Coupled with its resilience, is an unparalleled natural beauty. But stone, in its many varieties, is also imperfect which translates to certain weaknesses. A variety of artificial stones, made to look just like their natural counterparts, can now eliminate many of the downsides of natural stone, however.
“Granites are undoubtedly the most popular stone type used in countertop applications today,” says Elie Kozaily of ITC Tile.
After diamonds, granite is the hardest natural product on earth. It withstands high temperatures, is very resistant to bacteria and is virtually impossible to scratch, making it ideally suited to food preparation areas. An igneous rock that was once molten, the flecks or veins come from the minerals in the granite.
“A beautiful granite countertop and backsplash can be the focal point of a kitchen,” says Scott Schmitt, installation manager at the Final Touch.
For thousands of years marble has been prized for its aesthetic appeal. Available in the palest of greys, beiges, pinks and greens, marble exudes class and sophistication. Historically it has immortalized public figures in statues and busts, built sweeping staircases and grand foyers and lent a touch of elegance to hotels, temples and museums.
Formed from re-crystallised limestone, marble’s ability to remain cool to the touch on the warmest of days have made it a particularly appealing flooring material in hotter climates.
However, because it is relatively soft and porous, marble requires careful maintenance and is easily stained by citrus juices, cleaning products and metals, making it unsuitable for kitchen counters.
Travertine, a type of limestone formed near geothermal springs, is distinctive due to the tiny pitted holes throughout the stone. Travertine was widely used by the Romans to build aqueducts, monuments, bath complexes and, most famously, the Coliseum.
Occurring in soft tones ranging from whites and creams through honeys and browns, travertine is popular for its warm, earthy appeal and is one of the most popular natural stones for interior and exterior wall cladding, paving and facades. Due to its porosity, the tiny holes can be filled with a clear epoxy to make it more water resistant.
Limestone, the rock these very islands were formed from has long been used in floors, paving stones and walls. Readily available around the world, it is an easy stone to work with and one of the most popular stones used in construction.
Limestone is pale in colour but due to its porosity may absorb moisture and grow mildew so may require sealing or regular pressure washing to retain the original look. Much of the limestone visible here is in the stonewalls that border properties.
Ryan Haylock, owner of Cayman Stonewalling, a local business responsible for many stonewalls on the island, uses only locally quarried limestone. Cutting the stones themselves into irregular pieces, he describes the men who fit these together as “stone artists”, who have been taught this elaborate craft by their fathers and grandfathers.
Created by nature, cut by man, the greatest appeal of natural stone is its uniqueness. The colours, veins, flecks and pits in any piece of stone will be totally unique. Even within a single piece of stone, the pattern is not regular.
“When choosing granite for a countertop you want to look at the whole slab as the pattern could change from one end to the other,” advises Scott Schmitt.
Granite tends to have pits and fissures, even when polished. Travertine is highly porous. Marble stains easily and requires regular maintenance and limestone, if not sealed, has a tendency to grow mildew.
This is the nature of stone. Almost any natural stone requires sealing to protect it against staining, says George Manderson Jr. of Grimex, and the relative softness and porosity of some stone may require additional special maintenance.
Man made stone
For those seeking flawless uniformity and ease of care manmade options offer an alternative to natural stone. In the past few years a selection of artificial stone has created a viable alternative to natural stone. Not only can manmade versions be made even harder and non-porous, they are a more earth-friendly choice.
Engineered quartz and Corian® are increasingly being used in countertops. Both are very low maintenance, extremely hard and are available in an almost unlimited array of colours.
Concrete can also be made to look like natural stone, particularly in exterior paving or driveways, although it is also very effectively used in interiors.
“It is the versatility of concrete that is its main advantage. You can make it look almost any kind of stone, and you can get it any colour from black to hot pink,” says George Manderson Jr.
Because concrete can be poured onto large areas, it is seamless. This means no grouting, and therefore none of the maintenance normally associated with grouting.
Ceramic and the porcelain tiles are another excellent alternative to natural stone for flooring, walls and exterior cladding. These tiles can be made to look just like marble, travertine or any other type of stone, with the same colours running through the thickness of the tile and can be textured for a more authentic feel.
The technology used to create these tiles ensures that the pattern does not repeat on each tile. Stafford Flooring displays a selection of unusual porcelain tiles that to all but the most discerning eye appear to be sheets of brushed steel, aged copper or hardwood floorboards. Porcelain tiles can be small or large, embossed, polished to a high shine or matt.
One of the most popular porcelain tiles that Stafford Flooring sells is a huge three metre by one metre bathroom tile.
“A single tile can cover one side of a shower stall. It eliminates the need for grouting which is the hardest thing to clean,” says Randy.
Indeed, it is the ease of maintenance of porcelain that makes it such a popular alternative. No sealing or polishing is required; it can tolerate high temperatures, does not stain and is resistant to the elements when used on exteriors.
Installing natural stone requires greater skill than technical stone, so although the price difference between natural and manmade stones may not be significant, the cost of installation must also be taken into consideration.
Choosing the right stone is a very personal matter and should reflect one’s taste and the style of one’s home. Natural stone is highly prized for the one-of-a-kind patterns and colours it contains, as well as for the earthy connection it can create. However, engineered stone can be made to look almost indistinguishable, and comes with a low maintenance and easy care guarantee.