Climbing Craft 1: Smart Stones

Immediate gratification, identical reproduction and aligning ourselves with brand identities.  In a society where these are the unfortunate signifiers of a contemporary consumer, it is refreshing to seek out those taking a different path.  Individuals who celebrate the unique, seek out innovation and where each outcome showcases the skilled hand of the maker.

In climbing we entrust our lives to the equipment that we use, and equally we must then trust the producers to achieve perfection, there is no room for error.  The big players can be innovative, and  reflect experience, expertise and a respect that has been earned through generations of production.  But where are the individuals occupying the other vast spaces in the climbing world?  Who are the master craftspeople, applying their hand to create accoutrements that are not only useful but also beautiful?

Climbing Craft seeks to shine a spotlight on craftspeople of the climbing world.  Throughout this series, I will be celebrating designers and makers who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible, utilising unexpected materials, experimenting with hand-made processes and realising individual visions.

‘We Are Nature’ - Karin Simčič

As we sit at the dining room table, Martin Simčič's youngest son, Leonard, tentatively meanders over to showcase his newest piece of artwork.  A pattern made out of pebbles, carefully arranged and glued to a piece of paper.  It’s clear that the vein of limestone running under the family home near Stanjel, Slovenia, doesn’t stop in the land, it runs through the veins of the family living here too.

One of the veins of Limestone in a community Jave that has recently re-opened after 30 years of closure.

One of the veins of Limestone in a community Jave that has recently re-opened after 30 years of closure.

The inhabitants of Stanjel have a long history with limestone, the stone masons or Javarji as they are locally known, have been working with rock for thousands of years, the vein stretching back to its earliest inhabitants.  In the not too distant past, many homes would have had their own small quarries called Jave, but modern restrictions have made this challenging.  The Jave under the Simčič house was in fact found by accident.

Karin, Martin’s wife, jokes that there was almost no soil on their land, just enough for one cactus, where they have been building their home together for 6 years.  Looking around the house, you can see its deep connections to the land within which it is built, with the stone used in the surrounding paving, some of the internal walls and to completely line the cellar, where Martin works over the winter.

Karin and Martin Simčič in their cellar workshop.

Karin and Martin Simčič in their cellar workshop.

The landscapes we inhabit inevitably dictate and shape our lives, whether discreetly through our movements and behaviours, or more directly through our vocations and livelihoods. Martin Simčic embodies this completely in his quest to discover and create beautiful and functional objects using stone.  But his love of rock, like the Jave under the house, was only uncovered recently, by chance and with a bit of good luck.

Originally from Postojna, Martin moved to Stanjel to be with his partner Karin.  With a smile he explains that when he arrived, it dawned on him that there was seemingly nothing to do, a far cry from his previous active lifestyle as a skater and snowboarder, how would he occupy this place that is so full of peace and quiet.  Martin explains that the quiet can at times be so deafening, that visitors find it unsettling.  To tackle the impending boredom, Martin visited a local expert stone mason and began learning how to create beautifully carved bowls, ornaments and homeware, inspired by the patterns woven into lace by his grandmother, as well as learning the art of carving gravestones.

One of Martin’s bowls, inspired by the patterns from his Grandmother’s traditional Slovene Lace-making.

One of Martin’s bowls, inspired by the patterns from his Grandmother’s traditional Slovene Lace-making.

Sometimes the most obvious problems, end up being the ones we don’t commit ourselves to solving creatively.  But when Martin found the perfect vein of limestone under his house, and with two young children to occupy, a plan for a small climbing wall at home began to form.  Initially Martin was researching holds to buy, when a friend suggested that he already had all the materials under his feet.  This is where Smart Stones Climbing Holds began.

3 years later and Martin was watching the televised 2019 World Series Dry-tooling competition in France.  He commented to Karin that next year Smart Stones has to be there.  As they continued watching, Martin suddenly noticed a familiar looking hold, and he was compelled to look more closely.  One of their Smart Stones holds was already ahead of them. It transpired that some climbers who had bought holds from Smart Stones had taken them along on the competition circuit and they had been included by the setters.  Although Martin tells this story with a chuckle, it shows that the holds have real value, as they are taking on a life of their own. They have now been used in The European Championships in Domžale, Switzerland, Italy and Slovakia and the interest is still growing.

