Italy's expanding horizons
This year, my trips to Italy have included the usual visits to the stoneworking regions of Carrara (in June) and Verona (in September/October). Both of these journeys were eye openers for me because they not only demonstrated the endeavors of individual companies, but also the general direction of the Italian stone industry as a whole.
One development that has been in place for several years is technology for applying resin to stone slabs. Each time I go to Italy, I am seeing new plants that have been established specifically for applying resin to slabs, complete with equipment to automatically apply the resin and large-scale driers to ensure that the resin cures quickly and with optimum efficiency. These plants are not only using this technology for traditional granite varieties, but also for exotic stones that would not be commercially available without resin technology. As the use of this technology continues to expand, it appears that a significant portion of material coming out of Italy will be treated with resin products.
I have also been seeing technology in Italy for creating new surface finishes, including the classic Old World look that had previously been available only for marble tiles. New abrasives and methods have been developed that allow this finish to be applied to granite slabs, and they are steadily rising in popularity -- particularly for producers exporting to the U.S. marketplace. At the recent Marmomacc fair in Verona, we saw even more new varieties of textured granite, including some very sophisticated patterning unlike anything ever produced before.
With increased competition from relatively new stone-producing nations such as India, Brazil and China (among others), the Italian stone industry has had the foresight to expand its scope and develop stone products that go far beyond the run-of-the-mill materials. Once again, the collaboration between Italian stone producers and technology manufacturers has resulted in product innovations that set new trends in the industry.
So what do these developments in Italy mean for our industry here in North America? Quite a bit, actually. The development of resin-application technologies has resulted in the availability of an incredible range of new colors in natural stone. Companies I visited in Italy this past year are working with onyx and other materials in an impressive array of blues, reds, yellows, greens, maroons and other unique colors. This is an important point for our stone industry to remember when it is challenged by suppliers of man-made materials, which have repeatedly made the argument: â€œNatural stone isn't available in [bright yellow, blue, red, etc.]â€ When a homeowner requests â€œbright red,â€ it may now be available in natural stone. This wasn't the case a few years ago.
The new finishes in the marketplace can also offer a unique appeal for homeowners. For those customers who truly want a one-of-a-kind kitchen, selling the textured qualities of natural stone offer suppliers an edge over solid surface materials, which do not offer this aspect.
In the coming months, I will be showcasing some of the companies I visited while in Italy -- particularly producers of unique slab materials. I hope that offering a glimpse of the developments and innovations there will continue to inspire the industry here at home.