Like a Visit To The Workshop of Santa’s Elves
Schonach is a village in the middle of the Black Forest high up in the mountains on an altitude of about 2900 feet. About 4000 people live here, most of them work in tourism and forestry. But this is also cuckoo clock heartland. Legend has it that the first cuckoo clock as we know it today was built in Schönwald in 1737 by clock-maker Anton Ketterer only 3 miles from Schonach. Making cuckoo clocks is a proud and cherished tradition here – you could say it runs in people’s blood.
Well, it certainly runs in the Kammerer family. In one of the narrow hillside streets in Schonach you find the family-run cuckoo clock factory “HEKAS”. Uwe Kammerer, the 45-year old head of the business is already the third generation of Kammerers producing the most beautiful cuckoo clocks. “It all started with my Grandpa Helmut”, he says when asked about the origins of his manufactory. Helmut Kammerer’s father was a much-respected clerk with the town council, but his son felt that his vocation lay elsewhere and so he became a clock-maker. The first cuckoo clocks were built in his living-room, the same living-room Uwe Kammerer relaxes in after his long days. In 1937, grandfather Helmut founded the HEKAS (HElmut KAmmerer!) cuckoo clock factory. Back then, there were many clock-makers in Schonach, nowadays only 2 are left.
Uwe Kammerer followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father and you can truly say that he learned every aspect of the business from scratch: he is a fully-trained carpenter, clock-maker and toolmaker, an old-school craftsman who believes that a quality product is the result of good material, hard work and time. In 2009, he took over from his father who still lends a hand in the production but has gladly handed over the responsibility to his son.
Together with his 15 workers, Uwe Kammerer produces about 15.000 cuckoo clocks per annum. He can’t really say how long it takes to make a cuckoo clock – it depends on the model, but some of the more intricate designs can take well over a week. HEKAS currently has about 250 different designs on offer, some are all time favorites, and some are ordered very rarely. But it seems that Mr. Kammerer has every design stored in his head which is only apt as he is the one who makes all the designs. The style of casings, the scenes, the decoration, this is all his work. Looking around in his little reception room, you can see a selection on the walls, from tiny to big, from traditional to more modern. “What is the most popular type of cuckoo clock nowadays?” was one of my questions – I personally would have thought that the unicolor modern designs would be a top-seller. They are fairly minimalistic, with a simple casing and dial, but with a typical cuckoo clock that shoots out from its hole with the well-known sound every hour. But no, Mr. Kammerer explains that customers nearly always want the traditional cuckoo clock, with a hand-carved casing and customary decoration like music, scenes with hand-carved figurines and moving elements. Traditional designs from the depths of the Black Forest are a true trademark.
Mr. Kammerer’s smiling face lights up even more when we ask to see workshop. All his employees were gone for their lunch break – some of them live in the village and go home to have lunch with their families. So, the boss has time and leisure to give us a tour of the premises. First, we enter the sawing room. Every clock naturally starts with the right tree, but you never really think about it, until you see the impressive machines, wade through heaps of sawdust and smell the incredibly soothing scent of wood. Most casings and decorative parts are carved from limewood as that is a rather soft wood, ideal for carving. Oak and maple are rarely used as they are very hard, fir is often used for casings but not for figurines as its irregular growth rings make it a difficult material for carving. The wood is regional and cut in a sawmill near Stuttgart. About 1765 cubic feet of wood are processed in this work shop every year.
Next to the saw is a whole pile of just finished blanks, frames for casings. These now need to be carved – eventually they will adorn classic cuckoo clocks with leaves and birds on the casing. This done by a wood-carver here in the Black Forest, Fritz, who has been with the Kammerers longer than anyone can remember. He doesn’t work on site, but in his home village some 20 miles away. Also, the clockworks are delivered to the factory– from down the road where the SBS Feintechnik company has been making clockworks for over 150 years. When we discuss supplies with Mr. Kammerer, he explains that most cuckoo clock parts are made right here in Schonach or in the region. But he also notices more and more that old crafts like wood-carving are declining, that there is hardly any new blood. There are no young carvers around anymore. The Kammerers don’t carve the little figurines for their clocks themselves, the little dancers, beer drinkers, wood choppers, deer, squirrels, dogs and all the other characters that populate the beautiful clocks. These are bought from a friend and woodcarver who lives around the corner. Some hand-carved figurines and cuckoos are bought in Southern Tyrol, another mountain region famous for woodcarving.
We walk through the staining room where it smells quite strongly of paint. Here, the casings are stained, any decorative painting and drawing is done upstairs. Upstairs turns out to be a huge well-lit room with many windows and working desks where the HEKAS employees put together one cuckoo clock after the other, gluing, screwing and painting. “They are all specialists”, Uwe Kammerer says. He is a “cuckoo clock jack of all trades”, knowing every detail and every step of the process. But he admits with a huge grin that there are moments where he just keeps quiet and lets his employees work their magic as he knows their expertise. He shows us how the music is put into the clocks – it is exactly the same mechanism that you would find in a music box. These come from Switzerland, 25 euros a piece. The same item would be only 8 euros if they bought it form China. Uwe Kammerer whose face usually shows a big hearty smile, gets serious for a moment. “We have worked with this company in Switzerland for a long time. They produce excellent quality and that is what our customers are looking for when they buy our cuckoo clocks”. Imports from China are clearly out of the question here. Upstairs is also the “probation area”: every finished cuckoo clock is tried out over several days to make sure everything works properly before the clock is carefully wrapped and packaged to be sent out to a happy customer.
We could have spent hours in this place as Mr. Kammerer’s cheerful enthusiasm for what he does is truly infectious. But the lunch break was drawing to its close and the employees were about to come back to work, so we did not want to disturb. But there is one more very important topic that needs to be discussed.
Whenever we meet some of our suppliers and craftsmen many of whom live in rather remote areas, the same question arises: who will take over the business one day? In many cases the answer is accompanied by a sad shrug: nobody. The old crafts like wood-carving, clock-making and so on are seriously in danger of dying out within the next generation or two. Hardly any young man dreams of becoming a wood-carver or sculptor anymore. This is one of the reasons why we from Blackforestandbeyond keep traveling all over Germany to find the right products for our shop. We are looking for those who keep our traditions and the old prowess of craftsmanship alive and whose procducts are unique, original and simply beautiful.
Mr. Kammerer, however, smiles radiantly when he answers this question about the future: the next generation of cuckoo clock makers is already deeply ensconced in the business – Kammerer junior is 11 years old and loves designing cuckoo clocks. He has actually designed his first own clock, but also accompanies his father to clock fairs where he has shown a remarkable talent in sales. “He is my best sales representative,” Mr. Kammerer laughs, his eyes beaming with pride. There is no need to worry about the future of this family business, the fourth Kammerer generation is ready to start!
I left Schonach deeply impressed. I am a rather recent cuckoo clock aficionado and this visit to the HEKAS factory was a real treat and at the same time an eye-opener: how much care, work, talent, time and also pride goes into these pieces. We at Blackforestgifts on the other hand are very proud that we have such an invaluable partner – HEKAS undoubtedly makes the best cuckoo clocks! Have a look at them.