A cuckoo clock is more than a thing that keeps time…
Not too long ago, cuckoo clocks were spurned as dusty kitsch and out-of-date Grandma-style decoration among young Germans (and yes, my Grandma had a cuckoo clock hanging in her hall) and their popularity waned. But as more and more Germans rediscover the true value of traditional craftsmanship, the cuckoo clock has rightly been restored to its former splendid reputation.
Most people around the world consider cuckoo clocks as the embodiment of Germany. It is one of the most common stereotypes when you think of Germany just like beer, lederhosen and sauerkraut. However, only few people know that cuckoo clocks are only made in a very small part of the country and have risen to world fame in the remote and stunningly beautiful region called the “Black Forest”. This mountain range, second only to the Alps in Germany, is located in the very southwest of the country close to its borders with France and Switzerland. This is the true home of the cuckoo clock.
Today, the Black Forest attracts thousands of visitors every year. They come to take in and experience the magic of the picture-book countryside with its lush green pastures, high mountains and winding narrow roads. Others might discover the variety of outdoor activities like skiing, hiking and mountain-biking. And many visitors explore the rich culture of the Black Forest, from savoring the famous Black Forest Cake to taking part in the traditional “Fasnecht”- festivities (carnival) or on a Black Forest day trip to one of its many museums portraying life and traditions of the area.
But while the Black Forest is nowadays a popular vacation destination, things look a lot bleaker if you travel back in time for about 400 years. The forests are so thick and impenetrable that, if you look at the peaks from a distance, they look black – it is this phenomenon which gave the region its name and which kept people from populating the area in large numbers until the Middle Ages. Life was harsh in the Black Forest: farmers made a meager living from timber trade and raising cattle for dairy products. During the long and dark winters, they needed to find occupation indoors. As wood was the one raw material abound, it is not surprising that many of the traditional crafts in the Black Forest center around wood and its by-products, such as woodcarving, instrument making and glass-blowing.
History of Cuckoo Clocks
It must have been during one of those cold winters when the cuckoo clock was born. We don’t know the exact date, year or place in the Black Forest, but the origin is generally placed in the late 16th century. Travelers’ accounts now and again mention clocks that use the sound of a cuckoo (generated through something like little organ pipes) to announce the full hour during the early 17th century. They were considered unusual, even exotic objects. One of them even found its way into the court treasure chamber of the Prince Elector of Saxony around 1619. But it wasn’t until the early 18th century that making cuckoo clocks became a tangible craft in the Black Forest. From these humble beginnings, the iconic clocks started to become well-known and popular in and beyond the Black Forest. During the 19th century, clock-making became one of the prime sources of income in the region and only suffered a slow decline after WW II. But as the popularity of the Black Forest and its traditions grows, so does the demand for cuckoo clocks.
For 200 years, skilled craftsmen have been producing these unique clocks. Today, they are mainly small, family-run businesses many of which have been handed down from generation to generation. The Kammerer family in Schonach is such an example: Helmut Kammerer founded the Hekas Cuckoo clock workshop in 1938 – by now the third generation is running the small company with 16 highly specialized employees.
For a real original cuckoo clock is entirely handmade. From the carved watch case that often mirrors the traditional farmhouses in the Black Forest to the intricate clockwork inside, every single tiny detail requires the steady hand of an expert craftsman. Woodcarvers and clockmakers must work hand in hand to ensure the desired outcome. Of course, some manufacturers resort to using pre-fabricated parts which are usually imported to speed up the production process to modern standards. But a completely handmade clock still takes about one week to be made by several different workers just like back in the 18th century. Many producers experiment with the designs – the traditional farmhouse watch case with ornaments like birds, antlers and leaves is a classic, of course, but you also find futuristic and crazy designs in bright colors or very reduced styles that basically feature just a cuckoo without the elaborate house.
Modern or traditional, a cuckoo clock from the Black Forest is a unique and characteristic piece of art. They don’t come cheap, true. Black Forest clockmakers shudder when they see cuckoo clocks go for as little as $99 – because they know that this clock has not seen any of the craftsmanship and art they so proudly preserve. A true cuckoo clock from the Black Forest, however, is a long-lived companion. Even your great-grandchildren will smile as they remember you when the cuckoo announces the full hour.
What happened to my Grandma’s cuckoo clock? When Grandma left this world, it moved to my aunt’s house where the cuckoo happily sings at every hour.
Originally a girl from Bavaria, it was love that brought me to the south-west of Germany. Love for a man, of course – at first. It didn’t take long, however, until I also fell in love with this special region, its captivating beauty and its deeply-rooted traditions. Together we have made it our goal to help keeping traditional crafts of the Black Forest and beyond alive. That is why we work closely with the family-run workshop Hekas from Schonach and offer their unique cuckoo clocks in our online shop.
Check out our best cuckoo clocks here.