Ceramic Tile’s World-Wide View
 
March 1st, 2004

Ceramic Tile’s World-Wide View

by Jeffrey Steele Mar-Apr 2004

Imported tiles reflect the history and culture of the manufacturing country, as well as growing manufacturing and marketing sophistication.

Tile is a worldwide product and today’s tile marketplace is dominated by imports. In a November 2003 report on the State of the U.S. Tile Industry, the Tile Council of America (TCA) said that 78% of the ceramic tile in America is imported. The most recent 12-month numbers, as reported by the US Customs Service, are for 2002. They indicate Italy continued to dominate imports to the US with 708 million square feet. Spain ranked second with 391 million square feet and Mexico closely followed with 289 million square feet. Brazil ranked fourth with 240 million square feet.

Countries as far flung as Turkey, Egypt and China have joined traditional players like Italy, Spain, Mexico and Brazil. The consumer, of course, is the winner here – with more styles, formats, and even prices to choose from. The challenge is for the dealer and distributor to balance the old with the new, the accessible with the exotic, and price with quality. What follows is by no means an exhaustive review of imported tiles. It is a look at trends in the import market.

No matter what the country, tile production offers a balance between artistic tradition, manufacturing capability and technology. As president of Portland, Me.-based Communicators International, a marketing and communications firm long associated with the ceramic tile industry, Ron Treister knows the countries producing great tile, and points to places like Brazil, Argentina, Turkey and Mexico as among his favorite exporters. Some of the finest ceramic tile, he believes, comes from Brazil, a country with what he terms “world class manufacturers” using Italian technology.

Spanish tile imports to the US have always been important, but have seen significant increases in recent years (up 15-percent from 2001 to 2002) since identifying the US as that country’s #1 export market. Inma Roca, Florida-based representative of Tiles of Spain, credits the appealing quality/price ratio of Spanish products.

Italy continues to hold the largest share of the US tile market, 26.9-percent according to TCA numbers. Italian designers have delivered looks the American consumer wants and, for many years, at a remarkably affordable price, even for higher end products. Although many industry leaders point to the poor Euro exchange rate which has recently driven prices up and to sophisticated products from other countries as reason to seek other resources, Italian tiles continue to dominate.

WHAT COUNTRY IS YOUR FLOOR FROM?

A quest for the world’s most striking tile is a primary mission of Los Angeles-based Country Floors/Country Tiles, a 40-year-old importer with 84 accredited distributors in the United States. Country Floors has seven company showrooms, including US locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Greenwich, Connecticut, New York City and Dania Beach, Florida.

Marketing and advertising manager Eric Carlson reports the “Country” in the company’s name refers not to rustic decors, but to the fact that Country Floors seeks tile products from countries across the globe. “The product mix we arrive at really results from the personal passion of the owners and founders of the company, Norman and Shannon Karlson,” Carlson, no relation, says.

Country Floors imports from Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, Mexico and many other nations. Offering tiles from all these countries provides Country Tiles and its customers “the historical veracity of all the tiles and images, the decorative motifs and craftsmanship,” Carlson says.

The fact these products are from an array of nations isn’t as important as the craftsmanship and regional decorative influences they feature. For example, the majority of decorative tiles from Portugal are characterized by exquisite hand painting featuring both geometric and organic motifs. Many of the Moroccan tiles the company imports are mosaic, and their common attributes are that they’re all hand cut and hand manufactured to precisely fit and eliminate grout lines. In the Netherlands, Country Floors works with just one supplying company, owned by a family that’s produced tile for more than 400 years. The quality of the craftsmanship and designs has remained unchanged through the centuries.

This uniqueness sets Country Floors apart from other importers, in Carlson’s view. “It’s part of our brand,” he says. “When people are looking for the historical, the real thing, they know they can come to Country Floors and find it. They know they’ll find accessible materials, but will find in the same place materials to achieve a really special installation by using exquisite materials along with commodity materials.”

Despite the far-flung origins of the tile it imports, Country Floors doesn’t worry about the reliability of the supply. “The passion and vision of the founders of our company, and their experience in travel and craftsmanship, have allowed us to develop and nurture a group of suppliers internationally that provide beautiful work in the historical traditions of the countries they represent — and also provide continuity of quality for the American consumer,” Carlson says.

REGIONAL CHARACTERISTICS

Tile products from around the world are also a selling point at Ann Sacks, a Portland, Oregon-based retailer with 17 showrooms across America. Ann Sacks imports from Israel, Mexico, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey, Belgium, Egypt and China, as well as Italy and Spain.

