Granite has always carried a reputation as a classic beauty. But more recently, it has become a booming business in home decor.

"Granite is really hot," said Stephen Stran, owner of Harford Radon & Real Estate Repair Inc., who has been remodeling homes in Maryland for 25 years. "Recently, I've seen it used not only for countertops but also for custom applications like stair treads and borders around flooring. Ten years ago, I didn't see any of this happening."

A recent survey of design trends by the New Jersey-based National Kitchen and Bath Association reports that 37 percent of homeowners who remodeled last year chose granite for their countertops. That was a 14 percent increase from 1995 and the No. 1 choice for counter- tops.

Minnesota-based Cold Spring Granite, one of the largest suppliers of the stone in North America, boasted its highest granite countertop sales ever last year.

Why the sudden interest in a stone as old as Earth? The answer is availability, according to those who work with granite. Because of improved quarrying techniques, the price of granite has dropped as much as 40 percent during the past five years.

"At one time it was a luxury item," said Delbert Adams, president of Ilex Construction and Development in Maryland and Virginia. "But recently, because of new quarrying technology and lower prices, it's become available to all ranges of homeowners."

Quarrying granite used to be a cumbersome process that required drills and explosives. Today, most of the world's quarries - concentrated mainly in China, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Canada and in New Hampshire and South Dakota - use long loops of steel cables impregnated with diamonds (the Earth's hardest stone) to slice easily through sections of granite and extract them from the quarry beds. This method has increased the supply and lowered the costs.

Like lava, granite is an igneous rock that forms deep underground, slowly cooling and crystallizing. It is made up predominantly of three minerals - quartz, feldspar and mica. Because each granite deposit contains varying proportions of these minerals, every slab of the stone looks different. For many homeowners, this is granite's greatest draw. Unlike synthetic materials such as Corian and Formica, the colors and textures of granite change every few feet, giving it a unique appearance that some call artistic - for a slab of stone.

"It looks amazing," said Bel Air resident Lisa Karalekas, who recently replaced her green laminate kitchen countertops with a dark, speckled granite she hand-selected from Badolato Granite in Baltimore.

"The color is so rich, it's totally transformed the room. Plus, I know that no one else has the same counters. My neighbor might have the same color of granite in her kitchen, but she doesn't have the same counters."

Karalekas, an accountant and mother of two, added: "It's also really easy to care for."

Granite is a porous stone, meaning it can be easily stained with dark substances like red wine or grape jelly. Sealing it, however, is an easy process that can be done once a year. Although some homeowners have their counters sealed professionally, stores like Home Depot sell bottles of sealant for about $20.

Despite the number of seamless and more pliable materials man has made during the past few decades, homeowners keep moving toward a stone that's millions - maybe even billions - of years old. One so inconsistent that its color and pattern change every few feet. One so hard that it can be cut only with a diamond-toothed saw.

In Maryland, granite retailers including Badolato, Vinci Stone Products and A&S; Sales are reporting record highs in their granite businesses.

A&S;, a 33-year-old marble and granite retailer based in Frederick and in Alexandria, Va., saw its granite countertop sales increase approximately 15 percent last year, according to sales representative Jennifer Aiello.

"There's nothing that equals its beauty," Aiello said. "The product just sells itself."

With a little help, of course, from its declining price.

"Granite used to be a jewel that only the wealthy could afford," said Paul Bird Sr., a kitchen designer for Home Depot in Catonsville. "Now those people who grew up with laminate or Formica - both ordinary materials - are able to consider a jewel like granite."

At Home Depot, granite is priced in the same range - between $70 and $125 per square foot - as Corian and Silestone, synthetic materials created to compete with granite. (On the lowest end, laminate counter- tops are approximately $20 per square foot, and on the highest end, marble can be priced up to $180 per square foot.)

"It's so much more affordable these days. And once you put it in your home, you'll never want - or need - to put in anything else," said Bruce Badolato, owner of Badolato Granite, which has doubled its granite sales since 2001. "Its beauty is totally unmatched."

Thousands of colors

Unlike synthetic materials, granite is available in thousands of colors. Every quarry produces a distinct palette of the stone. Each time a new quarry is opened, a new color joins the market. The stone's rich colors are dotted with flecks of crystals that sparkle, giving the appearance of movement on the stone's smooth surface.

Even more appealing than granite's color, according to those familiar with the stone, is its durability.

Granite measures a seven on a scale of one to 10, according to the Measurement of Hardness scale for stone. A stainless steel blade registers a six, meaning it cannot scratch the surface of granite.

In fact, nothing can put a nick in granite except a diamond.

"It's so hard that we rounded the corners of our counters," Karalekas said. "If you run into a granite corner you can really bruise yourself."

Granite also can withstand temperatures up to about 900 degrees Fahrenheit, which means a hot pot or a frying pan can sit on a slab of it without causing burns or melting.

Corian, one of the most popular alternatives to granite and created by the DuPont Co. in 1971, can be scratched with a knife and will withstand temperatures up to about 200 degrees F. Because it is synthetic, Corian is more consistent in color and pattern than granite.

"Some people like a more uniform look to the countertops," said Bird of Home Depot. "But the kind of people who like characteristics like knots in wood will prefer granite."

DuPont's competition

DuPont's most recent challenge to granite is an engineered stone called Zodiaq, which is made by combining quartz particles with sand, pigments and binding agents. The result is a product that looks and feels like granite, but is resistant to stains.

It is priced in the same range as granite and Corian, and it is as hard as granite, ranking a seven on the hardness scale.

Engineered stones that are similar to Zodiaq include Bretonstone from Italy, CaesarStone from Israel and Silestone, which is made by the U.S. branch of the Spanish firm Cosentino and is sold at Home Depot stores.

According to retailers like Aiello, however, these engineered stones pose no threat to granite.

"Granite is natural," she said. "This means its beauty just can't be compared to anything else. It's a work of art."

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