Monthly Archives: June 2009

Dissonant Harmony

When it comes to political intrigue and natural resources, the main suspects are easy to spot. Oil. Coal. Gold. Rubber. Travertine.


Admittedly, nobody’s going to war over deposits of the golden stone, or clashing over marble and granite. Natural stone, though, appears in some of the hot spots around the globe – and, thanks to an international show of unity, may get a free pass around any economic actions.

The latest example of this is Iran, where unrest after June elections continues to draw the world’s attention (save for a few days of the fatal attraction of Michael Jackson). For weeks, there’ve been countless emails, Twitter tweets and other fractured reports about turmoil in the streets.

Strong protests from countries around the globe will inevitably lead to calls for action. The easy route is economic sanctions, likely in the form of the boycott or interdiction of Iranian products in the world market. It’s been the standard policy of the United States through six presidential administrations since Iran’s 1979 revolution (although the two countries did record $600 million in trade last year, with U.S. exports trumping Iranian imports by a 4:1 ratio).

The biggie here, of course, is oil. The country also offers numerous other natural resources; stone probably doesn’t make many lists for possible economic action.

Readers of the annual stone-market analysis from Carlo Montani and Faenza Editrice in Milan, Italy, know better. Montani’s World Marketing Handbook shows that, when it comes to calcareous stones – marble and travertine, for the most part – Iran’s a major player in natural stone.

Montani’s research shows that Iran is actually the fourth-largest quarrier of dimensional stone in the world, after China, India and Italy. And, in 2007 – the last year that data is available – Iran exported 567,796 metric tons of raw calcareous stone (mainly travertine and marble), or 6.9 percent of the world’s trade.

It’s that raw-stone figure that can be the bugaboo. It’s one thing to make a fuss about finished products, although the major traders with Iran and its processed stone – Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia – are unlikely sanction partners. It’s the unfinished blocks of stone that can literally sail past any economic walls.

That’s where the concept of harmonized tariffs comes into play. Based on international codes and agreements, customs assessments are made based on the condition of materials at the time of importation.

If a material or resource is processed in a particular country, harmonized tariffs recognize the processing country as the designated exporting country. And it doesn’t take much to see that raw stone from a country like Iran flows into the world trade flow as a processed product from somewhere else.

In case you’re wondering where that Iranian raw calcareous stone went in 1997, the bulk – 79 percent – sailed to China, with another 7.4 percent going to Italy. Trying to identify Iranian stone in the massive processing factories of both countries would be needle-in-the-haystack time.

Iran’s not the only case of stone exports getting a new identity. It’s not illegal by any literal stretch of international law, and nobody’s going to swoop in and seize slabs and tiles out of the local stoneyard. Stone and politics aren’t a point of controversy.

Not yet, anyway.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at Stone Business Online, where you can also find this blog at the Main Menu under the clever title of “Editor’s Blog.”

The advertisements that appear on this page are placed by, and constitute no endorsement of the products or services. And I don’t get a dime from any of them, either.


StatWatch: Stone Imports, April 2009

Stone imports seem to be hitting some constant levels on a month-to-month basis, with some small increases from January and February. The bad news: Value and tonnage totals for this April are down by 30%-50% from the same time last year.

The following is an analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission. All figures give are for April 2009 (data from April 2008 in parentheses). “Worked” stone is material that’s been shorn from boulders and blocks, and then cut in standard dimensional measures (such as slabs and tiles) and polished.


Worked Granite Value

Total: $57.9 million (-45.7%)

Sector leader: China @ $18.4 million (-21.72%)

Backfill: China continues to lose the least of granite’s Big Four exporters to the U.S. market; Brazil’s $18.1 million ran a close second, but that’s a -52.5% drop from April 2008. India’s and Italy’s declines from April 2008 were 48.9% and 64.3%, respectively. Only one country managed to get more into the United States: Canada, with $2.8 million representing a 1.95% boost.

Worked Granite Volume

Total: 103,390 metric tons (-54.72%)

Sector leader: Brazil @ 45,922 metric tons (9.37%)

Backfill: Yes, that’s a positive number with Brazil, with a nice boost in tonnage and the largest monthly shipments for the country since last November. Unfortunately, it’s also the only bright spot in this category. Italy fared the worst, with its 4,647 metric tons showing a drop of 86.61% from April 2008.

Worked Marble Value

Total: $24.4 million (-39.19%)

Sector leader: Italy @ $6.5 million (-36.29%)

Backfill: China made the softest landing, with its $3.9 million showing a 22.36% decline. Spain continued its free-fall, dropping 69.3% with its $2.7 million.

Worked Marble Volume

Total: 13,254 metric tons (-32.24%)

Sector leader: Italy @ 3,990 metric tons (-23.45%)

Backfill: Italy barely edged out China’s 3,964 metric tons, but China’s total represented only a 9.68% decline from April 2008. Nobody, however, took it on the chin like Israel, where exports to the United States went from 1,319 metric tons in April 2008 to 135 tons a year later – a dive of 89.76%.

