Colorado Marble: American Stone Meets Italian Tradition
Note: This article is part of a series about American quarries. If you work for a quarry that’s a member of the Natural Stone Institute and you’d like your quarry to be featured here, contact Karin Kirk. Thank you!
At first, the Colorado Stone Quarry seems like an unlikely prospect. It’s perched at 10,000 feet above sea level in exquisitely rugged terrain. The nearest town boasts a population of 144 people. The 3-mile, gravel road leading to the quarry climbs over 1100 feet through prime avalanche terrain, and plumes of snow sweep across the road with some regularity in wintertime.
A pale grey cliff rises above Yule Creek, and six portals open into the mountainside, offering an alluring glimpse of what lies inside.
Why put a quarry in such a complex and inaccessible spot?
“I would say this marble is one of the best in the world,” says Marco Pezzica, a native of the Carrara region of Italy, who has spent his lifetime working around stone.
Pezzica praises the stone’s pure color, pure composition (99.56% calcium carbonate), light veining, and consistency of the pattern throughout the formation. These attributes and beauty – in addition to the sheer quantity of stone present – give Colorado marble a place of prominence in the world market.
Passing through the portals into the underground galleries, the astonishing nature of the stone reveals itself. Smooth walls rise up in vertical planes; a vast room made of pure white stone.
“It’s very unique to go underground there, because it’s huge spaces,” explains Ben Miller, Principal Mine Engineer for the quarry. “The stone is extremely stable so there’s not a lot of need for pillars.” The soundness of the entire deposit allows them to pull benches weighing approximately 200 metric tons, something not always possible in similar quarries.
“It’s not a typical quarry,” says Pezzica, in a vast understatement. Pezzica is the sales manager of Colorado Stone Quarries, and he’s been living in Colorado for three years. His passion for the stone is immediately evident.
“I don’t want to say I’m an expert,” he says with a modest shrug, despite the fact that he exudes expertise.
Since 2011 the quarry is under new ownership and they’re making big investments and even bigger plans. Thanks to reinvigorated attention to quarrying Colorado marble, it’s becoming well known around the world. “And it’s beautiful,” adds Pezzica.
Nearby magma turned limestone to marble
Colorado marble has a slightly different geologic recipe than most marbles. Usually, marble is formed when an entire region undergoes a tectonic compression, which buries, heats, and deforms vast swaths of rock. But the metamorphism in Colorado’s case was much more localized. The “parent rock” of Colorado marble is Leadville Limestone, which was formed 350 million years ago when inland seas occupied much of North America. These shallow, warm waters left behind a thick layer of limestone in many parts of the United States, including the famous Indiana limestones.
Colorado is a dynamic place, and multiple episodes of uplift and igneous activity punctuated its geologic history. Starting around 35 million years ago, pockets of magma bubbled upward here and there around western Colorado. The areas of molten rock didn’t necessarily erupt like volcanoes, but they did create localized areas of igneous rock.
Treasure Mountain Granite is one such igneous rock. Molten granite injected itself between existing rock layers, warping them upward. The heat from the magma caused nearby rocks to warm up. Geologists call this ‘contact metamorphism,’ wherein the nearby rocks are transformed simply because they’re near a magma source. This localized heating recrystallized and strengthened the Leadville Limestone, turning the original blue-grey limestone into a gleaming white marble.
As with every special stone, it takes a serendipitous sequence of geologic events to transform ordinary rock into a world class resource. In the case of Colorado Marble, the added heat from a nearby granite made all the difference – without this nearby igneous activity, there would be no marble here at all.
Part of American history
Through the ages, the hallmarks of Colorado marble have been its purity, even grain, and ability to be quarried in large blocks. Colorado’s Yule marble was first quarried in 1886 and was used heavily in the U.S. throughout the early 1900s. The Lincoln Memorial was built of Colorado marble from 1914 to 1916, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was built from the same stone in 1931. Capitol buildings, banks, luxury hotels, and prominent buildings in 30 states are built with Colorado marble.
Italian culture has a celebrated relationship with marble, and Italians have been working with the stone for over two thousand years. Throughout the history of the Colorado marble, there’s been a strong Italian connection. In 1910, about half of the 291 quarry workers were Italian.
“This whole region was settled by Italians,” says Miller, and many hail from the same part of Italy as Pezzica and other managers in today’s operation. “They know each other’s families from a very long time ago.”
Colorado Stone Quarries is owned by RED Graniti, a family-owned, multinational company based in Massa, Italy, in the heart of Italy’s marble trade. The company operates quarries in Finland, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, India, and Brazil, in addition to three well-known American quarries: Colorado marble, Danby marble in Vermont, and Virginia Mist granite.
RED Graniti purchased the Colorado quarry in 2011 with a strategy that included significant investments, “but also expertise,” says Miller. “The key is the Italian influence of the RED Graniti group; and their ability to really understand the market and understand the art of mining the marble.”
