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Panama Hats are a Dying Tradition

Harry Rosenholtz
From the Print Edition:
cigar case, Summer 93

In the town of Montecristi, Ecuador, the art of weaving Panama hats is slowly dying. Two generations ago, there were 2,000 weavers, but in the last generation the number dwindled to 200, and now there are only 20 master weavers left. A generation from now, because the current masters are in their 70s and 80s, there may be none. With the finest hats taking at least two months to finish and the best taking up to eight months, there is little time left to instruct young weavers in the art.

Obviously, there is an irony in that what the world knows as a Panama hat actually comes from Ecuador. But the small, somewhat dreary coastal town of Montecristi has been for centuries a place where straw hats were woven. The difference is that the Montecristi Finos are simply the finest straw hats in the world, even to the point of defying the description straw. And with the makers dying off, the treasures of Montecristi are in danger of disappearing.

Brent Black, the former Associate Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi in San Francisco, isn't about to let that happen. Eight years ago, he began an odyssey that eventually led to Montecristi, north of Guayaquil on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. What began as a passion to photograph the hats, soon turned into a mission to keep the hat making art alive. Black's quest actually began in Mexico, in the Yucatán city of Mérida, where he read guidebook accounts of a crude Panama hat being woven in the region.

"It wasn't easy," says Black today. "I didn't speak any Spanish, and even the shopkeepers and vendors who did speak a little English couldn't understand what I wanted. No one knew what a Panama hat was. In Mérida, they call the hats jipijapas" (pronounced hee pee hop as). Through a shopkeeper, he finally photographed some weavers in a nearby town. But back in San Francisco, Black mentioned his hat search to someone at a cocktail story. An attorney familiar with Ecuador told him about the hats there--and specifically about Montecristis. The information triggered Black's plunge into extensive research about the Panama hat and heightened his desire to see a Montecristi firsthand.

In 1988, he took off from his new base as Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather in Honolulu to fly to Guayaquil. From there, he boarded a series of brightly colored, sputtering buses and traveled one hundred miles up the coast to the city of Manta, a commercial fishing village, where he stayed overnight in the best hotel in town--at $2 a night. The next morning, he climbed aboard another bus to Montecristi. Before even getting off the bus, a nine-year-old boy appeared at his elbow. "Panama hat, meester. Panama hat, meester."

"There aren't too many gringo tourists in Montecristi," laughs Black. "So when one does show up, he's bound to attract a certain amount of attention. And there is no rational reason anyone wouldever visit Montecristi except to buy hats.

"So, there I was. A four-foot-tall, self-appointed guide pulling atmy shirt sleeve, a dog of rather questionable ancestry sniffing at my legs and before me lay the legendary town of Montecristi. To say the least, it wasn't what I expected.

"I guess I had pictured in my mind a quaint, colorful little village with revered artisans working patiently in their workshops. The reality was quite different. Montecristi is rather drab. The one- and two-story buildings are made mostly of wood and split bamboo, and they just blend into the dry, dusty hillside on which the town is built. Nothing colorful about them. Dogs and idlers lounge in whatever shade they can find. Children play in the streets and open areas. Pigs occasionally wander here and there. There are no hotels. No restaurants. The town only has running water a couple of hours each morning.

So, a little dismayed, I yielded to the tugging at my shirt sleeve and followed my guide up the hill."

After a brief stop to meet 20 or so members of his guide's family, Black went with the guide to the home/workshop/warehouse of the largest distributor of hats in Montecristi. It was a fairly substantial two-story building made of square red brick. A large two-inch-thick wooden door had been slid open to allow access to and provide light for the approximately 20 by 20-foot workshop. One man was working at finishing the weave on the edge of the brim of a hat, and a second was trimming the long ends of straws protruding from the inside of a hat. A dozen or so hat bodies in various stages of completion were stacked at their feet.

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