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Why Saffron Is More Expensive Than Gold

Saffron
One flower from the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) plant typically yields just three stigma that must be extracted by hand, one of the main reasons this highly sought-after spice is so expensive. Jean-Luc PETIT/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Some say the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) plant hails from Iran, others say Greece. When picked, harvested from the flowers and dried, a pound of saffron can cost up to $5,000, according to MoneyInc.com. Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Here's what makes it so valuable.

A spice like rosemary can be harvested and dried at home with a piece of parchment paper and an oven. All you need for red pepper flakes is a food processor. It is estimated that it takes up to 170,000 individual flowers to yield just 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) of saffron, according to Business Insider. Like buying a tailored suit or piece of fine art, the wildly high cost of this innocuous red spice comes from the sheer manpower it takes to harvest it correctly.

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Postdoctoral research associate at the University of Vermont, Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, explained to Business Insider how the journey of saffron doesn't end when the flower is picked.

"Saffron is dehydrated or dry stigma," said Ghalehgolabbehbahani. "The stigma is the female part of flower. You have to separate that stigma, dry that. And for all of these procedures, you need hand works, laborers."

saffron
In this November 2018 photo, workers separate saffron threads from harvested flowers at a processing center in Afghanistan.
HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP/Getty Images

In the countries where saffron provides a source of income for farmers, from Iran to Afghanistan to Morocco, saffron flowers are harvested at dawn, because overexposure from the sun degrades the quality of the flower. On top of that, saffron flowers (which need to be hand picked) only bloom one week per year and typically produce just three usable stigma threads per flower. After the flowers are harvested, the labor-intensive work of removing the stigma begins.

It can take laborers up to 40 hours of handpicking stamens to produce 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) of saffron. Not only is it difficult to harvest the spice, but growing it is a challenge in itself. Flowering only during the months of October and November, saffron needs hot weather, direct sunlight and well-drained soil to thrive. Italy, Iran and Spain are amongst the world's largest saffron producers with Iran itself producing 90 percent of the world's supply.

Saffron
Farm laborers harvest saffron in Iran in November 2019.
Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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