• Germany's news in English
 

Cuckoo clocks: kitsch, colourful and cheerful

Published: 07 Sep 2012 13:23 GMT+02:00

I'd puffed my way though Triberg several times on my mountain bike in the past but the dozens of tourist buses and swathes of white-haired, beige-clad pensioners visiting the Black Forest village's waterfall (the highest in Germany) had always put me off stopping.

But if you want to check out the 320km-long German Route of Clocks (Deutsche Uhrenstrasse) that winds through towns and villages associated with cuckoo clocks, Triberg, in Baden-Württemberg, is the obvious place to start.

By way of introduction I enter the “House of 1000 Clocks” right on the town's high street where hundreds upon hundreds of clocks hang on the walls, ticking and cuckooing with gay abandon. So much kitsch in one spot made me feel slightly dizzy.

Many were carved as wooden chalets with shingled roofs, window shutters and balconies draped with flower boxes. In front were tiny carved figures busying themselves with traditional Black Forest activities, from wood chopping to knife grinding, baking bread in wood-fired ovens, and of course, drinking beer.

Other clocks were adorned with solid wood carvings of hunting scenes, replete with stags heads, dead hares and pheasants and crossed rifles.

“People want to buy something traditional,” said saleswoman Michaele. And by people, she mainly meant American tourists.

“They want something that reminds them of Germany when they are back at home.”

My attention was caught by a cuckoo clock showing May Day celebrations in a beer garden. As it strikes the hour, the music box plays and tiny figures swing into action – couples dance around a maypole, a brass band sways to the music and a man lifts his foaming beer mug to his mouth.

The clock is kitsch, colourful and unbelievably cheerful. I can't help but smile.

Nothing cheap about cuckoo clocks

“Young people nowadays think a cuckoo clock is something to have fun with,” said Reinhard Herr from the family-run company Hubert Herr, which made the clock.

With clocks like the May Day one selling for €1,000 and more, cuckoo clocks are more than just a fun item. This is a hand-made, high-precision, timepiece Herr stressed, as he led around the workshop where thousands of shiny cogs and wheels are being put together by workers sitting at wooden benches.

Click to see cuckoo clocks of all shapes and sizes

“And you see, we only use solid materials, brass and steel for the clock movements,” he said. “Our clocks are hand-assembled and hand-carved with no cheap plastic parts and no batteries.”

Clock making in the Black Forest started in the 17th century as a cottage industry. Farmers were often snowed in for months during the winter, and the hand-carved wooden clocks quickly became an important source of income, sold around Europe by travelling peddlers.

As a quick visit to the German Clock Museum in Furtwangen reveals, these original models looked nothing like the cuckoo clocks of today; rather they had a painted face and primitive mechanisms forged from wooden plates and gears.

It was more than a century later that the elaborately carved cuckoo clocks started to appear and the Black Forest cuckoo clock began to conquer the world.

Cuckoos the only animal noise option

Julia Scholz from the Clock Museum demonstrated how the cuckoo sound is made - with a small pair of bellows. As she turned a handle, two rods lifted up the bellows (a bit like tiny bagpipes), filling them with air.

The bellows then close under their own weight, squeezing the air through a type of whistle. The bellows have two tones, a high one and a low one, producing the characteristic “cu” “ckoo” sound.

An enormous antique clock that nearly covered an entire wall was the prime example – it produced deep, mellifluous cuckoo sound.

“As you can hear, it is very easy to replicate the sound of the cuckoo; it sounds quite real,” she said.

Yet as she kept winding the clock, it emitted a squeaky “maaaah” noise, something like a lamb on its death bed. “That's supposed to be a rooster, but it doesn't sound so real,” she said, laughing.

It is not only difficult to imitate a rooster using the bellows system, but most other animals too, which is why the industry has stuck with the cuckoo sound for the past 270 years.

Unfortunately for the cuckoo clock industry, though, in the past few years, sales have plummeted by more than sixty percent thanks to competition from cheap Chinese copies, the financial crisis and the weak American dollar. Several manufacturers have failed and only nine cuckoo clock manufacturers are still making clocks in the Black Forest.

A modernist take revives the market

There is one who has been credited with luring new customers – Ingolf Haas in the village of Schonach. With his shaggy haircut and casual yellow T-shirt, Haas looks more like a surfer than the head of a third-generation family business, Rombach & Haas.

Haas and his wife Connie, make unusual cuckoo clocks that have the same hand-assembled movements inside but a whole different look on the outside.

Some are slick, minimalistic designs with nary a carved figure in sight; others are pop-art wonders, decorated in hot pinks, vivid greens and violent yellows.

“I thought, how can we change the cuckoo clock?” Haas said, standing below a glam glittered version of a hunting-scene clock.

“Cuckoo clocks have been looking the same for 150 years or more and we wanted to do something new.”

Haas' modern clocks have over the past seven years, become something of a surprise hit with young, trendy Germans who like the idea of hanging a hint of tradition on their walls, but want something less fusty.

Although I was initially more taken with the Black Forest cake, after a day looking at more cuckoo clocks that I'd ever imagined existed, the idea of hanging one on my wall began ticking away in my mind.

I'm normally pretty minimalist in my taste, but there is something about the intricate details and plain cheerfulness of the clocks that won me over. Perhaps the one showing the woman hitting her husband on the head with a rolling pin...

