When someone hears the term “Black Forest,” what usually comes to mind are the intricate and iconic clocks that hail from that region. While this region is best known for their beautiful clocks, it is unknown when the first Black Forest clock was built or who came up with the design for the first cuckoo clock. Here we will examine the origins of cuckoo clocks and the evolution of Black Forest Clocks as seen today.
ORIGINS OF THE CUCKOO CLOCK
German nobleman Philipp Hainhofer first provided a written description of a cuckoo clock belonging to Prince Elector August von Sachsen in 1629, letting us know these clocks were in production well before they were first produced in the Black Forest. It is thought that the first cuckoo clocks to enter the Black Forest region were from Bohemia or the Rhineland and passed through the forest in the backpacks of people known as Glass Carriers during the early 1700s. These first clocks were simple and practical, a far cry from the detailed ornamentation Black Forest clocks are now known for. As these early cuckoo clocks made their way around the region, Black Forest inhabitants were inspired to make their own style of cuckoo clocks and a cultural icon was born.
EARLY BLACK FOREST CLOCKS
Before the introduction of the cuckoo clock, the original style of clock made in the Black Forest is known as a foliot clock. These clocks had a very basic design of an unenclosed wooden gear mechanism with an oscillating wooden pendulum hand that kept the time. Over time, the wooden design for the gear mechanism was replaced with metal and brass and the simple design began to evolve. But it took many decades before the iconic Black Forest clocks came into being.
THE INTRODUCTION OF CUCKOO CLOCKS TO THE BLACK FOREST
As trade around the region increased in the early 1700s, cuckoo clocks made their way around the Black Forest. The first design for the cuckoo clock in the Black Forest is thought to have been around the mid-1700s. In contrast with the earlier designs where the clock mechanisms were visible, these clocks hid the inner workings behind a shield that was covered with elaborately decorated paper. The bottom half of the clock is the traditional clockface with an hour hand and a minute hand with the top half containing an opening for the bird to pop out. Decorations were all hand-painted and ranged from flowers to fruit.
THE EVOLUTION OF CUCKOO CLOCKS
It wasn’t until the late 1700s that their design became more ornamental and intricate, a precursor to the elaborately carved cuckoo clocks we see today. Craftsmen began carving woodland animals, birds, trees, and people or incorporating paintings to decorate their cuckoo clocks, increasing demand due to the uniqueness and novelty of their design.
From the mid-1800s through 1870, a popular style of clock was known as Rahmenuhr, a framed clock. Rahmenuhr clocks were made up of two sections: a framed area made of wood or sheet metal with a picture painted on and a classical clock face. The wooden frame was elaborately carved and the paintings depicted themes around nature, hunting, family, mythology, love, birth, death, military, and Christianity. This type of clock had a glass pane protecting the painting and some models included a mechanism that made a person or animal’s eyes blink. The traditional cuckoo bird was incorporated into the scene and would pop out in 3D at each hour.
Around the same time that the Rahmenuhr was becoming popular, a new style of cuckoo clock was being conceptualized that would overshadow all other styles of cuckoo clock. This style is known as the Bahnhäusle Uhren and is still one of the most popular styles of cuckoo clock.
In late 1850, the first director of the Grand Duchy of Baden Clockmakers School in Furtwangen, Robert Gerwig, started a public competition for modern clock designs. The winner of the competition was architect Freidrich Eisenlohr, who submitted an unstained flat-faced symmetrical wooden shield design that was embellished with intricately carved fretwork leaves and vines. While the public and the Clockmakers School chose his design as the winner, Gerwig chose to change the design from a wooden front to a sheet metal front that was decorated with oil paintings for colored lithographs. This style did not take off and Gerwig reverted back to the original wood face design.
Another curious deviation from Eisenlohr’s design was the exclusion of the cuckoo mechanism and door. This indicates that cuckoo clocks were not a popular commodity during this time. It wasn’t until the mid-1850s that demand for cuckoo clocks took off, resulting in the return to Eisenlohr’s original design.
Over the next 10 years, the Bahnhäusle style began to evolve from the original flat-faced fretwork leaves and vine design to a more 3D style that is most popular today. These newer style of clocks included three-dimensional woodcarvings of people, animals, houses, and foliage. When people talk about Black Forest clocks, this is the style that is most commonly spoken of.
CURRENT STYLES OF BLACK FOREST CLOCKS
Nowadays, there are a wide variety of clocks to be found in the Black Forest region. You can find any style and design to fit your taste, from a more simple and clean design to very elaborate and intricate carvings that include music and animations. Below you will see descriptions for the different styles and within each style you will be able to find a variety of designs. Whatever your taste and preference is, you will be able to find a clock to fit your fancy in the Black Forest.
This is sometimes called classic or carved style and is known for deep carvings and rich wood stains. These hand-carved clocks usually include Black Forest wildlife. Sometimes they are simple nature themes, other times they feature people and hunters.
This style is intended to show off finely carved details and hand painted figures. These clocks include depictions of Alpine, Tudor, or Black Forest German houses along with carved animals, dancers, or people. This is typically the type of cuckoo that will animate and play music, however, not all chalet styles do so.
This is also known as the Bahnhäusle Uhren and is based on the 1850 Friedrich Eisenlohr’s design. The Railroad House is one of the most popular designs of cuckoo clock. This style of clock displays a station house façade, pitched roofs, and is usually covered in ornately hand-carved grape vines. They sometimes also include detail paintings on the clock face.
These are also called antique reproductions. The most popular of this design are inspired by the Baroque clocks of the 18th and 19th centuries. Modern-day clocks are made in many styles, complete with shields and figurines.
The Shield style clocks were some of the first cuckoo clocks made in the Black Forest and dates back to the 1750s. This style of cuckoo clocks is hand-built and hand-painted by artisans. Some typical variants may also include no cuckoo or animated charters or may also be made in miniature.
The innovations of the cuckoo clock are continuing to develop. Today’s modern cuckoo clock designs can include simple designs with clean lines or even geometric shapes and colorful displays. The contemporary style has been growing in demand and is still produced in line with standards of Black Forest quality.
BLACK FOREST CLOCK MATERIALS
The base material used for Black Forest clocks is wood. In the early days of clock production, long before cuckoo clocks made their way to the region, the first major production area within the Black Forest was Furtwangen, which is a heavily wooded district known for their high-quality wood. Much of the wood for early clocks made in the Black Forest was sourced from Furtwangen Forest and crafted by the skilled artisans of that area who understood best how to work the material. Now, the clocks are made from either linden or maple that is sourced from a variety of areas within the Black Forest.
To know that your clock is a genuine production of the Black Forest, there are a few things you need to look for. First of all, all authentic Black Forest cuckoo clocks are handmade from wood that has been sourced from the Black Forest. The only non-wood parts of a Black Forest clock are the mechanical movement components, which are made from brass and also come from the Black Forest region. The next thing you need to look for is whether or not the clock has electronic components. Black Forest clocks are powered by weights and gravity, there are no batteries or electronic parts at all. Third, an authentic Black Forest clock will come with a certificate of authenticity from the Verein die Schwarzwalduhr (VdS), the Black Forest Clock Association. This certificate is the only way to be 100% certain that your Black Forest clock was produced entirely in the Black Forest from materials sourced from the Black Forest and is driven by mechanical movements.