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West Germany’s Idar-Oberstein Is a Real Gem

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<i> Lo Bello is an American author and journalist living in Vienna</i> .

The main attraction to this city on the River Nahe--a 40-minute drive from the Luxembourg border--is that, like a diamond, it has many facets.

Idar-Oberstein is considered one of the great gem centers of Europe. Located on the “Gem Highway” (clearly marked with gem signs to let you know you’re on the right track), it has a more than 600 gem shops, as well as a gem museum.

Long before Columbus sailed to America, locals discovered high quality jasper, agate and amethyst, and Idar-Oberstein soon had a flourishing industry going, eventually becoming the gem center of Germany.

The local gemstone deposits eventually were exhausted about 1850, and many of Idar-Oberstein’s gem workers migrated to Brazil, Ceylon, Australia and South Africa. Soon they began shipping gems back home--moonstone from Ceylon, opals from Australia and tiger eye from Africa--and these imports enabled the town’s gem tradition to continue.

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What intrigues tourists who come here, besides the possibility of purchasing jewelry of all kinds, are the gemstone workers themselves.

In the past, workers used to lie on special tilted benches in front of the big, water-bathed sandstone grinding wheels used for carving and polishing the stones. Visitors still can get a demonstration of this method in the Weiher-Schleife grinding mill.

The German Museum of Precious Stones at 34 Mainzer Strasse 34 is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Maintained by the area’s gem dealers, the museum has a spectacular display of rough gemstones, crystals and hundreds of magnificent, colored gems.

Tourists still look for and find minerals such as agates, jasper, chalcedony and amethyst on the hillsides, cliffs and quarries. Access to these areas, however, must be obtained beforehand from the owners or lessees of the property, otherwise they are entered at a person’s own risk.

But no risk is involved in walking along the Steinkaulenberg, following the traces of the former stone quarries. A woodland path leads past 30 of these diggings, which interconnect to form a vast labyrinth within the hillside.

The Steinkaulenberg is no longer an active side, but remains a monument to the toil and effort that founded this town. Since 1978, the biggest gaps and caves have been open to the public on guided tours from mid-March to mid-November.

To learn how Idar-Oberstein became a gem city, visitors must refer to a 12th-Century love story of sorts. History relates that a Count Wyrich of Oberstein, who was in love with a damsel called Bertha of Lichtenberg, did not take kindly to the attention his brother, Emich, was showering on Bertha. To end this, Count Wyrich threw Emich out a castle window, but then was was forced to leave town himself.

Years later, a repentant Count Wyrich, seeking absolution for his misdeed, came back to Oberstein and began building a stone church into the cliff under the castle from which Emich had been given the heave-ho.

During the excavations, jasper, amethyst and other precious stones were discovered and thus, according to the tale, the gem industry began.

In addition to the Steinkaulenberg, visitors here can walk up to the famous “Church on the Rock.” It’s a steep climb but a rewarding one, both for the magnificent view of Oberstein and the River Nahe and for the treasures of the church itself, built by Wirich IV of Daun-Oberstein between 1482 and 1484 and restored in 1929. By virtue of its unique setting in a grotto in the sheer cliff face, it has become a landmark and symbol of the town.

High above, overlooking the town from a position on the Church Rock, is the Old Castle, first recorded in 1197. Above it stands the ruins of the New Castle, built in 1330 and gutted by fire in 1855. Both are in wooded grounds containing exotic trees.

The forest where the robber chieftain, Schinderhannes, once roamed stretches from the surrounding hills to Idar-Oberstein itself. It is still mostly a primeval forest, with valleys, water mills, rocky crags, secluded caves and lonely castles, inviting walkers.

Also, visitors can go on horse and covered wagon trips and tour a medieval copper mine, which is in nearby Fischbach. Anglers will find woodland streams and ponds where they can fish for trout, tench and carp.


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