Idar-Oberstein is a German town located in the west of the country just 45 miles from the border with Luxembourg, and 80 miles west of Frankfurt. As the crow flies, it is just under 450 miles away from our TV studios in the Midlands. You might not have heard of it before, but it’s an incredibly important place for the gemstone cutting industry, and it has been held in high regard for hundreds of years. Here, we delve into the history and significance of the town and learn how a small area of Germany came to have such a significant impact on the gemstone world.
Idar-Oberstein is situated on the southern edge of the Hunsrück mountain range. The town spreads across both sides of the valley created by the River Nahe at the point where it is joined by the River Idar. Its geographic location gives the town a very distinct and charming appearance, with outcroppings of rock and gently rolling hills all around. Picturesque houses stretch up onto the hillsides around the center of the town, resplendent in a palette of pastel hues. Perhaps the most visually striking building is the medieval church built into the side of a hill, which dominates the skyline in the southern part of the town. The church is built on the site of a natural spring and has occupied this remarkable spot since 1482. The cave into which the church is built is responsible for part of the town's name. It was known locally as ‘upper stone’, which in German is ‘ober stein’. Further up the hill lies the remains of Castle Bosselstein, which dates back even further, to 1197. Higher still is Schloss Oberstein, another castle that burned down in 1855 but has since been partially restored.
The hyphenated town name came about due to rapid expansion and changing boundaries. The village of Idar, which is further to the north, belonged to one local authority, while the village of Oberstein fell under a different jurisdiction to the south. In 1865, the growing villages were granted town rights, but they remained distinct from each other until changing governance boundaries in 1933 saw them come together under the combined name. Further reforms in 1969 saw many of the local rural villages come into the wider Idar-Oberstein area too, and today there is an estimated population of around 28,500 in the area. The Idar and Oberstein parts of the town still maintain their individual heritage and traditions. A type of German spit roast, known as 'spießbraten', is prepared and cooked differently depending on whether you're in the Idar or the Oberstein part of the town. Hundreds of buildings in Idar-Oberstein are listed in Germany's Directory of Cultural Monuments. It's easy to see why – the architecture of the town represents many different classic periods including baroque, gothic, renaissance and art nouveau.
This cultural, historical and architectural hub would be a fascinating place to discover on any journey. However, its significance in the jewelry trade makes it truly fascinating to the gemstone enthusiast. We have to go back to the time the medieval church was built to begin the story of Idar-Oberstein’s gemstone association. The interesting geological lay of the land offers the region much more than beautiful views – there are gemstones under the hills. Jasper, Agate, Carnelian, Amethyst and other stones have all been mined here, and in the late 1400s gemstone cutters and carvers from far and wide began flocking to the area looking for employment. Some sources indicate that Agate had already been mined here for hundreds of years by this point, and there is even information to suggest that the Ancient Romans mined gems in the region.
The industry began to gather pace in the late 15th century because technological advances meant that the nearby river was able to power the gemstone cutting and polishing machines of the day. Riverside mills with water wheels were able to turn huge grinding stones, which early lapidarists used to facet the local gemstone finds. Unlike today’s gem-cutting wheels, these huge, six foot wide stones were mounted vertically. Lapidarists would lie on the floor and use their entire body weight to push the Agate against the edge of the spinning sandstone wheel.
This is how things remained for hundreds of years as Idar-Oberstein enjoyed its first golden age. As the decades rolled by, generation after generation of gemstone cutter and crafter would learn the skills passed down through their own family and add their own improvements and innovations to their craft. By the time the local supply of gemstones began to wane in the 18th century, Idar-Oberstein was an accomplished and extremely reputable town in the jewelry trade. It was unthinkable that these world-class skills would be forgotten as people moved on to other professions to make ends meet. Thankfully, by the time the local mines did start to run dry, there had been a global revolution in trading and travel. This allowed for some of the skilled artisans from Idar-Oberstein to go in search of gemstones elsewhere, even making it as far as Brazil. By pure geological coincidence, Idar’s emigrates arrived in Brazil to find that a lot of the same varieties of gemstone were being mined. As well as Agate and Quartz, Tourmaline and Topaz were also found to be bountiful in the soils of the South American country.
