Idar-Oberstein — The Gemcutters' City
Idar-Oberstein is the name of two cities, Idar and Oberstein, that merged together in 1933. Tucked away in the Hunsrück Mountains of southwestern Germany, the city has a rich history of mining and gem-cutting for over 500 years that has made it one of the leading colored gemstone trading centers in the world.
Mining of agate, jasper and quartz began in the late 1400s, creating a demand for gem-cutters, stone-carvers, and lapidary artisans to move to the area. During this period, the Nahe River was harnessed to power the waterwheels used to grind, cut, and polish the locally mined gemstones, and a major gem-cutting industry was born. The artists, mostly working by hand at home workshops or ateliers, used all varieties of gem material and produced bowls, goblets, boxes, objets d’art such as sculptures of plants and animals as well as beads and cameos. When the mineral deposits were exhausted in the early 1800s, the area's industry declined until a way was found to provide new material to Idar-Oberstein. During this time, large amounts of agates and quartz were found in Brazil, and German traders were able to ship the agate nodules and quartz crystals back as ballast on empty ships that had dropped off cargo. The inexpensive gem material was transported to Idar-Oberstein, and the industry rebounded in the late 1800s.
The church in Idar-Oberstein. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
After World War II, the region had another resurgence and developed into a leading hub in the trade of rough and cut gemstones from Brazil and Africa. This provided local artists with a large selection of material, and Idar-Oberstein encountered a "third boom" as a gemstone center. In the 1970s, artists developed new concepts and techniques in cutting and carving to create the next generation of original designs. Bernd Munsteiner, the "Father of the Fantasy Cut," is considered one of the pioneers during this time. He is also acknowledged to be one of the greatest gem artists of the 20th century, combining traditional methods with dynamic modern forms creating gem sculptures.
Today, Idar-Oberstein is primarily known for the cutting of large, valuable gemstones, fantasy cuts, important sculptures, and the wholesale trade in polished gemstones. The talented artists continue the tradition of gem carving and cutting passed on from generation to generation. Their creations and faceted gems are sought after by the world’s most important jewelry houses and gem collectors. The craftsmen of Idar-Oberstein cut for beauty and optics and not carat weight of the finished piece. Many people are unaware of Idar-Oberstein and this very specialized craft. It is a well kept secret, only known to the connoisseurs and dealers of fine gemstones and gem sculptures. Since 1985, in September or October, Idar-Oberstein is host to the annual Intergem trade show (International Trade Fair for Precious Stones and Jewelry).
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