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Behind the Box

More than just a pretty face, great cigar boxes offer an extension of the cigarmaker's art
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

The howl of a buzz saw splits the air as the whirling, toothed blade has a face-to-face meeting with a thick plank of Spanish cedar. A spout of white sawdust cascades upward, adding to the fragrant aroma of sweet wood before drifting to the floor.   The cigar box factory is busy, as it always is, but there's a greater sense of urgency than usual this morning--the boss, Carlos Fuente Jr., is in the house.  

Fuente walks with pride through the 50,000-square-foot factory, one of the newest additions to his ever-growing cigar empire in Santiago, Dominican Republic. He strides through a wooden canyon of empty cigar boxes that fill the new plant, which opened in May. The factory can create 40,000 boxes a week at full capacity, or 2 million a year. They'll be put to good use, housing the 40 million handmade cigars produced every year by Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.  

But a cigar box is a cigar box, right? Not to cigarmakers like Fuente. He talks about his boxes with the same reverent tones that he reserves for his cigars.  

"It's like your little girl," he says. "You feel proud to see her in her prettiest dress. If you're a cigar man, it's like putting a star on stage. When you make a cigar it doesn't end there."  

Many cigar companies make their own boxes, which enables them to put their own special touch on their cigar packaging. General Cigar Corp. makes boxes in several plants, but uses its Dominican facility to craft its most difficult boxes. Nestor Plasencia makes boxes for himself and other companies in a large, loud facility in Danlí, Honduras. Some companies that don't make the boxes themselves still do it in style--Cigars Davidoff has a next-door neighbor with 100 years of experience putting boxes together.  

Fuente's new factory boasts modern-day, computerized equipment that makes far more precise cuts than the old machinery.

"All this used to be done with a radial saw. Now it's done by computer. This is very expensive, very heavy equipment," he says. "Very precise. You ended up losing 30 percent of your board the old way."   His family-owned company began making its own boxes in 1984, after growing frustrated with a supplier who didn't deliver on time and blanched at the special requests made by Fuente.  

Fuente is known for innovation in tobacco growing and cigar manufacturing, but the company also takes some risks in box making. The box for its Hemingway Masterpiece cigars, for example, is shaped like a book, pages and all.  

Not that making his own boxes speeds up the process for Fuente. When he created Fuente Fuente OpusX, his most popular cigar brand, the launch was delayed for more than a year. The delay wasn't because the cigars weren't ready--the boxes and bands held up production.  

"I was never happy [with the packaging]," he says. He tinkered with the final appearance, finally settling on dark mahogany cabinets that hold 32 or 42 cigars. It's an odd number in the cigar world, which is accustomed to boxes of 10s, 20s and, most commonly, 25s. "It's not practical," admits Fuente. He settled on that packaging because it best accentuated the artwork on the lid.  

Fuente's box problem was self-inflicted, but a shortage of boxes exacerbated the cigar shortage during the cigar boom. When Ernesto Perez-Carrillo couldn't get enough La Gloria Cubanas out the door, he laid the problem to a dearth of boxes in which to pack the cigars. Fuente ran into the same problem before expanding its factory.  

The shortage led some cigarmakers to build their own box factories so that they'd never encounter the problem again. Central American cigarmaker Plasencia may have taken this box-factory obsession a bit too far--he built his in his front yard, literally a hundred or so steps away from his front porch in Danlí.  

Box factories don't have the same intrinsic beauty as cigar factories. At their core, they're centers of hard, loud work. Most can be spotted easily from a distance by the burning piles of sawdust in the back. Men typically work the heavy machinery, spending hours feeding wood to huge blades, and women generally do the finishing work, pasting on labels and setting dovetail joints with careful slams of a rubber mallet.  

The world of cigar boxes is divided into two distinct parts. Cedar plywood boxes are the Budweiser of the cigar industry--abundant, inexpensive and plain. Solid cedar or mahogany boxes represent the premium side of the industry, costing more than plywood and taking longer to make. Most have dovetail edges, and some are quite extraordinary.  

Plywood holds standard La Gloria Cubanas, Camachos, Henry Clays and a host of Cuban cigars. You'll find them in virtually all cigar factories, being made in a blaze. Workers use staples to join the edges of the box, then pass the naked container down the line to a second group of workers who glue labels to the wood.   Most plywood boxes are covered on every square inch by colorful artwork. The workers who do the gluing are easy to spot; their hands are usually covered in white paste, and they're constantly in motion. In a blur, they take a long strip of printed paper in their stained hands, paste it onto the box, tear it, flip the box and repeat the process. Within minutes, the box will have its trademark, colorful look.  

