Idar-Oberstein, a German valley village four hours driving from diamond city Antwerp. The willage can not show off with diamonds, but it does with just about every other conceivable precious stone from around the world.
Published in Citta, Gazet Van Antwerpen
Written by Rudy Collier, translated by Peter Vermandere
Back to Bengel
Idar-Oberstein, a German valley village four hours driving from diamond city Antwerp. The willage can not show off with diamonds, but it does with just about every other conceivable precious stone from around the world. Idar and Oberstein, now merged, both have a very distinct history. Idar, embedded in the volcanic mountains was once famous for its gemstone mine and the art of gem-cutting. Oberstein put itself on the world map by producing high quality chains and metal jewelry. Put the two together and some unique creations will arise. The Antwerp-based jewelry maker Peter Vermandere did it last year as artist in residence. We went back with him to the European Mecca of precious stones. Here he found his inspiration for his Back from Bengel collection.
The weathered sign reads: "Jakob Bengel, gegründet 1873, Ketten-und Metallwaren-Fabrik”. Now it is an industrial monument of more than 140 years old. We step into a unique setting that completely captivated Peter Vermandere. "Everyone who is working with precious stones in Antwerp, sooner or later has to pass by here. Four years ago I was in Idar-Oberstein for 'Schmuckdenken’, "a symposium on jewelry and that is when I first visited the Bengel factory. I was overwhelmed, it still looked exactly like 100 years ago. The machines were still standing, the air smelled of oil and ancient metal dust. Everything was as it used to be, tools and presses, and thousznds and thousands of steel dies with ornaments, old books and presentation pancartes with models. It was an open museum. I knew that I had to come back to work here. Last year I was invited to work for six weeks as artist in residence, a combined programme of the Bengel Stiftung and the gemstone and jzwelry design depatment of the art school of Trier. The Idar-Oberstein campus has an international reputation. I was given the keys of the school and the keys to the Bengel factory and the magic was there. A number of times I wandered around at night to hear the spirits whisper. "
Art Deco collection
‘Factory of chains and metal parts’, but Bengel was more than that. Oberstein was once a proud and prosperous town, with more than thirty factories along the river Nahe. All specialized in metal goods. At some point some thirty percent of the world production of chains came from Oberstein. The Bengel factory discovered a profitable market in the nineteenth century: watch chains for the emerging middle class. No gold or silver, but nice steel chains, necklaces and decorative chatelaines. All kinds of wearable ornaments saw the light in hundreds of variations. The factory is now owned by a foundation that works with volunteers, such as the unemployed Herr Rivinius. He guides us through the machine rooms and the very likeable museum. Some jewels on view, made for the fashion shows of Coco Chanel, were crafted in the Bengel factory. And of course there are some jewelry pieces from the famous Art Deco collection. A very interesting story. The collection was designed and conceived in the thirties in complete anonymity, especially for Paris customers such as the famous stores Lafayette and La Samaritaine. Guide Rivinius: "For understandable reasons, German products were not so popular in other European countries during those years. Therefore Bengel made them anonymously so that the buyers could release and sell them under their own name”. This is something people in Oberstein now regret a tad, the name Bengel missed the chance of becoming a world renown brand. Yet the remarkable collection fell from oblivion. In the mid-eighties, a German couple bought an Art Deco jewel at a London antiques show. Everyone thought it was of French origin. The couple began a decade-long search for the makers. That search ended in 2002 in the Bengel factory. There they found the order book from the thirties, with the designs drawn by unknown employees of the factory. The couple retraced a large part of the collection. Remarkably, the jewels were not adorned with precious stones from the region, but with galalith. Vermandere "Gemstones were too expensive because they wer time consuming to produce. But galalith is an exceptional material and nowadays hard to come by. It is a plastic that is made, believe it or not, from milk." He shows a newspaper article from the thirties in which the process is explained. Peter Vermandere: "I still have a little supply of it, sooner or later it will end up in my work." The same galalith also contributed to the first decline of the factory. The entire production of galalith was claimed for the war industry. Because it is strong and lightweight it was mainly used in aircrafts. Moreover, Bengel refused to work for the Nazis. After World War II the factory gained new successes, mainly with aluminum products and decorations, including insignia for the Belgian postal services. Die Wende, the merger of East and West Germany, gave the final deathblow. Labour was massively moved from the West to the cheaper new part of the country. In 1980, the plant closed.
