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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.  

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