Rarely can one define timeless as it is a matter of opinion, but Carrara marble may be its very definition. It formed during the Early Jurassic period 190 million years ago when big parts of the Tuscany region flooded, leaving calcite-rich shells to form into limestone. The limestone was hidden under heavy layers of rock. With intense heat and pressure over time, they morphed into the beautiful Carrara marbles we see today. Its story will continue on through millennia. As Alvise Lazzareschi, a descendant of a noble Tuscan family whose ancestors have extracted Carrara Marble for five centuries says, “The world will end before Carrara marble runs out.”
The quarries are tucked into the Apuan Alps that rise above the city of Carrara in the northern part of Tuscany. To the unfamiliar eye, the mountains look like they are capped in snow, but they are actually miles of quarries that centuries of mining have exposed as white marble. These mountains have been the marble source for over 2,000 years as the Romans built their structural empire with it. Because it was so difficult to cut, it was used for larger applications like columns or floors. But during the Renaissance, famous artists began using it to sculpt. In 1501 a 26 year old Michelangelo inherited a block of Calacatta and began to carve his sculptural masterpiece, David. Leonardo DaVinci actually invented a marble cutting machine to harvest this precious medium and carved the famous Pieta from it.
The marbles found in Carrara have always been a global symbol of taste and sophistication. So how did this material get from the hands of royalty and artists into homes all over the world? Vast improvements in quarrying have made it more efficient and cost effective to deliver Carrara marble to the masses. Before the invention of modern machinery, slabs were hand drilled by squads of men who climbed up the face of the mountains. Wooden stakes were then placed in the holes. They wet the wood which expanded and split the marble into blocks. These blocks, weighing about 40 tons each, were eased down the side of the mountains on logs that were led by teams of oxen. Today they are quarried with the help of massive bulldozers and diamond laced saws that cut the huge blocks with great precision.
With the onslaught of modern extraction methods, nearly 4 millions tons a year are pulled from the Apuan Alps to consumers all over the world. The top buyers are China, The United States and Germany. Much of the material also goes to the Middle East to be used in palaces. Different grades and price points of marble are are found throughout the region. The quality depends on the background color of the marble. The lighter, classified as Bianco di Carrara C, is in higher demand, thus bringing a more expensive asking price. The darker, cloudier backgrounds, classified as Bianco Carrara CD, are less expensive. This is simplifying the grading process a bit, as there are subclassifications under these two as well as about seven different colors and patterns that are extracted from the Carrara quarries. All are still called Carrara marble and some are impossible to tell apart except by the trained, professional eye.
We asked Francesco, a marble expert that has been exporting marble from this region for decades, to tell me about the different grades of marble. The purest is the Staturio Top, which is pure white with little veining. Statuario makes up only 5% of what is found in Cararra and is highly sought after by sculptors throughout the world. Another unique marble extracted at the quarries is Zebrino. It has horizontal, uniform striping of dark gray resting on a nearly pure white background. Lastly, Calacatta has a pure white background with large rivers of gray and warm golden honey hues running through it, sometimes with hints of green. This is very popular for countertops and in high end projects they use it to clad whole rooms or entryways.
Calacatta Gold is the material that quartz manufacturers have been racing to replicate over the last few years. I asked Francesco if the increase in demand for quartz has effected the marble market in Carrara. He answered, “No, the quartz market has impacted more of the granite market. What has really impacted the area, especially in big jobs with large quantities of material, are the porcelain slabs. They reproduce the natural colors like Calacatta and the Statuario and are applied in big commercial projects in place of the marbles.”
To give you an idea of the scale of raw material that is sold for a large commercial projects, the new World Trade Center transportation hub, The Oculus, required 3,000 tons of white marble. That’s the equivalent of 15,000 of our slabs that you see in our gallery. The reason why porcelain is beginning to gain ground is its durability, its weight as well as its consistency. The Oculus floor costs 50,000 dollars a year to maintain…expenses that a porcelain floor wouldn’t generate.
But for the homeowner, who would like a piece of this natural stone to grace their kitchen or bathroom, the cost of getting a piece of Carrara may surprise you. Although the rarer pieces like Calacatta, Statuario or Zebrino sit at higher price points, Carrara marbles that have the grayer, cloudier backgrounds are quite affordable. They will add sophistication to any space, but will be gentler on your budget. No matter what grade of stone you pick out of the different types of marble mined in Carrara, one thing is certain throughout millennia. Marble is a wonderful thing to showcase in your home…a piece of history and nature’s art sitting on your countertop.