True cigar connoisseurs, especially those with a taste for Cubans, seek out cabinets. Today, the term cabinet is used to describe any type of box made of solid wood, typically solid cedar. These boxes are taller and more narrow than the standard plywood box, which holds cigars in two tightly pressed layers of 12 cigars and 13 cigars. Cabinets can hold cigars in three rows of eight, nine and eight cigars, but traditionally cabinets are packed with a half-wheel of 50 cigars, usually tied with a ribbon and packed without cigar bands. This method of packing allows greater space between cigars and therefore an extra degree of air circulation that, many experts believe, allows for better aging.  

General Cigar makes one of the best-looking boxes on the market. Beautifully sanded and glossy, the cedar box that holds its rare Partagas Limited Reserve line of cigars, looks like a jewelry box.  

"The idea is to make it look like a box you'd put your cuff links in," says Edgar M. Cullman Jr., General's chief executive. The boxes have two removable trays, each of which holds 10 cigars, and every cigar sits on a thin layer of cedar. Tugging on a ribbon raises the cigar to your hand. The elaborate creation is about three times as expensive as making a simple box.   Daniel Marshall also makes his own boxes, even though he says contracting them out would cost less than half as much.

The boxes used on his Daniel Marshall cigars are both cleverly and carefully designed, made with much of the attention he lavishes on his humidors. They're so costly, he buys empties back from retailers for $5 apiece. "We like to think that we're putting ourselves out of the humidor business," jokes Marshall. "They also make great humidors [if you] throw in a small humidification device."  

The first encounter with one of his cigar boxes can be puzzling; they open by sliding the lid to the right, and the seam is virtually invisible unless you know where to look. "People don't know how to open them," he says. Marshall wouldn't dream of making them elsewhere.   Not everybody shares Marshall's opinion. One big company spends much of its time trying to persuade cigarmakers to leave the box making to specialists.  

"We tell companies you can make good cigars. Let us make good boxes," says Peter M. A. Pot, general manager of Picus Dominican Inc. in the Dominican Republic.  

Drop in unexpectedly on just about any cigarmaker in the Dominican Republic and a few box samples from Picus are likely to be sitting on the desk. Picus is the 500-pound gorilla of the cigar box business, and everyone who has seen its wares speaks admirably about the company...while grousing about its high prices.  

Figuring out why Picus boxes are expensive isn't exactly as difficult as cracking the Enigma code. The factory has so much high-tech equipment sitting on its floor (the machines seem to outnumber the people), it's hard to believe that Picus is only making cigar boxes. Ever-present vacuum systems suck up the dust before it can hit the ground, creating an extremely clean atmosphere.  

Last year 700,000 boxes were hammered together at the Picus factory; the goal this year is for 1.3 million, according to Pot. If all the screws were turned out and the demand was there, it could make 2 million a year. The company, which makes boxes for Davidoff, Aurora, La Gloria Cubana and many other brands, is energetically pursuing other business. It's battling a small image problem due to its location within Davidoff's free-trade zone. "People thought we were only working for Davidoff," shrugs Pot.  

Picus may be a newcomer to the Dominican Republic, but it's been making boxes for more than 100 years. The company, which is based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, has been in the business since 1883. Back at European headquarters, only about half the business is cigar-oriented. The rest of the boxes are used to hold cutlery, perfume, tea and coffee.  

Making anything by machine has its quirks in the Third World. No one blinks when the power fails at midday, even when it kicks off again 30 minutes later. The boys at Picus are ready. They proudly show off a monstrous generator in a back room that keeps the saws humming. "It's crazy," says Pot. "Sometimes we work half the day on generator power." One thing missing from the Picus plant is a big inventory. The factory doesn't sell cigars, so it makes boxes only when customers order them.  

Back at the Fuente factory, there's plenty of inventory. But it's not always ready to go.  

"Look at these," says Fuente, handing a visitor a cigar box designed to hold the new Arturo Fuente Añejo (Spanish for "aged"). The cigar, made with Connecticut broadleaf wrapper was destined to be on the market in the spring. The visitor looks it over and remarks on the quality, which brings a raised eyebrow from Fuente. He points out a slim, unsanded band near the bottom of the box. He's rejected the entire lot because of the small flaw, delaying the release of the new cigar.  

Expect to the see the aptly named Añejos on the market ... just not so soon.

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