It takes some time to get to know the facets of the history and current culture of stone cutting in Idar-Oberstein. There are many mysteries that reveal themselves differently to each person, so I’ll just share a few of my experiences with stones in I.O. I fell behind writing this blog when I started to know exactly how I would spend my hours each day at the Fabrik, and evening hours at the school cutting stones…. time on the computer was minimal.
There are two wonderful Edelstein museums in Idar-Obertsein, and visiting them both will help orient you to the history of stone cutting in the region, and possibilities intrinsic to both natural and synthetic stones. (The Deutsche Edelsteinmuseum and Deutsches-Mineralien Museum). Both places are filled with feats of human accomplishment. A stone on its own from nature can be precious or non-precious, but it is the touch of skilled labourers, craftspeople and artists that make them valuable.
A unique experience I was privy to was a private showing of the historic stones and finished jewelry from the Gebrüder Wild collection. These pieces recently filled the Deutsches Goldsmithing Museum in Hanau, but I got to touch everything! I saw fascinating spring and pin mechanisms, hand-cut bee bodies and agate drop earring that looked so modern I would wear them today if I owned them.
I also visited the firm Lempke, a few miles outside Idar-Oberstein. When driving up, I saw huge boulders of rough agate with their centers scooped out. My friend Helen said, “Rebecca- you going to need one of the agate mortar and pestles they sell here”. I felt relieved- whew– I definitely did not need that- I have a porcelain lab type mortar from years ago, and also a heavy duty stainless-steel one I schlepped home from India. Then Julia casually mentioned, “Jewelers like to buy these to keep their (borax) flux in”. Uh-oh…as soon as I heard that, and saw how lovely they were, and how inexpensive…I knew I’d be schlepping them home for jewellers I know….
Lemke makes agate fittings and medical grade motor/pestles for the industry. Apparently, agate has a tightly closed grain structure that doesn’t allow contaminant particles and can be cleaned easily. There were hundreds of grey agate bowls lined up, which made picking ones with slight variations fun. The other stones they seemed to sell here were strange offcuts from stone cutting processes, and “dead-stock”, rescued from the cellars of stones cutters and dealers in the region. Apparently their in-store stock changes often and it was fun to purchase unusual rough materials and then try shaping them at school.
Helen and a number of other jewellers work with stonecutter Stefan Becker to have custom stones cut for their work. Visiting his workshop revealed the pared down version of the expansive studio at the Hochschule, and what would be core machinery needed to cut stones professionally. Stefan had nothing for sale in his workshop.
Occasionally we would stumble upon a half-finished stone bird model, (which revealed an amazing energetic surface in the rough cutting), or lovely tiny frog…He would not sell us anything. I finally realized that if I were to know the process/possibilities/price of getting a custom stone cut, I’d need to give him a commission. I spontaneous decided I would commission two tiny dachshund heads.
I have a dachshund and love them in general, and offered to send Stefan pics of my dachshund. He looked crestfallen. “Cutting stones to look like peoples pets is the worst, as it is a huge amount of work, (even though tiny), and it never looks like their pet”. I changed tack and said I would just send pics of Internet dachshunds…he grumbled and agreed.
It took a fair amount of back and forth over the next months. He talked me out of a frontal view dachshund, as he could not resolve how to cut the neck, and suggested a side view, almost cabochon style head. I picked a kooky green turquoise he had in his shop.
Here is the finished pair, each one cut/engraved separately. The pair cost me 300Euro- more than I was expecting, but not so much after a month of cutting stones myself, all day, and often coming up with nothing.
Stone Sculpture Museum
Stone markets, museums, mines, historic sites are everywhere in the region, and you can even go searching for agate/jasper at the local gravel quarry on Saturdays. The stones you see in the tourist walkways are not interesting, and most likely dyed, cut and shipped in from elsewhere in the world. To see the secret stone collections, you will need to talk to people and visit friends of friends. On one of my last days in IO, I got to visit the workshops of Pauly, a many generation stone-cutting family/firm who had worked on a commission to cut/sculpt stones for Damian Hirst‘s epic Venice Biennale presentation over the past years. The studios were amazing- like a postmodern dentist shop where the patients are huge chunks of malachite being shaped into medusa heads. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures there, so the stunning projects I saw being worked on in there will remain in my head….