The small town of Idar-Oberstein boasts a 600-year history of mining and gem cutting that has made it one of the leading cut-gem trading centers in the world. Rich in agate and jasper deposits, Roman invaders found precious stones in the area more than 2,000 years ago. Mining for agate, jasper and quartz began in the late 1400s, creating a high demand for gem cutters, stone carvers, and artisans. During this period the Nahe River in Idar-Oberstein was harnessed to power hundreds of stone-cutting water wheels and a major gem cutting industry was born.
In the 1800s, precious and semi-precious colored gemstones were being shipped from around the world to be cut in Idar-Oberstein, and hundreds of cutting houses sprung up in the surrounding countryside. However, by the late 1800s, wages in the area grew too expensive for the cutting of lesser materials and the industry began to decline, forcing many gem cutters to relocate.
Today, Idar-Oberstein is primarily known for cutting larger, more valuable gemstones — fantasy cuts (Fantasieschliffe) — and has become a hotbed for jewelry designers and tourists. Much of the riverfront was paved over in the 1980s, and is now part of the famous “Deutsche Edelsteinstrasse” (the German Gem Road); making it even easier for visitors to enjoy a host of gemstone-centeric activities, shop, and grab a bite to eat—all on a day trip from Heidelberg, Kaiserslautern or Wiesbaden.
Start at Steinkaulenberg, the only European gemstone mine open to visitors, offering hobbyist, gemstone lovers, as well as those who fancy themselves as “treasure hunters,” the opportunity to mine semi-precious stones, under the direct supervision of gemstone experts. Weiherschleife Cutting Mill, a historical holdover from 1634, offers demonstrations in old-fashioned gem cutting and is the last water-driven mill on the Idarbach creek still utilizing authentic methods. For more information regarding Steinkaulenberg and Weiherschleife go to www.edelsteinminen-idar-oberstein.de. Both are open daily March 15 - November 15, from 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. and 9 a.m.-6 p.m., respectively. All other times the mill is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Not one, but two museums dazzle you with bright and shiny objects. The Deutsches Edelsteinmuseum, Haupstraße 118, has more than 9,000 displays on three floors. Similarly, the Museum Idar-Oberstein, just below the Church in the Rock at Haupstraße 436, offers displays from local craftsmen. Don’t miss the fascinating fluorescence room. Hours vary, so be sure to confirm the hours of operation prior to venturing out.
Charming visitors of all ages, Gemstone Adventure World offers a unique opportunity to explore the enchanted side of gemstones. Mystical grottos filled with precious stones create a playful atmosphere complete with magical light effects, gurgling springs, and a fairy tale forest. Don’t forget to take a seat on the Amethyst throne. No house, er… castle should be without one!! Gemstone Adventure World is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.
After a morning of mental stimulation, take off to higher ground. Perched like sentinels, the ruins of castles Bosselstein and Oberstein still stand watch over the city. Destroyed prior to the 14th century, Oberstein Castle was partially restored by the locals. The castle courtyard offers a scenic venue to take in a snack and the ever-changing scenery of the Nahe Valley far into the picturesque landscape of the Hunsruck Mountains. Visitors are rewarded with many hiking trails and an idyllic castle pond to stop and ponder days long gone.
Begin your climb to the castles from the marketplace pedestrian only mall. Stroll through the shady beechwood forest past the Felsenkirche or Chapel-in-the Rocks. Built into the natural crevice and located 230 steps up from the Oberstein marketplace, the Felsenkirche is an active church that just happens to loom 60 meters above ground level. As legend has it, as penance for a patricide the church was originally built between 1482 and 1484. There is a small viewing platform offers a breathtaking view of the city and beyond and will more than compensate you for the climb.
Back at ground level the marketplace is the perfect place for tourists and locals alike. Retail jewelry shops entice you with a combination of old-world craftsmanship and new-world innovation. Take time to partake in the many open air restaurants in the pedestrian-only thoroughfare. Enjoy some Spießbraten, a local dish, typically made of pork or beef loin, cooked on an open pit over a beech or Oakwood fire and served with a salad of grated radish and potatoes.
Idar-Oberstein is a town built around a single theme—the fantastic! The birthplace of Hollywood superstar Bruce Willis, whose parents were stationed nearby, just adds another character. Treasure hunting for precious gemstones, hiking scenic nature trails through thick forests and castle ruins and people watching in the open air cafés below, all contribute to the backdrop. Add a little plot and you have one heck of a blockbuster day trip in your own backyard.
For more information on Idar-Oberstein, go to www.idar-oberstein-touristinfo.de/index.php/english.html.