By Emerson Schwartzkopf
In 1996, the dimensional stone industry looked pretty good with more than $500 million in imports, but it might’ve been hard to get anyone to wager that, nine years later, that figure would double. Anything beyond that would be a sucker bet.

Well, hello sucker.

With imports of more than $2.3 billion last year, the U.S. staked its place among the top dimensional-stone consumers in the world. And, if anything, the demand for stone is growing faster every year in the 21st century.

The two-billion-dollar level also comes mainly from two stone varieties – granite and travertine – and two countries. While other sources provided plenty of fuel for growth in the past few years, the U.S. marketplace would look much different without Brazil or Turkey.

Tracking stone imports into the United States remains one of the clearest indications of the industry’s health. Actual use statistics are extremely hard to come by, but the amount of foreign stone coming into the country – imports account for at least 80 percent of U.S. dimensional-stone consumption, according to a number of sources – offer a good way to track the trade’s direction.

The best source remains the data from the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC), which keeps tabs on U.S. Customs data in tonnage and the valuations used to assess tariffs.

In the past eight years, imports show that the U.S. stone industry is moving up. From $563 million in 1996, total dimensional-stone imports moved past the $1 billion mark in 1999, only to experience a slight reduction in the growth curve a few years later with the economic downturn after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. However, growth continued at a record pace, with 2003’s total reaching $1.82 billion. Last year, all dimensional stone imports climbed to $2.32 billion, marking a one-year 27.4-percent increase.

The mix of stone coming into the United States, tracked by value, also changed dramatically. In 1996, granite accounted for 29 percent, followed closely by marble at 23 percent and other calcareous stone – including limestone and alabaster – at 21 percent.
Last year, granite’s share in total import values came to 45 percent, with marble reduced to 15 percent and other calcareous to 10 percent (Figure 3). And travertine, which accounted for nine percent of dimensional-stone import values in 1996, posted a 15-percent share last year.

Throwing around grand totals sounds great, but big numbers are ... big numbers. The reason for those dramatic increases – besides some mystical public awakening to the beauty of stone – is something far more-mundane: cost.

Let’s carve out one section of stone imports that’s representative of the market: cut/slab granite. In 1996, the average customs value per metric ton of the stone that’s graced millions of countertops came in at $767.77. Adjusting for a 14.15-percent inflation rate since then, that average ton would be valued at $876.41 in 2004 dollars.

And the actual average value of cut/slab granite imports last year? Try $592.43, which means cut/slab granite, on average, came into the country at a value that’s 32.1 percent less than nine years ago.

In simpler terms, a slab of granite, by value, is almost one-third cheaper today than it was in 1996. In three very simple words: Stone costs less.

In 2004, granite continued as the stone variety that’s driving the market forward. Dimensional granite arriving in the United States – rough, cut and finished – totaled $1.03 billion in value, representing a 41-percent increase from 2003.

The granite import market also remained the basic territory of the Big Four – Brazil, China, India and Italy. Of that $1.03 billion in total value, 84.5 percent involved granite from those countries.

With granite imports to the United States, it’s nearly all cut/slab  – “worked” stone involves more than 92 percent of the foreign granite for 2004 – and, until a few years ago, Italy led the category in volume and value. In 2003, however, Brazil rolled more cut/slab granite into this country ... and it may become the economic leader this year.
In 2004, Brazil’s shipments of cut/slab granite totaled 569,177 metric tons, representing a staggering 67-percent increase from the previous year (Figure 4). And, that’s with reports from Brazilian ports last year lamenting the lack of shipping space for stone deliveries to the United States.

Brazil effectively provided one-third (33 percent) of the cut/slab granite imported into the United States last year. India provided 22.3 percent, while Italy shipped in 18.8 percent. China accounted for 14.2 percent; all of granite’s Big Four sent more granite to this country last year than they did in 2003.

In terms of value (Figure 5), Italy traditionally leads all countries in cut/slab granite; the $286.6 million sent to U.S. docks last year once again topped the list, with an average of $884.20 per metric ton. That’s significantly higher than Brazil’s $474.70 per-metric-ton average – but the country’s large volume of U.S. shipments adds up to a total of $270.1 million, making Brazil a good candidate (if growth trends continue) for taking the monetary lead in cut/slab granite in 2005.

