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Carrara Marble: Trouble in Paradise?

With demand for Carrara marble higher than ever, we take a closer look at one of Italy's most historic industries.

Named after the small Tuscan city on the western side of the Apuen Alps mountain range in northern Italy, Carrara is home to the world’s largest marble field. The grande dame of building materials, this stone has been used as an expression of wealth and status since the first century BC.

We owe much to this aristocratic stone, for in it’s absence we would be without many of the world’s greatest creative monuments. Inspiring artists throughout the centuries, Carrara marble has been central to the design and building industry for over 2 millennia. From Michelangelo’s iconic David and Pietà statues in the 16th century to more modern visionaries such as Henry Moore to Louise Bourgeois and Isamu Noguchi, all have been bewitched by this marble’s ethereal quality. The cathedrals of Florence and Siena, St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum, Marble Arch in London and Washington’s Kennedy Centre have all been crafted from this extraordinary marble.

Today we can find marble in a multitude of different shapes and forms and although it still retains an old word glamour, it is far more accessible than ever before. This can be attributed to the advancement in mining techniques. Prior to the most recent breakthrough, mining methods have witnessed only two stages of evolution. The Roman’s excavation technique remained the common practice until the introduction of explosives (specifically black powder) in the 19th century. Only in 1889 was a revolutionary method invented to replace this far from refined approach to mining.

Launched via the International Exhibition in Paris, the spiral wire cutting system redefined the industry. Providing quarries with the ability to cut large scale blocks directly on site, this method granted two major advantages. Firstly it significantly reduced the wastage created by the explosives. Secondly, the technique decreased the time to cut these blocks to market size. The current method sees only marginal adjustments this process, with the spiral wire replaced with diamonded wire.

The success of arguably lower-quality white marble quarries discovered in China, India and Russia during the mid 20th century created fierce competition in the market. The city of Carrara has responded accordingly: records from the 1920s detail an annual export of 100,000 tonnes, today the figure is closer to 5 million and rising. Flavio Marabelli, honorary president of Confindustria Marmomacchine explains: “This is thanks to a value of exports that in 2014 came close to a total €2.9 billion, equal to almost 75% of production, for an annual trade balance surplus of nearly €2.5 billion.

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Italy has clearly risen to the challenge and whilst this may benefit their economy, many are concerned that this is an unsustainable course with permanent consequences. Taking thousands of years to form, marble is very much a finite material depleting at an astonishing rate. The mining process also has significant repercussions on the landscape and we find ourselves in the throws of a classic environmentalist vs industry standoff. In 2011, in a landmark ruling some 40,000-hectares of the Apuan Alps was declared a UNESCO geopark in a bid to preserve what remained of its natural landscape. In spite of this ruling there remains approximately 50 active quarries operating in direct violation of the law.

In reaction, the local Tuscan Assembly passed new legislation in a bid to circumvent the unsanctioned mining. Their bill declared the marble quarries as ‘indispensable property to the citizens of Carrara’ and with it decreed that ‘all quarries’ concessions will be gradually reassigned through tender and only to those who commit to process locally at least 50% of the marble they extract.’ Whilst this demonstrates a clear change in direction for the industry, this cannot be enforced for another 7-25 years – long enough for this to be challenged by those industrialists most affected by the ruling.

What has been described as a ‘Tuscan takeover’ by the Bin Laden family has only fuelled the debate. Bolstered by the significant demand for Carrara marble from the Middle Eastern markets, they acquired 7.5% of the concessions of Carrara’s 81 active quarries last year via their CPC Marble and Granite Ltd. They were reputed to have paid €45m for the privilege.

This interest is not isolated to specific regions: it is a global phenomenon. The western markets have also witnessed an increased demand over the last 5 years. According to Jake Hurley, of Hurley Marble, “Customers don’t want to keep replacing their interiors so they are looking for natural products that last.” Industry reports reaffirm this sentiment, with the Italian National Institute of Statistics detailing an 18.6% year-to-year leap in international sales for stone quarrying and processing technologies alongside €416.6 million of international orders for 2014 alone.

So what does this mean for the future of this coveted stone? With sustainability and CSR a prime concern for consumers, could Carrara marble become protected and thus lose its desirability by going the same way as the ivory trade? On the other hand, this industry is a vital source of Italy’s income and any reduction in exports could result in losing out to the emerging markets of China, Russia and India.

Given the history and beauty of the product, this seems unlikely, especially when the trade accounts for over 25% of Tuscany’s GDP. Whatever the conclusion, it seems this saga will continue for many years to come.

The Banda Journal