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Marmor Hotavlje has a strong and rich tradition, which through generations and generations helped them to become the leading stone cutting company in the world. In September 2019 they became the first stone company ever published in the famous Boat magazine. Charlotte Hogarth-Jones went to Slovenia to discover a story that is far beyond anything usual.
Hidden away in a lush Slovenian valley, across from a gently trickling stream, you might be surprised to come across a small mine. Overseen by just two men, this is where the distinctive Marmor Hotavlje stone has been cut since 1721. “We use our heads and not our hands for our work”, one of the miners jokes. “Once you’re relying on your strength, you’re done for.” And yet this modest operation is the starting point for something much, much bigger. From DAR to Volpini 2, Bravo Eugenia and Here Comes The Sun, this is the town where superyachts come to be born. Or at least, the stone parts of them do.
The exterior of Here Comes The Sun
As any yacht lover knows, stone is at the heart of every beautiful boat. From the delicate rose mosaics encircling the plunge pool of Areti, to the striking veined marbles on board Amels’ Plvs Vltra, stone is what makes yachts feel special, historic and grand. And, with increasingly stringent fire safety laws coming into play, this natural wonder-material is more in demand than ever.
Enter Marmor Hotavlje, an unassuming studio in the Slovenian countryside, that has been exporting stone for decades. At one stage, the mine was run by the state and had most of the inhabitants of the town of Hotavlje working for it. Today, the company employs artisans from around the world, sources stone and marble from near and far, and is a family business, overseen by current owner Branko Selak, and run by his sons Tomaž and Damijan.
From left to right: Damijan, Branko and Tomaž
It wasn’t until the financial crash of 2008, however, that they pivoted from supplying marble for hotels, whose budgets were rapidly shrinking, to supplying it to superyacht. “No one but yacht owners would have the money for something so time-consuming and precise,” explains Tomaž, the CEO. Sandi Čeferin, head of special projects, agrees. “The yachting industry really is the last industry left where people care about the small details. Perhaps that’s because, for the person paying for it, it’s personal.
Today the company has three workshops, a department of innovation and technology that focuses on turning designers’ visions into workable plans for the 120 craftsmen, and has up to eight superyachts on its books at any one time. It has played a key part in the fitting out of some of the world’s most notable boats and it is the go-to supplier for the industry’s leading builders and designers, including Lurssen, Amels and Oceanco; Dan Lenard, Francois Zurreti, Reymond Langton, Terence Disdale and Winch Design. “Though their name is an intricate one to pronounce at first, these marble-makers are up to the challenge”, jokes Zuretti. Lenard agrees. “They have created the most beautiful yachts designed in recent years.”
The interior of Here Comes The Sun
So how does this little-known operation work behind the scenes? First, the Marmor Hotavlje team flies around the globe – sometimes accompanied by designers or stone dealers, but also solo – to source the most flawless stone available. Spain, Italy (notably Carrara and Verona) and elsewhere in Europe are regular destinations – Brazil, China, Iran and Afghanistan are also on the map, but visited less frequently.
As with any interiors trend, which stones are in vogue can change at any time. “Designers love white onyx at the moment because it’s translucent, so it works beautifully with the light,” says Sandi. “They helicopter down here to look at what we have at the start of any big project, and sometimes they say, ‘Wow, I’ve found a new material!’, but they’re picking up things that our great-grandfathers would have been using.”
“When people ask us how long things take to make,” Tomaž adds, “we say 25 million years…and two months.”
Of course, as with anything aesthetic, everyone has their own individual tastes. Generally speaking, European clients lean towards neutral stones – honey onyx and ivory onyx, for example, while Middle Easterners favour rich, jewelled-toned stones in deep blues and greens, and Russians often go for a little sparkle.
No new stones, then, for eagle-eyed designers and owners to go hunting for, but “there are new quarries in Asia that have some crazy materials coming out of them”, Sandi says. Most of them are exporting for big commercial projects, and selling stone at a relatively low price, but there are “a few very special things on the market right now that are very rare, and simply not available in Europe”.
Some of the most noteworthy stones in high demand from elsewhere also include azul macaubas, an impossibly beautiful stone that looks almost like a watercolour painting of the ocean. It’s incredibly rare to find slabs that reveal this stunning pattern without any flaws, and it’s challenging to work with because it is so hard. Onyx fantastic, meanwhile, is notably striking, with line upon line of burnt orange, rust reds, browns and white.
