Colorful granite accents drive creation of industry to supply exotic stone
By Kim Leonard
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Slices of stone destined to become kitchen countertops or other focal points in homes are displayed side-by-side in rows inside Dente Classic and Exotic Stone's showroom in Oakmont.
“Like paintings in an art gallery,” said Elizabeth Baker, vice president, as she strolled past patterned slabs in colors ranging from deep browns, greens and reds to bright blues along with white, gray and black.
When natural light fills the wholesaler's showroom, the minerals gleam and depth can be seen in each stone when a light is shined close to the surface. No two are alike.
“People use these with accent lighting that brings out the subtle hues,” said Larry Linamen, sales manager. “This is like jewelry for a house,” he said of the slabs that sellers say can cost hundreds of dollars per square foot.
Most of the more than 100 types of stone that Dente stocks are various grades of granite. The company, founded eight years ago as demand for natural stone grew, also stocks unique, high-quality pieces of marble, onyx, slate and travertine, a form of limestone.
Home designers often bring in customers seeking an eye-catching accent for a kitchen or other room.
They choose one, two or more stones to send to a fabricator, who cuts the slabs to fit a countertop, line a high-end shower stall or form part of a building's exterior.
The Oakmont company is named for the family-owned Dente Trading Co. Inc. of Cedar Grove, N.J., one of the largest U.S. importers of specialty stones that are cut from mountainsides or dug from sea and river beds around the world. The New Jersey company was founded in 1965, and while Western Pennsylvania customers always could buy its slabs imported from Brazil, Russia and other locales, Dente Classic serves as a point where products can be inspected from all angles.
“They come from Ohio, West Virginia and Erie” and other areas, Baker said of customers.
Big-ticket purchases are carefully researched these days, Dente Trading President Jim Dente said, and while customers used to view a small block, then get a slab of whatever was available in that pattern, “Now they want to see and feel the product.”
Satellite locations such as Dente Classic, and a Dente Trading store that opened Friday in Philadelphia, allow them to do that, said Dente, whose father, Gerard, founded the company and still works as a consultant.
Prices for granite dropped, becoming competitive with some synthetic countertop materials, as diamond-bit and water jet cutting techniques were perfected in the last few decades, said Gary Distelhorst, CEO of the Marble Institute of America, the Cleveland-based trade association for natural stone.
With the new technology, “What used to take three days now takes six hours,” he said, and fabricators who used to build a template of thin wood to cut a countertop now measure with lasers, further trimming costs.
As a result, costs fell by almost half in the last dozen years, from a low of around $60 to about $35 a square foot, and exotic stone became a standard in many kitchens, Distelhorst said.
Granite use grew by 30 percent a year in the early 2000s, but the Great Recession and housing slump forced two-thirds of fabricating businesses nationwide out of business. Now, both natural and manmade stones are gaining ground on materials such as Corian and Formica, he said.
Dente Classic, which gets weekly shipments from New Jersey, doesn't disclose prices because its slabs are sold to the fabricators, who then sell to homeowners. Linamen said granite recoups 90 percent or more of its price when a home is sold.
Baker and Linamen, with decades in the stone fabricating industry, said stones run 5 to 6 feet high by 10 to 11 feet and can produce two lengths of a countertop. Thickness runs up to 5 centimeters.
Minerals run through the slabs in veins, splatters and speckles. One slab of Golden Jazz granite from Brazil has an area of pure quartz crystal that's nearly transparent. Whites are trendy now, Baker said.
Jean Schneider, an owner of Custom Marble & Granite of Butler, keeps some Dente stock and refers customers to the Oakmont showroom to see more, while also using other suppliers. “Entry-level stone from my company can be $55 a square foot. It can go up to $1,000 a square foot” for the rarest stones.
For one project in marble, “each slab was over $12,000, before you fabricated it,” she said, while total cost depends on the design.
Stone seller Magnotti and Son Inc. of Overbrook will send customers to Dente to “see something different,” and understand how prices vary, before they make a choice, sales representative Cathy Brickner said.
Other local suppliers such as Pittsburgh Granite & Marble of Allison Park and Cleveland-based Mont Granite Inc.'s office in Crafton have their own lines of exotic stones, she said.
“Dente prides itself on quality, grade A material,” Brickner said. Magnotti, parent of The Fireplace & Patioplace's four area stores, fashions countertops and other pieces from Dente's and other suppliers' materials.
Natural stone “is a commodity that's on the rise compared to Corian or manmade or laminate materials,” said John Estep, operations manager and partner at Pittsburgh Granite, founded three years ago.
Overall, sales haven't increased much due to the weak economy, but there's improvement from the slump of 2008 and 2009, he said.
Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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