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Jamaica's Cigar Comeback

Crippled by a 1988 Hurricane, Jamaica's Cigar Industry is Bringing Back the Taste of Days Gone
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

(continued from page 2)

"The Jamaican leaf is very ugly, but it's damn tasty, and it smokes good," says Israel Pinchas, the general manager of Jamaica Tobacco and Gore's second-in-command. He's tugging on the first of many cigars that he'll smoke that day, and talking about how he met his girlfriend, Nancy, when he came to Jamaica from Israel, in 1991, ended up staying, and married her. Gore kept him in the country after his wife overheard Pinchas's girlfriend lamenting to her hairdresser that her boyfriend was going to have to leave Jamaica because he didn't have a work permit. The two men met, and instantly clicked. Gore was impressed by Pinchas's knowledge of irrigation and his military training, and taught him about cigars and tobacco. Today Gore looks upon the 29-year-old as a son, and the eventual heir to the Royal Jamaica factory.

Pinchas was put in charge of staffing the new plant in May Pen, where he had to train locals who had never rolled cigars before. "When I told them they had to make 300, 400 cigars, they thought I was crazy. They made 50 cigars and they thought it was an excellent day. That was really tough in the beginning," says Pinchas.

Finally, two ladies reached the 300-cigar mark, which considerably increased their wages, as the rollers are paid by the piece. "The following week, I saw them come in with new clothes," says Pinchas. "I'm a Jew, but I said 'Jesus Christ!' Then everyone started picking up. Now I have to cut them off at 350."

In Pinchas's spartan office, he offers a guest a cigar that's nearly as long as his forearm, the Royal Jamaica 10 Downing Street. It's one of the most difficult cigars to create. There's no mold to hold it together, and a buncher must carefully press the leaves into a 10-and-a-half-inch-long cigar with a gentle taper.

That type of artful cigar making is what sold Edgar M. Cullman, Edgar Jr.'s father, on Jamaica in the late 1960s. He visited Jamaica's Temple Hall cigar factory in Kingston in 1969 and was immediately taken by the quality of its workforce.

"The people rolled cigars like I never saw people roll cigars," the 81-year-old Cullman recalls. He was already sold on the beauty of the island--Cullman had built a house on Tryall, the legendary golf course, four years before--and General bought Temple Hall in 1969. Today the factory--now known as Cifuentes y Cia. Ltd.--is the largest in Jamaica.

Kingston, the island's capital, where Cifuentes is headquartered, is not the Jamaica of the travel brochures. On the city outskirts people live clustered in primitive slums, in homes made of corrugated zinc, with rules of their own; places where police are afraid to tread. It's a long way from the white sand beaches, reggae bands and rum punch of tourism ads. In the city center, ancient buses belch thick black smoke and drivers weave colorful patterns across cratered roads.

But the Cifuentes plant is an oasis of calm. Peter Brown, the general manager of the plant, is a quiet, precise man with a spotless office. A worker walks in, smoking a corona-sized Macanudo, and Brown looks up. "Smoking the profits," he says with a smile. At 34, Brown may be one of the youngest men running a cigar plant and he's probably the only cigar factory manager in the world who doesn't smoke cigars.

Last year was a record year for Cifuentes: the Macanudos it shipped accounted for roughly 75 percent of the Macanudos sold in the United States, and every Macanudo Vintage cigar. The plant also makes Cifuentes cigars, a much smaller brand, and even fewer Temple Hall Estates and 8-9-8 Collections. Furthermore, the factory manufacturers a smattering of private-label cigars for high-end retailers Alfred Dunhill and Nat Sherman, as well as creating some bundle brands.

Brown, who was trained as a plant manager rather than a tobacco man, brings a corporate efficiency to the cigar business. He's worked at Jamaica subsidiaries of Johnson & Johnson and Windsor Laboratories, among other companies. His latest project at General is a bid to win ISO 9000 certification--an international award recognizing quality production--for his plant, something that no other handmade cigar factory has. ISO (Organization for Industry Standardization) certification is usually given to widget producers, not cigarmakers.

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