India maintained its position in 2004 of providing the most cut/slab granite for the money, with an average of $432.82 per metric ton. China’s metric-ton average for last year came in at $589.01

Italy continues to master one segment of U.S. dimensional-stone market; marble should remain territorio italiano for the foreseeable future (Figure 6). The $156.1 million of Italian marble imported into the country last year represented 41.8 percent of the stone’s import value, with Spain coming in second at $49.1 million, or 13.1 percent of the value total. China ranked third with $40.6 million (10.8 percent), and Turkey took fourth with $35 million (9.3 percent).

Overall, marble’s import value continued to grow, although not at the fantastic pace of granite. The $373.2 million valuation on U.S. dimensional marble imports represented a 22-percent increase from 2003.

With cut/slab marble – again, the biggest part of the stone’s import market – Italy also dominated the sector with 64,003 metric tons arriving in U.S. ports in 2004. It also marked the end of a two-year slump in the volume of Italian marble brought into this country, topping the 61,115 metric tons imported in 2001.

Other countries didn’t come close to Italy’s cut/slab marble tonnage last year – Spain ranked second at 27,499 metric tons – but Spanish and Chinese importers made significant gains from 2003. Spain’s total for 2004 is an 85.6-percent increase in that country’s cut/slab marble shipments to the United States from the previous year, and China’s 21,367 metric tons last year is a 77.2-percent hike from 2003.

Turkey’s 12,864 metric tons of marble arriving in the United States last year might cause some consternation in Istanbul as a figure that’s far too low. It’s a matter of semantics; while the Turkish stone industry uses marble as a term when speaking about marble and travertine, U.S. Customs Bureau figures allow for cut/slab travertine to be separated from the mix.

It also focuses the spotlight on Turkey’s astonishing power in U.S. imports of travertine. In 1996, Turkey shipped $2.8 million of the stone to this country; last year, the value of Turkish travertine coming to the United States totaled $207.1 million, or 57.5 percent of the stone’s import market (Figure 7). Mexico’s $77.7 million made up 21.6 percent, and Italy posted the only other double-digit share at 12.1 percent with $43.6 million.
Turkey’s dominance grows larger when considering import volume; the 424,983 metric tons sent to the United States last year made up 68.7 percent of all cut/slab travertine imports. Mexico’s 83,522 metric tons accounted for another 13.5 percent, and Italy’s 9.1 percent of the total came with 56,590 metric tons.

Not only is Turkey’s share of the market growing annually; it also seems to be increasing its growth rate every year. In 2003, for example, its U.S.-bound travertine tonnage increased by 36.6 percent from 2002. Last year, the 424,983 metric tons in travertine arriving at U.S. ports represented a 42.2-percent jump from 2003 levels.

The major increases in granite and travertine not only outshine marble, but the “other” dimensional stones as well – the “other calcareous” (such as limestone and alabaster), and the catch-all “other” (encompassing sandstone and everything else, save for slate). While not growing at the high rate of the leading stones, imports for both of these sectors also went up in 2004.

The total import value of other calcareous stone for 2004 finished at $238.6 million, a six-percent increase from the previous year. Spain topped the list of importing countries, but just barely; its $58.47 million in import value last year edged perennial leader Italy’s $58.43 million. China continued its steady climb with imports of $21.6 million, taking third place away from France; the $17.8 million in French imports marked another step in a downward trend from the country’s $24.1 million in 2000.
Other calcareous stone, as a whole, may decrease significantly in 2005, but it’s not for a lack of demand. The sector’s import numbers could get smaller if the U.S. Customs Bureau makes an anticipated move and adds limestone imports into the statistics for marble.

Import values of other stone in 2004 added up to $226 million, a 10-percent increase from 2003. Italy led all countries with $46.9 million, but it’s also been losing value share since 2000; Brazil is the main beneficiary, placing second at $42.7 million. India is a strong third at $39.3 million; other major countries are Canada at $30.3 million and China at $23.4 million.

Slate imports, meanwhile, seems to be the territory of two countries: India and China. With $96.2 million in U.S. import values last year, India shipped $39.8 million and China sent in $30.1 million – or 41.4 percent and 31.3 percent of the market, respectively. Other major players in 2004 are Brazil with $10.9 million and Italy at $8.6 million.

Overall, 2004 U.S. slate import values improved by 23 percent from the previous year.

Data for this article, and for accompanying charts, is derived from information reported by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. International Trade Commission. All analysis is made using comparable data. “Cut /slab” data excludes crude/roughly trimmed stone comprised of marble/travertine, granite or other categories where volume measurement is in cubic meters instead of metric tons. Marble/travertine crude/roughly trimmed stone data is not included in value summaries, since the two stones are not delineated in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (2002) (Revision 2).