Granite is one of the most prized counter-top materials, the ultimate status and style symbol in the kitchen. And with good reason—it's water-, heat-, and scratch-resistant; durable; and virtually maintenance free. It's a rich, lustrous natural material that upgrades the look of the whole kitchen. But manufacturers claim their latest foray into man-made stone, quartz surfacing, tops even granite in both aesthetics and function.

A relatively young category, quartz surfacing is a manufactured product that contains 93 percent natural quartz and 7 percent resins and pigments. By comparison, granite contains about 50 percent quartz, which is one of the reasons makers say quartz surfacing is more durable and scratch-resistant. “Only three other natural minerals—diamond, sapphire, and topaz—are harder than quartz,” touts the Web site of Stafford, Texas–based Cosentino USA, which produces Silestone quartz.

Just how scratch-resistant is the stuff? A favorite marketing quip is that a slip of the knife will hurt your Henckels but not your countertop.

star performer Companies say quartz aggregate improves upon granite in a number of ways. For one thing, unlike granite, the product has no fissures. This consistent surface makes it non-porous and less likely to harbor bacteria. Sealing granite guards against absorption, but the material requires periodic resealing to keep it food-safe. Quartz surfacing, in contrast, requires no sealers. Quartz's impenetrable surface also makes it highly resistant to stains and the etching effect of acidic liquids such as wine, lemon juice, and vinegar.

In addition to quartz's performance benefits, the manufacturing process enables companies to mimic other, even more troublesome natural countertop materials, such as limestone, which is very soft and prone to scratching, and concrete, which is porous.

For those consumers who are not fans of the shiny look, quartz manufacturers offer a limited number of honed finishes. Quartz is also available in vibrant hues that Mother Nature has neglected to provide, including bold and iridescent reds, yellows, and blues.

Kieran Liebl, principal of Royal Oaks Design in Shoreview, Minn., first encountered quartz a few years ago but was less than moved by manufacturer performance claims. He is now a convert. “I am really impressed with it,” the architectural designer says. According to Liebl, the product has proved durable, waterproof, and highly resistant to staining. “The maintenance is no different from granite,” Liebl says.

Apparently, the rest of the world is catching on too. “Quartz is now the fastest-growing segment of the countertop surfacing category,” says Valerie A. Aunet, marketing manager for the residential builder division of Wilmington, Del.–based DuPont, whose quartz surface is called Zodiaq. Cambria, in Le Sueur, Minn., supports the claim as well. Between the years 2000 and 2002, the company says, quartz surfacing sales grew more than 2,000 percent, or from a 0.3 percent market share to a 9 percent share.

The material has several sources in addition to Cosentino, DuPont, and Cambria, including Cincinnati-based Formica; Caesar-Stone in Sun Valley, Calif.; Korean conglomerate LG; Italian manufacturer Seieffe Corp.; and Houston-based U.S. Stone. All manufacturers use virtually the same quartz–resin composition, and their fabrication processes are essentially the same. But color and pattern availability differs from company to company.