• Germany edition
 
Cuckoo clocks: kitsch, colourful and cheerful
Photo: Kate Hairsine

Cuckoo clocks: kitsch, colourful and cheerful

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

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

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
Man shot in tax office dispute
DPA

Man shot in tax office dispute

A tax office worker in the Schleswig-Holstein town of Rendsburg died in hospital after being shot on Monday morning. READ  

Merkel details Iraq arms shipment to MPs
Angela Merkel addressing the Bundestag on Monday as her ministers look on. Photo: DPA

Merkel details Iraq arms shipment to MPs

UPDATE: Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the Bundestag on Monday to explain her government's decision to send weapons to Iraqi Kurds fighting terrorist group Isis. READ  

Olympic visions compete in Berlin and Hamburg
Berlin and Hamburg mayors Klaus Wowereit and Olaf Scholz on Monday. Photos: DPA

Olympic visions compete in Berlin and Hamburg

Germany's capital and its gateway to the North Sea each released details of their Olympic bids on Monday as the race for the 2024 or 2028 summer games nominations picks up momentum. READ  

Vacationer killed by Baltic Sea bacteria
Photo: DPA

Vacationer killed by Baltic Sea bacteria

Six people were infected with a bacteria from the Caribbean which has made itself at home in the popular German vacation destination. One of them is now in a coma. READ  

UN applauds Germany's help to refugees
DPA

UN applauds Germany's help to refugees

UNHCR Commissioner Antonio Guterres is lauding Germany's role in accommodating the influx of refugees in Europe, while pointing at the imbalance of effort within the EU. The federal government has pledged to do more. READ  

Energy-sucking vacuums no longer welcome
Photo: DPA

Energy-sucking vacuums no longer welcome

Starting on Monday, vacuum cleaners drawing more than 1600 watts can no longer be brought into Germany. The ban is part of a an EU-wide environmental protection measure. READ  

Coalition horsetrading starts after Saxony vote
CDU leader Stanislav Tillich with SPD Martig Dulig. Photo: DPA

Coalition horsetrading starts after Saxony vote

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic (CDU) party is in search of a new partner after the expulsion of its former allies the Free Democrats (FDP) from the Saxon state parliament. READ  

Presented by Phorms Education
Bilingual education from nursery to graduation
Photo: Phorms Education

Bilingual education from nursery to graduation

A network of German based schools is changing how students learn languages by introducing English and Deutsch from day one, with the method yielding impressive academic results. The Local finds out more about Phorms Education. READ  

JobTalk Germany
'German bosses need to praise more'
More of this? Photo: Shutterstock

'German bosses need to praise more'

What do German bosses need to do to get more out of their staff? Frankfurt-based business consultant Justin Bariso has this advice. READ  

Train drivers take their turn to strike
A banner announcing a previous rail strike in June is displayed in a station. Photo: DPA

Train drivers take their turn to strike

A train drivers' union has warned of a nationwide strike to take place on Monday evening as it seeks leverage in negotiations with Deutsche Bahn. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Bilingual education from nursery to graduation at Phorms
Photo: Shutterstock
Gallery
Ten of the oddest things found by German border control
Photo: Gerkan, Marg and Partners/Tegel Projekt GmbH/J. Mayer
Berlin
How will Berlin look in five years' time?
Photo: DPA
Culture
Sprechen Sie Deutsch? 10 reasons why you should
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The best of Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit in 14 pictures
Photo: DPA
Politics
Germany sends burgers and sausages to Kurds
Photo: Matthias Kock
National
Tribes, ties and a movie: A German's Afghan life
Photo: DPA
Gallery
10 things to do before summer in Germany is really over
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The mysteries of Berlin's abandoned theme park
Photo: Europeana.de 1914 - 1918
Gallery
A German soldier's life behind WWI lines
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

3,418
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd