For over two thousand years, the Alsatian Valley of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines thrills by its hidden features.
Human beings, since Roman times, have engaged in intense efforts in digging timeless materials. From this activity remains a fabulous historical and human heritage, a global network of skills and traditions still alive today.
THE GEOLOGICAL CONTEXT OF A MINERAL CRADLE
The land of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and Val d’Argent really form a cradle of mineral diversity.
Situated on the geological fault of the Vosges, Sainte-Marie was a place of choice for the formation of minerals. Indeed, the Vosges massif is born from the movements of tectonic plates, and is now crossed by several geological faults. In other words, the fractures were opening themselves because of the terrestrial crust in movement. The rigidity of the rocks and the movement of hot water facilitated the creation of internal veins in the ground. Sainte-Marie in particular benefits from a great diversity of rocks. The accumulation of mineral and metallic materials -carried by underground waters – more specifically: water that runs very deep into the ground and merges back to the surface- are then trapped by a geological fault, creating genuine veins of extractable silver.
According to the archivist David Bouvier, fracture zones and veins can be found by observing the natural environment:
Either the vein reaches the surface and then appears as a white line between two layers of rock, or a divining rod allows discovering groundwater streams that lead to fractures that have become veins. Finally, some particular forms of vegetation (twisted tree, characteristic isolated vegetation) may indicate a high concentration of minerals and metals.
Image : Mining landscape of St. Marie-aux-Mines – Wood engraving by Sebastian Munster February 1545, Sebastian Munster, in the Rumpapump mine: « saw the inside fruit of the Pluto’s kingdom… I was conducted deep enough into a vein in which lead, silver and other metals sparkled so bright that it was a visual delight… » « Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines – Les mines du rêve » of Peter Fluck, (p.122)
A MINERAL ADVENTURE
Since the Middle-Ages, an extraordinary mineral adventure taking place in Ste-Marie-aux-Mines: Very recent discoveries in Tyrol, by French researcher and academic Pierre Fluck- specialist in the history of technics and industrial archeology-, allow us to estimate the discovery of Val d’Argent Silver Veins at the Roman time (year 200, 300 B.C.). Usually, it is allocated to the munk ‘Blidulphe’, living here during the 9th Century. He would have been the first person to discover silver in our region. Anyhow, this discovery has been the starting-point to a flourishing mining activity: mining for silver, but also copper, cobalt and arsenic. The Altenberg (old mountain) lists not less than 13 different mines, who evoke medieval mining technics of the time. During the 13th and 14th centuries, miners use the first hydraulic machines: digging in the ground, creating 100 meter deep wells.
According to the specialist magazine “Le Règne Minéral” (n° 100), the best example of mineralogical collection in France during the 15th Century comes from the richest mining districts in activity, especially in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines.
THE SILVER YEAR OF THE RENAISSANCE
The 20 years of collective euphoria or the Silver Age of the Renaissance: new discoveries and the reopening of already known mines enrich Alsatian and Lorain farmers with native red silver but also with lead and copper. At that time not less than 80 mines were improved and operated.
In the sixteenth century, the 2 to 3000 miners work and live in better conditions. Mine life developed a hierarchical regulation with 92 articles and the appointment of a “Judge of the mines”. The horizontal access tunnels are dug at a slight angle to facilitate the flow of water and are connected by vertical shafts. A large vein of gray silver, discovered in 1551, places the mine site of Saint-Guillaume in a leading position as the most productive of all time in Rhineland.
These good times will decline with the 30 Years War and the arrival of the Swedes (Mining supervision in 1633). The miners then disperse and nothing can stop the upwelling of water into the mine shafts…
THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, THE DIVERSIFICATION
The redevelopment of the mines in the eighteenth century, history repeats itself: According to Pierre Fluck, we can observe the same general steps than during the previous period. The only difference is that operators do not aim the discovery of new veins but want to dig deeper into existing mines.The forerunner of cobalt had been discovered before in the Black Forest and the mines of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines contain some. It will take until the eighteenth century to discover its secrets. Indeed, the substance called “safre” or “smalt” at that time is already known but not the use of this so special azure blue dye. The old mines are reopened in order to tap into the silver, especially the native red and glassy one. Most miners were not born in the Valley. Unfortunately, the first natural disaster in 1740 overthrew everything. Miners who were already struggling to eat one’s fill were laid off because of torrential waters. Especially since the hydraulic machines were mostly used in the Lorraine mines and not in Alsace.
Nine years later, an underground flood sounds the death knell of the mining. The main source of lead is then flooded and the entire economy is drowning with it. Peter Fluck reports that the extraction of copper containing silver is only possible together with lead and vice versa (smelting operation). To all that, another flood and a fire must be added between 1755 and 1759. Shareholders and mine operators are not on good terms, members disengage financially and miners leave the region to other countries more promising. Finally, in 1781, only 2 to 7 mines are operated and mine workers live in poverty. In 1789, it is the complete end of mining, except for coal.
THE MODERN AGE
Hopes and bold industrial technologies: At the end of the 19th century, the first soil testings seem to indicate the presence of rich veins in the gallery known as Prince.
Contractors start to build in the valley of Rauenthal a vast mining complex for the processing of ores.
But production prospects have been greatly exaggerated and the company closed in 1905, only eight years after its creation.
A final attempt to develop the mine took place in “Gabe Gottes” (Gift of God) which re-opened in 1932.
There native arsenic is extracted. But the eruption of the Second World War precipitated its closure in 1940, ending a thousand years of mining.
SAINTE-MARIE-AUX-MINES AND MINERALS TODAY
A vast network of tunnels and mine shafts estimated at about 300 km (only 60 km have been explored). Nearly 150 varieties of mineral flora are identified some only exist in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. A very high concentration of typical mining buildings. Festivals and parades conducted every year in mine workers traditional costumes (such as during the St. Barbara). Associations offering tours of the mines, starting with the “fun discovery” visit up to the caving exploration. Permanent exhibition dedicated to mines and minerals.
Not to forget is our traditional ‘Bourse aux Minéraux de Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines’: When it was founded in 1962 by François Lehmann, the ‘Day of mines’ only had a local character. In 1966, it changed its name into ‘International Exhibition’ and later the ‘International fair of Minerals, Gems and Fossils’. In 2012 it became the ‘International Exhibition Mineral & Gem in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines’.
The event usually takes place on the last weekend of June, and has seen its audience increase a lot. Originally attended only by professionals this fair gradually attracted the general public.
It is of the three large exhibition & trade shows of this kind in the world with the one in Tucson (Arizona) and the one in Munich (Germany). It lasts four days: the first two days are reserved for professionals; the other two are open to the public. In June 2015 the ‘International Exhibition Mineral & Gem’ hosted over 1000 exhibitors and attracted more than 30’000 visitors from all over the world.-
In July 2014 the label ‘Capitale de la Minéralogie’ was instituted to highlight the mineralogical assets of Val d’Argent and to create a synergy between the different actors: Mineral & Gem, Parc Tellure, Association Spéléologique ASEPAM, Espace-Musées and Centre de Formation La Table d’Émeraude.