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Natural Stone versus Engineered Stone - What's the Difference?

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Choosing materials for your next countertop, kitchen backsplash, or another surface? Feeling a little confused about the differences between natural stones such as marble – versus engineered stone/engineered quartz?
You’re not alone! It’s easy to become overwhelmed with all the information that’s out there. Although natural stones, like the marble we use in around 90% of our mosaic artwork designs, are a top choice – engineered quartz is also widely available. So, what’s the big difference? And, more importantly: What will work best for you? We’ll break down the science and substance of each (and show you some beautiful colors while we do it!).

Where Do They Come From?

engineered quartz
Image source: NY Times

You might be surprised to see that freshly-quarried marble looks much as it does in architecture and design! Nature has already done all the work to make it hard, strong, durable, and beautiful. Each deposit has been through the geological wringer before it’s ever cut. Marble is a metamorphic rock consisting of coarse-grained recrystallized calcite. Most marbles were originally limestones that underwent tremendous pressure and heat. Lots of pressure and heat – the limestone actually melted, then recrystallized.

Consider it baked to perfection, then! Marble from a pure limestone source is white, while the presence of other minerals adds color. This is where the rarity and beauty of the natural stone are created. Green, pink, blue, black, red? The wonderful chemistry of stone composition can create them all. In addition, the range of patterns, texture, and veining are built in.

A great example of the variety of shades within one slab is shown here:

Marble is a metamorphic rock
Image source Pinterest

While engineered stone/quartz has some things in common with natural stone, its origins are very different. As you might guess from the name, it’s a man-made version – created in slabs for countertops and other projects. It has a smooth finish that’s created in the manufacturing process.

manufacturing process

Engineered stone/quartz has a percentage of natural quartz – but includes other ingredients. To produce pieces, the factories use a mixture of stone materials from stone waste or byproducts. These are ground up into a fine powder and resin is added to hold the blend together. This is poured into the forms to create slabs. The look is similar to natural stone, but there’s a good proportion of plastic polymer or cement that’s used as a binder. Manufacturers often say that the typical ratio of quartz materials is 93% mineral quartz and 7% binders. In reality, the ratio is calculated by weight, so the finished product may actually consist of 30-40% resin.

Color and Finish

COLOR AND FINISH
Mozaico

One difference that’s often mentioned in sales literature for engineered stone quartz is the range of color that’s available to consumers. Manufacturers add pigments to the fluid mixture used for forming their premade slabs and other items. In this way, they can achieve bright colors that are seldom seen in nature.

The addition of resin also creates a very smooth surface. For some uses – such as an indoor ledge – this can be desirable. However, this same finish doesn’t work well outdoors or anywhere that requires a non-slippery walkway.

At Mozaico, we have a personal interest in the range of natural stone and quartz colors – we’re always looking for the best ways to create our huge range of mosaic wall art and designs. Fortunately, there are centuries of art history and knowledge available to us!

Taking a look at the iconic ancient Greek and Roman mosaic artwork reveals that they were on to something great with marble mosaic tiles. These cultures loved their color! Much like today, home and business owners gravitated towards lifelike hues and natural shades. One can almost imagine the owner of this Pompeiian villa demanding “BRIGHTER!” as artists worked on this mural.

 Pompeiian villa demanding
Detail of the Alexander Mosaic artwork,2nd century B.C.E., from the House of the Faun in Pompeii
Image source Wikimedia

Although the preservation of this piece is extraordinary – a little volcanic eruption assisted with that – just look at the range of colors that were available. Thanks to the wide availability of different marble types in the region, every hue was at a craftsman’s fingertips.

Today, we can source a whole spectrum of hues for our natural stone mosaic pieces. For every handmade piece, our artists and design team have access to a huge color palette.

huge color palette
Mozaico image

Both quartz and natural can be smoothed to a glassy finish – our craftsmen use a mosaic tile grinder to smooth the surface of some mosaic artwork. It’s then polished to a high sheen and sealed. However, these completed designs can be used for floors and mosaic rugs.

floors and mosaic rugs
Mozaico image

Uses and Longevity

USES AND LONGEVITY
Mozaico image

If you’ve been reading our blog for any time at all, you’ve learned a lot about the versatility of mosaic artwork designs. Natural stone is unmatchable in so many areas: longevity, range of applications from wet areas to outdoor environments, and temperatures that range from freezing to the ones that accompany fireplaces and cooking areas.

accompany fireplaces and cooking areas
Mozaico image

In addition, UV resistance is built into natural stone and quartz. The Taj Mahal is a great example of a centuries-old marble structure that’s been unaffected by the blazing Indian sun. One can expect no fading or breakdown of stones like the ones used in our mosaic artwork.

UV resistance
Mozaico Image

Engineered Stone/quartz is a durable product, thanks to the resins used. However, it is not as heat-resistant as natural stone. The same resin that makes engineered quartz durable also increases its risk of damage and discoloration from heat and light. Engineered quartz can also begin to fade or turn yellow within weeks of exposure to direct sunlight, as the pigments break down under UV rays. Unlike natural stone, it can be nicked with sharp knives and discolored by high heat – like setting a hot kettle down on a countertop.

Environmental Impact

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
Image source usenaturalstone.org

Environmental impact is important to more homeowners now – and manufacturers are more open about their processes. Committing to sustainability and limiting contributions to climate change are important for both buyers and sellers. Here, we’ll break down the supply chain and production elements of both natural stone and engineered stone/quartz, for a clearer picture.

Although both products start with removal of the raw material from nature – the number of manufacturing steps varies widely. We’ll begin with the longer series: Engineered stone/quartz products.

As we talked about above, engineered quartz uses raw quartz that’s extracted from the earth. After this, it undergoes additional processing to render it suitable for mixing and molding. It’s crushed at a plant, and the resulting powder is blended with polyesters, resins, acids, alcohols, styrene, peroxide, and other chemicals.

quartz products
Image source Breton.it

Each of the ingredients has been manufactured and transported to the engineered stone factories – where the final mixing takes place. As it is with producing any chemicals, there is an increased environmental impact from energy used in handling and manufacturing. This is also carried over into the transportation of the raw materials to the factory.

The factory also uses a great deal of energy in pouring, molding, and curing the engineered stone slabs. Industrial waste is also a concern for green-conscious consumers. Resins and various chemicals are prone to off-gassing and can emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

Volatile Organic Compounds
Image source Pinterest

For natural stone products, there’s a shorter route to the final product. First, the raw material is cut in quarries. No further treatments or mixing is required – it’s been hardened over millions of years! The raw quarried sections are sent to the production facilities, who then cut it into slabs.

Although the cutting and finishing processes do require energy, there are fewer steps – and much less waste. As a matter of fact, an after-market for the leftover stone exists.

Overall, natural stone/marble/quartz production is considered to be a greener process – even by using quarries instead of mines. Additionally, a standard has been in place since 2014: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/Natural Stone Council (NSC) 373, Sustainable Production of Natural Dimension Stone, is the stone industry’s voluntary sustainability certification.

When considering the benefits of natural stone versus engineered stone/quartz for your own home, you may have to wade through a lot of sales literature. Any home design choice is a personal reflection of your taste and lifestyle. At the same time, it’s important that it performs beautifully and is easy to maintain and care for over its lifetime.

You’re likely to decide which stone to choose. Remember, if you need design inspiration for your next natural stone mosaic project, we have plenty available! Simply subscribe to our newsletter, and visit our website for more ideas!

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