Free as a Bird
There's a place in Germany that's gone completely cuckoo! Marc Llewellyn heads to the Black Forest to find out more. Photography by Nick Ballon
Let’s be honest. While some people may find them endearing, others rate the cuckoo clock as, well, just a little tacky. There’s something about those dangly bits, squirrels and whimsical woodcutters. And, while the cuckoo may start off being cute when it pops out of its wooden doors and lets out its distinctive call, by the time midnight comes around you’ll probably want to march it outside and shoot it.
But, there’s a time and a place for everything. In this case the time is once on the half hour and several times on the hour. The place? South Germany, specifically an eccentric Black Forest village called Schonach, which sports the World’s Biggest Cuckoo Clock, not once, but twice.
That’s right, two World’s Biggest Cuckoo Clocks in the same place – with a third just down the road in the town of Triberg. Local road signs cloud the issue further by promoting all of them as the largest. A cuckoo clock battle is obviously good for tourism.
The first clock I see is the original World’s Biggest. Clock maker Josef Dold and his family spent two years building this monster, which stands at 3.6m wide and 3.1m tall. You can find it in the family’s garden, a short distance from Schonach’s village centre.
You walk through a door into what is effectively an enormous clock case, which doubles as a shop selling smaller versions. For a small entrance fee you get to see the internal workings of the clock, complete with the large bellows that make the famous cuckoo noise.
Then you enter the pretty garden and wait for the huge bird to emerge.
As far as size goes, the newer cuckoo clock just around the corner in the Clock Park wins. This one measures 4.5m in both width and height, and took five years to build. As statistics are so vitally important when it comes to comparing cuckoo clocks, you may as well know that the bird itself weighs 150kg, which is the equivalent of a fully grown Bengal tiger.
Just down the road I find Rombach & Haas Black Forest Clock Factory, in business since 1894. Here I meet the factory’s fourth-generation owner, Ingolf Haas, who also happens to be chairman of the Black Forest Clock Association. “For myself, the cuckoo clock is an adult toy, but also for kids, something people feel familiar with. I have three in my house,” he says enthusiastically. “You feel at home with a cuckoo clock. It’s a timepiece that’s timeless. Each is an individual work of art that never goes out of fashion.”
Haas’s factory sells up to 6,000 clocks a year. “But we are small,” he says. “If you take the whole industry, then up to 200,000 clocks are made within 10 miles of my house in a normal year.” Cuckoo clocks are serious business, I realise.
Along the way from Schonach, in the pretty tourist-trap town of Triberg – where every other store seems to sell cuckoo clocks or Black Forest gateau – I find the possible third contender to the World’s Biggest Cuckoo Clock throne. The town’s House of 1,000 Clocks certainly has an enormous clock outside, as well as a mechanical construction with two sitting bears, a giant working cuckoo, and another bear that shimmies up a pole from time to time for no apparent reason. In fact, the whole shop looks like some kind of giant cuckoo clock.
“So is this the world’s biggest cuckoo clock?” I ask a shop assistant, who turns out to be an Englishman originally from Oxford.
“It depends what you mean by biggest,” Ian Melrose says. “Technically, it isn’t, but theoretically it is. I suppose it’s all relative.” He then asks if I’ve seen one of the other shops in the chain – there are five in the Black Forest. “It has the tallest hand-carved cuckoo clock in the world. It’s 12-feet high,” he says.
“We sell up to 10,000 cuckoo clocks a year. The biggest customers are the Americans, but India is catching up. Then the Taiwanese and Chinese; you know, the new rich.”
Ten thousand a year seems a staggering amount, especially as they’re not cheap. A small, relatively simple clock costs about €100, while nicer ones can set you back €650–€1,250. And, if you want a more complicated design, then count on spending about €4,000.
“But that would take around six weeks to make and involve three people,” he says.
A carpenter constructs the basic case, a second chisels out all those dancing figurines, woodpeckers and rabbits, and finally a clock maker puts together the mechanical bits.
Ian pounds me with more facts and figures. Some people say they were invented in the Black Forest in the 1730s, but others believe their origins are lost in the mists of time. You need linden wood, at least 150-years-old, to make a good clock, and heavy cast-iron pendulum weights, usually moulded to look like pine cones.
Ian shows me three basic styles: the “chalet”, the “leaf”, preferred by women, and the “hunting”, which most men usually buy if shopping alone. The latter features hunters with rifles, stags with nice antlers, hanging pheasants and eager hounds. “But aren’t they still just a bit tacky?” I ask politely. “I mean, why would someone buy one in the first place?”
“Eighty per cent of people who buy a cuckoo clock have seen one as a child and remember it with fondness,” Ian says. “You can advertise one, but unless you’ve seen one in the flesh you won’t be convinced.”
I’m not sure I am, as Ian checks his watch. It’s no use relying on the hundreds of clocks around him, because they all show the wrong time so there’s always a cuckoo popping out somewhere in the shop. Ian hustles me outside quickly. The show is about to start. Suddenly the giant cuckoo in the garden launches out of its hatch, and the bears proceed to shuffle around to the sound of Edelweiss, or whatever.
“If you’re really interested in clocks like these you should drive over to Furtwangen,” he says. “The museum there has around 4,000 of them. It’s fascinating.” Or maybe just a bit cuckoo!
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SINGING THE CHANGES
Your average cuckoo clock may be a handcrafted work of art, but you can hardly call it contemporary. However, over the past three years all this has changed thanks to the designers at Rombach & Haas. There are now 15 types of simple yet sleek “Crazy Cuckoo Clocks” on sale, eight individual types of avant-garde “Design Clocks”, and more than 100 unique hand-painted and highly stylish pieces on offer.
All are hand-carved, though some months ago the factory made its first “special” cuckoo clock out of stainless steel. “We want to make one in glass next,” says Ingolf Haas, the factory’s owner.
“We thought the modern cuckoo clock would appeal mostly to those under 40, but all kinds of people are buying them, including people in their 70s,” he says. “They think first of buying a traditional clock, but a newer type fits better with their furniture.”
The factory now earns more than half its income from contemporary designs. But will anything ever replace the cuckoo – like an ostrich, perhaps? Or a little green alien?
“Never,” says Ingolf firmly. “If it’s not a cuckoo then it’s not a cuckoo clock.”