Cuckoo clocks are clocks which strike the hour with the sound of a cuckoo bird call, and feature a small mechanical bird appearing through a hatch in the clock in time with each call.
About cuckoo clocks
Major production of the cuckoo clock first emerged in the Black Forest region of Germany during the mid 18th century, although a number of earlier prototypes are thought to have been created throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Black Forest area became renowned for their cuckoo clocks, and these original pieces are today highly sought after. The earliest cuckoo clocks made here were in the shield style.
The Chalet style was introduced in late 19th century Switzerland, and adopted by manufacturers in the Black Forest and Bavaria. These commonly incorporated music boxes, which can include up to twelve different tunes, one for each hour. Another development was the automaton that emerges from the clock, the cuckoo often replaced by a different carved figure, a person or other animal that moves in time with the music.
Cuckoo clocks, especially antique examples, tend to be a type of regulator clock, driven by a pendulum. More recent clocks can use a variety of mechanisms, but electric or quartz battery powered examples may be considered inauthentic.
They are traditionally wall clocks, made of wood and decorated with carved leaves and animals. Often they are in the form of a house, the ‘Bahnhausle’ as designed by architect Friedrich Eisenlohr in the 1850s.
Modern cuckoo clocks can be inspired by contemporary design, and the form has been taken up by artists and designers, including many in the minimalist school. This introduced great variety to the cuckoo clock, seeing examples created in all shapes and sizes and decorated in many different ways.
Guide to collecting
Collectors may choose to focus on the classic traditional cuckoo clocks of the Black Forest. These antique examples are hugely popular and can fetch quite high prices, as they are handmade and mechanically powered.
Quartz powered cuckoo clocks are much cheaper and can be produced in bulk. These are seen as a novelty by many, an item of tourist merchandise.
However, there is a syndicate which issues authenticity to cuckoo clocks known as the VDS, for which the clock must be handmade entirely of wood, all parts produced in the Black Forest, powered by a pendulum and of high quality. Quartz powered models do not comply.
Many collectors may adhere to these rules of what makes an ‘authentic’ cuckoo clock for their collection.
Collectors may be drawn to clocks for a particular design, manufacturer, or style, for example the particular carved figures that emerge each hour, or the tune played by the musical box.
Popular craftsmen and manufacturers of cuckoo clocks among collectors include Johann Baptist Beha, the Gebrunder Kuner (Kuner Brothers), and Linden clocks.
Cuckoo clocks can be found at auction, in antique stores, through specialist dealers, and direct from the contemporary craftsmen who continue to make cuckoo clocks the same way they have been made for 300 years.
A large Swiss Black Forest cuckoo clock, carved in the form of a hunting trophy, sold for $18,000 at Sotheby’s in 2006.