Travertine Value

Total: $19.9 million (-38.12%)

Sector leader: Turkey @ $12.2 million (-39.13%)

Backfill: As Turkey goes, so does U.S. travertine imports – and, right now, that’s down by nearly 40 percent. China showed a modest 5.63% gain from last April, but that’s with only $825,000 of goods. Peru’s small boom is on hold; the value of its travertine shipments here fell by slightly more than half.

Travertine Volume

Total: 40,070 metric tons (-30.99%)

Sector leader: Turkey @ 28,818 metric tons (-33.4%)

Backfill: Turkey shipped less travertine to the United States than in April 2008, but tonnage has been relatively constant since last November. The total tonnage in U.S. travertine imports is affected, however, by 1,637 metric tons attributed to a country simply noted as “United” (and there’s already a separate, smaller entry for the United Arab Emirates).

Other Calcareous Value

Total: $9.7 million (-46.11%)

Sector leader: China @ $1.3 million (74.39%)

Backfill: This category remains the market of international intrigue, with low values from most countries enabling China to grab the market lead. (That $1.3 million from this April would’ve placed China in fifth – barely – a year ago.) Italy, the top country by nearly two-to-one from its nearest competitor in April 2008, saw its exports to the United States fall this April by 70.7%. Other big drops: Lebanon (-67.34%) and Israel (-66.83%).

Slate Value

Total: $5.4 million (-21.68%)

Sector leader: China @ $2.4 million (-23.73%)

Backfill: China and India switch off the lead nearly every month for supplying slate to the United States. This month, it’s China, but it’s still shipping more than 20% less than a year ago.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at Stone Business Online, where you can also find this blog at the Main Menu under the clever title of “Editor’s Blog.”

The advertisements that appear on this page are placed by, and constitute no endorsement of the products or services. And I don’t get a dime from them, either.

Stone+tec/Notes from Nuremberg

Random observations from Germany and its big stone show last month:

• It’s way too easy to say that a show’s gone to the dogs, but Stone+tec allows the four-legged friends of fabricators to attend the show. And we’re not talking service dogs, either – just plain ol’ dogs on leashes. Most of the canine attendees ran to small terriers and just plain mutts (I didn’t see a German shepherd in the lot) and all were well-behaved; no tinkling on the travertine here.

• Stone+tec also allowed children in the expo areas. None were on leashes, but all of them took their lead from the dogs and remained well-behaved. Some of them took to the hall in two-wheel scooters, but Stone+tec’s wide, uncarpeted aisles kept them from any unfortunate run-ins with other attendees. To their credit, show exhibitors kept the kids and dogs out of the official attendee count.

• Youth was also served with a large demonstration area in one hall, where stone-trade apprentices hand-chiseled designs and lettering into stone. All of them remained remarkably composed and task-oriented as hundreds of attendees crowded around individual apprentices to watch them tapping out some permanent text messages, including umlauts. It also wasn’t just for show; master carvers kept close watch and offered critiques on a regular basis.

• Here’s a suggestion for U.S. trade-show exhibitors: music. No, not some boom-box fanfare or cheesy sales jingle, but some light melodies to entertain and attract attendees. Stone supplier Rossittis GmbH set up a pure white grand piano, where a musician offered up show tunes and other light fare. Music’s always a part of memorial maker Holland Granit’s stand; a concert violinist played classical music in 2007. The company possibly took a cue from the slower economy this year, and offered a smaller exhibit area and an accordion player.

Ytterstad Vertriebs GmbH provided the real attention-getter of the show with a 1:1-scale sandstone carving of the eternal East German symbol – a sub-compact Trabant, noted by Time as, “the car that gave Communism a bad name.”  This, of course, opens up the field to at least one Trabant joke.

Q: Why is the rear-window defogger the most-popular feature of the Trabant?

A: It keeps the driver’s hands warm as he pushes it to the garage.

• This year’s press digs moved to new lodging with Motel One, a growing chain of budget luxury hotels in Germany. It offered something of a hybrid between Ian Schrager and Motel 6, with a heavy tilt to Tom Bodette. Nothing especially fancy like closets or fancy toiletries, but it’s a comfortable room. And they didn’t skimp on stone, with a simple-but-smart 2cm nordic-black granite vanity top. Another 2cm piece formed a solid side support, and another large piece lined the shower. Here’s a picture from TripAdvisor (where Motel One received the #1 rating for Nuremberg).

• This month’s Spall column offers a cryptic reference to “German TV afternoon court dramas.” You can find several of these, but my favorite is Richter Alexander Hold, where a rather hunky magistrate holds sway over a court hearing cases involving teenage runaways and delinquents (a favorite theme), unfriendly neighborhood drug dealers and the occasional homicide. I don’t understand a word of it, but it’s broadly acted to include entertaining caricatures of worried parents, stern prosecutors, insouciant bad boys and a never-ending supply of teenage town tramps. One memorable episode featured an elderly witness having a heart attack on the stand, and Hold jumped from his desk to offer life-saving CPR. Let’s see Judge Judy top that one.

One other note: it’s been a busy six weeks of travel, trade shows and production deadlines, and the blog fell by the wayside. My apologies, and I’ll do better in the months ahead.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at, where you can also find this blog at the Main Menu under the clever title of “Editor’s Blog.”

The advertisements that appear on this page are placed by, and constitute no endorsement of the products or services. And I don’t get a dime from any of them, either.