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While the talk’s been going on for awhile about dimensional stone’s comeback, there’s finally some convincing evidence – with better import totals – with this year’s first quarter.

More stone rolled through U.S. ports-of-entry in January-March this year than at the same time in 2011. And the key stone category – granite – is looking healthier by the month.

It’s not all sweetness, as a few types of stone seem to be missing last year’s marks, with uneven import volumes from some countries. It’s also perplexing that one major U.S. trading partner – China – looks to be pulling back on all fronts.

Since imports make up the bulk of dimensional-stone use in the United States – estimates run from 80%-93% of the material coming from beyond the borders – what’s being shipped offers one of the best spot indicator of industry health.

Monthly data for U.S. stone trade is collected from several sources and distributed through the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) on a 40-day delay. The last of the numbers for this year’s third quarter became available in mid-May.

GRANITE

Granite became the top dimensional-stone import in the 2000s, making a sharp rise and fall in the economy’s boom and bust. Granite’s direction is the key to where the U.S. stone trade is going.

As far as first quarter 2012 imports of worked (slab and tile) granite, the arrow points up, beginning with declared value of imports:

U.S. Imports: Worked Granite Value - First Quarter
(U.S. dollars)
2012 2011 Change
Brazil $94,627,500 $82,747,617 14.4%
China $48,364,515 $43,507,397 11.2%
India $35,193,304 $27,913,578 26.1%
Italy $20,950,518 $23,806,483 -12.0%
Canada $4,644,441 $4,371,933 6.2%
Taiwan $3,896,504 $3,503,977 11.2%
Spain $3,022,492 $2,379,487 27.0%
All Others $3,763,035 $3,574,558 5.3%
Total $214,462,309 $191,805,030 11.8%
Source: U.S. International Trade Commission

Brazil continues its lead, outpacing its nearest rival – China – by a 2:1 ratio. The only down number on the chart belongs to Italy; given the country’s decline in share of the granite market even before the economic downturn, a 12% drop isn’t surprising here.

While declared customs values offer a nice dollar-to-dollar comparison, it’s the tally of tonnage that offers an idea of granite use. In this year’s first quarter, the good thoughts continue.

U.S. Imports: Worked Granite Volume - First Quarter
(metric tons)
2012 2011 Change
Brazil 146,456 102,081 43.5%
China 59,021 72,708 -18.8%
India 40,495 35,391 14.4%
Italy 13,021 15,878 -18.0%
Canada 5,115 24,299 -78.9%
Spain 4,718 3,709 27.2%
Taiwan 3,193 3,060 4.3%
All Others 4,097 4,560 -10.2%
Total 276,116 261,686 5.5%
Source: U.S. International Trade Commission

Think granite’s a spent commodity? A 5.5% annual growth rate looks good, especially in a historically slow time for construction in mid-winter. The growth also comes when two of granite’s Big Four – China and Italy – show double-digit drops in shipping.

The big winner is Brazil, and it’s not just for that 43.5% growth from last year. Look again at the actual tonnage; Brazil accounts for more than half of the granite brought to the United States for the first three months of 2012.

MARBLE

Italy’s fall in granite isn’t the case with other stones, as it takes the lead in worked-marble value for this year’s first quarter.

U.S. Imports: Worked Marble Value - First Quarter
(U.S. dollars)
2012 2011 Change
Italy $21,866,253 $17,601,237 24.2%
China $7,844,492 $8,940,359 -12.3%
Spain $5,338,895 $4,505,703 18.5%
Turkey $4,048,337 $4,471,026 -9.5%
Greece $1,781,861 $937,310 90.1%
India $1,338,632 $542,957 146.5%
All Others $4,589,167 $3,509,053 30.8%
Total $46,807,637 $40,507,645 15.6%
Source: U.S. International Trade Commission