A beautiful city where you can find incredible quantities of lapis lazuli of all shapes and sizes compared only to the warehouses of Peshawar. The craftsmen of lapis lazuli existed in Mesopotamia several millennia before Christ. The craftsmen of today have continued with many of the traditions. Here in Idar-Oberstein we will learn a little about these traditional craftsmen of the lapis.
In the Middle Ages there were two cities instead of one. Idar and Oberstein joined in 1930. They delineate the valley of the Nahe River in West Germany. Very little happens in Idar-Oberstein that is not related to the gem business. The waters of the Rhine River were used by artisans to power the tools used to cut and polish stones.
The art of cutting precious stones was developed in Idar-Oberstein some five hundred years ago (possibly before). When miners discovered local deposits of agate and amethyst. Cutting, slicing, drilling and polishing gems became a big industry.
In the 1800’s the agate began to run out. In the nineteenth century, the master craftsmen of Idar began to travel the world in search of lost agate. South America was a site they visited. Brazil was one of its objectives. Giant stones of amethyst, tourmaline, citrine and topaz were shipped on German ships. Other artisans searched in Afghanistan and its magical lapislázuli.
At the end of the nineteenth century, gems from all over the world were being shipped to Idar-Obertsein to be worked by their famous artisans. There were literally hundreds of workshops in the city. This same fame caused the fall of the industry. The labor price of workers in the area became very high and many workshops preferred to start sending jobs to places like China where labor was cheaper.
However, many of the artisans and their families stayed to continue the tradition through generations. Today Idar-Oberstein is still famous for its fine carving of precious stones worldwide. Many modern lapidary artists still thrive, as do distributors who import unworked stones from the gem market around the world.
In 1980, many Afghan refugee jewelers escaped the Soviet invasion and traveled to Idar-Oberstein. They assembled their workshops and supplied themselves with lapis with the help of relatives, friends and distributors from their homeland.
One of the traditional lapidary families of Idar-Oberstein is the Mogbil family. Khalil Mogbil came from Herat in western Afghanistan. Traditional painting (using lapis) was his beginnings. His father-in-law was in the gems business, including negotiating with lapidaries in Germany. His family says he was the one who introduced Lapis Lazuli to Germany. In 1983 he emigrated to Idar-Oberstein and then his large family followed him.
Khalil was one of them. There he specialized in unpolished lapis objects. In spite of existing modern machines for this work, this lapidary and most of these traditional families use stone wheels to shape pieces of lapis. Many claim that Khalil Mogbil is an artist first and second a jeweler.
Another traditional family that works with lapis lazuli are the Mohrs. The Mohr family has been in the business of gem cutting through three generations. Thomas Mohr is occasionally tasked with lapis lazuli carving of the highest quality for intricate and magical jewelry that sells for tens of thousands of dollars.
Both of Mohr’s grandparents were jewelers. In 1920 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 remittances. Today, the remains of these remittances still keep the company’s artisans busy.
Starting with the rough stones, they extract the brightest blue pieces to make small objects more than anything else. They do abstract, floral, butterflies, beetles, necklaces, brooches, etc. The difference of the products of Khalil is that those of Mohr are highly polished. They also make hard pietra tables. These are more modest designs than those of Florence.
If the lapidaries of Idar-Oberstein are running out of lapis lazuli, they no longer have to travel to the Blue Mountains of Afghanistan. They only have to contact Afghan or Pakistani intermediaries who have rough Lapis deposits near Stuttgart. “If I need less than 20 kilograms of medium quality lapis, I can have it within two days, says Mohr.”
Larger or better quality quantities take longer. “If they do not have what they need in their deposits, they usually contact a relative or associate in Kabul or Peshawar and have it sent by plane or delivered in person,” Mohr explains.
A New Destination for the Lapis
New shipments of Lapis Lazuli now go to China or Hong Kong, “The Jewel Capital of the World.” Cheap labor and materials make China a necessity for the manufacturing process of lapis. Even Idar-Oberstein lapidaries send thousands of gems including lapis to be cut and faceted in factories in Sri Lanka, Thailand and China.
Despite China’s cheaper lapis products, Idar-Oberstein merchants are not worried about competition. The traditional lapidaries of this beautiful city of Germany have been transforming stones and gems into incredible jewels and wonderful objects since the 1400s. They have endured all kinds of difficulties. I think they will continue to do just that…