The marble industry has been Carrara's main activity since the Roman Imperial Age - and its most precious stone, the white marble, is a long time favourite of architects and artists, from Michelangelo to the present day. Despite a highly profitable but whimsical market, subject to the sway of fashion and taste, Carrara can still provide for the whole of the extracting and manufacturing process - from the quarries on the Apuane Alps to the sawmills and shipyards. These jobs are still common among the people of Carrara and the increasing use of heavy machinery blends with a harsh and ever changing landscape of sun, bright white stone, deep cuts, dust and fatigue. Although the industry is now experiencing a serious crisis triggered by the increasing costs of labour and quarry maintenance as well as by international competitors, the marble industry still retains its fascinating power and peculiar characteristics, shaping the face of Carrara's landscape and the lives of those who drill the mountains to supply the world with its favourite stone.
Strong Land Rover Defenders are the main vehicles used by workers to move through the quarry. The steep and narrow roads across the mountain change nearly everyday to allow for certain blocks to be cut. The only other vehicles able to make their way up to the quarries are special tractors and the trucks used to carry gravel and smaller stones down to the plain.
Cutting a block can take from three to five days, depending on the quality of the stone. and diamond saw is the main tool used for the purpose. Technically a steel wire threaded with special diamond beads, it can still be made in the quarry workshops and is used along with special pulleys and water to operate a cut. Although the diamond wire has been highly improved, a sudden break while in operation can be the cause of major injuries, as the beads are literally shot away and have the same killing power of a bullet.
The work in a quarry involves for a large part the use of heavy machinery, to move the blocks or free the quarry pit from gravel and mud. Most of these tasks were carried out by hand until the 19th century. Despite all the efforts in improving health & safety conditions, a quarry is still a rather inhospitable and dangerous working place. Experience and know how and team spirit are key characteristics for quarry workers.
After the quarry, blocks of marble and granite are sent to the sawmills in the Carrara plane, finishing the marble plates and preparing them for shipment. The sawmills are rarely put to a stop for maintenance and the whole environment is heated by the flow of hot abrasive liquid used by the machinery and covered in the waste dust produced in the sawing. Plates are arranged by hand on racks to prevent them from breaking and are then sent to the dockyards in Marina di Carrara or shipped by truck. The whole process is overseen by many sawmill workers to avoid any damages.
Sawmills also work for foreign customers, shipping their stones to Carrara for sawing and smoothing. High cost of labour and maintenance have strongly reduced the extraction of the white marble, that also has to face international competitors such as China and Brazil, supplying good quality marbles – though not as precious as the local white marble – at considerably lower prices.