Coming from Switzerland, I’m thoroughly spoiled by landscapes and often find myself sadly underwhelmed by other countries’ scenery, but there is something about driving into Germany’s Black Forest that takes me by surprise.

As the road leaves the city of Freiburg and starts to wind into the countryside, the woodland starts to become much denser with patches of mist that drift eerily beneath the canopy of evergreen trees. The forest floor is covered in a bright green carpet of moss, creating a fairy-tale scene that takes you back to your childhood and right into the pages of any one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

The Black Forest, or Schwarzwald as it is called in German, is a mountainous region in southwest Germany in the state of Baden-Württemberg that attracts visitors all year round for its stunning scenery, local wines, hiking trails and spa hotels. But there is something else that brings us here and that is its rich horological history.

The Black Forest, or Schwarzwald as it is called in German

The Birth of the Black Forest Clock

The history of clockmaking in the Black Forest is similar to that of the watchmaking regions of Switzerland. It was an activity started by farmers in the winter months to supplement their income. The region’s first clocks date back to the second half of the 17th century and were made entirely from wood. By 1840, the clocks had evolved to feature painted porcelain dials and were named shield clocks. Records from the time note that more than 1,000 home workshops were registered in the region, with 5,000 clockmakers and a production of around 600,000 wooden clocks per year. Black Forest clocks were among the most competitively priced on the market and quickly gained international recognition.

The arrival of the cuckoo clock didn’t come until later and its origins are not only unclear, but still the cause of debate today. Some believe that the idea for the cuckoo clock came from clockmakers Joseph Ganter and Joseph Kammerer, who met a Bohemian clockmaker with a cuckoo clock on their travels in the 1740s. Other sources claim that Franz Anton Ketterer from Schönwald built the first cuckoo clock in the 1730s after attempting to make a clock with the crow of a rooster. Legend has it that it turned out to be way too complicated, so he settled on the simpler cuckoo sound. Regardless of who invented the cuckoo clock, one thing is clear: the Black Forest clock makers can be credited with turning the idea into a success story that has endured for three centuries.

Cuckoo Clocks (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)
Cuckoo Clocks (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)
Cuckoo Clocks (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)
Cuckoo Clocks (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)
Cuckoo Clocks (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)
Cuckoo Clocks (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)

Manufacturing Today

The number of cuckoo clock manufacturers has dwindled over the decades, but the passion and savoir-faire remain strong as we discover when we meet Conny and Ingolf Haas, fourth generation owners of Rombach & Haas, a cuckoo clock workshop dating back to 1894. Rombach & Haas Clocks is one of the few companies still offering hand-painted shield clocks and antique cuckoo clock reproductions, but they have also brought the cuckoo clock into the 21st century with their contemporary cuckoo clock designs. “In the beginning of 2006 my wife Conny and I introduced the first modern cuckoo clocks, which is today the third generation of clocks (after the shield clocks and the carved wooden cuckoo clocks),” explains Ingolf Haas. “I could write a book about the reactions we’ve received from these clocks. It was really strange because we never expected that people would fight against us, saying, ‘You cannot do this, it is impossible, you cannot change the cuckoo clock.’ But we also had people coming to us saying: ‘You are a genius because you started making cuckoo clocks which fit my home and my taste.’”

They count a number of famous clients including Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, and Angela Merkel, who offered one to Vladimir Putin during a state visit.

The workshop dates back to the foundation of the company with the original floorboards and workbenches which add to the charm of this magical place. The company buys its clock movements — a one-day movement, an eight-day version and a musical movement with three pendulum weights — from an outside supplier and concentrates on the designs of each clock, which range from the traditional to the highly contemporary. Whatever the design, though, the magic is the same. “Today, children, young people and old people have everything – electronics, cell phones, internet — but they are still fascinated by coming to see a cuckoo clock,” shares Haas. “They stand there waiting. When will it come? When will the door open? When will it cuckoo? It is amazing for us. I can understand that 200 or 300 years ago it was even more amazing that a clock on the wall could have a bird that could move its wings and cuckoo, but today it is still amazing and I think it is because they are mechanically-driven. People feel that they are handmade with brass and steel, with wheels connecting inside. I think this is what the appeal is.”

Cuckoo Manufacturers (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)
Cuckoo Manufacturers (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)

From Rombach & Haas, we drive to the town of Triberg to meet with Rienhold Herr, cuckoo clock maker from the Uhrenmanufaktur Hubert Herr and inventor of the world’s smallest cuckoo clock. Herr is the fifth generation to run the company and has two factories, one where he manufactures his own movements and does hand wood carving, and the other where the cuckoo clocks are assembled. He is the only manufacturer to make the whole cuckoo clock in-house, including the movements. He produces a large range and style of cuckoo clocks, including big hunting pieces that follow an ancestral design. “We still have old drawings from my grandfather and even from his father, Edward Herr, and we have never changed these old drawings so the style of our traditionally-carved cuckoo clocks is always the same,” explains Herr. “We even have one clock that goes back to an old drawing from 1885 and it is still produced the same way. This is like the handwriting of our company, it is our inheritance and all of our traditional clocks keep to these designs, so when I see a cuckoo clock in a shop I can really tell, just from the carving, if this is a clock from our production or if it is from another company,” he shares.

