How Carrara Marble Beat the Odds

While the Italian economy totters, the marble industry is seeing record-breaking sales. How did they manage to pull it off?

Marble cave in Carrara
Marble cave in Carrara, Italy. Photo: dexmac, Pixabay.

What COVID-19 recession? Italian marble is doing better than ever!

The Italian economy has received the shellacking of a generation over the last two years. 1.2 million jobs were lost, a third of Italians experienced a loss of income, and nearly 700,000 small and midsize businesses are still at risk of bankruptcy. There are few bright spots on the Italian economic horizon right now, with Milan’s FTSE MIB stock market index down more than 15% over the last six months and only half as many tourists expected to visit Italy this year compared to 2019, leaving the €100 billion sector limping along. So why on Earth is Carrara marble breaking one sales record after another? The circumstances surrounding metamorphic rock’s roaring performance lately are largely linked to the globalization of the marble market, but Italy is playing its part as well. 

There is no doubt that Italian marble has been the object of both avarice and admiration for centuries. Ever since the Romans began quarrying the variegated slabs in the late BCs, those of any significance in society went to great lengths to have their abodes swathed in them. All of the greatest Roman monuments that are still standing used tons upon tons of Carrara marble, ranging from Trajan’s Column to the Pantheon. The mania for marble did not slacken with the birth of the Renaissance, with creative giants like Michelangelo hand-picking their stone directly at the quarries. Carrara marble was later sourced for everything from Harvard’s Medical School to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and even my beloved Rotunda at the University of Virginia. It can be found on every populated continent, at many of the world’s most treasured and visited sites. It has a pedigree that garners immediate recognition and respect across the divides of culture and language. 

Franchi Umberto Marmi is one of the largest players on the Italian marble scene, and reported some astonishing numbers just this past month. During the first quarter of 2022, the company sold €21.1 million worth of marble, up 27% from the previous year. As chairman and CEO Alberto Franchi stated, “The result is particularly important because it arrives after we experienced record sales in 2021, and this further growth during the first three months of 2022 demonstrates a clear trend that allows us to look to the future with optimism.” With the current tensions in Ukraine and the economic crunch of the European energy crisis, one would expect orders from Italian customers to have dropped off sharply. Yet business within the Bel Paese surged a healthy 31% year-over-year, largely driven by sustained home construction activity. Though Italy remains the primary market for Carrara marble, countries like Saudi Arabia are producing the most eye-popping increases in orders, with 460% more sales than in 2021. An aspect that is worth noting is that 60% of the marble Franchi Umberto Marmi sold was from their high-end Calacatta and Statuario lines, so it appears that customers are willing to pay more for the best materials on the market. 

It seems as though the Chinese hunger for luxury goods includes marble, as between 2020 and 2021 Franchi Umberto Marmi saw a 100% increase in orders coming out of The Red Dragon. Now more than 65 million Euro worth of marble is being purchased by Chinese buyers, which is an improvement over pre-pandemic levels by close to 5%. It remains to be seen whether their draconian COVID lockdowns will put a damper on business, as nearly 30% of the national population is being restricted from normal existence at the moment. Shanghai is China’s largest port and city, and it is currently completely paralyzed in the pursuit of a seemingly irrational goal of virus eradication. Italian marble producers can only hold their breath and pray that the Chinese government resumes business as usual. 

Carrara marble is also playing a role in the redesign of the Central Bank of Iraq, where one of Zaha Hadid’s last architectural visions before her death in 2016 is now being brought to life. The Iraqi-born architect was known for her works like Rome’s MAXXI Museum and the Guangzhou Opera House, where she used curves and copious amounts of concrete to achieve her futuristic concepts. In Baghdad, the new bank will feature 140,000 square feet of marble cladding that will sheathe the 557 foot skyscraper as well as a 45 foot conference table within. The contract is worth almost €10 million for Furrer S.p.A., and represents one of several international projects they have currently in process, including No. 1 Palace Street in London and a luxury brand flagship store in Paris.

For now things are looking up, but there are always ongoing challenges. One major one is fake marble flooding the international market, much of it produced in places like China. The regional government is helping the situation by moving a trademark process through the Massa-Carrara Chamber of Commerce, which will allow “Carrara marble to finally defend itself from all the imitation materials that have damaged its market.” The trademark will be free to any company that wishes to use it, and will be an effective way of shutting down those trying to pass off porcelain tile or vinyl flooring as genuine Italian marble.  

The industry has also been forced to confront attacks by environmental groups, who view quarrying as a threat to the Apuan Alps. In August 2021, the Consiglio di Stato in Lucca denied an appeal by several environmental groups, declaring their claims groundless. The defendant was a marble manufacturer based in Querceta called Henraux S.p.A, which has provided good jobs and supported the local community since 1821. Their lawyers reacted to the ruling with the statement “This is a historic ruling that absolutely restores the fundamental and unquestionable economic value of the marble caves for our local population […] and clearly and precisely declares how the marble caves are not associated with any environmental damage.” The environmental groups were arguing that Henraux’s operations were spilling into the Regional Natural Park of the Apuan Alps, a protected wildlife area of 50,000 acres that borders some of the quarrying areas owned by the company. 

Carrara marble has been the pride of Italy for much longer than the nation has existed, and it seems as though it will carry forward its legacy for many generations to come. This €4 billion industry boasts 3200 companies and 34,000 workers, and the quality of the marble cannot be matched — Italian is clearly superior. The world knows this, and will come knocking as long as the marble rolls down from the mountains.