SL sends me an adorable Back Forest Clock, acquired on a German tourist trip. When SL purchased this little iconic Chalet Clock in 1960, what began in the 17th century as a cottage industry in Germany had become the mass produced hallmark, the horological symbol of Northern Europe. It's because of the ubiquity of Cuckoo Clocks that SL’s clock isn't worth much. But the idea of a mechanized clock with a singing bird sounding its little song in the dark German Forests of the 17th century is fascinating.
SL’s is a “farm” or “chalet” clock, most associated with Switzerland, in the shape of an alpine house complete with water wheel, little windows, and that distinctive sliding snow-style roof line. Yes, the tiptop of SL’s clock has that little cuckoo door, and that little cuckoo is attached to a little bellows that play the distinctive major or minor third of the bird’s call. I've also seen the door of such a clock to open to a rotating wheel of dancing bears, or an angel with a trumpet.
The Black Forest is, well, a real forest, and from these timber stands, as early as 1640, locals supplemented their income with woodcarving of all kinds. The tradition centered upon clock making in the late 18th century at a Benedictine Monastery near Waldau. These first clocks were essentially just a dial with open mechanisms showing through the sides of the clock face, propelled by a stone weight. These clocks, called “Wag on the Wall” were notable in the Black Forest regions because everything inside and outside of the clock was carved from birch or oak. Everything. By the late 18th century 500 clockmakers worked on these clocks with their dials, spindles, escapements, all made of wood. This differs from SL’s 1960 version with its inner workings made of metal.
By the late 19th century, the Black Forest tradition of wooden clock making spread to other heavily forested regions in Northern Europe. Switzerland, the Tyrol, and Upper Bavaria all became places from which to bring back a clock. These mountain forests were inhospitable farming area, but great for colonies of wood carvers.
Innovations, such as flute pipes to sing for the bird, or full music boxes to play the hour, or, at the most extravagant, little interior organs, characterized the Black Forest Clock from 1850-1900. Artisans fashioned small versions of German Train Stations with tiny trains running in and out of the cuckoo’s door. The most innovative clocks were housed in a must-see destination, the Furtwangen Clock Museum, holding some of the Benedictine clocks from the 17th century as well.
SL, you write me that you're tired of having the little cuckoo sing the hours through the night. I have good news, should you want to upgrade. Today, you can purchase a quartz and battery powered cuckoo clock, as far from the original as possible, with plastic interior mechanisms, not at all hand carved wooden workings. However, you can program the digital cuckoo to ‘shut up’ between 11 pm and 7 am! You'll still see a cuckoo in that newfangled clock, but he'll be much more agile, dancing and flying, that is, if you want to spend a little more. Instead of the bellows producing his call, the cuckoo’s song, as a digital playback, can be varied and modulated. Where your clock has those distinctive iron pinecones, one cone for the workings, one for the cuckoo, the new quartz clock has fake weights. You don't need weights with a battery-operated clock.
SL, if you're enamored of all things cuckoo, please look into the Guinness World Record largest existing cuckoo clock. Perhaps book a ticket to visit the Elbe Uhren Park in Triberg-Schonach. You and the kids can wander inside the world’s largest Black Forest Cuckoo Clock. It weighs 6 tons, the cuckoo weights 330 pounds, (keep the kids away when that beast pops out), and the pendulum that powers the clock is 26 feet long. Tours are every half hour. That big clock is the main draw of the clock related theme park, created by brothers Ewald and Ralf Eble, along with 1000 square meters of other great clocks. Of course they offer plenty of cuckoo clocks for sale, should you decide to go digital. The value of your clock from the 1960’s? $400.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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