2006

The Relative Worth of Things

I DIDN'T HAVE TIME to blog about this prior to the Christmas break, but it's still worth mentioning. A while back, the New York Times reported on the fascinating case of a woman whose sister had sent her a giant lump of some unidentified substance, and asked her to find out what it is. Then, it emerged the substance could be ambergris, the rare perfume additive. Suddenly, the woman -- a hard-working yet relatively impecunious lady -- was looking at a much improved retirement.

Amazingly, the story pegged the value of ambergris at $10/gram, or $10,000 per kilo. This is astounding because ambergris is essentially whale vomit. Yet the whale vomit, as we can see, is worth half its weight in gold and is more expensive than many other fine products:

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PRODUCT/ VALUE per KILOGRAM

DIAMONDS / $33 million (1)
RHODIUM / ~$162,000 (2)
GOLD / ~$20,450 (3)
WHALE VOMIT / $10,000
CAVIAR (fine grade Ossetra): $7,400
TRUFFLES (white, exc. grade): $4,000
CIGARS (Cohiba Esplendidos, Cuba): $2,667 (4)
SHARK FINS (dried, retail): $700
CHAMPAGNE: $212/kg (5)

(1) Based on an estimated price of $6,600 for one one-carat stone, G-grade color and VS2 clarity
(2) Who knew rhodium was the most precious of the metals? (And who knew what rhodium was? Not me!)
(3) Based on a price of $636 per troy oz.
(4) Based on a per-cigar weight of 15 grams.
(5) Dom Perignon '98; based on liquid-to-dry measure conversion @ 28.3g per fluid oz.

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Now, on the face of it, these comparisons seem somewhat ridiculous, kind of like how tulip bulb mania produced tulip bulbs worth the equivalent of 400 tons of herring. However, there's no denying ambergris is quite rare and as such can command the price being asked for it.

This, then, leads to my question: why the hell are people hunting whales if the whales are vomiting up gold? I'm just thinking out loud here, but crikey. Even if we assume sperm whales are too big to capture and harvest for aquaculture purposes -- they are 50 feet long or some such -- you'd think people would figure out a way to get them to puke up the stuff without too much difficulty. Of course, I realize that if this could have been done, it probably would have been. Still, it makes the whole whale-hunting thing seem awfully inefficient.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at December 30, 2006 08:54 AM | TrackBack
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