In order to get to this stage, Martin experimented with his own limestone from the Jave at home for the children’s holds and also local Tonalite for dry-tooling, which is much stronger than limestone.  But first all of the rock needed to be certified for creating climbing holds. During this process the materials are subject to a series of gruelling tests.  The first stage is to submerge the rock in water and then to expose it to temperatures ranging from -30ºC to +70ºC, this was repeated five times.  After witnessing the initial tests, Martin felt sure the rock would fail from being subjected to such extreme environments but it held strong.  Finally, the rock is put under stress tests of up to 160kg of pressure on a single spot, to test the remaining strength after being exposed to the massive temperature variations.  Despite Martin’s reservations and the predictions from the expert analysts, all of the rock from the Simčic Jave was classed as perfect.

It’s not just the materials that Martin and Karin have committed themselves to.  They have sought advice and guidance from the climbing world, who they say have accepted them with open arms.  World Dry-tooling champion Janez Svoljšak offered his thoughts on shapes and styles for their dry-tooling holds and they are constantly engaging with progressive educators (of which Martin is one), to discuss the opportunities and potential for their climbing holds in schools and pre-schools. 

Gabriel shows off the Smart Stones wall at Stanjel Primary School.

Gabriel shows off the Smart Stones wall at Stanjel Primary School.

Both Martin and Karin believe in being part of the whole solution and this is particularly evident in their holds for children.  Using letters and numbers alongside Smart Stones, they aim to get children up and out of their seats, learning through motion and answering questions using climbing as a vessel. As an ex-teacher myself, I was genuinely excited about bringing climbing into the classroom, and can visualise the enthusiasm the children must have to answer questions that are rewarded with a chance to get active on the wall. 

Underneath all of the ethics and motivations for creating the holds, Martin’s passion for beautiful design and new ideas bubbles away.  He explains with certainty that all of his creations “must also be beautiful, not only useful” and on my tour of the workshop, which is a veritable treasure trove for rock lovers, I can see the hints of a creative mind, the beginnings of new ideas and the restless energy that comes from a need to make things by hand.  Martin’s newest idea is playfully called the ‘Rolling Stone’, taking inspiration from Power Ball set-ups in climbing gyms, the Rolling Stone not only builds strength but also aims to help with conditioning for outdoor climbing.  

Rolling Stones.

Rolling Stones.

Before my tour of the workshop was over I was treated to the opportunity of trying to shape my own hold under Martin’s watchful eye and careful guidance.  There is something cathartic about breaking limestone with simple tools and as I carefully lined up my hammer, and brought it down, using its own weight as momentum, the rock broke beautifully in two.  But the real skill comes in the minute adjustments, tweaks and vision.  Being able to make small adjustments with such large tools is an advanced skill, and my clumsy approach revealed the years of work and refined technique it has taken for Martin to create something that looks so natural but has in fact been considered down to the smallest details.  Martin can feel whether a piece of rock will make a good hold before he commits it to the first strike of the hammer, I suppose in much the same way we test the rock on a climb before committing it to our weight or gear.  

Tentative shaping under Martin’s guidance.

Tentative shaping under Martin’s guidance.

As we were about to leave Martin had one more secret to show me, he lifted up a panel in the cellar to reveal a cave that runs deep down into the limestone.  He hasn’t explored it yet, but suspects it leads down into a larger system that can be found all around this region.  The rock still has some surprises to reveal for Martin and his family.  As we finish talking, Karin sums up the Smart Stone journey in the same beautiful simplicity that their climbing holds embody, Smart Stones are “made of Slovenia and made From Slovenia. It’s a Slovenian Story”.

For more information visit: https://smartstones.pro

If you know someone pushing boundaries in the world of climbing craft, or you would like to get involved yourself then I would love to hear from you! You can contact me here.

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