“It isn’t just money, it’s the passion that RED Graniti has for it. And the way they treat the marble,” says Miller.
The Italian influence is alive and well at the quarries. Stefano Mazzucchelli is the Quarry Master and Daniele Treves is the General Manger. Pezzica muses with a clear sense of admiration, “They really are masters.”
From rough blocks to countertops to statues
Pristine white blocks emerge from the quarry mouth, twinkling in the high-altitude sun, where the road to their eventual marketplace is an especially long one.
The marble is sold in rough blocks about ten feet long, rather than slabs or finished pieces. A part of the block production is exported overseas. The stone that stays in U.S. is shipped to Vermont Quarries, also owned by RED Graniti, to be processed into slabs and sold to distributors.
Colorado marble is commonly used for countertops, tiles, flooring, and cladding. “The cladding is some of the most dramatic implementations of the marble,” says Miller.
“This is a material for big projects,” adds Pezzica with a sweep of his hands. A recent project in Kuwait used 7,000 metric tons of marble over 18 months. “And they all match,” he says with satisfaction. “This is the advantage with this quarry, we can literally cover any kind of request. I have no worries to take any kind of project.”
Sustainability ‘a moral responsibility’
The quarry sits in privately held mining claims and is surrounded by National Forest lands and the Raggeds Wilderness Area, “where I go foraging mushrooms!” Pezzica quips. “We work really tight, hand-by-hand with the Forest Service,” he says.
Sustainability can be a mere buzzword in corporate boardrooms, but Pezzica sees it differently. “I would say as a father of a family that it’s a moral responsibility. It’s an obligation for our society.”
Pezzica and Miller describe the efforts at the quarry to improve sustainability. Since 2011, they have upgraded much of the machinery used in the quarries. The new equipment operates more efficiently and generates less pollution. Engines used underground are especially clean-burning, to protect the health and safety of the workers in a confined setting. Cutting tools are lubricated with biodegradable grease. Dust on the road is managed with a biological alternative to magnesium chloride salts that are typically used.
“They’re looking for solutions everywhere to be the greenest they possibly can be,” says Miller.
Pezzica jumps in, “And then of course this is a natural stone. We’re not emitting carbon dioxide to produce the marble; the marble is already produced. Natural stone is much greener than any other building material such as engineered stones or ceramics.”
Pezzica emphasized his affinity for the natural environment and described encounters with bears and other wildlife. “Sometimes you have a moose,” he adds. “It’s a beautiful place and we want to do everything possible to preserve that ecosystem.”
New factory nears completion
A major environmental impact of natural stone is the shipping. Pezzica winces at the thought of Colorado blocks being processed in Italy, then shipped back to the U.S. to the end customer. That’s a practice that Colorado Stone Quarries aims to end with the advent of their new processing facility in the nearby town of Delta, CO.
The new venture has many benefits, and Miller and Pezzica’s excitement is palpable.
First and foremost, the factory will allow better use of the quarried stone because smaller pieces can be made into tiles and other products, “and that means less waste and more penetration into many markets,” says Miller. The factory will make slabs, tiles, pavers, and landscaping stone.
Sustainable practices are being built into the new facility, and water for cutting and processing stone will be filtered and recirculated. “We are not using fresh water, says Pezzica. “We keep recycling the water we have.”
Finished stone will then be connected directly to the domestic market, eliminating shipping to Vermont or Italy for processing into slabs.
Pezzica expects a workforce of at least 15 more people will be hired to work in the new facility and revive the locally depressed, boom-and-bust economy. “It’s a very cool story because that community has got its manufacturing back,” says Miller.
The company plans to hire workers who have been recently laid off by the shrinking coal industry. Pezzica estimates that 90% of workers in the quarry had been formerly employed in coal mining.
“A lot of those families that were in the coal mines, they were historic, multigenerational mining families,” Miller says. “So this provides an opportunity to continue on with the heritage of it.”
A bright future
The state-of-the-art facility is on the cusp of completion. “We purchased all Italian machinery,” says Pezzica. “Everything is brand new. We purchased the best in technology, bringing in know-how and experience from Italy that was not available here in Colorado.”
“We have all the machines here in place,” Pezzica explains, but the final setup of the machinery needs to be completed by a specialist from Italy. Travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have delayed this process, but the technician’s visit is expected soon, and the factory should be ready to fire up this fall.
Pezzica adds, “In the near future we’ll be able to produce about 5,000 square feet per day of slabs and same quantity of tiles here in Delta, CO, with potential to increase to accommodate new orders and make our qualities more available in the North American market.”
Pezzica has thousands of tons of stone waiting to be cut, and orders are already rolling in. “The demand is there,” he says. “It’s a very good sign.”
“There’s a ton of excitement,” says Miller, showing evident pride. “We look forward to the resurgence of the American economy and to be able to supply domestically produced, finished products into the American market.”