Cuckoo for clocks
When Army Maj. Daniel Stokes was assigned to Germany he quickly added “buy a cuckoo clock” to his list of things to do before he left.
“My dad bought one when he was stationed here, and now I wanted mine,” said Stokes who is stationed in Mannheim.
Stokes took four trips to the Black Forest to find the best way to get a quality, affordable cuckoo clock. In the end, he found a small company that crafted him a self-designed, hand-carved clock for $600.
Stokes said the clock, which has a face nearly two feet tall, is better than anything he imagined.
“I’ll keep it forever,” he said.
With some research and patience, Department of Defense personnel can find top-quality cuckoo clocks for hundreds of dollars less than someone back in the United States would pay.
“The deals are there,” said Hermann Holbt, a master carver for a cuckoo clock shop in Triberg, Germany, a Black Forest town that is a major clock center.
Accompanying good prices is also top quality, Holbt said.
A shop called The World’s Biggest Cuckoo Clock stands in the center of Wiesbaden, Germany, close to the town hall. Since 1949, the souvenir shop, which claims to have the world’s biggest cuckoo clock outside, has been a popular sight in the city and a shopping highlight for Americans stationed in Wiesbaden. Several hundred cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest are on display, ranging from 72 euros to 1,100 euros in price.
Stiven Stern has operated the shop since 1967. He is a jovial man who likes to joke with his customers. But he also worries about the dwindling American clientele because of the military drawdown in the early ’90s, 9/11 and the war in Iraq.
Most cuckoo clocks made in the Black Forest, where the clocks were invented, are exported to the United States and other countries. But those clocks are marked up 100 percent or more, said Holbt, a carver for 20 years.
Prices vary widely. A small clock starts at about $75. About $250 will buy a middle-priced clock, and elaborately carved clocks cost $1,000 or more.
The price increases as the size grows and as the carving gets more elaborate.
The custom-made clock will still be expensive — figure at least $1,000, Holbt said — but the value can’t be beat.
“If you want a one-of-a-kind clock, we can do it for you,” Holbt said. “These clocks will become heirlooms. They will be unique. These are the clocks that will hold and multiply in value.”
Purchasers can save hundreds of dollars by avoiding middlemen and buying from one of the shops that deal directly with clockmakers. Holbt said the same cuckoo clock can cost $600 in the United States and $250 in Germany.
The savings can even be greater if military personnel use a form that allows them to make a purchase without paying the 16 percent value added tax.
Stokes found his clockmaker after he walked up and down the streets of Triberg talking to salespeople and clockmakers in different stores.
“They were happy to talk about what they did and to work with me,” Stokes said.
He said he had taken a conversational German class, but didn’t use much German because all negotiations were done in English. “I wrote down a couple phrases in German, but I didn’t need them,” he said.
Stokes had made a small sketch of the clock he wanted — essentially a highly detailed hunting scene — that he showed to prospective clockmakers. He then received cost estimates.
“The prices were pretty much the same,” he said. “The difference was in how long it would take to make it.”
In the end he didn’t choose the clockmaker with the lowest price but the craftsman — Robert Heller from Triberg — who was the most enthusiastic.
“I was going door-to-door, and Robert just seemed to want to please me the most,” said Stoke, who had to wait two months for his clock to be completed. “He seemed to care the most.”
At times, Stokes grew frustrated trying to find a design he liked at a price he liked. In the end, though, he said the experience was worthwhile.
“I have a story that goes with an heirloom,” he said.
History of clocks
The first cuckoo clock was built in the early 1700s by Franz Anton Ketterer in the Schön- wald, a village near Triberg. Ketterer managed to reproduce the cuckoo’s call by using two small bellows that produced different sounds.
The cuckoo is a tree-dwelling bird that was once common in the Black Forest. It is known for laying its eggs in the nests of other bird species. It is now a protected species in Germany.
The clock industry began to develop rapidly in the Black Forest. The locals used the long winter months to hand-carve the elaborate cuckoo clocks from hardwoods.
The clocks were made in winter rooms, workshops and attics. They were then sold in the warm months by clock peddlers during long journeys throughout Europe.
Cuckoo clocks were considered works of art that inspired the hearts and minds of people throughout the region. By 1808, there were 688 clockmakers and 582 clock peddlers in the districts of Triberg and Neustadt.
The home workshops have given way to well-equipped factories, and the clocks are now made with clock movements and cases manufactured by state-of- the-art clock-making methods. Still, the woodcarvings that adorn the cases are made by craftsmen in the same way they were several hundred years ago.
Common patterns have been handed down from one generation of clockmakers to the next.
For example, according to Josef Schneider at the House of 1,000 Clocks in Triberg, the most traditional design features dead birds and rabbits hanging upside down surrounding the clock face.
“These were communities of hunters and they wanted something to symbolize the hunters,” Schneider said of the early clockmakers.
But in the past 20 years, the designs have changed to cater to new customers, he said.
Clocks now include renditions of standing-upright rabbits and birds. “They’re friendlier and not so morbid,” Schneider said.
Other designs feature festival scenes, marriages, beer drinking and even Smurfs.
Carver Robert Boyer, now 59, followed in his father’s footsteps. He works and lives in Nussbach, about five miles east of Triberg.
He uses basic tools such as chisels, a fine-toothed saw and a sharp knife to turn pieces of wood into birds, rabbits, trees and miniature people.
“I find it relaxing,” said Boyer, who estimates he spends 50 hours a week during the winter carving, but slows to about 15 hours a week during the warmer months when he sits in his workshop and answers questions from potential buyers and tourists.
“Part of the job is being a storyteller and historian,” he said.
Although there are many smaller builders of cuckoo clocks, these are some of the largest and best known:
• Schneider Clocks: Anton Schneider began producing cuckoo clocks in 1848 in his Schonach, Germany, farmhouse. The family business is now in its sixth generation and has produced high-value cuckoo clocks at its current location since 1952.
The Schneider clock factory is among the most modern and largest cuckoo clock factories in the Black Forest. Still, the tradition of performing valuable carving work by hand has been maintained. Most Schneider workers have worked at the company for between 20 and 40 years.
• Dold Clocks: For more than 40 years, Dold has manufactured high-quality clocks. It is one of the leading manufacturers of cuckoo clocks in Germany and it exports to all parts of the world. Based on this success, master craftsmen pass their experience on to journeymen and apprentices.
Dold has developed a clock that combines tradition and a personal demand for excellence.
• Hones Cuckoo Clocks: Tradition and innovations are the basis for Hones’ success. The clocks are manufactured as hand-assembled masterpieces that feature very detailed carvings and clock cases. They also use high-quality movements to ensure precise time and reliable movement and sound of the cuckoo and other pieces.
— David Josar