Making the Cut
San Mateo Times 06/12/00
by Tim Simmers
Mark Fontana may be between a rock and a hard place, but there's no place he'd rather be.
He's running the 79-year-old family owned tombstone making business there, just like his father Elio did and his grandfather Valerio, the founder of V. Fontana & Co., who emigrated here from Italy in 1915.
The family makes monuments out of granite rock, marble and other stones, in what is one of the last remaining stonecutting manufacturing plants on the West Coast.
"Nobody gets 10-ton blocks of rock like us and cuts and polishes them into a finished products," said Mark Fontana, whose father and grandfather came from a time when craftsmen with hammers and chisels carved the names on gravestones.
The sandblasters and engraving machines that V. Fontana uses to do that work now are still powered by a second-hand air compressor Valerio put in when the company opened in 1921 across from the Italian cemetery. The sweating, splitting metal machine from another era has never broken down.
With cremation growing increasingly popular in California, Mark Fontana, 48, has pushed to diversify beyond tombstones and it turned out to be a great move.
The company's massive saws with diamond blades now also fashion stonekitchen counter tops, public memorials, and signage.
The company's monuments are still designed by Elio, 80, a draftsman who painstakingly draws the designs on a drafting board.
Many families spend about $1,200 on a small monument. But it is not uncommon for ethnic groups like the Chinese and Japanese to spend between $10,000 and $30,000 on a completely hand-crafted monument, Fontana said.
Those gravestones account for about half of the business at V. Fontana.
Some of the company's other local rock memorials include the dedication at the entry to Golden Gate Park, the new firehouse and library dedications in Redwood City, and Skyline College's
V. Fontana also is currently working on the Holocaust Memorial for Lincoln Park near the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
"We take as much pride in what we can make as what we sell," said Mark Fontana. That means he's proud of the fact he can take a raw stone and turn it into a product.
Fontana stressed that equipment and maintenance at the Colmamanufacturing plant is costly, but he's not about to phase out the tradition of crafting monuments from rough granite blocks.
"It's what our family learned to do," he said. "It gets in your blood." The rock comes from the Sierras, Texas, Georgia, Brazil and Norway.
The company's reputation keeps it going with little advertising.
"Families that bought stones from my grandfather, bought them from my father, and now they're buying them from me," said Fontana.
He declined to reveal the company's annual sales, but said sales climb nearly 10 percent a year.
Finding stonecutters today is no easy task. Seldom is the craft passedfrom generation to generation.
V. Fontana still relies on the stonecutter founder Valerio Fontana hired in 1953. Pietro Masnada, a 75-year-old native Italian, has worked for all three generations of Fontanas, and still works five or six days a week. He started working with stone building rock houses in Italy.
"The boss here won't let me retire," Masnada joked. He's tried to teach up-and-coming stone cutters, but gets frustrated because he questions their work ethic. "They don't like my advice, so I don't teach them," he said in broken English.
But Daryl Sowers, 25, has already worked in the shop for 10 years, doing odd jobs and learning what he could about stone cutting. "He's a miniature Pietro, he works so hard," said Fontana.
"We do everything custom here," said Phil Fioresi, who handles lettering on the monuments. "We can put anything on them that customers want."
Ken Varner, president and chief executive at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in San Bruno, can attest to that. He has
V. Fontana do most his monument work.
"There's a real attention to detail shown in their work," he said. "And that's important to the families."