Marble has been mined from the hills near Carrara in Tuscany for more than 2,000 years. The local stone, prized for its delicate veining pattern, was used to build the Pantheon in ancient Rome and Florence’s cathedral.
Today, the richest Russians, Indians and Chinese are buying the world’s most expensive marbles for gem-encrusted fireplaces and kitchen worktops. Demand has tripled in five years and prices, set for individual pieces of rock depending on hardness and color, are rising about 7 percent a year and can be as high as a record 2,300 euros ($2,970) a square meter, traders said.
“It’s more than just bathrooms,” said Alexander Kokorin, commercial director of KAM, a supplier of marble and other stones in Moscow’s suburbs. “People buy marble to decorate rooms, wall, floors, fireplaces. Hammams have become popular,” he said, describing a fashion for Turkish-style steam rooms.
Marble prices are outstripping the global commodities market where the S&P GSCI Total Return Index, which includes oil, wheat and copper, ended 2012 little changed after declining more than 30 percent in the past five years. The divergence illustrates growing spending by the wealthiest consumers even as the world economy struggles to recover. The global luxury goods industry, including home furnishings, grew 10 percent in 2012 to $280 billion, according to Bain & Co.
The GSCI Total Return Index has gained 0.9 percent so far this year.
The Carrara region, located north of the Tuscan port of Lucca, has been supplying the world’s aristocracy with top-notch marble since the Etruscan period that preceded the Roman empire, said Paola Blasi, a geologist at Carrara Marmotec, which organizes Italy’s biggest marble trade fair. Michelangelo sculpted his 5-meter-high (16-foot) David from a block of local marble.
“We are very lucky here in Carrara to be walking on these beautiful stones,” Blasi said in a telephone interview. “They are practically everywhere. We can go for a very long time.”
Still, only limited amounts of the stone are being mined -- the most prized type of Carrara marble, Calacatta, comes from two small quarries -- so growing demand from the rich in places like Russia and India has shielded the high-end marble industry from the global financial crisis.
“Our main customers -- Brazilians, Indians, Chinese and Russians -- want only the absolutely best stones,” said Alessandra Budri, whose company makes luxury interiors for clients including fashion house Louis Vuitton, Russian billionaires and five-star hotel chains. “There are so many very rich people that, despite the economic crisis, demand for high-end marble tripled in the past five years.”
Budri, who runs Budri SpA with her husband, said there’s a particular fashion for using precious stones including onyx, lapis lazuli or emerald to encrust marble features.
Bianco Statutario, a prized white marble from the Carrara region, can cost as much as 635 euros a slab, according to Rudy Altafini, export director at Marmi Corradini Group SpA. Nero Portoro, the Italian granite with white and yellow veins, can range from 435 euros to 2,300 euros. Marble typically trades in polished 2 centimeter-thick slabs of one square meter, he said.
While high-end marble prices are rising, the opposite is true for less prized varieties of rock used in interior design such as granite. Countries like Brazil, Turkey, China and India have started mining them in large quantities and flooded the market, stone traders said. Granite and less exclusive marbles are available in many countries in the world.
“You could say there’s a price war for these products because the market is shrinking, especially in Europe, but also in the U.S.,” said Altafini. “Italy was traditionally the strongest developer of stone, but now many countries are producing the less noble varieties because they bought machinery and learned the technology.”
Prices of the more precious marble varieties, on the other hand, are unlikely to come down anytime soon, Budri said. As for the semi-precious and precious stones her company uses for inlays, demand for onyx, lapis lazuli or emerald has quadrupled and prices of some of these commodities have doubled in the past five years, she said.
Her customers include a co-owner of a major Russian airport who renovated villas in Israel and Miami as well as an apartment in New York. Budri has also been also commissioned to decorate Louis Vuitton shops in Kuwait City, Venice and Rome.
“Arab and Russian customers are especially demanding,” said Altafini. “If they like something they don’t even look at the price, they just come and pay with hard cash.”