Idar-Oberstein

After the excitement of our Amsterdam visit 1995, Utrecht with its centres of learning was a marked change of pace.  The convention in Utrecht now being over we linked up with other touring family members and set off in two cars for our next destination which happened to be Idar-Oberstein. Home to about 50,000 inhabitants, Idar-Oberstein is in a scenic little valley in the Hunsrück Mountains on the very western edge of Germany.

Our son in law was chosen as the driver for our Opal rental car.  We’d picked the car up at the airport in Amsterdam and were told we could go anywhere in Europe except the Balkan states.  Apparently rental vehicles disappeared in that area of the world with predictable frequency, and we were threatened if we tried to enter those areas the vehicle would be taken from us.  So, we proceeded determining to give those countries a wide berth.

For some time on the forward journey we’d followed canals goggling at nude sunbathers soaking up the sunlight on barges as they slowly made their way through canals.  Not a sight you’d see in the countries we lived in, and the nonchalant nudes would probably have been arrested if they’d attempted to do that in our own country.  However, it was such a common sight as we proceeded on our journey. Only tourists were interested in this unusual sight to locals it was not worth a second look.

Now at this point of time I have to confess my ignorance of the German language.  Because our maps clearly outlined the journey, and relatives in the first car leading us knew their way around having lived in Germany for many years I didn’t feel at all disadvantaged in my ignorance.  My wife who spoke both German and Hungarian would take command and I could watch it all go by with detached and stress-free interest.

My son-in-law was ecstatic when we crossed the border and entered German autobahns.  At 180 kmph he thought this was the best experience of his life, but slightly humbled to find most cars passing us at 200 kmph and making us look like creeping turtles. Tibor my brother-in-law in the lead car tried to draw us up to that speed now and then, but when we fell far behind gave up and resumed with us to the leisurely 180 kmph we favoured, with frequent stops as he spied roadside stalls selling delicies that caught his fancy of the moment.  Cherries were his specialty.

While on our way to Idar-Oberstein I noticed the word ausfahrt at every exit from the autobahn.  Must be the name of the city we’re passing by thought me.  But an hour after noticing this strange sounding “city” exit the same sign kept surfacing.  So, I remarked to my good wife that Ausfahrt must be a big city indeed.  We’d been passing exits to that place for a long time!  I was rewarded with an explosion of laughter and of course the story had to be told to all we met after that because ausfahrt means exit in German.  I have learned to keep my ignorance to myself from that day on.  I’m constantly being asked by those who know the story if I’d like to return to Germany and visit the city of Ausfahrt!  I hang my head in shame at my ignorance.

Eventually we reached our destination Idar-Oberstein.  It was there we’d spend the night and while my gem salesman brother-in-law did business with the merchants next day, we wandered around enjoying the scenery and shopping.  It seemed that the town had been taken over by Africans that day.  They were there in force in beat up cars doing gem business with the town traders out of the trunk of their cars.  Where their country of origin was, how they’d managed to get those precious gems across borders to trade in the middle of Europe was a source of interest to me, but they were suspicious of strangers and engaging them in conversation was impossible.  The bouncers would rush to intercept before you could get near one of those cars and indicate it would be foolish for me to proceed further.

So, we walked around town absorbing the feeling of an ancient community making a transition to the rat race of our modern age.  Small shops with water wheels which I was informed powered gem processing machinery were side by side with shops brimming with modern appliances and systems. 

But business having been completed it was time for us to move on to our next destination.

© Copyright 2021 Ian Grice, “ianscyberspace.” All rights reserved.

© Image Worldtravellingmilitaryfamily.com

From © Wikipedia Online Reference

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 jewellery manufacturing, and Idar, the gem cutting centre — 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 existing 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 beginning 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 jewellery 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 centre 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, jewellery, and carvings.

The town is also home to the Museum Idar-Oberstein, which provides an introduction to the gems, minerals, jewellery, and 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 jewellery 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 jewellery designers. It attracts anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 visitors, mostly jewellers and jewellery 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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