The factory is now a historic monument owned by a foundation, which allowed Peter Vermandere to work with the old machines. During his stay he experimented with some of the thousands of stockpiled steel dies and meters of chains. A bit emotional, Vermandere now sits again behind the big pressing machine, crushing pieces of chains to a half recognizable form. They were part of his Back from Bengel collection. Peter Vermandere: "The factory seems stopped but actually she's still alive." He takes us to the living proof. In the large office still resides the granddaughter of Jacob Bengel, the last owner: Frau Braun. Her immense desk is adorned with a timeless old-fashioned type writer, amid a chaos of paper. Accounts and orders of yesteryear, perhaps? We are kindly welcomed. Vermandere: "She lives in the beautiful Art Deco villa next to the factory. Every day at 7 am sharp, she faithfully comes to the office and reads her newspaper or receives friends and family. She stays untill well in the afternoon and she checks all." The survival of the plant now depends not from her but from the volunteers. There still is production now and then. Herr Rivinius: "A fashion house or designers who want something special or pursue a certain quality, still know where to find us. We now even have an order for the new World Trade Center in New York", he proudly states.
The golden times will not come back, but Bengel is still a name. As Idar- Oberstein itself. Vermandere: "I first got here more than twenty years ago, shortly after graduating. This region was an absolute Mecca for anyone who is interested in precious stones. It is now a bit less, but you can still buy all kinds of precious stones from around the world. People working in our field find their supplies here." The numerous shops and wholesalers in Idar-Oberstein testify of it, though there is clearly a setback in the prosperity. There are, to say the least, more romantic villages in the region Hunsrück-Hochwald, a national park region. The gemstone reputation was established by the now merged neighboring town Idar, where the discontinued gemstone mine in the Steinkaulenberg and ditto stone cutting mills now serve as tourist attractions. Once dozens of such polishing factories were to be found in Idar. When the mines were exhausted, unemployed stone cutters emigrated all around the world, including to South America. It was them who discovered the huge gem fields and mines in Brazil and Paraguay. They brought the industry back to Idar-Oberstein. Lots of the gems still come from Brazil. Vermandere "Idar was once famous for its own agate, amethyst, and other forms of quartz such as the yellow citrine and the brown-black, translucent smokey quartz. In my recent works I mainly worked with agate, the stone that is historically most closely linked to the region. "
Who wants to enrich the eye and mind can visit the two museums, a mineral - and a gemstone museum. The border between mineral and gemstone is sometimes small, but both are worthwhile with fascinating collections from around the world. “Especially the gemstone museum is world class”, says Peter Vermandere. In a beautufully restored villa hundreds of variations of gems are displayed on three floors. Highlights enough, such as a collection of petrified wood from Arizona. Peter Vermandere: "One of the many wonders of the underworld. Wood of huge trees which has trasformed to become a rock-hard fossil, very variegated in color. It is wood and stone at the same time, one can still see all the rings. This is not metamorphosis but is called pseudomorphosis." Vermandere muses: “It is a bit like the Bengel Factory. No longer only factory but also a living museum.” In the museums the variations of gems and names is seemingly endless. Vermandere: "Everybody knows diamond, ruby and sapphire. But there are countless other beautiful stones. Agate belongs to the quartzes, a family that at times is a bit undervalued ."
His thesis is proved when we walk along the tourist shops in Idar-Oberstein. Vermandere: "Some of those ugly things are often made masterfully. But craftsmanship an sich is very often not sufficient for me, there should be soul in it. Such great stones with such a history, shouldn’t be made into ashtrays, birds or clocks. It makes you associate the magnificent stone with kitschy trinkets. The stones can be stunningly beautiful in their natural state. Respect is in place. Personally, I attach less value to the formal qualifications of the stones, there are very expensive ones which I find unattractive, and there are stones that can simply be found in the mountains, which I find beautiful." The Juchem quarry nearby is widely known to gemstone hunters. On weekends the ’rockhounds’ are welcomed and can search and dig for agate and quartz amidst the rubble. Vermandere: "There are nice pieces to be found but the mine is only economically profitable as a gravel quarry. For me as a maker there is not much that makes me happier than picking up a stone and working it to become suitable to use in my own creations. "