When I opened up my paper of choice, The New York Times, two weeks ago, I saw a headline in the Home Section entitled, “What’s Lurking in Your Countertop?” By now, we all probably know much of what happened as a result of this article. Subsequently, other major news outlets - including radio and network television - have picked up the story. On YouTube, videos appeared showing people holding a Geiger counter against a granite slab - dramatic scenes with jumping needles and lots of noise indicating that something is seriously awry. Stone distributors and fabricators started receiving way too many calls from concerned homeowners - some hysterical; some reasonable but worried.
With American stone industry companies fighting harder than ever before to turn a profit, we are seeing a number of approaches to offsetting the decline in sales these days. Some firms are lowering prices in an attempt to draw more business - although this seems rare among established stone fabricators. Other have changed their target client base, and they are aggressively going after new markets in an attempt to regain some lost business (i.e. remodeling work rather than new construction). Unfortunately, though, no matter what sales and marketing strategy is in place, the majority of U.S. stone fabrication shops will not do the same volume of business that they did a year ago (or even two years ago).
For those of you who don’t already know, the “scare tactics” regarding granite and radon are out there once again. Basically, it’s the same old re-run from years ago: “Are granite countertops killing innocent families? We don’t know, but we’re looking into it. In the meantime, why don’t you try this alternative material?”
Ever since the Vitória Stone Fair began taking place in the stoneworking region of Vitória, Brazil, in 2002, the show’s growth and energy has mirrored the explosive growth of Brazil’s stone industry. This past edition, however, took place at a time when the nation’s industry is facing its first real challenges since becoming a major player in the international stone industry. Because Brazil relies heavily on the U.S. as an importer of its finished stone products - particularly granite slabs - the downturn in the U.S. housing market has had a noticeable impact on the Brazilian stone industry.
For many stone industry purists, the stoneworking region of Carrara, Italy, is the heart of our industry. As the home of Carrara White marble - Michelangelo’s material of choice - it has a built-in history in stone. More importantly, it has been home to generations of stoneworking professionals who are passionate about stone and its place in architecture, art and culture. I’ve been traveling to this region for over 10 years, and every time I visit, I am reminded that this dedication to the artistry of stone remains alive and well today.
In this issue of Stone World Magazine, our “Re-Emerging U.S. Stone Industry” subject is the Cold Spring Granite Co.’s Carnelian granite quarry, which is located in Milbank, SD (page 38). This quarry has made a name for itself by supplying material for prestigious projects across the country, perhaps most notably the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, which utilized 6,000 tons of Carnelian granite. This fact alone entrenches Carnelian granite’s place among the historic materials of our nation.
OK, I finally admit it, the stone fabrication market is down. It is not “perceived to be down,” as I have repeatedly argued with my publisher; it is not “up and down.” It is simply “down.” Now, with that being said, the question I have is how far down, and how is this downward trend truly affecting fabricators in the marketplace? Are many shops in dire straits? How many layoffs are taking place? Is anyone buying machinery these days?
In May of 2006, I wrote a column for Stone World entitled, “Silicosis: Dangerous from many angles” that stressed the need for stone fabrication shops to understand the issues of silicosis in our industry, to develop proper procedures in their shop and to educate their employees on the disease. At that time, the Marble Institute of America (MIA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had recently entered into an alliance to develop information to help MIA member employers and workers recognize and prevent hazards such as exposure to silica. The results of this alliance have been extremely positive, and they are continuing to develop.
Last month, I drove to Richmond, VA, to check out the new Charles Luck Stone Center. And while I anticipated seeing a new, top-of-the-line stone showroom, I ended up seeing a lot more than that. Taking their cue from high-end retailers such as Gucci, Prada and Armani as well as hospitality experts such as Ritz-Carlton, the people at Charles Luck Stone Center have truly created a stone sourcing “experience.”
No matter how long you’ve been in the stone industry, or what areas of expertise you have developed, you can always benefit from continuing and advancing your education. Fortunately, there is no shortage of high-quality educational opportunities within the stone industry. One prime example of this can be found at StonExpo, which takes place from October 18 to 20 this month in Las Vegas, NV. In fact, an extra day of seminars - with longer, more in-depth sessions - is set for October 17, the day before the exposition opens.