There’s some confusion, say Sandi and Tomaž, on what people are actually buying. “There’s not a lot of marble on the market that’s actually real marble,” they explain. “Most of it is limestone.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that buyers are getting a raw deal, however. “People think that if something is expensive, it’s the best quality available” says Tomaž, “but in the stone industry that just means it’s rare. Nobody buys marble or limestone because it has technically excellent structure – you can find that relatively affordably, but it’s all about the pattern of one particular piece, how much there is of it to go around and how badly someone wants it – just like with antiques.” Plus, he adds, “it’s worth remembering that if a stone has a very delicate composition, the wastage factor is much higher, as it’s far more likely to crack mid-build.”
Slabs in the warehouse of the company are all labelled and appointed to the projects, which they belong to
Stone blocks sourced, the huge pieces are then cut into thick, slice-like slabs, usually around two centimetres deep. This is so that designers can see the exact structure, patterns and markings that run throughout each piece. As a natural material, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that every single silver is different. “It’s like a big puzzle,” says Sandi. “and sometimes you won’t even see any marks till you’re at the polishing phase.” Once the slabs have been thoroughly inspected by the project’s lead designer – often overseen by the owner’s personal representative – then the hard work begins.
Using different machines such as CNC and WaterJet helps to smooth the process and to save a lot of time
The machines are very precise and of utmost importance in this fast-moving industry
We’re more like jewellers, than stonemasons”, explains Tomaž, and it’s easy to see what he’s getting at. Each studio has an intensely focused Santa’s workshop feel about it, with artisans carrying out painstakingly detailed and precise operations. Tiny coloured flecks, almost invisible to the naked eye, for example, are picked out of ivory onyx with tiny scalpels, so that the material appears completely flawless. Any indentations are then filled with the same stone, using a range of techniques that have been developed over the years, so that it’s the exact same shade as the original material. Minuscule pieces of stone are inserted into mosaics with tweezers, filed down to slot into each space with precisely no room for manoeuvre, after the stone has been cut by machine. And a UV light shone into stone picks up even the tiniest hairline crack, before further work on each piece continues.
In fact, the cacophony of whirring, spurting, smoking machines is misleading – everything, literally everything is finished off here by hand. Machines are great time-savers, and they can be incredibly precise – they can cut with a margin of 0.03 millimetres. Nevertheless, “if you want absolute perfection – the expression on the face of a sculpture, say, you just have to finish it by hand,” says Sandi.
The smallest of details are what separates the company from the rest
It’s painstaking work. On average, it takes 100 human hours to perfect each square metre of material. And, after all that, pieces can – and do shatter on installation. Then, it’s back to square one, to try to source a piece that matches everything else that’s been supplied for the job – no mean feat.
There are other challenges too. Each piece is backed on to honeycomb-like material to reinforce it. Designers want larger and larger pieces, for bigger and bigger boats, and the studio is constantly coming up with ways to make the physically impossible, possible. Similarly, artisans are continually innovating on the job, as no two stones respond alike. “Sometimes we have to create completely new tools on the job and sometimes we have to improvise,” says Tomaž. “We’re learning all the time.”
So, what advice for those who are planning their next boat? Think about the maintenance of the material, they advise. Certain stone won’t hold up well to numerous red wine spills – and, let’s face it, on superyachts that’s not too rare an occurrence. Likewise, crew often aren’t up to speed on which cleaning products to use on what. Harsh chemicals can ruin the patina on particularly delicate stones – and some stones are harder to maintain than others.
For now, Marmor Hotavlje has no plans for expansion. Private jets beckon, as well as “more complicated, bigger boats”, but its game plan is to perfect the work they do, rather than do more of it. Almost every artisan employed 25 years ago was from the town of Hotavlje, they say. Today, you’ll find craftsmen from Bosnia, Serbia and elsewhere. Each staff member is proposed by someone working in-house – who, ultimately, will be responsible for the work they do if the worker is employed.
As for what comes out of the old limestone mine, tucked away up the hill from the factory, surrounded by lush hillside and a peaceful stream…” Let’s just say, it’s not a material for making shopping mall floors with,” Sandi says.
There’s a limited supply of the dappled stone, which varies wildly from grey to yellow, red and white, depending where in the mine it comes from. Some is sent to the US, fashioned into beautiful tabletops, but for the most part it’s guarded closely. “We want to be very wise with it. What people can forget is that it’s not just a spa or a beach club or a staircase that they’re getting,” Sandi says, “but millions of years of history. Stone is a raw, natural material, and it deserves to be treated with respect. If you give it the proper care and attention it deserves, then it will look beautiful and last for hundreds of years to come – in a way, we are just the custodians.”
The underground part of the quarry, which was the start of a great story written by Marmor Hotavlje