What's behind the high prices of designer chocolate? Is there something truly special behind these confections, or are chocoholics simply shelling out for the cachet of a name? The increased availability and awareness of luxury chocolates also brings to light their high -- indeed, sometimes staggering -- cost. Intrigued that this sweet stuff could cost so much, I researched (and tasted!) five top-tier brands to learn what makes them so pricey. I started with the most expensive brand I could find: the dark chocolate truffle by Norwalk, Conn.-based
Knipschildt Chocolatier. The price for this confection is $2,600 a pound, or $250 a piece. No, that's not a typo, and no, I didn't actually get to sample this one. It sports an astronomical price tag there is a whole, real black truffle in the center of the chocolate. When an order is placed for a single truffle or for a box, the black truffle is actually hunted down in France and shipped stateside, so each piece is made to order. It is encased in dark chocolate and dusted with cocoa powder just before delivery to the customer. Even if you can't spring the cost of this truffle, Knipschildt has other bonbons and chocolate creations in its collection, starting as low as $1.75 a piece. Unlike Knipschildt, chocophiles wishing to try Dallas-based NOKA chocolatier won't find low prices on any pieces -- a pound costs nearly $900. The company focuses on single-estate dark chocolate made with a minimum of 75% cacao, sourced from plantations in Venezuela, Ecuador and the Ivory Coast. Missing from the couvertures -- the plain chocolate -- are emulsifiers such as vanilla or soy lecithin -- a rare exception in chocolatiers and the main reason for the steep cost. At just over $120 a pound, Godiva's "G" collection seems like a comparative bargain. The company introduced the line two years ago in response to the growing American interest in high-end chocolate. The basic principle is that only the purest ingredients are used in each piece. The apple pie from G's limited edition American Pie line, for example, uses real apples in the filling instead of a syrup. Since there are no stabilizers in the pieces, a box typically lasts a few weeks. That compares with a regular Godiva box, which is still fresh after a month or two and retails for $40 a pound. Two other brands -- La Maison du Chocolat and Michel Cluizel -- are both based in France and sell for $80 and $85 a pound, respectively. They have a similar chocolate-making process, which they say is the main reason behind their pricing. Richard Perl, chocolate sommelier for Michel Cluizel in the Americas, says that unlike most chocolatiers, the company doesn't rely on an existing couverture such as Valrhona or El Rey to make its confections. "We work from the bean to the bonbon," he says. "We actually go out and pick our own beans in plantations and conch them (turn the beans into chocolate) in our factory." Only pure cane sugar and bourbon vanilla is added to the chocolate base. Like NOKA, the company skips using soy lecithin. La Maison also selects its own beans from plantations in Venezuela and Ecuador and conches them in small batches in its factory in France. Cream is mixed into the chocolates to create what's called a ganache, which is then poured onto a marble slab. After cooling, the ganache is cut by hand and then enrobed and decorated by hand. All the ingredients used in the filling are natural, derived from the fruits or herbs such Moroccan mint or Sri Lankan cinnamon. These costly brands are part of the changing chocolate landscape in America. Up until two years ago, for most, indulging in this treat meant unwrapping a low-quality bar made mostly with sugar that was bought at a drugstore or supermarket. Today, people are no longer content with mediocre chocolate -- they want the good kind. "The American palate for chocolate has changed significantly in the last few years, and we've become far more sophisticated in our tastes," says Susan Fussel, spokeswoman for the National Confectioners Association, the Vienna, Va.-based trade organization for the candy industry. Experts say the driving force behind these changing tastebuds is the mass availability of better-quality chocolate. Higher-end brands such as Lindt, Scharffen Berger and Valrhona are now sold at chains such as Whole Foods ( WFMI) and Wal-Mart ( WMT). Local drugstores and supermarkets such as Food Emporium in New York City are also devoting shelf space to pricier brands. Hershey's ( HSY), the classic all-American chocolatier, even debuted an upscale line in late 2006 called Cacao Reserve. The collection is made with better-quality cacao beans than the company's standard bars, and the price reflects this difference. A Cacao Reserve bar sells for $2.50, compared with 50 cents for a regular Hershey's. As a result of the ready availability of quality, sales of gourmet chocolates in mass outlets have increased 30% in the past two years. (The NCA classifies a brand as gourmet if it costs $8 or more a pound.) Fussel says the increased accessibility of gourmet chocolate has made the public more interested in the very top-end names. The unique process behind their creation, as well as the taste, may justify the cost of luxury chocolate brands for some. The good news is that you can indulge in them by the piece, making them one of the most affordable luxuries around. If that doesn't sell you, remember that eating dark chocolate has health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and boosting energy. If you're like me, however, you don't need any excuses to reach for a second piece.