In the face of economic calamity in Asia and competition from low-cost Far Eastern cutters, the German gem-cutting industry based in Idar-Oberstein has diminished greatly in size – but not in prominence. Nestled in the Nahe River valley 90 minutes southwest of Frankfurt, the two villages are home to the world’s largest concentration of master gem cutters, who continue a local tradition of meticulous craftsmanship extending back to the 1400s. Last fall’s Intergem ’98 show was evidence that Idar-Oberstein is still very much a driving force in gem cutting.
Close scrutiny of the hundreds of gems displayed there revealed three factors that set German cutters apart from all the rest: polish, proportion, and design. Every gem is polished to perfection, proportioned in the most desirable outlines, and cut with no apparent “windowing.” Using the finest material available from around the globe, these gem masters show off Mother Nature at her finest.
The quality of German gem cutting remains unrivaled owing to the extensive training of its craftsmen. Not content to rely solely on familial lineage, the cutters of Idar-Oberstein hone their skills in the local school or through apprenticeship with local artists. During two to three years of study and training they learn the secrets to cutting proper proportions and finish (polish and symmetry). They’re trained not only to create beauty, but also to retain 25% to 40% weight (as opposed to Far Eastern cutters, who typically save only 10%).
In Idar-Oberstein, craftsmanship is more important than cost of labor or speed of production. Mass-production cutting in Thailand, China, India, and Sri Lanka, where labor costs are low, will never rival the expertise of the Germans. To compete with the Asian cutters, the Idar-Oberstein gem-cutting industry in recent years has focused on better quality as well as greater specialization.
At the show. The new generation of cutters is beginning to carve out its own niche. Tom Munsteiner – son of the renowned master, Bernd – and other young carvers are promoting more artistic and unusual styles of gem carving and faceting. Says the younger Munsteiner, “Gemstone cutting is based on science: The refractive index of each gem material affects the way it bends light and the angles at which it will reflect light back to the eye. But gemstone cutting is also an art and, for a growing number of gem sculptors around the world, a new means of expression.”
Trying to stay one step ahead of the competition, Tom Munsteiner has developed his own style of carving using concave hemispheres to create intrigue. It’s a style that goes beyond faceting accuracy, spawning an entirely new art form. “Traditional cutting has been basically the same for hundreds of years,” says Munsteiner. “I would like to see more people try to change that.”
For all its rich tradition, Idar is not living in the past. Constantin Wild, for example, just celebrated its 150th anniversary, but its cutters rank among the world’s most progressive. They recently expanded their reach through a Web site, www.gemstone.de, that includes a listing and photos of their gemstone inventory and the means to order any gems you see.
Helmut Wolf: The Master at Work
Helmut Wolf was without doubt the most impressive gem carver at Intergem ’98. Over the past 30 years, Wolf has taught not only his sons but also many other carvers, who now try to compete with him in crafting large carvings. In truth, Helmut has no real competition.
Featured on the cover of the show guide and displayed in a special exhibit was an award-winning crystal vase Wolf carved from rock crystal quartz with accents of nephrite and lapis, shown at right. To create such a piece, you need access to large rough. Sure enough, in Wolf’s backyard there are literally tons of boulders of gem materials ready to be fashioned into art.
The unnerving part of carving big gems is that there’s no guarantee the gems will stay in one piece. During a reporter’s visit, Wolf spotted a chip on the edge of a crystal bowl that had gone unnoticed. The chip will have to be either designed into the finished product or removed before it is presented. Either way, watching Wolf at work gives you a greater appreciation for the unsurpassed talent that characterizes Idar-Oberstein’s finest craftsmen.