Idar-Oberstein, the gem centre of Europe. A beautiful city where you can find incredible quantities of Lapis Lazuli of all shapes and forms compared only with the warehouses found in Peshawar. Lapis artisans have existed a couple of millenia B.C. A lot of traditions have been continued by the artisans of today. Here in Idar-Oberstein-Gem Center of Europe we will get to learn a little of these traditional lapis artisans.
In the Middle Ages they were two cities instead of one. Idar and Oberstein were made one in the 1930’s. They line the valley of the River Nahe in West Germany. Very little happens in Idar-Oberstein other than the gem business. The waters of the Rhine River was used to provide the power for the stone cutting and polishing powered tools of the craftsmen.
The gem cutting craft in Idar-Oberstein developed some five hundred years ago (possibly far earlier). When miners discovered local deposits of agate and amethyst. Cutting, slicing, drilling and polishing the rock became a major industry.
Then in the 1800’s the agate began to run out. Idar’s master craftsmen from the nineteenth century traveled around the world in search of the missing agate. South America was one placed they went. Brazil was one of the targets. Huge rocks of amethysts, tourmalines, citrines, and topaz were loaded into the holds of German ships. Other craftsmen turned to Afghanistan and its magical Lapis Lazuli.
At the end of the nineteenth century, gems from all around the world were being shipped to Idar-Oberstein for cutting by its famous artisans. There were literally hundreds of cutting houses in the town. This very fame led to the end of the industry’s prime. The wages in the area became too high to warrant cutting less valuable stones and many gem-cutters were forced to emigrate.
However many of the artisans and their families remained to continue the tradition through the generations. Today Idar-Oberstein is still famous for some of the finest gem carving in the world. Many modern lapidary artists still flourish, as well as the dealers who import rough stones from gem markets around the world.
In the 1980’s, Afghan refugee jewelers escaped the Soviet invasion and traveled to Idar-Oberstein. They set up workshops and supplied themselves with lapis with the help of relatives, friends and dealers back home.
One of the traditional gem cutters of Idar-Oberstein is the Mogbil family. Khalil Mogbil came from Herat in western Afghanistan. Traditional painting (using ground lapis) was his beginnings. His father in law was in the gem business, including dealing with stone cutters in Germany. His family claims that it was he who introduced Germany to Lapis Lazuli. In 1983 he migrated to Idar-Oberstein and later on his large family followed him.
Khalil was one of them. There he specialized in unpolished lapis objects. Despite the existence of modern machinery for the task, this gem cutter and most of the traditional families use whirring stone wheels to shape lumps of lapis. Some say Khalil Mogbil is an artist first, a jewelry second.
Another traditional family dealing with Lapis Lazuli were the Mohrs. The Mohr family has been in the gem cutting business for three generations. Thomas Mohr is occasionally commissioned to engrave the highest-grade lapis for intricacy and magical jewelry that sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
Both Mohr´s grandfathers were jewelers. In 1920´s both traveled to Afghanistan to obtain raw material. They immediately focused on the potential of Lapis Lazuli for the German market. They sent back large consignments. The remains of those consignments still keep the company´s craftsmen busy today.
Breaking up the rough stones, they extract the most brilliant blue pieces to fashion mostly small items. They make abstract, floral, butterflies, scarabs, necklaces, brooches and so on. The difference from Khalils products are that Mohrs are highly polished. They also make pietra dura tables. These are more modest in design than the Florentine triumphs.
If the gem cutters from Idar-Oberstein run low in Lapis Lazuli, they don´t have to travel anymore to Afghan Blue Mountains. They just have to call up Afghan or Pakistani middlemen who maintain warehouses of the raw stones near Stuttgart. “If I need less than 20 kilos of medium grade lapis I can have if within two days”, Mohrs says.
Larger quantities or better quality pieces take longer. “If they don´t have what I want in their warehouses, they generally contact a relative or associate in Kabul or Peshawar and have him send it by air freight or deliver it in person,” Mohr explains.
New Destiny For Lapis
New bulk shipments of Lapis Lazuli go now to China and Hong Kong, “The Gem Capital of the World”. The cheap labor and materials makes China a necessity to lapis manufacturing process. Even the gem cutters from Idar-Oberstein send thousands of gems including lapis to be cut and faceted at factories in Sri Lanka, Thailand or China.
Despite cheaper lapis products from China, dealers from Idar-Oberstein or not concerned about the competition. The traditional gem cutters from this beautiful German town have been transforming stones and gems into amazing jewelry and marvelous objects since the 1400´s. They´ve endured all kinds of difficulties.
I believe they will keep doing just that…