Germany’s highlight: Idar-Oberstein

Germany’s highlight: Idar-Oberstein

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Idar-Oberstein is a pleasant if rather sleepy town nestled in a wooded western corner of the Rhineland-Palatinate within the Hunsrück range of low-lying mountains. A first-time visitor could hardly pass through without noticing its most famous landmark—the Felsenkirche—a church built directly into the crag of a cliff towering high above the part of town known as Oberstein.

But it’s what lies beneath that gives Idar-Oberstein its unique niche amongst German tourist destinations. Way back when, in the geological period known as the Permian, lava flowed from the inner earth and rose to the surface. Within this lava, bubbles that were filled with the gases were destined to become amethyst, jasper, quartz and other semi-precious stones.  The history of the mining of such stones locally dates back to the 14th century, and the first mill to grind and polish them was established here around 1520.

As resources dried up, the industry waned, prompting miners and those who worked the stones to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Many emigrated to South America. New life was breathed into the local industry at the start of the 19th century, when agate rock formations mined in Brazil were shipped back to Idar-Oberstein to be worked into costume jewelry and other decorative items. Even today, Idar-Oberstein remains a leading manufacturer of gemstone products, and its designers work for some of the world’s most renowned jewelers.

Today’s tour of Idar-Oberstein concentrates solely on the sights connected to its mining heritage—of course, there’s much more to see in this gem of a town!

Deutsches Mineralienmuseum

The German Mineral Museum displays precious stones mined locally and worldwide. Of note is its collection of locally crafted art-deco style jewelry, a cabinet with fluorescent lighting which sets off the minerals to spectacular effect, healing stones such as those used by local mystic St. Hildegard of Bingen, and 400-million-year-old fossils of sea life recovered in Hunsrück slate. The museum’s latest exhibit is a collection of some 50 sculptures made of rare minerals and metals.

Steinkaulenberg

At Europe’s only gemstone mine open to the public, visitors must don hardhats before walking through an illuminated tunnel filled with rock crystals, amethysts and other sparkling stones. The tours are led in German, but headsets offer English explanations. They also hold a gemstone camp with minerals stocked from elsewhere, at which treasure hunters can search for semi-precious gems of their own. Register for the prospecting experience in advance.

Weiherschleife

This grinding mill is representative of the 183  facilities that once stood alongside the Nahe River and other local waterways. It remained in operation until 1945; nowadays, expert guides demonstrate processing methods of bygone days on massive sandstone grinding wheels.

Jewelry shops

Competent salespeople and forthcoming craftsmen welcome would-be buyers into more than 20 specialty stores scattered throughout town, where it’s not just jewelry that begs to be taken home. On the weekend before Easter each year, workshops open their doors, providing behind-the-scenes looks to admirers of sparkling things. For a list of shops, see echtedel.com

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