The price of raw saffron was first identified by the Dutch scientist Paul M. van Leeuwen (1758) and by the French chemist Joseph-Louis Delacroix in the mid-19th century (Figure 1a). To determine the actual value of an ounce of saffron, the cost per ounce of saffron was first used (Figure 1b), while the price for a kilogram of saffron was based on the cost of the seed produced by saffron flowers (Figure 1c).
Figure 1: The cost of saffron, according to Van Leeuwen (1758), and Delacroix (1796).
At the time that saffron was first produced there was a major shortage and a substantial drop in its price (Figure 2). During the period from 1605-1750, saffron prices peaked from 8-10.50 Euro/gram; prices fell over the subsequent period through the 18th century, where they continued to be below those of the time, and again by the early 19th century until they dropped below the level of those of the 19th century.
Figure 2: The value of the saffron bulb as the seed. Values are for seed-weighted bulbs (weight: 0.1 gram, width: 20 mm) but can be rounded off to the nearest gram according to the value, expressed in terms of grammes, and rounded down to the nearest pound, expressed as a mass percentage of weight. Source: B. K. van Leeuwen, Antologie (Amsterdam, 1630-1715) pp. 5-11.
Why saffron is still expensive in the developed world
There are many reasons why saffron is still expensive. One reason is that the seeds used to produce saffron are not easy to cultivate. Another is that the process of the production and the use of saffron seeds in Europe, Asia and North Africa is largely dependent on the cost of transport and labour, and it is not clear the price of the seeds would recover even at prices closer to their value in the 18th century. In Africa, where land is much more limited, production needs are far less complex and are therefore even more dependent on the cost of transport and labour; therefore, production was based on the price of land, and even the price of seeds was not as good as now (Figure 3a, bottom of image).