Book Review: Dreher Carvings: Gemstone Animals from Idar-Oberstein
Dreher Carvings: Gemstone Animals from Idar-Oberstein begins with a history of the lapidary arts of this region of southwest Germany, which is also the timeline of the Dreher family gem-carving tradition. The various authors describe the driving forces behind the development of this world-renowned lapidary area, and the impetus for the Dreher’s unique style has followed a very similar path. What began as a subsistence-level job for many residents of Idar-Oberstein developed into an art form as tools evolved, skills improved, and a growing client base provided the financial cushion needed to pursue their vision.
This progression is described in the early portions of the book, and it is mentioned or alluded to by several of the authors in their narratives. Idar’s earliest gem cutters worked to survive. They used sandstone to render agates into functional, and eventually, decorative items. Stone cutting became the backbone of the area’s economy. Over time, harder and more accurate cutting wheels allowed for faster, higher quality production. Mechanical advances brought about the water wheels that powered this industry for centuries. The stonecutting work evolved into contract work for merchants supplying the jewelers and studios with finished gemstones, which led to an era of prosperity starting in the fifteenth century.
Idar’s stone carvers were traditionally considered craftsmen rather than artists because they were not creating original pieces. The work was regarded as rote and unimaginative, easily reproduced, but this simplicity was desirable to their buyers. Pieces were styled after templates and models supplied by clients, such as the House of Fabergé. The economic models came from merchants who saw value in repeatability, consistent design themes, and competition for the contracts, which could be filled by any qualified lapidary. This arrangement was also associated with the dissolution of the guild system, in which secret techniques and tools were known only to members. In the early nineteenth century, local mining resources were exhausted, and it was necessary start importing rough, mostly from Brazil. This new material added a dimension to the creativity of the carvers. Later in the 1800s, many Idar-Obersteiners joined apprenticeships and opened studios in Paris to practice their art and reach their audience. The German stonecutters were expelled from France during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71 and returned home to establish Idar-Oberstein as a world center for gemstone carving. Gem cutters started to be recognized in the mid-twentieth century as artists, as appreciation of stone carving as a classical fine art developed. This could be called the advent of gem carving’s creative movement, where the rough, the concept, the techniques, and the artist come together to create masterpieces. This is the situation that the most recent generations of Drehers (Gerd and Patrick Dreher) have enjoyed.
After returning from World War II, Paul Dreher, father of Gerd Dreher, began to carve his own designs in addition to the commissions that were his primary income. These personal pieces gave the House of Dreher a reputation as an artistic studio. In 1960, Gerd abandoned the “proto-industrial tradition” and the templates that controlled the design ethos in Idar and focused on creating his own designs. Up to that point, the Drehers had focused on the techniques and skills that made them a well-respected lapidary house, but one that was mostly known for actualizing the designs of others, usually from a template or model, but Gerd Dreher’s concept involved a subjective view of nature that is a confluence of the subject, the artist, and the material. Due to by the popularity of their carvings, the Drehers were freed from the economic restraints that are the primary consideration when carving gemstones. The use of signatures on their work, starting in 1975, has been the physical validation of cultural recognition of their work as art, not craft.
Gerd Dreher specialized in showcasing the natural beauty of the raw material, and his son Patrick has followed suit. Ironically, their subject matter often includes creatures not usually associated with beauty, such as warthogs, toads, mice, and hippos. But they are all so lifelike, imbued with personality. Every detail of their forms exemplifies beauty. The synergy of the raw material, its colors and conformation, and the structure of the subject matter, is what animates the Drehers’ work. The planning, design, layout, and all of the grinding and polishing steps, which take hundreds of hours, are embodied in these immortal creatures.
Robert Weldon’s outstanding photography gives another dimension to the carvings. Weldon somehow creates an image that speaks to the viewer. The artists create the pieces, and the photography makes the pieces’ personalities more accessible to the public. Weldon’s narrative is technically informative and insightful.
The chronological order of the photos is an excellent detail of the book. The progression of Gerd’s technique is visibly illustrated, and the reader can follow Patrick’s progress as well. as the Drehers become more successful, the rough material becomes more and more fabulous. Advances in technology are obvious as the detail work improves from piece to piece: the bumps get closer together, and the polish becomes more consistent and thorough. Each piece is more sophisticated than the last.
On some level, the guild mentality still exists. The technical details of their workshop are extremely vague, and the description of the tools used is outdated. The Drehers continue to closely guard all information about their polishing processes. This is often the case with modern lapidaries, where cutters fear competitors’ advantage. Although this book was created to showcase the art and prolific portfolio of the Drehers, there would be considerable interest in more of the technical details of their work.
The homages to the family are a very nice touch: the tribute from another gem artist, personal vignettes by important industry leaders, and tales of their meetings and contacts with the Drehers. These stories combine to detail the journey their carvings have taken to become some of the most important gemstone art of the modern era. The homages tell of the eventual acceptance of their art in worldwide venues of fine gemstones including other parts of Germany, Russia, and the United States. Other important writers include collectors of these pieces, who speak of the Drehers’ commitment to their work.
The variety of narratives in this volume gives the reader many perspectives into the Dreher story and their carvings. It is enlightening to read the history of the family and understand the genesis of their art. What is lacking is a consistent narration, a voice throughout to link all of the speakers. It is left to the reader to piece it all together. It is marvelous that this excellent book has been published, as it validates gemstone carving as a fine art. The production values are beyond reproach, and the color and quality of the images is outstanding. This historic volume will surely need a sequel in the coming years as Patrick Dreher continues to work.