• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3

Cuckoo clocks: kitsch, colourful and cheerful

The Local · 7 Sep 2012, 13:23

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

Story continues below…

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
Munich pulls together after shopping mall shooting
Photo: DPA

In the chaos after the Munich mall shooting, city residents spontaneously offered shelter to strangers - a move that Chancellor Angela Merkel said showed that Germany's strength lies in its values.

Merkel deplores 'night of horror' in Munich
Photo: DPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday said Munich had suffered a "night of horror" after a shooting spree in the southern German city left nine people dead.

Munich shooting
Munich attacker was shy video game fan
People laying flowers at the site of the shootings. Photo: DPA.

David Ali Sonboly was a quiet, helpful teenager who loved playing video games. His neighbours say there were no warning signs before his deadly rampage at a Munich shopping mall.

Munich shooting
Munich gunman inspired by rightwing Breivik: police
Photo: DPA

The lone teenager who shot dead nine people in a gun rampage in Munich was "obsessed" with mass killers such as Norwegian rightwing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik and had no links to the Islamic State group, police said Saturday.

Munich shooting
Turks, Kosovans and a Greek among shooting victims
Photo: DPA

Three Turkish citizens were among the nine people killed in Germany's Munich mall shooting. Three Kosovans were also among the nine victims.

Munich shooting
Munich gunman was likely not Isis terrorist: police
Flowers laid at the Olympia Shopping Centre underground station. Photo: DPA

According to initial investigations by Munich police, the young man who went on a shooting rampage in Munich on Friday evening was a lone gunman without motive, not a terrorist.

Munich shooting
'Lone' Munich shooter kills nine, commits suicide
Photo: DPA

A teenage German-Iranian gunman who killed nine people in a shooting spree at a busy Munich shopping centre and then committed suicide had likely acted alone, German police said Saturday.

As it happened
Nine dead in shooting rampage in Munich
File photo: DPA

Nine people are dead after "at least one person" went on a shooting spree in a Munich shopping centre on Friday evening. An attacker is believed to be among the dead.

German Turkish community split by unrest after coup plot
Pro-Erdogan protesters in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Hatred between supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and those opposed to him has exploded on social media in Germany in the wake of a failed coup attempt last Friday.

Germany stresses defence of Baltics after Trump comments
Photo: DPA

Germany on Friday stressed its promise to protect its NATO allies after White House hopeful Donald Trump called the commitment into question.

Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Analysis & Opinion
Nice was an attack on France, not on Germany
Sponsored Article
Avoid hidden fees when sending money overseas
National
Bavaria train attack: Were police right to shoot to kill?
National
How to get German citizenship (or just stay forever)
Sponsored Article
Why Swiss hospitality graduates are in demand
Technology
Brexit will turn Berlin into 'Europe’s startup capital'
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
Travel
Six soothing day trips to escape the bustle of Berlin
International
'Germany needs to make UK come to its senses'
Features
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Features
How two gay dads cut through German red tape to start a family
National
Five things to know about guns in Germany
Sponsored Article
Health insurance for expats in Germany: a quick guide
Culture
10 things you need to know before attending a German wedding
Sponsored Article
Avoid hidden fees when sending money overseas
National
Eight weird habits you'll pick up living in Germany
Lifestyle
Six reasons 'super-cool' Berlin isn't all it's cracked up to be
Society
Only one country likes getting naked on the beach more than Germany
Sponsored Article
Why Swiss hospitality graduates are in demand
Lifestyle
23 ridiculously fascinating things you never knew about Berlin
Culture
8 German words that perfectly sum up your 20s
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Lifestyle
Can't make it past the door at Berlin's most famous club? Help is at hand
Business & Money
Why Frankfurt could steal London's crown as Europe's finance capital
Features
6 surprising things I learned about Germany while editing The Local
Culture
Five sure-fire ways to impress Germans with your manners
10,799
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd