Gemstones of the Rhineland

As a final parting insult the uniformed staff at Venice station refused all assistance when the 2106h was displayed as departing for Monaco. “Monaco, Munich, who cares?” said their hand gestures, “just get the #&*% out of here as soon as possible”. Actually, this confusion gave me the opportunity to meet Bettina and Ruppert, an extremely friendly German couple who had been in town for an art exhibition and were made even more friendly by the several nightcaps that they had already consumed in the hopeful anticipation of passing an undisturbed night. There being no viable alternative, we chanced the “Monaco” train where I found myself sharing a “women only” couchette with 3 other ladies.

Unfortunately, all I had in my picnic bag for supper were a tin of tuna, a hard boiled egg and couple of clementines: all very fine and nutritious you might think but a bit odiferous if your companions have already turned off the lights and bedded down for the night. I drank some water and munched on a piece of “emergency chocolate” while the warmth of the carriage and the motions of the train lulled me into a comfortable sleep. Until about 0530h, that is, when a very frazzled little conductor (Austrian not Italian, thankfully) came to tell us that the train had been diverted several times during the night and that, far from arriving in Munich at 0600h, he was going to have to put us off at Salzberg at 0800h.

So, with the morning already advancing and not even having managed to get out of Austria, I reluctantly abandoned my plans to get a photograph of Boris outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg and concentrated instead on making it to Idar-Oberstein in time for my evening rendezvous with Isobel. Oh, thank god for German trains and their lovely staff who helped me to divert via Stuttgart and negotiate the many connections to this little gem-cutting town tucked away in the picturesque hills of the Palatinate Rhineland*. I was even able to turn a corner of one of the station cafes (don’t ask me where) into my personal office space for a couple of hours while I spread myself out with charging points, wifi and some much-needed hot food.

There being no hostels available in Idar, we had had to rely on Grahame back at home to find us an “Airbnb” stopover for our night and he certainly didn’t let us down. For a very reasonable price, we had a whole apartment to ourselves just around the corner from the Deutsches Edelsteinmuseum (German Gemstone Museum) and, even better, Angela our lovely hostess turned the central heating up high and insisted on driving down to the station to fetch me. Now, my niece is very much younger than I am so it was with barely a twinge of conscience that I texted her the address details, hung the European flag bunting in an upper window so that she could more easily find her way and settled myself under the covers in anticipation of a full day’s gemstone therapy on the morrow.

Izzy got in safely but quite late so I decided to make up for her long walk from the station (the promised taxis had not materialized) and go out early for pastries and a little recce around the town that I have not been back to in almost twenty years. It wouldn’t do to bring her all this way and not be able to find my way around, would it? Rock crystal and agates of superb quality have been mined here since Roman times, the latter being especially appreciated for their naturally banded layers which lend themselves so readily to the production of fine hardstone cameos. Gem cutters of the Middle Ages made use of the abundant water power to drive their polishing wheels and developed a worldwide reputation for their skills. Importation of abundant raw materials from South America in the eighteenth century only added to their prosperity but the more recent influx of huge quantities of cheap goods from the Far East has undoubtedly weakened their position in the world market.

The prizewinning, carved gemstone pieces on display at the museum attest to the fact that quality has been refined to an awe-inspiring level while mass production has been all but abandoned. Many of the businesses I remember have closed or been much scaled down. It’s difficult to think of Ruppenthal’s without the labyrinthine corridors linking hundreds of showrooms containing every imaginable gem variety cut into any shape or size you could wish for. And, it must be admitted, some you had rather not. A two meter tree fashioned completely from malachite? “Absolutely, we can do that!” Carvings of naked Rhinemaidens with pert breast and long, flowing hair? “Whatever the gentleman prefers we can certainly oblige”. Even so, one of the many Hanspeter Schleif descendants still runs the family shop where you can buy tiny specimens of hauyne; a rare, electric blue gemstone unique to this region. You might have to search amongst all the dusty trays and boxes though, many of which I swear have been undisturbed since I last passed through this way all those years ago.

As a contrast, on the opposite side of the rocky roundabout**, Freidrich Becker still cuts and polishes the most fabulous gemstones seen outside the up-market emporia of Bond Street or Geneva. Of course, he claims to have to serve as his own salesperson, secretary and even cleaner nowadays but he nonetheless took the time to make a few phone calls and assist in my quest to find the right carver for my Macedonian material. The weather did not lend itself to sightseeing in the prettier part of town and besides, even if it is still stuffed with jewellery shops, we were not really here on a shopping expedition. Also, the Felsenkirche, a tiny historic church set half way up the overhanging rock-face turned out to be closed until 2021.

But before we set off on our train journey to Berlin I must just tell you a little more about the Edelstein museum. This is a gemmologist’s dream: scientific categorisation with specimens of every imaginable variety, models of different methods of gem production, magnificent examples of the beautiful agates of the region and, most astounding of all, the aforementioned superb prizewinners of the lapidary arts. As yet another treat, a special exhibition in the basement about Hildegard von Bingen had been held over for another two months enabling us to find out all about this 11th century pilgrim, healer and holy woman. Most unusually for the time, the “Sybil of the Rhine” lived to be 81 years of age but that may have had more to do with her noble birth and the fact that her vows of chastity kept her away from the perils of childbirth rather than the efficacious application of such sacred gemstones as jacinth, carbuncle, chrysolite or sardonyx***.

(* Not in Bavaria, as I have long been describing it)

(** this convenient landmark opposite the gem Bourse {exchange} is encrusted with polished slabs of jasper, sodalite, rose quartz etc)

(*** orange zircon, deep red garnet, light green peridot, banded brown and white agate)

Categories: Europe

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