Beads from Idar-Oberstein are easy to spot. Whether they are part of a Mauritanian headdress, prayer beads from Mecca or a strand from a West African market, they have a standard set of characteristics—striped dark brown, black or orange stones, cut in a variety of distinct shapes and made with great skill and precision.
A German town of about thirty thousand people, Idar-Oberstein has been known throughout history as a place of stones, with local deposits of mostly low grade agate, jasper and other semiprecious stones. When it comes to bead history specifically, the town is almost synonymous with a wide array of agate beads that were traded to African and Arab countries. Though these stones were probably used since Roman times, the first documented proof of stonecutting in Idar-Oberstein dates from the fifteenth century. This was not a source of much income though. Due to economic hardship in the 1800s, growing numbers of Germans from this region settled in Brazil searching for opportunities. In 1827, a group of stonecutters from Idar who had settled in Brazil found local Brazilian agate deposits. The first shipment of rough stones arrived in Idar-Oberstein in 1834 and led to the very successful production and trade of Idar-Oberstein agates.
The rough stones from Brazil were auctioned in Idar-Oberstein. They were sorted, weighed and small pieces were cut off to show the natural color and banding. At first, a lot of the stones were cut and set in gold jewelry; later on, they were mostly made into loose agate objects, like beads and pendants for a foreign market. The agate from Brazil proved tough competition for the Indian agate. As a result, the agate trade from India slowed down and production and wealth in Idar-Oberstein grew quickly.
Trade companies were set up in the mid-1800s to serve the market for stone beads. An example is Gebrüder Wild, a company established in 1858—the firm was known around the world for their production of African jewelry. Harald Wild, from the company, in describing the process says, “The traders brought all the craftsmen together. Before the arrival of Brazilian agate, there really was not much of a professional industry. The traders managed to get the cutters, drillers, polishers, and the women stringing the beads working together. Companies like Gebrüder Wild would give orders to the different craftsmen to produce certain goods, which would then be exported in bulk.”
The traders brought examples of designs in agate to Cairo, even though it was not real carnelian; but the color was good, and so it was held in high regard (Spittler, 2002). In the second half of the twentieth century, the trade was more and more done by the Africans themselves.
Many of the bead merchants traded in a great variety of items, and they cooperated with other European beadmaking places. For example, they would let the people in Gablonz (Bohemia, now the Czech Republic) make glass copies of the agate beads. These copies were sent to Idar-Oberstein and traded together with the agate beads. Examples are the talhakimt pendants. Their design was patented by German cutters, and then the makers in Gablonz were given permission to make the same designs in glass. Since the 1980s, the demand for stone beads in Africa has declined.
The coloring is what really set the beads apart from those coming from India. The rough material, agate, is a striped or banded version of chalcedony. In nature, different metals produce different colors, and the resulting agates are called sardonyx, chrysoprase, carnelian, or onyx, depending on their color.
Artificial coloring techniques were already used in antiquity, but the Germans managed to perfect it. Brown was made by soaking the stone in a sugar solution and then heating it, turning the sugar into a dark brown caramel with white stripes. Black “onyx” was made by putting the stone in sulfuric acid and sugar and then heating it (Francis, 1994). The sugar would get carbonized. Each color had its own recipe. As Si Frazier referenced in Beads (1999): “It was found that certain types of Brazilian agate were eminently suited for staining. The agate could be turned red, white, blue, green, black, or yellow using inorganic chemicals, colors which would not fade in the harsh sunlight of Africa or the Middle East. The recipes were regarded as highly important trade secrets.”
The people from Idar-Oberstein refer to the coloring techniques as brennen (heating or burning), färben (coloring or dyeing) and beitzen (often translated as staining, but a different, more permanent, technique). Different processes produce different colors. Most of these techniques were developed in Idar-Oberstein between 1813 and 1879 (Trebbin, 1985).
The stones would be cut into smaller pieces, and these pieces were pre-cut into the basic shapes. For this first step, it was easier and cheaper to use a hammer and chisel to shape the stone, because grinding is more time-consuming. For big beads and other products, the stone was shaped directly on the wheel. Smaller pieces, like cabochons, would be stuck onto a wooden handle so they could be ground against the wheel.
Idar-Oberstein cutters used large stone wheels that could be up to two meters wide and weigh up to three hundred kilos. Generally, two people would work on a wheel powered by a water mill. Some of the wheels had grooves to make specific shapes like round, oval and bicone roughs. Stonecutting was not an easy or a healthy profession. The cutters would lie on a wooden bench, pushing the stone against the wheel (Frazier, 1999).
The final step on the wheels was the polishing which was done on beechwood cylinders, with earth as the abrasive agent. From the 1960s onwards, most of the polishing, especially on beads with simple shapes, was by tumbling. Instead of individually polishing the stone they were tumbled together, which is a much more efficient but a less precise process. It is also a way to distinguish the older beads from the newer ones. The beads with sharp edges are most likely made before 1960.
The trade and production of agate beads in Idar-Oberstein took off once the companies discovered a Brazilian agate source. The skill of the craftsmen, the quality of the stone, the use of international trade routes, and adapting to the world market was how Idar-Oberstein became a very successful beadmaking town.
Much help in the research of stone beadmaking in Idar-Oberstein has come from Harald and Julia Wild, Wolfgang Weinz and Wolfgang Kley. Support has come from the Bead Society of Los Angeles.
Dalarozière, Marie-Françoise. 1994 Perles d’Afrique. Édisud, Aix-en-Provence, France.
Dubin, Lois Sherr. 1987 The history of beads, from 30,000 BC to the present. Harry N. Abrams Inc, New York, USA.
Francis, Peter Jr. 1994 Beads of the world, a collector’s guide with price reference. Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, USA.
—2001 The stone bead industry of southern India. Beads, Volume 12-13.
Frazier, Si. 1999 A history of gem beadmaking in Idar-Oberstein. Beads, Volume 10-11.
Kaspers, Floor. 2016 Beads from Germany, Idar-Oberstein, Lauscha, Neugablonz. Marblings Publishing, Netherlands.
Liu, Robert K. 1982 Amira Francoise: Living with beads in the Sudan. Ornament 5 (4): 24-27.
— 1987 Imitators and Competitors, India, Idar-Oberstein and Czechoslovakia. Ornament 10 (4): 56-61.
—1995 Collectible beads, A Universal Aesthetic. Ornament, Vista, USA.
Spittler, Gerd. 1999 Der Weg des Achats zu den Tuareg-eine Reise um die halbe Welt. Geographische Rundschau, Jahrgang 54, Heft 10.
Trebbin, C. 1985 Achate, geschliffen in Idar-Oberstein – Amulette, Schmuck und Zahlungsmittel in Afrika. Die Heimatfreunde Oberstein e.V., Idar-Oberstein.
Wild, Julia. 2016 Afrikanisches Geld aus Idar-Oberstein. Simurg, Kulturzeitschrift, Heft 6.
Floor Kaspers is an independent bead researcher and artist from the Netherlands. She has been exploring European bead history through her travels. By going to factories, old dump sites, shops and museums, she collects not just beads, but the stories connected to beads. After learning more about bead history, she also started making her own beadwork and glass art as a new way to explore the medium of beads and glass. Kaspers has written several books, including Beads from Germany which describes the development and production of beads in three German bead towns: Lauscha, Idar-Oberstein and Neugablonz. In the article on stone beads from Idar-Oberstein she explains the origin of the stones, the designs and the techniques of these typical agate trade beads.