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A picturesque German town that has played a pivotal role in the colour gemstone trade for over 200 years.

The small town of Idar-Oberstein near Frankfurt, Germany, is world renowned for its cutting of coloured gemstones. What Antwerp once meant to Diamond cutting, Idar-Oberstein was for colour. Whilst a greater volume of Diamond cutting today is carried out in Surat, India, much coloured gemstone cutting has moved to Jaipur and Bangkok. That said, because of the incredible quality of master craftsmen in Idar-Oberstein, the small town still plays an important role in the gem world, especially at the top end of the market. So where did it all begin? To answer this question I spent time with Constantine Wild.

His family has been at the heart of the Idar-Oberstein gem cutting community for four generations. Constantine passionately explained the history of the town in great detail, here is a brief synopsis: the geological terrain in the area is very similar to that in Southern Brazil. Historically there were many Carnelian, Agate, Quartz and Amethyst mines in the region. We can trace their existence back five hundred years, but there is information to suggest that even the Romans were mining gemstones in the region. The town is situated along the banks of the river Idar: from the flow of the river their ancestors were able to make mills which turned huge sandstone grinding wheels which early lapidarists used to facet Agate. Unlike today’s gemstone laps, these vast six foot wide wheels were mounted vertically. Lapidarists would lie on the floor and use their entire body weight to push the Agate against the spinning sandstone wheel.

By the early 19th century all of the local mines were depleted and many people had to change industry. During a period of severe poverty in 1820s, many Germans migrated to Southern America. A few years later on discovering the same varieties of gemstones in Brazil they started to ship them back to their motherland. Because of the heavy weight of the uncut rough Agate, they were able to convince ship owners to use them as ballasts. As a result they were shipped virtually half way around the world for free. This completely revived the gemstone industry in the region and by the early 1900s it was said that Idar Oberstein was the wealthiest town on the planet!

Today most of the Agate lapidary work has moved to China and the Quartz business is mainly carried out in Jaipur. However, being a very technically minded nation, local gem cutters have developed some of the most highly 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. But the area does not just survive because of its advancements in technology and there are still many award-winning free-form gemstone artists, gem sculptors and cameo carvers cultivating their art in this very historical and talented town.

Glenn Lehrer, world renowned and award-winning lapidarist, has told me many stories of visits he has made to Idar-Obestein.  Even though Glenn operates his workshop in San Francisco, he regularly makes trips to what he calls ‘the centre of the lapidarist’s universe’. Glenn tells how historically the two towns used to be separate, with Idar specialising in making jewellery and Oberstein in cutting gemstones. Glenn tells of a good friend of his that has refused to embrace any technology and still uses the old fashioned huge grinding wheels and cuts most of his gems by candle light. This is not just stubbornness insists Glenn, but serves to remind us that gem cutting is a real art form and many of the greatest artists in the world have spent a lifetime creating masterpieces with the most primitive of tools.

If you are interested in learning more about how gemstones are cut and faceted then I recommend a visit to the town. There are several gemstone museums and there is every chance that you will bump into someone happy to show you their workshop. In October each year there is the Idar- Oberstein gem exhibition and many of the 200 to 300 local gem companies show off their talents.

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