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Timeless Works of Art : A Panorama City man takes pride in restoring and collecting Black Forest cuckoo clocks, known for their unique carving and attention to detail.

August 07, 1992|SAMUEL GREENGARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Greengard is a Burbank writer

As far as Eric Fuchslocher is concerned, people can keep their digital clocks with fancy LED readouts. They can have their voice-synthesized alarm clocks and quartz-operated wristwatches.

The Panorama City resident refuses to get wound up over anything less than antique cuckoo clocks, particularly those made before 1925 from the Black Forest region of Germany. Wander around his home and you will see several dozen of them--many ornately carved with remarkable detail.

"It is a glimpse into a time period of a people and a region," he said. "Each clock is different; no two are carved exactly the same way. I love the beauty and the attention to detail."

Most high-quality Black Forest clocks, including the cuckoos, were produced from 1738 to 1925. Virtually all of the truly magnificent pieces were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Fuchslocher said.

"These days," he said, "there are people out there who can create nice clocks, but it does not come close to what you see in the Black Forest clocks from that era. That kind of talent has died and is gone."

Fuchslocher, 50, has been collecting and restoring Black Forest clocks for 30 years--ever since he bought three broken clocks for $10 at a gun show. During that time, he has watched as they have gone from being quirky novelty items to highly coveted collectibles that each can fetch from $500 to $10,000 or more.

The clocks--all hand-crafted from oak, linden or walnut and fitted with hands made from carved bone--aren't to be confused with today's mass-produced varieties, he notes. "They are a throwback to another time and era."

Added Fred Krone, who runs Norkro Clock, a parts and supply firm in Fillmore: "Cuckoo clocks aren't remarkable because they can cuckoo. It's fairly simple to make air move through a bellow or reed to make the sound. It's the furniture--the amazing carving--that makes them remarkable."

The bearded, amiable Fuchslocher is one of the nation's most prominent collectors because of the rare pieces he owns and his ability to repair the clocks.

Wall-hung cuckoo clocks are only part of Fuchslocher's collection, however. He also owns intricately carved mantel clocks and soldier clocks that feature a military figure that marches back and forth as the clock ticks. His other unusual clocks are picture-frame cuckoos, which are clocks with painted scenes set into a frame that hangs on the wall. The scene always includes a small door from which the cuckoo bird emerges.

Even the cuckoos don't all cuckoo the same way. Depending on the sound mechanism, usually a small windpipe triggered by the movement of a weight, the clocks can trumpet, chirp or blare music.

On this day, Fuchslocher, who is semi-retired from clock repairing. shows off a few of his prized possessions. One museum-quality piece, five feet tall, depicts a deer running through a forest that's filled with highly detailed leaves, branches and blades of grass.

"The carver had to understand the animal's musculature; he had to have a tremendous appreciation for what the scene was really like," Fuchslocher said.

Another clock depicts an eagle flying off with a small fawn, as the startled mother bolts away. "Someone might say that it is a gruesome scene, but it is beautiful in the context of nature. And that's what these people lived with."

According to Thomas Bartels, executive director of the Columbia, Pa.-based National Assn. of Watch and Clock Collectors, one family member would make the movements, another would carve, and still another would assemble.

"They were farmers and loggers who, when the snows came and closed off the mountain valleys, would make the clocks. When spring came, they would sell them to make extra money," he said.

The clocks--which could take weeks, sometimes months to build--bear the style of individual families and towns throughout the Black Forest region, and usually feature animals or religious symbols. All were built with relatively primitive technology. If an artisan made a mistake or broke a carving, he would have to begin again from scratch--carving from a new block of wood.

That changed in the 1920s as the area began to open to outside influence. At that point, Fuchslocher noted, "Technology in the region advanced to the point where simpler, cheaper techniques were used. The clocks became a novelty item for tourists. It became a business."

Today's mass-produced cuckoos are often painted colorfully; some even offer variations on traditional sounds, for instance owl calls or popular songs such as "The Happy Wanderer."

And though Fuchslocher admits that he long eschewed the modern pieces, he finally broke down a few years ago. Now in his garage-cum-workshop, a row of the modern cuckoos hover over a full wall, providing a stark contrast to the traditional ones.

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