Herr is also the inventor of the world’s smallest cuckoo clock, which houses a miniature clock movement. “The smallest cuckoo clock is really something special. It was only possible to produce because we make our own movements. The decision to make the smallest cuckoo clock in the world was because, here in Triberg, we have two of the world’s largest cuckoo clocks, so we thought, let’s make the smallest one, which is easier for people to carry home!” he says with a smile.

Cuckoo Manufacturers (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)
Cuckoo Manufacturers (© Joy Corthésy/Revolution)

The World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock

The world’s largest cuckoo clock and the world’s first largest cuckoo clock (now in second place) are extremely entertaining to visit and a must for any Black Forest horological tour. Admittedly, they are a little kitsch, but it is worth it to see the wooden movements in motion and run outside to watch the cuckoo chirp the hour. We visited the world’s first largest cuckoo clock, which was actually made on such a grand scale to explain to people how a cuckoo clock movement works, not to attract tourists.

The World's Largest Cuckoo Clocks
The World's Largest Cuckoo Clocks

The House of 1,000 Clocks

There are a number of places to purchase a cuckoo clock in the Black Forest, but one shop worth the detour is the House of 1,000 Clocks in Triberg. This 600sqm shop is impossible to miss thanks to its giant automaton of a family of bears above the shopfront. Every 15 minutes, the whole bear family starts moving to music, creating a show for children and adults alike. Inside, you will find over 2,000 cuckoo clocks for sale, but those with sensitive ears need not worry as they only chirp on demand!

The Junghans Empire

Black Forest horology isn’t just about the cuckoo though. Clockmaking started to become industrialized in the 1850s with the founding of the first factories specializing in different elements of production. By the end of the 19th century, companies such as Junghans, Kielzle and Mauthe were finding inspiration in the American production model and started mass-producing clocks. Parts were produced by machines and mechanisms were optimized for faster assembly. The German alarm clock became the best-value clock on the market and before World War I, 60 per cent of alarm clocks worldwide came from the Black Forest region.

The town of Schramberg grew around the clockmaking industry and the Junghans name seems to be on almost every building. The history of the company is a fascinating story — in 1903 the Junghans Manufacture was the world leader in clock and watch production, counting over 3,000 employees who produced more than three million timepieces per year.

Villa Erhard Junghans Heute
Villa Erhard Junghans Heute

The Junghans story went from strength to strength until the quartz crisis in the 1970s and, like many of its Swiss counterparts, it struggled to adapt to a fast-changing industry. Today, the company is owned by the Steim family from Schramberg, who are bringing this historic name back to life again, much to the joy of the people of Schramberg.

As I take my leave from this interesting region, I make a detour past the famous Junghans terrace building that was built by Arthur Junghans in 1918. It was designed to follow the hillside in steps to optimize daylight for the workers. The company is currently renovating the building in celebration of its 100th anniversary and it will house a clock and watch museum. The inauguration is planned for this summer, so I hope to return soon and learn more about the incredible history of the Black Forest and its horological history — a fairy-tale to revisit.

Junghans Terrassenbau (Image: Volker Fuchs)
Junghans Terrassenbau (Image: Volker Fuchs)

During my Black Forest adventure, I tested two contemporary Junghans timepieces — the Meister Driver Day Date and the Meister Driver Chronoscope. The Meister Driver Day Date comes in a two-tone gray dial with that recognizable Junghans font and elegant hands that take you straight back to dashboards of 1930s German automobiles. The highly-legible day indication is in an aperture at 12 o’clock and the date is positioned at six o’clock and is reminiscent of speedometers of old.

Meister Driver Day Date
Meister Driver Day Date

The Meister Driver Chronocope is another beautifully designed watch that is both functional and minimalistic, in tune with that much-loved German design. I wore the gray-dial version with nine-link steel, which was the height of comfort. The sapphire is of particular note as it is made of highly domed plexiglass crystal with a Sicralan coating, which also gives it a rather vintage feel. The best part about both timepieces is their affordable price — €1,290 for the Meister Driver Day Date and €2,090 for the Meister Driver Chronocope.

Meister Driver Chronocope
Meister Driver Chronocope

All the Details

Sophie Furley stayed in the Hotel Inselklause in Schönwald (www.inselklause.com) and the Villa Junghans (www.villa-junghans.de).

She visited the Uhrenmuseum Clock Museum in Furtwangen im Schwarzwald, a fascinating clock museum where you can also make an appointment to make your own cuckoo clock for €40 — www.deutsches-uhrenmuseum.de / Romback und Haas clocks range from €130 to €1,500 — www.black-forest-clock.de / Herbert Herr clocks range from €95 to €5,000 / The house of a 1000 clocks in Triberg — www.hausder1000uhren.de / The world’s first largest cuckoo clock in Schonach www.dold-urlaub.de / Car and clock museum, the Auto und Uhrenwelt in Schramberg, €6 per person — www.auto-und-uhrenwelt.de