What do the walls of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the window sills of New York City’s Rockefeller Center, and Martha Stewart’s kitchen counter have in common?
They were all carved out of the ground 25 miles southwest of Charlottesville.
Now Alberene, the Schuyler soapstone company whose quarries produced those and countless other pieces over the last 130 years, has a new ownership partner promising to pump major money into the operation.
Aaron Laufer, a local real estate investor who has been part owner of Alberene since 2010, explained the transaction with Quebec-based natural stone company Polycor in simple terms: “We brought in the professionals,” he said.
Alberene has a storied local history. The company has been quarrying soapstone—used in earlier eras for everything from lab sinks to washtubs—in and around Schuyler since the 1880s. But the quarries fell into disuse in the final quarter of the last century, after the commercial popularity of the soft but remarkably heat-resistant rock declined and Hurricane Camille wrecked the on-site mill.
There have been a few attempts to restart production on a larger scale under different ownership in recent decades, but it wasn’t until a group of investors headed up by local veterinarian Tripp Stewart and Laufer turned the focus to countertop slabs that things started to take off again.
There’s a huge demand for natural stone counters, Laufer explained, and soapstone is increasingly popular. It’s essentially heatproof and, unlike granite, needs no sealing. But it’s also pretty rare.
“It’s not as valuable as diamonds or gold or oil, but there’s not a lot of this,” he said. Until recently, he estimated, more than 99 percent of the world’s supply came out of Brazil. Today, Alberene has carved out about 10 percent of the American market, and is the only quarry producing countertops on this continent.
Polycor took notice at a trade show last year, and over the course of nine months worked out a new ownership deal. It’s a long-term collaboration that hands operations over to Polycor, which will invest heavily in needed equipment and skilled labor.
“The machines we use are expensive to run and expensive to fix,” said
Pete Farley, a Nelson County native and a 2008 UVA graduate who came onboard as a salesman two years ago and is now Alberene’s general manager. “They have a lot more organized infrastructure, which will allow me to focus on ramping up the production.”
It’s happening fast. François Darmayan, Polycor’s manager of U.S. operations, is looking to double output rapidly, and has brought in trained cutters from the company’s marble quarries in Georgia—staff that he said will eventually be replaced with local hires.
The expansion won’t mean a big increase in impacts on the land, said Darmayan, because small-scale soapstone mining is comparatively gentle. “We’ll do in 10 years what an aggregate quarry does in a month,” he said.
But for those who bet big on an old local resource, it’s a huge leap. “Alberene was ready to go to the next level, and Polycor was the right fit,” Laufer said.