Related links:

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

17:27 September 7, 2012 by Dejo
I'm glad that the writer was won over in the end by Cuckoo clocks, because I rather resented the use of the word "kitsch" at the beginning of the article. Anything which is carefully handcrafted can never be kitsch, no matter how sentimental. To refresh our memories the Oxford dictionary defines kitsch as:

kitsch

■ noun garish, tasteless, or sentimental art, objects, or design.
18:32 September 7, 2012 by thfinch
You don't want to be in Triberg at noon !
07:51 September 8, 2012 by CoolBlueIce
@Dejo

I respectfully must disagree with your statement ¦quot;Anything which is carefully handcrafted can never be kitsch, no matter how sentimental.¦quot; Like beauty, kitsch is in the eye of the beholder.

One needs to look no further than the garishly large (yet ¦quot;carefully handcrafted¦quot;) turquoise jewelry for sale in the American Southwest to see this. Similarly, no matter how carefully handcrafted a rhinestone covered Cadillac convertible or nude female painted low-rider in L.A. might be... It is still kitsch

Likewise, regardless of how carefully I might handcraft something (given I have no artistic skills), it would be kitsch. That being said, even if one substitutes your ¦quot;carefully handcrafted¦quot; with ¦quot;skillfully handcrafted¦quot;, it¦#39;s not enough to escape the trappings of ¦quot;kitsch¦quot;.

Perhaps the more accurate test would be, if American tourists seek it out... It¦#39;s kitsch.
02:56 September 20, 2012 by BorninDachau
Coolbluejoe, you forgot the velvet Elvis paintings.
Today's headlines
Teachers to strike nationwide from Monday
Photo: DPA

Teachers to strike nationwide from Monday

Teachers all over the country are expected to stike starting Monday, German education trade union GEW said, after negotiations with the wage commission of the federal states (TdL) failed to achieve results. READ  

EU court deals blow to US Iraq objector's hopes
Andre Shepherd at the European Court of Justice in June 2014. Photo: DPA

EU court deals blow to US Iraq objector's hopes

American soldier Andre Shepherd, who applied for asylum in Germany as a conscientious objector against the war in Iraq after going AWOL from his unit, saw a judgement by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) go against him on Thursday. READ  

Intersex person sues clinic for unncessary op
Photo: DPA

Intersex person sues clinic for unncessary op

Intersex person Michaela Raab is suing doctors in a Nuremberg court, who she said operated on her genitals and put her through female hormone therapy without having told her she was genetically a man. READ  

Greece bailout
Greece bailout passes with massive majority
Wolfgang Schäuble addressing the Bundestag on Friday. Photo: DPA

Greece bailout passes with massive majority

UPDATE:German MPs voted 542-32 in favour of extending Greece's bailout programme on Friday. READ  

German soars into ski jump top spot
Photo: DPA

German soars into ski jump top spot

Germany is a "Weltmeister" again, this time in ski-jumping. Severin Freund's 134-metre vertical jumps, and new world distance record of nearly 136 metres, ended the nearly decade-and-a-half wait for German ski jump fans starved for gold. READ  

Muslim Council says Jewish fears 'justified'
Muslims at prayer in Frankfurt's Abubakr Mosque. Photo: DPA

Muslim Council says Jewish fears 'justified'

After the president of the Central Council of Jews warned against anti-Semitism in Muslim areas of German cities, his Muslim opposite number agreed that 'these fears are justified”. READ  

Consumer rights office slams Facebook
Photo: DPA

Consumer rights office slams Facebook

The Federation of Consumer Protection Offices (vzbv) has warned Facebook over legal breaches in its terms and conditions, saying that its claim on the homepage that “Facebook is free and always will be” is misleading. READ  

Spoof hails Varoufakis: puts 'hell' in 'Hellenica'
Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's "Minister of Awesome". Photo: DPA

Spoof hails Varoufakis: puts 'hell' in 'Hellenica'

An offering that rehabilitates the much-maligned German sense of humour is rocking the internet with a searing spoof metal tribute to Greece's formidable new finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, filled with painful moments of self-mockery. READ  

This Week in History
Kafka's Metamorphosis: 100 years of perplexity
Franz Kafka. Photo: DPA

Kafka's Metamorphosis: 100 years of perplexity

100 years ago, Franz Kafka published The Metamorphosis, now seen as one of the most significant works of 20th century German literature. The Local speaks to the academic who has reinterpreted it for a modern audience. READ  

Nurse jailed for life for serial patient murders
Niels H. in court. The five murder counts against the former nurse may just be the start. Photo: DPA

Nurse jailed for life for serial patient murders

A male nurse who injected patients with overdoses of heart medication for the thrill of resuscitating them was on Thursday sentenced to life imprisonment on five counts of murder. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Features
Kafka: puzzling translators 100 years on
Business & Money
France or Germany: Which country really is the best country to work in?
Photo: Police
Rhineland
Student driver crashes tank into family garden.
Photo: DPA
Politics
There was a notable absence at the Anti-Semitism Commission
Sponsored Article
Tourist or lifer: what sort of expat are you?
National
How Dresden bombing still divides Germany, 70 years on
Sponsored Article
Are you an American expat? How to face FATCA
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Take a cute break with this gallery of baby animals
International
What's keeping UK expats from voting?
Photo: DPA
National
Terror alert at a new high. Should you be worried?
Gallery
The best regional foods TTIP opponents want to protect
Photo: DPA
Features
All you ever needed to know about Pegida
Photo: Shutterstock
Culture
This cosplayer did not think his plan through
National
Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Gallery
Top 12 German idioms
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,430
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd