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The Partagas Family

Cigar Smokers from Around the World Gathered in Havana and Orlando This Summer to Celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Partagas Cigars
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 2)

Partagas is the most diverse brand of all Cuban cigars, according to Lopez. It encompasses 95 vitolas, or shapes, although only 32 are currently being produced. The largest production Partagas cigar currently made at his factory is the robusto Series D No. 4, which should number about 350,000 cigars this year. Second is the handmade demitasse Chicos (La Corona makes the machine-made ones) at about 255,000, with the double corona Lusitania following with about 78,000. The famous Partagas 8-9-8 is next with about 60,000. Working with so many brands and sizes is admittedly a headache for Lopez, which is why he established a tasting panel of 12 people to help observe and maintain the consistency of the various blends they use. "They taste the cigars everyday," says Lopez. "Before I came we didn't have this panel, and I think it has made a big difference in keeping up the quality."

The five-story, brown and beige Partagas factory has changed very little over the years. The tobacco processing areas, rolling galleries and aging rooms look exactly the same as they have for decades. Although the building was renovated about five years ago, it looks slightly decrepit. The only changes are the many new faces now working there, although quite a few workers have been there for decades. "We have a very young management team," says Lopez. "We are young but have the experience. About 70 percent of the people here are under 30 years old."

Nonetheless, one of the "old-timers" and the factory's leading roller, Orlando Ortega, 61, says they have never made better cigars at the factory than today. "There is more harmony now at the factory," he says. Ortega was hired by the Cifuentes family in 1954. "The workers have no fear of the owners, and we have a say in what we do. It was good then but it is even better now."

"The factory was obviously very good under the control of a family," adds Lopez, "and we have tried to maintain that when things changed after the Revolution. But you must remember that Partagas is more than just a brand or a factory. It is a part of the national treasure."

The origins of Partagas trace back to 1827 when Jaime Partagas began making cigars in a small shop in Havana. Originally from Spain's Catalonia region, Partagas came to Cuba for the tobacco processing business and soon couldn't resist the temptation of making his own cigars. Many small cigar shops were started at the time due to a reduction of taxes on cigar manufacturing and a dismissal of stringent trade union regulations. Partagas began buying various tobacco plantations in the Vuelta Abajo and Semi Vuelta regions and building large stocks of tobacco--a move that helped him through a horrific hurricane in 1844 that wiped out many growers.

After amassing a fortune through cigars and tobacco, Partagas in 1845 built the Royal Partagas Cigar Factory (Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas). He was revered by his workers and he believed that keeping them content was the only way to maintain output and quality. He was one of the few factory owners to allow daily readings of newspapers, novels and other literature to the rollers--a practice now widely in use.

The death of Jaime Partagas in 1861 came as a shock to the workers and the cigar industry at large. It was somewhat unclear how it happened, although some say that he was murdered while visiting one of his plantations in the Vuelta Abajo. Jaime's son, Jose, took over, but lacked his father's business acumen. He sold the business to Jose Bances, a well-known industrialist and part of a strong banking family in Havana. By the turn of the century, however, Bances was in bad financial shape and had to sell most of his tobacco interests. In 1900, the Partagas factory was sold to Ramon Cifuentes Llano and Jose Fernandez. At the time, the factory was making 18 million to 20 million cigars year.

Originally from Spain, the Cifuentes were as close to nobility as anyone could be in Cuba. "I remember dealing with the Cifuentes before the Revolution," says one veteran English tobacco merchant. "All the members of the family were proud and aristocratic." The Cifuentes family took an extremely active role in the business and became known for its stern management practices and strict rules of production. For instance, the Cifuentes closed the Partagas factory for a short time during labor unrest in Havana in the 1930s, moving its cigar production to the town of Beujucal, where cheap, non-union workers could be found.

Their reign, however, came to a quick end in September 1960. "It just happened one day," Ramon Cifuentes said during an interview a few years ago. "They arrived at our door and said: 'We're here to intervene the company.' They didn't allow me to take anything from there." All the factories were taken over that same day as the government claimed that factory owners' "self-centered attitudes" were contrary to the interests of the national economy. The government argued that the owners were in effect abandoning their businesses, and were creating debts, unemployment and a reduction in the supply of Cuban cigars in foreign markets. "We really were given no choice," said Cifuentes, now retired in Madrid. "They even asked me to run all the factories for them, but I said no. I couldn't agree with the whole thing."

Cifuentes left Cuba. He first moved to New York; apparently he was stretched financially, since all of his investments outside of Cuba had been in Mexico, and he couldn't get to the money due to economic restrictions there. His wife even had to work in Bloomingdales' crystal department to help make ends meet. His two brothers were better off since their money had been in Spain. So, inevitably, Ramon, with his reputation as a tobacco man, began selling Connecticut wrapper tobacco to various markets in Europe.

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