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Cuckoo clocks: kitsch, colourful and cheerful

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Photo: Kate Hairsine
13:23 CEST+02:00
The sandstone cliffs surrounding Triberg should have holes in them from which large wooden birds spring each hour, for the town is the heart of Germany’s cuckoo clock industry. Kate Hairsine investigated.

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...

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