Pretty much everyone who has worked in the stone industry for any length of time knows that this business can be characterized as somewhat, um, fragmented. Now, this characterization isn't necessarily a bad thing, since the unique qualities of stone make every installation a custom one-of-a-kind application. However, the varieties in stone quarrying, processing and installation are creating some problems for the industry.

In this issue of Stone World, a longtime veteran of the industry has written a “Forum” about the changes in the way stone is sold in the U.S. (page 90). The comments made by this contributor, Ravi Johar of Southland Stone, touch upon some concerns that are shared by many in the stone trade, and they essentially express concern that quality is being disregarded as the industry grows. “Even though per-capita stone consumption in the U.S. is relatively small, it has shown tremendous growth in recent years,” Johar wrote. “And as with most industries seeing growth, these developments have attracted new suppliers. The challenge that is presented to the stone industry is to have suppliers become experts and diligent in their dealings within the market. This requires knowledge about the materials and a respect and dedication to providing good quality.”

Obviously, to tag all newly established stone suppliers as irresponsible simply because they are new is not accurate. There are many new faces in the stone trade that are doing a good job and are providing service to their customers and the industry as a whole. But how do we determine “quality,” and more importantly, how do we convey these quality standards to consumers? In his article, Johar reports that “for every type of stone that is quarried, there are three qualities: select or first choice (10-25%); standard quality (30-50%); and commercial quality (30-50%).” This is fine if you are an industry veteran, but what about architects, kitchen/bath dealers, retailers or homeowners? How do they know what they are buying? What factors make a stone fall into the categories of “first choice” “standard” or “commercial”? Can these criteria be summed up concisely in language that consumers can understand?

The stone industry is facing hot competition from “alternate” premium surface materials. These competitors - like DuPont Corian and DuPont Zodiaq - have the sophistication and financial resources to package their products in a way that consumers understand. They offer literature and warranties to convince customers that they are purchasing a product that will endure over the long haul. As someone said at our Fabricators Forum earlier this year, “A warranty is as hollow as a box, but [homeowners] value that.”

And even though natural stone will always have an edge as a unique, singular material, the industry needs to address this matter, or it will lose some of this advantage. As Johar wrote: “There is a real need to establish a standard of quality in the industry; a need for a 'Rating System' for distributors and installers - with classifications that the consumer can recognize.”

Can this be done, even when taking into account that stone is ultimately formed by nature and not by machines? Sure it can. The wood industry has standards, and trees are clearly a 100% natural product. One of the best “branding” strategies I can recall is from the dairy industry (remember the “Real” symbol that found its way onto milk products during the 1980s?), and milk is very obviously a natural product.

Maybe I am being too idealistic here, but I think that we can set more obvious standards regarding the quality of stone being sold in this country, but it will take some cooperation among stone importers, distributors, fabricators and installers. The Natural Stone Council was established over the past year to generically promote stone to consumers, including architects and designers as well as homeowners. Support for this organization has been admirable, as stone professionals have come forth with no agenda other than to promote the industry as a whole. Perhaps these are the first steps in creating some true industry unification. I encourage readers to contact me at with their thoughts on this matter.