Gemstones of Germany

Idar-Oberstein is an interesting town not far from us, maybe 15 minutes away. We often take visitors to hike the mountain there, but more regularly we go to Idar to shop at the home improvement store for our garden and hobbies. I’ve been meaning to blog about it for some time, but I keep pushing it off since it has become a regular place for us. But when Danielle visited last month, we toured the gemstone mine, one of the few things in Idar-Oberstein I had yet to do, and I was reminded of how wonderful the city is. I decided it deserved a blog post! 

Idar-Oberstein, just like our town, is a combo of a few tows that merged as one. For Idar-Oberstein, this merge happened officially in 1933, forcefully, by the Nazis. I can honestly say that Idar-Oberstein is one of the most interesting places near us… well maybe even far from us too! Two castles, a church literally IN a mountain, gemstones, spiesbraten, AND it is the birthplace of Bruce Willis! That’s right, BRUCE WILLIS. His father was a soldier stationed in Idar-Oberstein and his mother was German. The family spent a few years in Idar-Oberstein before returning to New Jersey.

Where to start. How about with the two castles. The lower castle, Bosselstein, first mentioned in historical documents from the year 1197, was destroyed by war and fell to ruin. Today, all that remains is one small tower. If you aren’t looking, you might not notice it, but lucky for my visitors we always hike up 🙂 . Hiking up from the town you can follow a path past the church, to Bosselstein to take in an amazing view. You can then climb even further to the newer castle, Oberstein, which was built in 1320 for an even better view of the Hunsrüke Mountains. Castle Oberstein is also in ruins due to a fire in 1855, but thanks to a dedicated group of citizens, parts have been restored and it has become a symbol for the city.

View of Bosselstein and city from above at Castle Oberstein

Castle Oberstein from the town looking up (with a lot of zoom)

The inhabitants of Bosselstein have provided a wonderful folktale that has survived the ages, better than the castle. I am going to save myself from retelling the story, and just share with you a version told online by a former resident of Oberstein:

In the middle of the 14th century, two brothers lived there: Wyrich, the oldest, and young Emich.  Unbeknownst to each other, they both loved the beautiful maiden Bertha, a Lady of Castle Lichtenburg (not too far away from Oberstein).  She, in turn, had lost her heart to Emich (and vice versa) and consented to become his wife.  Wyrich was absent from the castle as the engagement took place.  Learning of this upon his return, he felt betrayed and being quite hot-tempered, he attacked his brother and threw him out of a window; the young man plummeted to his death on the rocks some 450 feet below (death by defenestration!).

When he realised what he had done, Wyrich was overcome with remorse and fled the castle, travelling for long years, in vain seeking his own death in battle until one day he decided to return home.  Bertha had died in the meantime … presumably of a broken heart.  At her grave- side, Wyrich confessed his horrible deed to the abbot.  For a penance, this abbot bade him to build a chapel on the place where his brother’s broken body had been found, build it with his own two hands.  Wyrich went to work like a man possessed, all the time praying that he might find forgiveness.

When this labour was completed, it was taken as a sign that his penance was complete also, his sin forgiven, as a spring opened up within the chapel (a spring which remains active today).

Wyrich himself died at the steps of the altar as the chapel was being consecrated.  He was buried in the same tomb that he had hewn out of the hard rock for Emich — the two brothers united, at last, in death.

Quite a story! And if you followed the link, you would notice that Bertha lived at the first castle we visited in Germany, Burg Lichtenberg. So cool!

As the story goes, Wyrich constructed the Chapel in the Mountain, and it still stands today—with the working spring. The chapel has odd hours so I have only gone in once with a visitor but it was pretty amazing. To enter you climb a few stairs through a cave. The interior of the church is nothing too special, but when you go through a back door you exit the church to the mountain. There is a small hallway between the church and the side of the mountain where you can walk around for a viewpoint and see the spring. Its really pretty interesting, and quite beautiful to look up at from town.

Idar-Oberstein is know for these landmarks, but these are not the tourist draws that keep the town alive. That is gemstones. For thousands of years the mountains in Idar-Oberstein were mined for Agates, Jasper and Quartz. This was the main income source until the 18th century. The stones were mined in very harsh conditions and cut by harnessing the power of the River Nahe. As an economic depression hit Germany, many people left the area and some traveled as far as Rio in Brazil. In Rio they were shocked to see precious gemstones used as street pavers! The industrious Germans started importing the stones from Brazil back to Germany so the skilled cutters could cut these beautiful stones. Since then Idar-Oberstein has been a gemstone cutting capitol not only of Europe, but the world.

one of the exterior displays at the museum. this is probably 30 inches across

Artist from Idar-Oberstein are known around the world for their skill which has been passed down through the generations. There is a rumor that one of the artists in Idar-Oberstein developed a new cut, and he has not taught anyone how to do it. He is up there in age, and when he retires, that is the end of that cut. My landlord son works in the business and told us very recently that Josten’s (the company in the US that makes school and athletic championship rings) gets all of their stones from the Idar-Oberstein area, and that the “crazy Americans keep [him] working hard”. I immediately got up and retrieved my Josten’s High School ring to show him my emerald.

Today, the Edelsteinminen Steinkaulenberg, the gemstone mine, is the only in Europe you can tour… and that we did! While Danielle was visiting last month we escaped the somewhat unbearable heat by wandering through the mine. If you are local to the area and reading this, I hope you go! It was very interesting, and stroller friendly. An earpiece was provided so we could hear, in English, the history and information the guide was providing. The only part of the experience we did not do, because of time, was digging. On site they have a field that is stocked with all kinds of gemstones, for a very small fee you are welcome to dig around to your hearts delight to find some treasures. I hope to take Brock some afternoon for some digging. How cool would it be to have a piece of jewelry made of a stone Brock dug up for me… maybe a Christmas present?

I hope you enjoyed reading this one. Idar-Oberstein is so ordinary to us but when I started researching its past, and learned about the mining history from our tour, I really fell in love with the town. Below you will find a slideshow of our trip in the mine.

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