One of the attractive aspects of importing from a range of countries is the opportunity to obtain stone indigenous to particular regions, says senior designer DeeDee Gundberg. “Tile we get from Israel is produced from Jerusalem Gold, a limestone indigenous to that region,” she remarks. “That’s not to say I can’t find a stone in that color range from Mexico, but it wouldn’t be the same stone. I can find a yellow-colored stone in a lot of different places, or a white stone in a lot of different places… If it happens to come from Israel, Belgium, Germany or whatever, that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for characteristics of the stone. I’m marketing characteristics of the stone, not tile from a particular country.” Citing another example, she points to Cararra marble, a world-renowned material from Cararra, Italy. China produces a marble it calls Cararra, but that tile is very white and decidedly different from the Italian Cararra. “We import the Italian, because it has a particular veining that we find much more beautiful than the very stark white Cararra,” Gundberg says.

Mexico and Turkey are famous for their travertine, a stone known for its distinctive indentations and texture. While many countries export travertine, Gundberg particularly likes the product from Mexico and Turkey. Travertines are used often in flooring, fireplaces and walls in both residences and hotels. With a travertine, “you’re purchasing it for the aesthetic, the color, the surface finish and the edge details,” she explains. “Is it honed, polished or tumbled? These are all surface finishes you can give to a stone to make it look a certain way.”

TURKISH EXPORTS OFFER VALUE AND QUALITY

Gundberg, Carlson and DeMeo all point to the quality and value offered by Turkish manufacturers. TileDealer talked with Kaleseramik, a renowned Turkish tile manufacturer with exports to more than 50 markets and a production capacity of 62 million square meters. The variety of the company’s product range, its state-of-the-art technology, and extensive experience in the international business field distinguish the Kale Group from competitors. The manufacturer employs twin-press technology on porcelain products The company’s Kale Stone attracts not only interior designers and architects at markets, but also major contractors who understand the sophisticated technical characteristics of the product.

The Group’s exports are mainly to the European Union (Germany, England, France, Benelux), Russia, Canada, Israel and the United States. The US market is being served through privately- owned distributors like East-Coast Tile Group, D&B and Santa Fe. Kalebodur floor tiles and Çanakkale Seramik wall tiles are exhibited at all major trade shows around the globe including Cersaie and Coverings.

WHAT ABOUT CHINA?

The world’s largest producer of tile is not Italy, but China. U. S. Customs Service reports that in 2002 China exported 32.5 million square feet of tile to the US TCA expects that number to jump to as much as 55 million square feet when complete numbers are released for 2003.

Tom DeMeo, who along with brother Joe DeMeo owns Tile and Marble Outlet in Santa Cruz, California, stocks and sells some tiles from China. Chinese manufacturers produce ceramic, porcelain ceramic, glass and metal tiles as well as cut stone and stone slabs. China, he says, does not yet fit American design well. “[The Chinese] are good at the slick, contemporary European look.” They are reluctant, he says, to do the rustics favored in this country. However, DeMeo says, price is the lure. These imports allow him to meet a particular price point otherwise unreachable, especially given current exchange rates. DeMeo also points out that time also drives imports. On the west coast he can get delivery of tile in 2-½ weeks from China as opposed to 6-8 weeks from Italy. This also saves him the cost of inventory.

ITALY & SPAIN CONTINUE AS THE DESIGN LEADERS

A look at just some of the latest Italian introductions to the American market reveals the design leadership of the leading European tilemakers. Impronta Italgraniti is the merger of two major Italian ceramic tile manufacturers: Impronta Ceramiche which produces glazed porcelain tiles for both residential and commercial applications and Italgraniti, manufacturer of through-body porcelains primarily for commercial projects. Impronta Italgraniti USA is the stateside arm of these companies and maintains a large inventory of products specifically chosen for the North American marketplace within its Springfield, Virginia, warehouse. They are introducing series like Cantine Toscane and Gitane which offer the earthy colors and larger formats (17 by 17-inches and 21 by 21- inches), both strong design trends in this country, along with a variety of accessory pieces that are driving style right now. Innovative Stone’s RETRO Mosaics, an Italian checkerboard series perfect for countertops, vanities and furniture, pushes the use of tile onto furniture and adds color.

Roca says Spanish investments in research and technology have resulted in production capacity equal to that of Italy and believes that the country’s artistic advances have resulted in design leadership. For example, Diago is introducing TEX-TILE at Coverings 2004. It replicates the texture and look of tweed and is produced in camel, toast, gray and pearl. One of Spain’s largest manufacturers, Azumi, is introducing Paris, part of its Zen-inspired, White Fashion collection dominated by different shades of white. The field tile is complemented by Boreal, a colorful glass accent piece that picks up on the increasing popularity of glass tile.

