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Ingenious German woodcarvers fight pandemic losses

Hardy Graupner Seiffen
December 4, 2020

Christmas is the most important season for the makers of wooden toys and decorations in Germany's Erzgebirge mountains in Saxony. This year, though, the pandemic has brought tough challenges, as Hardy Graupner reports.

Smoking figure symbolizing a virologist
This smoking figure symbolizing a virologist has gone down extremely well with customersImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

The Erzgebirge region in Saxony near the Czech border has been a center of woodcarving for centuries. When extensive ore mining activities petered out toward the end of the 17th century, regional miners and their families were forced to look for alternative sources of income. Many started to work with what could be found in abundance in the area — wood.

They soon developed the skills to make elaborately carved wooden toys and figures. One of the techniques the area is still known for today is woodturning, a process where a large number of figures are sliced from a crafted wooden ring, producing less waste and boosting productivity.

According to the Association of Artisans and Toymakers, some 2,000 people are still employed in the trade in the region, offering up to 30,000 different products. The heart of Erzgebirge woodwork is no doubt Seiffen, a picturesque community of about 2,500 inhabitants.

Craftsman in a Seiffen workshop
It's a long journey from a raw wooden workpiece to a finished productImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

2020 is different

Normally, busloads of German and international visitors descend on the village every day during the Christmas season, each of them eager to buy a wooden decoration or some toys for the kids. Seiffen can easily register over 700,000 visitors annually, but this year is different, and the coronavirus is to blame, says the head of the regional umbrella association of woodcarvers and toymakers, Frederic Günther.

"One of our sales channels has broken away completely, notably the Christmas markets," he told DW. "In the summer up to October, retail sales went smoothly, but only in the countryside where local residents bought our items — in big cities like Berlin, Frankfurt or Dresden, sales figures went down as international tourists stayed away due to the pandemic.

"What I'm saying is that the souvenir business has been basically nonexistent — if you can't travel, you can't bring anything back home with you, can you?"

Günther concedes, though, that online sales have increased considerably, also due to collectors who want to add the newest items from their favorite companies in Seiffen. Yet boosted online sales will not nearly be able to fully compensate for the losses incurred by the cancellation of Christmas markets across the country.

Carved Christmas decorations from the Erzgebirge region
These are what the Germans call pyramids, a must-have for many householdsImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

"Our firms have produced a lot, but cannot sell everything themselves or through retailers," Günther said. "There will likely be some short-term work next year, and of course we hope that skilled workers will not run away because they will be badly needed when things get going again after the pandemic."

His father, Tino Günther, heads a renowned toymaking firm in Seiffen. He's disappointed that promised government aid has not come through so far.

"Our industry is very alarmed because there's no state aid in sight in contrast to what we experienced during the first lockdown in spring," Tino Günther told DW. "But now, in the most crucial time for us, we feel left to our own devices."

Array of Seiffen nutcrackers
There's an endless variety of nutcrackers and 'pyramids' made in SeiffenImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

Virologist to the rescue

The entrepreneur is not content with playing a waiting game. He's the mastermind behind a new wooden figure that has created domestic and international demand beyond his imagination.

"It's a virologist symbolically portrayed as a smoking mannequin [a traditional Erzgebirge figurine] — here we are portraying a profession that's become very prominent during the pandemic," he said. "Some people told me the figurine resembles Germany's best-known virologist, Christian Drosten, who's helped navigate the coronavirus crisis in this country."

Normally, you'd see smoke rising from the mouths of the wooden mannequins, but the miniature virologist has to wear a face mask and the smoke comes out of his head instead, symbolizing that a virologist always has his thinking cap on. He also buries his hands in his pockets since he's not allowed to shake hands with people. And he's trampling on what looks like a virus.

"I had not expected how successful my idea would be, not even in my wildest dreams," Tino Günther said. "Helped by the recent media hype about the mannequin, online sales have been exploding and we were able to employ more hands to handle the orders. More than 3,500 people have already placed orders although they know that they will only get their parcels next year, with deliveries starting in January."

Carved Christmas decorations from the Ergebirge region
With fewer tourists in their shops, woodcarvers are trying to find other ways to sell their productsImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

New virtual reality

The fight to rescue the Christmas season has produced many other bright ideas. One definitely worth a mention is the creation of a virtual Seiffen Christmas Market, says Juliane Kröner, CEO of woodturning cooperative Dregeno.

"We saw our sales channels breaking away during the first lockdown in spring, and I started wondering what we'd do should the same thing happen to us in the Christmas season," Kröner told DW. "Our regional producers depend on the festive season for around 80% of their business. I also asked myself what our customers would do should they not be able to visit us on the ground, and this is how the idea of a virtual Christmas market was born."

Kröner makes a point of mentioning it's a first worldwide.

"Nobody has ever done this before; it's the only virtual Christmas market worldwide — you can walk through it, enjoying the 360-degree panorama view with our stands and other attractions. Technically, it feels a bit like Google Street View," she explained.

Early bugs have been fixed and server breakdowns are also a thing of the past, Kröner says.

Dregeno CEO Juliane Kröner in front of a picture showing Seiffen's virtual Christmas market
Dregeno CEO Juliane Kröner in front of a picture showing Seiffen's virtual Christmas marketImage: Nico Schimmelpfennig

"What's on offer are not just our wooden toys and decorations, but you can also get some of our typical regional food items such as mulled wine and 'Stollen' [German Christmas fruitcake] plus products such as jewelry and handbags. The idea has gone down extremely well with people. Our virtual market had 14,000 hits on the first day of operation in early November. We have registered around 100,000 users since we started four weeks ago."

It's ideas like this that will no doubt help the local producers and retailers cushion the blow of the pandemic. As Tino Günther remarks, every crisis harbors fresh business opportunities. The folks in Seiffen and the wider Erzgebirge region have been willing to rise to the challenge each time.