Falling Out of Fashion

Travertine's look may be eternal, but is it behind the times today?

By K. Schipper

Travertine may have helped build Ancient Rome, but these days in the United States, it’s lost some of its shine. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the entire world’s economy off its stride, but for travertine, the stumble began well before February and March of this year. What’s happened to the travertine market? Is it tariffs? Political uncertainty? The issue may be as simple as wide ties and bell-bottom pants.

“Travertine had an extended demand and increase from 2000 to 2015.” Jeff Matthews President Trade International Inc.

MISSSING: TRAVERTINE

Just about everyone in the industry recognizes that stone sales are cyclical. The popularity of dark granites in kitchens gave way to lighter-colored marbles and quartz-surface replicas, and at some point will likely swing back again. However, travertine always served a broad spectrum of markets, from bathrooms and floor tile to pool areas to commercial cladding. And, import numbers to the United States starting in 2015 show that both in terms of U.S. dollars and metric tons, the travertine market has taken it on the chin. The total dollar value of those imports has decreased by more than half over the five-year period, and the volume in metric tons has shrunk by almost two-thirds. The current pandemic doesn’t suggest much optimism for 2020, either. Turkey, which led the market both in volume and dollar value over that five-year period, has obviously been hit hardest by the decline. From a value of $189,839,726 in 2015, its travertine sales to this country dropped to $70,542,767 last year. Over the same period, the amount of travertine it shipped to the U.S. dropped from 620,167 metric tons to 180,096. Simply because Turkey makes up such a large share of the market – that 180,096 metric tons still represents almost 72% of the total market, although that’s down from its 85.5% share in 2015 – it might be easy to assume the problem is with the country. And, as anyone who watches or reads the news knows, Turkey has had a rocky few years as the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clamped down on opposition and came under threat of a military coup. However, those in the industry say that doesn’t seem to be in play. “There’s still plenty of Turkish material you can buy out of Italy,” says Jonathan Verrengia, managing partner with Westwood, Mass.-based Marble and Granite Inc. “There are plenty of people there who are cutting blocks of Turkish material. Then, you have the travertine that comes from Italy, so there are other options available.” Jeff Matthews, president of Atlanta-based Trade International, agrees. For one thing, he says Turkey is not the first country to have political issues, although he admits they can be a factor at times. Instead, he sees another possibility with its stone. “It lacks credibility as a quality-control country in selection and uniformity and range of variation,” Matthews says. “It lacks the ability to produce abundantly cut-to-size projects with the standards required by the Natural Stone Institute in the U.S.” “People are willing to overcome most things if the stone is right, priced correctly and abundant,” says Matthews. “Turkey holds the largest natural reserve of stones in the world, but even with lower prices, it did not help sales.” By comparison, Italy saw its travertine imports to the United States cut by almost half during that five-year span (16,956 metric tons to 8,904 metric tons) as the actual value grew from $1,067 per ton to $2,178 per ton. By value, in 2019 Italy rose to second on the list, well behind Turkey, but still ahead of Mexico, which is this nation’s second-largest supplier of travertine by tonnage. And, observes Matthews, Turkey had also enjoyed a good run of travertine sales up until 2015. “The Turkish cyclable issues of travertine can be seen when the low in imports was in 2000, and reached its height in 2007, then declined until 2009, and increased until 2015,” he says. “Travertine had an extended demand and increase from 2000 to 2015 – a 15-year run. That’s most unusual for a stone.”

“It's a little bit out of style right now. People aren't using the beige colors much.” Jonathan Verrengia Managing Partner Marble and Granite Inc.
“On the exterior, it kind of bleaches out.” Ron LaRicci President Camerata Masonry Services Ltd.

SO YESTERDAY? So, what’s happened to travertine over the past five years? Probably the same reason you aren’t wearing leisure suits or hombug hats: it just isn’t fashionable. “It’s a little bit out of style right now,” says Marble and Granite’s Verrengia. “People aren’t using the beige colors so much, and the things people were using it for, like tumbled marble backsplashes, have been replaced by something not as rustic and traditional-looking.” Ron LaRicci, president of Houston-based Camarata Masonry Systems Ltd., tells much the same story. Camarata specializes in large commercial projects, and LaRicci speculates that a couple large projects that company did with Italian travertine in 2015 may have even inflated travertine’s figures for that year. However, even before that, he says he was seeing a tapering off of travertine demand, although the red and silver variations of the stone have remained popular. “We’re doing a government building in Austin [Texas] right now, and the silver travertine gives it a classic look,” he says. “However, they were very specific that they wanted that particular silver travertine from one of the original quarries in Italy.” Eddie Bedrosian, marketing director for Anaheim, Calif.-based Bedrosians™ Tile & Stone, agrees. He calls it “a dated look,” although the company continues to sell it. Its other problem: if used in exterior portions of a project, the client may want it to be sealed, adding extra effort and expense. “It looks great on the interior,” LaRicci observes. “On the exterior it kind of bleaches out and it’s hard to maintain with all the voids unless there’s fill, and that kind of takes away from the look.” Sam Kim, senior vice president of national product for Orange, Calif.-based MS International Inc., (MSI), says travertine continues to be used for a wide variety of applications, but he agrees that its best use may be indoors. “The one area we see that’s gaining in popularity is on the wall in the form of ledger panels,” Kim says. “We see steady volumes on floors and in countertops, but the strong demand is for ledger panel travertine, which is gaining tremendous popularity.”

“With travertine, everybody always talks about maintenance.” Eddie Bedrosian Marketing Director Bedrosian™ Tile & Stone

Verrengia says there is one other area where he’s seeing demand for travertine, and that’s in remodels. “We’re seeing demand when they’re doing an addition or renovation where there’s existing travertine and they’re trying to match it,” he says. However, some designers like the look travertine presents. Trade International’s Matthews notes that last year he helped complete a large residential job that utilized travertine in both the exterior and interior – and won a Pinnacle Award in the process. Still, Verrengia notes that architects and designers typically look for “the latest material, the newest thing,” which means many are finding an answer in large-format porcelain tile, which may or may not be decorated to look like travertine. “We have porcelain panels that are 60” X 120”, and they have a vein-cut travertine look,” says Bedrosian. “With travertine, everybody always asks about maintenance. When you have a real travertine that’s $6 ft2, and a porcelain that’s $3-$4 ft2, there’s not much contest.” And, Bedrosian adds, when it comes to cladding, the wall doesn’t have to be engineered because the porcelain panels aren’t so heavy. Ultimately, these industry professionals believe travertine will – like those darker granites in the kitchen – be back at some point. As Matthews notes, the demand for beige stone is down, but there really isn’t much in other natural stone that can replace it. “You should see the market demand for travertine return in another two-to-five years,” he predicts. Verrengia agrees. “It’s hard to say what’s coming around next, but I think travertine has a better chance of coming back when some of the beige shades rebound,” he says However, MSI’s Kim takes the long view. “There will always be a market for travertine,” he says. “It’s a timeless look with inimitable beauty.”

“It's a timeless look with inimitable beauty.” Sam Kim Senior Vice President of National Product M S International