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May/June 2009
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Collective Soul: The History Behind the Gem Industry in Idar-Oberstein

By Cara Woudenberg · Online Editor

The town of Idar-Oberstein is actually a pair of villages a few miles apart which are now one political entity. Despite their union in 1933 — Oberstein, known for its jewelry manufacturing, and Idar, the gem cutting center — each remains true to their traditional specialties and rivalries today.

Home to about 50,000 inhabitants, Idar-Oberstein is located in a scenic little valley in the Hunsrück Mountains on the very western edge of Germany. Although it is virtually unknown to most Americans outside the gem trade, this so-called "gemstone city" or Edelsteinstadt has become an increasingly popular tourist destination for Europeans. Visitors enjoy walking through the beautiful scenery, sometimes collecting agates and jaspers found in the fields, and visiting its fine museums.

The town of Idar-Oberstein has a 500-year-plus history in the gem industry. A remarkable tradition of gemstone cutting developed in the area after — according to historical records — miners in the late 14th century found agates and amethyst crystals in Miocene-age basalt formations not far from the tiny towns of Idar and Oberstein. However, the actual history of the industry there probably predates exisiting records of it. Many cutters in Idar claim that agate mining and cutting dates back to Roman times, although the evidence so far — some Roman settlements nearby and a Roman road that runs near an important source of cutting material — is inconclusive.

Although today the gem industry there includes leading producers of all types of cut gems, it was founded on gem quartz — particularly agate — all of which originally came from the local deposits, which also produced jasper, rock crystal, amethyst, and smoky quartz.

The development of the agate industry in Idar-Oberstein was based on the agate and jasper deposits, good local sandstone used for the production of cutting and polishing wheels, and water power to work the wheels. It is known that gemstones have been worked in or near Idar-Oberstein since the beginning of the 16th century; although it is known that agate, jasper, and quartz were locally mined at least 100 years before that, the material was possibly worked somewhere else.

By the start of the 18th century, there were about 15 workshops cutting agate and using the nearby Nahe River for energy; this number doubled by the begninning of the 19th century. But by this time, the local agate deposits were becoming worked out and many cutters began to leave the area. New life was brought back to the area's gem industry, however, when German emigrants discovered large agate deposits in Brazil and brought the material back. By the latter half of the 1800s, there were more than 150 cutting shops in Idar-Oberstein. In addition to cutting agate and jasper into jewelry stones, the Idar cutters also carved all kinds of stone objects — dishes, goblets, bowls, snuff boxes, cane heads, parasol handles, fancy buttons, and even beads.

Idar's highly specialized workplace is as much a part of the town's identity today as it was in its heyday, even though what remains of this picturesque technology is now used almost solely for display to tourists. For centuries, the distinguishing characteristic of the "gemstone city" has been the water-powered cutting mill, examples of which once thickly lined the streams that flow near or through Idar.

Some of the original businesses in Idar and Oberstein are still going strong today, and the joined towns have been widely recognized as the most significant European cutting center for gemstones other than diamond since the 18th century.

The area in and around Idar-Oberstein has many gem-related attractions, including the German Gemstone Museum (Deutsches Edelsteinmuseum), a local gem museum considered by many gem connoisseurs to be one of the best in the world. The facility is devoted entirely to the public display of crystals, cabochon-cut and faceted gems, jewelry, and carvings.

The town is also home to the Museum Idar-Oberstein, which provides an introduction to the gems, minerals, jewelry, amd fossils for which the region is so famous. Although it was originally a local history and environment museum, it also houses many collections and displays that reflect the importance of gemstones, minerals, and jewelry in the life and history of Idar-Oberstein.

The centuries-old gem mines of Steinkaulenberg are also a big attraction in Idar-Oberstein. The mine was still active in the first half of the 19th century, but was closed and abandoned by about 1870 due to the good-quality, inexpensive material coming from Brazil at the time. In the 20th century, several attempts were made to clean out the mine areas and they were eventually converted to a research area, a collectors' mine, and a visitors' mine.

The region also hosts the International Trade Fair for Precious Stones and Jewellery (Intergem) which began in 1985 and is held every year in September or October. It showcases many local dealers that sell fine, loose colored stones, as well as jewelry designers. It attracts anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 visitors, mostly jewelers and jewelry designers from Germany and surrounding countries.

Local Links:

German Gemstone Museum (Deutsches Edelsteinmuseum)

Museum Idar-Oberstein

Steinkaulenberg

International Trade Fair for Precious Stones and Jewellery (Intergem)

The Idar-Oberstein Web site

 

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