Carrara marble, the stuff of Michelangelo's David and a symbol of Italian luxury, has run into hard times amid the world financial crisis and growing competition from abroad.
"The finishing of marble and other materials such as granite is in a very deep crisis," said Marco Tonelli, a city official in Carrara, the Tuscan home of the famous white and blue-grey stone.
"China, as well as India and Brazil, have invested in tools to work marble and granite, and now they are finishing it locally instead of sending it to Carrara as they used to," said Roberto Dell'Amico, who owns a workshop in Carrara that his father opened 45 years ago.
"Twenty or 30 years ago, most marble or granite produced in the world was finished in Carrara, but today that is no longer the case," said Dell'Amico, who employs 13 men, down from 18 a decade ago.
Exports of finished marble products declined by 16 percent, and that of granite by 27 percent in terms of turnover in 2009 compared with 2008, experts say, while unions say some 2,000 jobs have been lost in recent years.
Brazil, a major producer of granite, cuts its own blocks at much more competitive prices and exports them directly.
"We should export our know-how, because even if we will never be able to compete with the Chinese in simple cutting of marble we can still rival them in finishing thanks to our artisans who often work the material by hand," Dell'Amico said.
"There's no school for learning this skill," said Alvise Lazzareschi, 52, the descendant of a noble Tuscan family whose ancestors have extracted marble for five centuries.
"You learn it when you are little, when Dad comes home and starts cursing a rock that cracked in the wrong place," he said.
Lazzareschi also noted the dangers of marble-cutting, an all-male domain.
Few have not lost family members in the quarries, despite strengthened safety norms through the years.
"We can't work if it's too cold, or if it's too hot, or if there's too much rain or wind. We work between 160 and 170 days a year," said Franco Petacchi, 50.
"I have 24 employees, all men. It's a difficult skill, and dangerous. You won't find a woman in a quarry," said Petacchi, pointing to a statue of his uncle, who died in a mining accident.
-- "The world will end before Carrara marble runs out" --
Petacchi's grandfather was a quarry foreman, while his father had a concession, which he took over.
The town earns some 15 million euros (20 million dollars) a year in taxes and concessions.
While demand for cutting and finishing is down, extraction continues apace at a rate of about one million tonnes of marble per year.
The supply appears limitless, leading Lazzareschi to remark with confidence: "The world will end before Carrara marble runs out."
Another expert, Antonio Chiappini, said that the activity had little waste.
"Marble is like a pig. You don't throw anything away, from the noble product, to the earth which is used for backfill, to the debris used to make calcium carbonate," used in the food and cosmetic industries, Chiappini said.
"I have no problems with the Chinese or others copying me," said Alberto Devoti, who runs cutting and finishing operations. "I simply have to stay ahead of the game by always offering something new (so that) those who copy will always come in second."
Despite the help of high-tech equipment - digitised machinery and high-pressure waterjet cutting machines - Devoti says it is the artisan who makes the difference.
"The top of this marble column required two weeks of work by hand, using a chisel and sandpaper, to obtain the desired result," Devoti said, caressing the ornate piece.
Devoti's two brothers and his son work also for the family business that has won lucrative contracts overseas, such as cladding a mosque in Oman with marble.
They have also come up with innovative products such as thin, undulating marble plaques decorated with copies of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian's geometric creations.
But with the financial crisis and competition biting into revenues, the sector "needs the help of the political world to promote products, fund research and spur banks to support small companies," Devoti said.
Marble finishers "suffer from their small size and their isolation, and they have been unable to join forces," Tonelli said.
"All in all, these companies have been unable to cope with the end of their near-monopoly on finishing marble and granite," he said.Reuse content