"The lack of new skilled workers to keep production going is our main problem in the medium- and long-term future," Dieter Uhlmann, director of the Association of Erzgebirge Artisans and Toymakers, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's partly demographic. Many young people left this region after reunification. But we also have relatively low wages compared with other sectors because our profits tend to be low."
An Erzgebirge toymaker is in his mid-to-late fifties on average, said Uhlmann. "It's getting critical."
The average hourly wage is around €8.50, and some businesses pay as little as €4.50 so that they can undercut rivals on prices, said Uhlmann.
"You have to love this job to do it. We've been trying to attract apprentices by pointing out that the profession of wooden toymaker is a very attractive, very varied and offers an outlet for one's creativity. We've seen some improvement in numbers, but it's still not enough."
Profits in the sector are low because the work is labor-intensive and hence costly, and manufacturers have to keep the products affordable. They're 70 to 80 percent handmade, and a decent-sized Räuchermann will set you back €50 to €70. A nutcracker costs even more.
They are built to last. One doesn't really need a new nutcracker every year. If anything, the passage of time makes them more appealing. It adds to their aura of tradition.
Firms have to earn enough in the three months leading up to Christmas to keep them going through most of the next year. Some lay off workers in January and let them go on the dole, but that's risky because competitors may snap them up. "You can't get good replacements," said Uhlmann.
Seiffen has some 130 woodcraft firms. The whole sector generates annual revenue of €100 million, and around 20 percent of its output is exported. That figure understates the appeal of the "Made in Erzgebirge" brand to foreign buyers, however, because many tourists buy the products in shops around the country throughout the year.
How It All Began
One might think this industry, spread across wooded hills and valleys often cut off by snow in winter, was provincial and inward-looking. But the Erzgebirge craftsmen and women are canny. They were making toys for faraway markets two centuries ago.
They started making a living from carpentry when the mining sector went into decline here in the 17th century. At first, they made everyday objects like chairs and plates, before branching out to toys in the early 18th century. They began exporting toys to Britain and the US 100 years later, selling wooden animals and soldiers, toys one could roll along the floor and collectible items like miniature figurines in matchboxes.
"The modern idea of a family Christmas didn't become established until the first half of the 19th century, and Erzgebirge families developed their own forms of wooden decoration at that time," said Konrad Auerbach, director of the Seiffen Toy Museum. "At first, they were intended just to decorate their own homes. They only started selling these ornaments after 1900."
Many of the designs were based on the region's mining tradition. Nutcrackers, Räuchermänner and candleholders were often carved in traditional mining costume, and the wooden arches represented the entrances to mining tunnels.