Black limestone is a rare natural material and an incredibly limited natural resource worldwide. It is found in the island at Pooil Vaaish on the Scarlett peninsula, where it has been quarried since the 1350s, and where the same traditional techniques are still in use today. By contrast, just a few miles away in Ballasalla, the stone can now be cut and polished using the latest state of the art machinery.
The Glassey family’s passion for what is often known as ‘Manx marble’ began more than 20 years ago: Lenny Glassey is still involved with the extraction of stone from the quarry, whilst his wife Rosie, is Managing Director of Pooil Vaaish Black Limestone, the company which has been set up more recently to deal with the processing, marketing and showroom side of the business.
It’s an exciting time for the business: a one million pound investment, including substantial grants from the Isle of Man Government, has provided them with a world-class manufacturing facility which can cut and polish the naturally pale grey limestone into a piece of stunning, shiny black, marble-like material. This is of crucial importance because it means that large blocks of quarried black limestone no longer need to be sent on a round trip of 4,500 kilometres to Southern Europe for processing. Now it can all be done on the island.
Managing Director, Rosie Glassey, said: ‘It’s very rewarding that finally, after so many years, we are able to convert such an important natural resource into something that’s in demand around the world, and export the finished produce directly from the Isle of Man.
‘Our skilled team are equipped to convert an unassuming block of pale grey quarried stone into polished slabs and finished products – with a pure black, silk-like finish – all under one Manx roof and I’m exceptionally proud of that.’
Rosie’s enthusiasm for black limestone is shared by other members of the family: one of her daughters, Alice, does all the design work and her partner, Jason Keig, is the workshop supervisor, whilst her other daughter, Rebecca, handles all the front of house, marketing and office management for the company.
Their commercial director, Paul Howard-Snowden, explained that they had originally planned to open the showroom and manufacturing facility last year but Covid got in the way.
He said: ‘We took possession of the property over a year ago.
‘We were expecting to get into full production fairly quickly and get off to a flying start. The final bit of equipment arrived more than siz months later than we’d planned and then we couldn’t get engineers out of Italy to come and commission the equipment because of restrictions at their end.
‘It’s only the last week or two that we’ve got into production so we are celebrating the fact that we are now fully in business.’
He went on: ‘One thing that we’ve seen in the few weeks that we’ve been operating is the tremendous interest from local businesses and the local community, wanting [to purchase] product from us. We really are encouraged by the level of demand and the interest in what we think is a Manx heritage brand.
‘But there is no doubt that the whole raison d’être of the business was to get into export, to export Pooil Vaaish limestone to the benefit of not just the business but the whole island, and so we’re just really at that point now where we’re starting to have those conversations to open up routes to market into the UK and hopefully beyond.’
Black limestone from the Pooil Vaaish quarry has been used on the island for hundreds of years, including in Castle Rushen and the Old House of Keys.
More recently it has provided the engraved Millennium stones that are in every parish on the island, and shaped paving stones for the Douglas promenade project.
But it has also begun to capture the attention of UK based architects and interior designers – for example the Burberry Regent Store façade and flooring within The National Gallery.
It has also been specified for use within the new terminal at Kuwait Airport. A coordinated international marketing campaign this summer will introduce ‘Manx marble’ to an even wider audience.
As well as the obvious cost savings in being able to process the stone on the island there are clearly environmental benefits to it no longer having to travel so far.
Rosie said: ‘We have also set up the manufacturing facility here so that all of the water used int eh processing is recycled and every step of the process is monitored to ensure that the energy usage is as low as possible, with the whole team committed to making the facility carbon neutral by 2025.
‘And we are proud to be a Unesco Biosphere partner.’
The Pooil Vaaish Black Limestone showroom is now open, just behind Airport Garage in Ballasalla.
Julie Blackburn, IOM Newspapers