Beds of stone not a hard choice for some

Fans of the bed swear the beds help their backs.
HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Alan Settembrino has tried everything in his quest to ease his bad back -- foam Tempur-Pedic beds, posh Duxiana beds -- but nothing quite like this: a slab of smooth quartz.
Settembrino, 56, is in a strip mall in Ridgefield, N.J., lying on the firmest of the firm -- a stone bed. His skin makes faint slapping noises when it contacts the surface. After 15 minutes, he says he's sold. It's worth a shot.
"I've tried every space-age mattress out there and I still wake up with pain," he said.
Originally a phenomenon in Korea in the late 1990s, stone beds have migrated to areas of the United States with large Korean populations, including New Jersey, home to the third-largest and fastest-growing Korean community in the country. And while still not mainstream even among Koreans, the beds are popular -- or novel -- enough to attract some Westerners. The largest manufacturer, the Korea-based JangSoo Industry Co., recently opened a U.S. office in Atlanta.
Heating coils
The beds are pretty much what they seem -- like a flat bench -- though they aren't made completely of stone. Stone makes up just the top layer of an approximately 4-inch sleeping platform. The beds can be made of quartz, mica, topaz and several varieties of jade, and feature embedded heating coils that give off a low, radiant heat.
Another popular version of the bed -- not quite as hard, but still very solid -- has a vinyl surface covering a layer of specially formulated hardened mud.
Fans of the beds swear they help, rather than hurt, their backs, and can tick off their benefits: Their radiant heat soothes muscles, they're hypoallergenic, they'll last forever.
"I can't live without it," said Marianne Kim, 36, a cancer researcher who moved to Fort Lee, N.J., from Korea 13 years ago. "I feel lighter when I wake up. ... My American friends were so puzzled, I could tell by the look on their face."
Kim switched to stone last winter after years of using a conventional mattress, and said the bed cured circulation problems that kept her up at night. Kim, who recently moved to Chicago, was so taken with the beds she bought two more, including one for her allergy-prone 9-year-old daughter.
Asian culture
The concept of sleeping on a hard surface is not so foreign to some: Koreans and Japanese have traditionally slept on thin mattresses directly on the floor. But the bare beds do take the idea to the extreme. T.K. Park, the owner of JangSoo Furnishings, said he sometimes gives balky customers a thin pad to place atop the stone mattress, though only to overcome "psychological resistance."
In fact, it's hard to separate out psychology in any discussion of the beds. The manufacturers tout infrared radiation and negative ions emitted by the beds as curative, even youth-giving. Some wonder if the beds' appeal is masochistic.
"Anything that's bitter is probably good for you," said Peter Kang, 38, whose sister and parents own stone beds. "Anything that's painful is probably more effective, is the old thinking."
Jeannie Joo, a pharmacist, said many people she knows view the beds as a fad, on par with other health aids publicized by word of mouth and on Korean television channels.
"People listen to their friends more than they'll listen to health professionals," she said.
Sales grow
Still, shopkeepers say sales of the beds, which range in price from $1,500 to $5,000, are growing, including to non-Koreans. Park said he has sold more than 40 beds to non-Koreans in the six years he has carried them. Myung Park, owner of a stone-bed store in Queens, N.Y., said about 5 percent of his customers are Westerners. Besides New Jersey and New York, stone bed stores can be found in Chicago, Los Angeles and Arlington, Va.
Settembrino came to the Ridgefield store because he had already bought a smaller, portable version of the mud-style bed -- the only surface on which he's been able to sleep for years.
"You put [the heat] on 10 minutes before you go to bed and it's toasty," he said.
Doctors have surprisingly little to say about sleeping on something as hard as rock.
Timothy Radomisli, an orthopedic surgeon in Manhattan, said softer mattresses don't necessarily keep the spine aligned, and there's no definitive evidence that firmer mattresses are worse or better.
"For an average healthy person, from 20s to 60s, it's entirely up to you how firm a mattress you want to sleep," he said.

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