GERMANY

Triberg

A Visit to the Valley of the Cuckoo Clock

Cuckoo clocks on shop wall in Triberg, Germany

Cuckoo clocks cover a wall at a shop in Triberg, Germany’s cuckoo-clock capital. The cuckoo clock has been produced in the Black Forest region since the 1730s.
PETER NEVILLE-HADLEY/Meridian Writers’ Group

FOR CENTURIES, farming families in Bavaria would pass the winter inside their solid three-storey wooden farmhouses generating extra revenue by painting the flat faces of shield-shaped clocks with elaborate patterns of flowers and fruits, and cutting the wooden cogs for their mechanisms.

They may or may not have invented the cuckoo clock (that honour possibly belongs to Bohemia in the 1600s), but by the 1730s they had embraced it. The addition of a mechanical bird that called the hour greatly boosted demand for their wares. Strolling clock-sellers walked as far as Russia, carrying their stock on their backs.

The modern-day German Clock Route, running 320 kilometres through the Black Forest, lets travellers tour some of the industry’s most important centres. At the little town of Furtwangen, once the heart of the clockmaking industry, the impressive Clock and Watch Museum exhibits early wooden mechanisms with stones for weights, and a whole wall of historic cuckoo clocks whose two-tone calls sound constantly amid displays of sundials, orreries and automata.

When the first German School of Clock-Making was founded here in 1850, there was a competition to design a new cuckoo clock to boost fading demand. The winner was the house shape familiar today, based not on farmhouses or chalets but on a signalman’s hut built for the railways that were newly beginning to penetrate the forest.

A short drive along Gutach Valley to Triberg passes modern-day evidence of the 1850 design’s success in the form of farmhouses with more windows than before, designed to provide more light for expanded cuckoo-clock production.

Triberg, about 100 kilometres southeast of Stuttgart, is Germany’s cuckoo-clock capital. Its main street is lined with shops belonging to individual clockmaking families. Shelves are densely crowded with clocks, which ensures that a cuckoo calls every few seconds.

But the modern centre of clockmaking is sleepy Schonach, three kilometres away. The Chinese have made no inroads into cuckoo-clock production—all the parts are made in Bavaria and everything assembled by hand in small workshops. One here specializes in the tiny bellows that provide the twin puffs for the cuckoo’s two notes. Only the musical box mechanism incorporated in more expensive models is imported—from Switzerland.

If the new design of 1850 revolutionized the industry, in Schonach a second revolution is taking place. The showroom of Rombach and Haas has the traditional carved designs on display, but also plain, house-shaped cuckoo clocks in shocking pink, lime green and other startling colours, sometimes stencilled with forest motifs. These are clearly descendants of the traditional clock yet something brand-new. Some have “free” cuckoos perched permanently on the top of glass-fronted boxes that reveal the clock’s interior workings.

“For some years people thought we were crazy,” says Ingolf Haas, a fourth-generation clockmaker. “They became angry against us. When we exhibited somewhere people came and said, ‘You cannot do that. It is not a cuckoo clock.’”

Despite the outrage, Haas’ striking designs were widely copied and now make up 80 percent of his business and 20 percent of the cuckoo clock industry’s production as a whole.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the German Clock Museum visit its website at www.deutsches-uhrenmuseum.de.

For information on travel in Bavaria visit the Bayern Tourismus Marketing website at www.bavaria.by.

For information on travel in Germany, including the German Clock Route, visit the German National Tourist Board website at www.germany.travel.