Following the discovery of one of the largest ever Agate deposits in 1827 by travelers from Idar-Oberstein, it was decided that some of the rough would be sent back there for cutting. This would take advantage of the finely honed skills on offer and would also help keep the businesses running as the local mines all but closed. The discovery was made in Brazil’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, some 6,500 miles away from the town. When it came to finding a way to get it back to their hometown for cutting, the travelers managed to get most of their finds shipped halfway around the globe for free. Many of the ships that were bringing goods from Europe to South America were making their return trips almost empty. The enterprising cutters were able to convince the ship owners to use the large, heavy, rough stones as ballast to stabilize their ships during the long voyage back to Europe. This new supply of gems completely revived the cutting industry in the region, and the town’s reputation for fine cutting and intricate craftsmanship spread farther and wider than it ever had before. Soon, gemstones from all over the world were being received in the hundreds of cutting houses the town now boasted. The artisans of the town continued to innovate, developing new techniques to dye and stabilize Agate and other gemstones, which were kept a trade secret by the craftspeople of the town for many years. The availability of good quality rough gemstone material in Idar-Oberstein allowed the world-class cutters to further develop, refine and experiment with their skills. This led to the creation of intricate new goblets, amulets and cameos – all painstakingly crafted from delicate rough material. So prolific was the cutting of stones in Idar-Oberstein that by the early 1900s it was said to be the wealthiest town on the planet.
Some of the cutters began steadily moving to Brazil over the early years of the 20th century as wages in the area became too high to compete with other cutting hubs. Coupled with the financial ruin caused by two world wars, Idar-Oberstein’s second golden age had come to an end by the mid-1940s. So the town reinvented itself once more, becoming more of a gemstone trading hub and investing heavily in mines not only in Brazil but in Africa too. Today, most Agate lapidary work has moved to China, and Quartz cutting is mainly carried out in Jaipur, India. However, the most recent generations of gem cutter have developed some of the most advanced cutting techniques and technology on the planet. This has helped Idar-Oberstein maintain its reputation as a leading force in the cutting of high-end precious stones. There are still many award-winning free-form gemstone artists, gem sculptors and cameo carvers cultivating their art in this historical and highly-skilled town.
The town continues to make its mark on the jewelry industry, and some of the finest cutters of the modern era have strong links with Idar-Oberstein. Glenn Lehrer, gemstone artist and creator of the TorusRing cut (among many others), spent a lot of time here in the 1980s honing his skills. Glenn spent time with renowned gem cutters such as Bernard Becker, Erwin Pauly and his son Hans-Ulrich Pauly, and was the first American to co-create gemstones with an Idar-Oberstein jewelry master. Glenn has called the town “the center of the lapidarist’s universe”, and he revisits whenever he can. Glenn also notes that the historical roots of the two separate villages are shown by their particular specialties. The Idar part of town is more focused on making jewelry while the Oberstein area is more established in cutting gemstones. Rudi and Ralph Wobito, creators of the Snowflake and Alpine cuts, are third-generation master gemstone cutters based in Canada. But they inherited their gemstone passion and learned their cutting skills from their father and grandfather, who operated a gem cutting business in Idar-Oberstein.
A visit to the town can be enriching for any gemstone enthusiast. As well as the medieval church, which features a stunning Agate cross crafted from local material, there are several gemstone museums to visit and even an old mine that can still be toured. If you visit between October 3rd and 6th this year, you’ll also catch the annual gem fair. Here, exhibitors from all over the world convene in the town to show off their finest gemstones and jewelry, joined by many of the traditional local businesses that are continuing the great traditions of their forebears. You might even bump into someone happy to show you their workshop.
Idar-Oberstein’s place in the history books is assured, its rich heritage and immeasurable contribution to the gemstone industry forever captured in the stunning gemstones the town has created for over 500 years. The town continues to produce the finest examples of gemstone art in the world. While its output may be reduced from that of 100 years ago, it’s hard to argue against the fact that Idar-Oberstein is enjoying its third golden age.
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