• 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
Forest tragedy as best man kills groom-to-be
File photo: DPA

Forest tragedy as best man kills groom-to-be

A family outing turned into tragedy on Monday, when a best man in Thuringia accidentally killed the groom-to-be just days before his wedding. READ  

Slash CO2 emissions to save oceans: scientists
A humpback whale breaching. Photo: Wwelles14/Wikimedia Commons

Slash CO2 emissions to save oceans: scientists

German scientists said on Monday that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must begin falling immediately if mankind is to have any hope of preserving Earth's oceans as we know them today. READ  

Weekend heatwave to follow Tuesday showers
Sun shining through an apple tree in Düsseldorf. Photo: DPA

Weekend heatwave to follow Tuesday showers

Germany can expect a cooler Tuesday with heavy showers in the west of the country before returning to high summer conditions over the weekend, the German Weather service said. READ  

Merkel's office hunted journalists' sources
Photo: DPA

Merkel's office hunted journalists' sources

The scandal around an investigation into journalists reporting on classified information deepened on Tuesday as new information showed that officials from the Chancellery and the Interior Ministry tried to uncover reporters' sources. READ  

'Hot Boy from Germany' wins Vietnam Idol
Image: Fremantle Media/YouTube

'Hot Boy from Germany' wins Vietnam Idol

A 22-year-old from Hanover has become the latest winner of Vietnam Idol – bagging $27,000 along with his new title. READ  

Man promises to stop coffin naps in public
If you want to rest in place while you're still alive, a car park isn't the place place to choose. Photo: DPA

Man promises to stop coffin naps in public

When a man walking his dog alerted police to the fact that a black coffin was lying in the middle of a public parking place, the cops were surprised to find someone inside. READ  

Court orders boss to pay worker for changing
Photo: Pixabay

Court orders boss to pay worker for changing

A mechanic from western Germany is set to receive €350 in back payments – after claiming he should be paid for the time he spent showering and getting dressed for work. READ  

In Pictures
Wacken festival draws metalheads of the world
A reveler at Wacken Open Air 2015. Photo: DPA

Wacken festival draws metalheads of the world

Armies of black-clad fans gathered for the world's biggest heavy metal festival between Thursday and Saturday, marking 25 years of headbanging fun in the small town of Wacken in northern Germany. READ  

Railway sunbather brings trains to a halt
Photo: DPA

Railway sunbather brings trains to a halt

A plucky sunbather brought train services in North Rhine-Westphalia to an abrupt halt at the weekend - after deciding to catch some rays on the tracks. READ  

Spiegel: Merkel wants fourth term in power
Angela Merkel. Photo: DPA

Spiegel: Merkel wants fourth term in power

According to Germany's most influential political magazine, Spiegel, Angela Merkel has decided to run for a fourth term in power and has already started talks on who will run her campaign. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Business & Money
Start-up helps new Berliners short cut bureaucracy
National
The 1,000s of Germans massacred after the Second World War
Sport
Germany star scores own goal with PR gaffe
Features
'Women-only' parking: sensible or sexist?
Politics
Satire and reality blur in parody party's strife
National
13-year-old boy detained for trying to join Isis
Culture
Berlin restaurant serves up Greek Crisis Menu
Rhineland
Doctor on trial after woman wakes in morgue
Society
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Sponsored Article
Outsourcing drives Apreel's Europe growth
Society
Police bust kinky Bavarian couple over painful love-making
Politics
Merkel brings Palestinian girl to tears
Hamburg
Amateur archaeologist finds Nazi gold hoard
National
Could Merkel learn a lesson in love from this doppelganger?
Travel
Why you should stay in Germany for the summer holidays
Sport
German press tell Schweinsteiger 'good riddance'
National
Hamburg gets a bouncing 100kg baby girl
Society
In North Germany, money sometimes DOES grow on trees
National
Hero mechanics stop Bavaria shooting spree
International
Denmark says that border controls are coming
National
Did hackers take control of German missile battery?
Politics
Munich gives gay pride green light
Business & Money
Berlin rent controls hit prices hard
National
Fighting to breastfeed in public without shame
Society
Ice cream for dogs 'gobbled up in one gulp'
Education
Are hotpants a feminist issue?
Rhineland
Lion cub reunited with mother
National
How the heatwave is cracking Germany's Autobahns
International
Why the French are more sympathetic to Greece than the Germans
Sponsored Article
Crans-Montana: International expat hub
Gallery
Police seize pensioner's WW2 heavy weapons haul
National
How to survive the Europe-wide heatwave
Sport
Is Schweini already out of the door at Bayern?
Politics
How German media shaped the Greece crisis
National
Car assembly robot crushes worker at Volkswagen
Rhineland
Weathermen red-faced over heatwave snow warning
Society
An eye for an eye? Mum protects child in playground with pepperspray
National
As it happened: Queen Elizabeth's final day in Germany
National
As it happened: Queen Elizabeth's second day in Germany
National
Queen Elizabeth II's first day in Germany - as it happened
National
Bus passengers tell fake racists where to get off
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

7,099
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd