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GRAVESTONES: Valley business carves niche in market

January 15, 2001|By RICHARD MONTENEGRO, Staff Writer

For those in the mortuary or cemetery business, death can be quite profitable.

The same holds true for the makers of headstones, and El Centro-based Desert Valley Monument is one of the best, pumping out more than 2,500 grave markers in Imperial and San Diego counties during 1999.

"We're controlled by the death rate. The better the doctors, the less the business," said Desert Valley Monument Sales Manager Scott Singh, only half joking.

On average, DVM produces four upright monuments every month, while turning out some 300 flat markers during the same period.While DVM makes headstones for those Imperial County residents wanting to memorialize a loved one in style, the El Centro company's bread and butter is its wholesale business.

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Singh said the 12-year-old business dominates the headstone market in San Diego County, with wholesale contracts with all of the major cemeteries throughout the area, including San Diego's largest: Greenwood Cemetery.

"They sell what they buy from us," he said. "We're the primary vendor for every major cemetery in San Diego County.

"Out of 10 stones cut in San Diego County, we probably cut seven of them," Singh added.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Singh and DVM Art Director Gary A. Lowe walked a reporter and a photographer through the headstone-making process.

No headstone, whether it be a flat marker or a free-standing monument, can be made without granite, the material of choice for DVM.

With dozens of rock types and sources, DVM gets most of its granite from quarries or distributors in Raymond and San Marcos, the states of North and South Dakota and Georgia. For more exotic granites, Singh said the company works through a middleman in India.

From India comes granite colors known as blue pearl, photo black, red; from Raymond, diamond gray, colonial rose, rainbow and sierra white; and from Georgia comes what Singh calls "the most traditional color in America," Georgia gray.

Although DVM can cut granite, it usually receives slabs precut.

Said Lowe: "After a customer decides what they want, I'm kind of waiting in the wings."

As art director, Lowe designs the lettering, pictures or even photographs to be applied to the headstone.

"For walk-ins, we show them what's available (in terms of artwork,)" he said.

Working on Macintosh computers, Lowe takes the chosen design and lettering and begins the process of preparing a stencil.

However, Lowe said if the desired artwork isn't available there are other means by which the design can be achieved, either by scanning a piece of art or by taking a rubbing with special paper from another headstone.

Once the design is in place, Lowe sends the completed design to a computerized plotter, which scores a thick piece of rubber with the design.

Lowe said when the stencil is proofread by the customer, his job is done.

Next stop, the stencil room.

After peeling an adhesive backing from the rubber stencil, it is placed over a polished piece of granite and the stencil is "weeded."

Singh said, "In the act of weeding, you take a tool like an Exacto, and with the dull end and pull out strips and panels and shapes."

Those removed strips and panels and shapes leave exposed granite that will be carved by a sandblaster. The rubber used for the stencil can withstand the high pressure of such a tool, while the granite simply crumble beneath its force.

Next stop, the sandblasting room.

Sandblaster Rafael Ruiz dons his hood, protective goggles and gloves to operate the machine, which in a second will turn a solid piece of granite into a carved work of art.

Singh said aluminum oxide sand is used at the shop. However, for on-site work at cemeteries, red garnet is used because it is biodegradable.

Following the power-etching, Ruiz applies a coating of lithichrome paint, which fills the etched surface, rendering it more legible.

The nearly completed headstone is then moved to the shop floor, where the rubber stencil is peeled from the granite, the headstone is cleaned and inspected, then parked and categorized for delivery.

Singh said he personally delivers each and every headstone to ensure there are no problems and the customers are pleased with an end product that will forever memorialize the dearly departed.

Staff Writer Richard Montenegro can be reached at 337-3453.

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