Ten years ago it was thought the famous Black Forest cuckoo clocks would disappear - sales plummeted and several old clockmakers went broke. Now, new features and modern designs have enabled a comeback.
The tiny village of Triberg lies within in a deep valley in the middle of the Black Forest. Its steep cliffs are blanketed with lush green beech and pine trees. It's difficult to imagine that this sleepy little town is also the heartland of Germany's cuckoo clock industry.
Still, it's here that the Herr family has been working in the cuckoo clock business for years. Upon entering their workshop, visitors can see thousands of tiny cogs, wheels and other parts gleaming on the workbenches. They also see generations of clockmakers working together, like Hubert Herr and his son Reinhard, as they discuss the delicate time mechanism of one of their works.
"This will be an eight day movement, with an attached dancing couple on the platform which turns around when the music goes. We only use solid materials, brass and steel. These movements are hand-assembled, high precision timepieces. A cuckoo clock doesn't have cheaply plastic movements," says Reinhard Herr.
In addition to spurning plastic, he explains, a certified Black Forest cuckoo clock also has to be hand-carved and hand-assembled from parts that only come from the Black Forest. It also can't have batteries. It's mechanically driven by weights hanging at the end of chains - often shaped as pine cones, to fit in with the style of the cuckoo clock.
But times have become tough for these collector's items from Triberg: The hand-made clocks are directly competing with cheap timepieces from China and Japan. Just a few years ago, people were forecasting the demise of the German cuckoo clock industry after sales plummeted by nearly sixty percent.
More detail, new styles
But recently, sales have stabilized. Thanks in part, says Reinhard Herr, to an upgrade in the precision of Black Forest clocks: "With all the details on the cuckoo clocks nowadays, with real shingle roofs, laser cut windows with window shutters, dancing people who are not just roughly cut out of wood, but carved in great detail, this all has improved the quality of the clock itself."
Besides focusing on tiny details, however, the clock maker says he's proud to now be able to offer significantly different styles. "With the young people nowadays, they think a cuckoo clock is something to have fun with. When a door opens, a bird comes out, some little figurines move, this is a funny type of clock. And I think that is an interesting point that we cuckoo makers have to fulfill - to bring clocks onto the market that are fun."
Up the road in the next village of Schonach lies the cuckoo clock company Rombach and Haas. There, fourth generation clockmaker Ingolf Haas has completely redesigned cuckoo clocks using slick minimalist designs and bright primary colors. "I thought to myself: How can we change the cuckoo clock? - It's been at least 150 years of 'always the same,' and I wanted to do something new for younger people."
Black Forest cuckoo clocks are mostly purchased by Americans, who, Haas says, tend to prefer the traditional styles. But with their modern designs, Haas & Rombach have managed to bait a new type of customer - young, funky Germans. "That was really exciting for us, because German people don't usually like the traditional clocks very much. For Haas, their logic is simple: "I feel German when I have a cuckoo clock but a traditional clock doesn't fit into my living room, for example, so now there is a clock available that fits into my modern living room and it is still a cuckoo clock."
Back in Triberg, tourists stroll through a shop with walls adorning hundreds upon hundreds of cuckoo clocks. It's an overwhelming display - which doesn't seem to turn the tourists off. Rather the contrary, praise goes to the intricate details and their uniqueness as truly German souvenirs. These souvenirs don't come cheap though - at a starting price of 100 euros and costing up to several thousand euros - if the cuckoo clock goes global, so too could the prices.