Commodities: Gifts for wise guys to go wild about

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WHEN the three Wise Men went to Bethlehem to welcome the new- born Jesus, they brought with them three of the most valuable commodities of that time - gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The traditional Christian interpretation of the treasures is that the gold represented kingliness, the frankincense godliness, and the myrrh stood for death. They were expensive or exotic substances, beyond the means and dreams of ordinary people.

Gold was highly desirable and costly. Frankincense, an aromatic gum resin, was used in religious rituals and burnt as incense. And myrrh, another bitter aromatic gum, was used in expensive incenses, perfumes and medicines, and for embalming.

Their modern equivalents - the material treasures we covet today - are still found primarily in the commodities world. Those looking for an unusual gift this holiday season should be forewarned that they are the most expensive raw materials in existence, and out of budgetary range of most people, except in minute quantities.

Saffron, the orangy-gold spice used in cooking and as a dye, is the world's most expensive food. McCormick UK sells it under its Schwartz spice label in British supermarkets at pounds 1.92 for 0.4g, putting 100g at around a notional pounds 4,000.

Mike Clarke, purchasing manager at McCormick, said Romans were believed to have slept on saffron-filled pillows to cure hangovers. At current prices, and estimating it would take 3kg of saffron to fill a pillowcase, a saffron hangover cure would cost more than pounds 10,000 today.

Saffron is hand-harvested from the stigmas of the purple crocus plant on the two days a year that it flowers, and it takes at least 70,000 flowers to make 1kg of the spice.

With a flavour like bitter, burnt honey, it is used sparingly in rice, fish and other Oriental dishes or to dye the golden robes of Buddhist monks in eastern cultures. Spanish saffron is considered the best, but it is also produced in Iran, India and Greece. Because of the high prices, adulteration of saffron is a growing problem.

Pure Bulgarian rose oil, used in high-class fragrances and aromatherapy, is also extremely difficult to obtain, and is the most expensive essential oil in the world.

Roger Dyer, managing director of the essential oils importer Adrian, says it takes 1,000kg of rose petals to make 1kg of the oil - hence its cost of pounds 3,000 per kg wholesale.

According to legend, rose oil was discovered in Persia and is among the oldest fragrances, valued for its antiseptic and anti-depressant qualities. Like most essential oils nowadays, rose fragrance is made synthetically and the cheaper version is widely available at reasonable prices in toiletry items.

But for the genuine article, pure Bulgarian rose oil can be purchased at G Baldwin & Co medical herbalist in London for pounds 50 per 5ml bottle. A splash of it in the tub must create the most luxurious bath ever: something for the woman who has everything?

Not surprisingly, diamonds too are among the world's dearest treasures. De Beers, which sells 80 per cent of the world's diamonds, says their value depends on weight or carat, colour, clarity, and cut. At a recent Geneva auction, a 100-carat diamond ring sold for dollars 6.5m-dollars 7m.

The world's most famous diamonds are not for sale. Rough, uncut diamonds for jewellery use can range from dollars 20 a carat for a tiny, low-quality stone, to thousands of dollars per carat for high quality or coloured stones.

Prices can quadruple once the stone is cut, polished and set.

For those who prefer their luxuries in liquid form, wine tops the list of expensive tipples. The sky is the limit for rare vintages: pounds 105,000 was paid for a bottle of 1787 claret at Christie's in London in 1985.

But Farr Vintners, a London wine wholesalers, believes the most expensive wine in circulation is a red burgundy from outside Beaune, France, Romanee Conti 1990, costing pounds 500 a bottle wholesale. About 5,000 bottles are produced each year.

Last but not least, the precious metals: rhodium, a platinum group metal used mostly in motor engine catalysts to control pollution, is the costliest metal regularly traded, at about dollars 1,000 an ounce. But today's price is a bargain: in 1990, it briefly hit dollars 7,000 an ounce.

Only 13 metric tons are produced a year (compared with 1,760 of gold), keeping the price high and volatile. 'It's not something Joe Bloggs can readily gain access to, or would want to,' says Tim Petterson of Metals and Minerals Research Services. 'The most expensive metals with any real investment demand are gold and platinum.'

More practical as gifts too: gold prices are about dollars 382 an ounce and platinum just under dollars 380.

(Photograph omitted)