ECONOMICS PLAY A PART

If there’s any trend affecting the imported stone market, it may be the inclination of retailers like Ann Sacks to import more heavily from Mexico and Israel than in the past. The dollar’s current weakness versus other currencies, particularly the Euro, makes importing from European countries exceptionally expensive. In the past, Gundberg says, she didn’t choose a stone based on its country of origin, but the dollar’s weakness is now influencing her decisions. DeMeo agrees. Right now he says, imports from Turkey are more affordable than Mexico. Turkey, he says, is “dominating travertines, limestones and mosaics because of price.”

SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR

Mario Klappholz, president of Ceramic Consulting Corporation in Miami, believes the tile now being produced by Ilva in Buenos Aires, Argentina, can stand on its own against product from any country. In fact, the firm has just announced that its total production of field tile will now be in porcelain.

Vanessa McIntosh, Ilva’s Export Manager, says, “Porcelain is so dense and tightly pressed, that it will withstand much more pressure, loading and impact than any other product installed on the floor today.” She points out that, “Porcelain tile is produced using the finest natural ingredients combined with a rigidly controlled manufacturing process that utilizes the most advanced processes and technology. Porcelain outperforms ceramic, slate, marble, even granite for years of low-maintenance looks that last.”

Ceramic Consulting Corporation, which represents foreign factories in the US, handles product development, marketing, sales and collections for distributor and wholesale customers. The company represents factories in Turkey and China as well, but has imported the Ilva tile from Argentina for a dozen years. “From day one, our goal was not to compete in the low-end markets with other South American factories,” Klappholz says.

“Our main competition is Italy. We compete with Italian tiles. We make different tiles, mostly rustic and stone looks. We don’t really imitate others. We try to get our ideas from nature, trying to make our tiles look like natural stone and marble. Every series has a different stone: a travertine look, a slate look, a limestone look.”

Ilva makes designs and colors for the American market, producing beiges, bone, creams and earth colors that Americans tend to prefer. The company also offers lines in all sizes, including larger 18-by-18 and 20-by- 20-inches. Ilva also produces “subway tile” measuring 3-½-by-7 inches and mosaic sheet-mounted tile in 3-by-3 and 2-by-2-inch configurations. “All the small sizes we sheet mount, so it’s easy to install,” he adds. The company also produces trim pieces, including cove base, quarter rounds, sink rails and other decorative pieces for walls and floors. These pieces feature woods, metal and glass, as well as real stones, Klappholz reports.

Because Ilva stays ahead of design trends, many of its lines have endured seven or eight years and continue to sell briskly. Distributors appreciate this design longevity because they avoid changing their sampling every couple of years. “We’re always coming out with either one or two new lines each year,” Klappholz adds. “Of course, the very old lines are discontinued after a while, and that gives us a chance to add more products.”

Ceramic Consulting Corporation produces a number of displays, architectural binders, sample boards and brochures to promote the Ilva line. Klappholz says the company tries to provide a broad assortment of marketing tools, so distributors can really get behind the tile. Not only is the shipping supply from Buenos Aires reliable, but Ceramic Consulting Corporation stands behind the product. “Customers know if they have a problem — a product failure, an installation failure – we stand 100 percent behind our customers.”

Among other factors, dependability is likely one reason Crossville Ceramics opted to choose Ilva to handle manufacturing of its private label Empire series starting five years ago. The design, quality and appearance of the double-loaded, through-body pure polished and unpolished technical porcelain are reasons for its enormous popularity, Klappholz believes.

The future looks encouraging for Ilva, he adds. “We have fantastic workers, our factory can be put up technically against any Italian factory, and we’re always investing in the newest technical equipment on the market. There’s nothing out there we can’t make.”

A SHRINKING WORLD?

Observers vary on one final issue — whether globalization is providing more opportunities for tile producers from around the world. Gundberg says she doesn’t believe more countries are exporting to the US than in the past. “But people are paying a little more attention to what they have to offer, because it’s so expensive to import from Europe right now,” she opines.

Carlson, on the other hand, believes globalization “certainly has” offered opportunities to regions and nations formerly unrepresented and unappreciated in the US“Going to any trade show would show anybody that,” he says. “There are new countries being represented every year. There are new countries working to gain access to the American marketplace.”

Whether a dealer sells tile from Europe, the Far East, South America or a combination of sources, one trend remains – imports. In their efforts to meet the needs and tastes of the increasingly sophisticated American consumer and keep materials affordable, dealers and distributors will continue to welcome new import players to the industry. Quality, variety and price keep the customer happy.

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