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Panama Hats are a Dying Tradition

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

(continued from page 3)

"I began asking hat dealers in Hawaii and on the mainland. No one knew anyone who could do it for me. Pretty soon, I was making phone calls all over the country, following up on the thinnest of leads. Through a combination of persistence and luck, I finally found Michael Harris of Paul's Hat Works in San Francisco.

"Michael is incredible," says Black. "I think of him as the Sorcerer of Straw. He has the same reverence for the hats as I do. And he knows how to block and finish them so that their art is elevated, rather than compromised. He shapes them entirely by hand, one at a time, often employing tools that haven't been made in decades and techniques that are all but lost or forgotten. When he's finished, the hat is still just as soft and flexible as it was in Montecristi. There are only a handful of blockers left who can do that."

It was critical to Black to have the integrity of the art extend all the way to the consumer. He didn't use stiffeners or offer hats with the edges trimmed and sewn. He wanted to make sure that people would wear what the weavers had woven.

Today, Black distributes his Montecristi Finos through Kula Bay Tropical Clothing in Hawaii and Worth & Worth in New York. He insists on dealing with retailers who appreciate the level of workmanship and the sense of history of these fine Panamas. The completed hats sell for anywhere from $350 to $750 for a basic Montecristi to over $10,000 for a museum-quality piece. You can also buy hats at premium hat shops such as Paul's Hat Works in San Francisco. There are several other grades of Panama hats that are more readily available to the buying public, and more affordable. Coarser weaves are found in most major cities of Ecuador, and even those hats have the telltale signature of true handwoven Panamas: the small, concentric circles woven outward from the center of the hat's crown. These hats may take a weaver or several weavers just hours to complete. Interestingly, these Panamas often retain characteristics of weaving native to their regions. Cuenca, a town in the highlands south of Quito, is the home to a particularly handsome herringbone design that is somewhat tightly woven and intricate. The price for a more conventional straw hat varies from $50 to $1 10, and the best ones always retain some suppleness when handled.

Retailers who handle this kind of straw hat run the gamut and include Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Bigsby & Kruthers and J. Peterman; check locally with a major department store to see if it carries woven straw hats. Buyers should also beware of many claims by manufacturers that refer to their hats as genuine Montecristis when in fact they may be a lesser-grade Panama straw. Check with an expert hatter such as Paul's Hat Works in San Francisco or Worth & Worth in New York for authentication. If you happen to be in Hawaii, genuine Montecristis also are sold by the Kula Bay Tropical Clothing outlets in several of the main hotels.

In the end, the buying public may be the determining factor for the future of Montecristis straw hats. "The only way to save this art is to create a demand for it," explains Black. "Over the last few years, I've been able to purchase more Montecristi Finos than all other buyers combined. As a consequence, there are more weavers weaving now than at any time in the past twenty years. It's working. We may actually be saving the art. But we have a long way to go."

About a year ago, Black left Ogilvy & Mather to work full time on the hats. Besides day to day operations of importing, wholesaling and searching for additional retailers, Black sees his role as someone who is directly involved with the weavers, doing everything possible to encourage and reward their efforts.

He is in the initial stages of proposing the creation of a Panama hat museum, a project requiring the involvement of the Ecuadorian government. He feels that it is vitally necessary for the craftsmen to feel that their art is appreciated. He also hopes to sponsor an annual contest which would award a substantial cash prize for the finest Montecristi. He sees this as a way to stimulate the weavers to strive for the highest levels of the art and to encourage young people to pursue the craft. He has already instituted a program to number and register each Montecristi Fino so that people who purchase a hat will be more conscious of the importance of what they own.

Most of all, Brent Black would like to see the public become aware of the talented artists who create these treasures and who struggle to pass their art on from one generation to the next. "Whenever someone purchases one of our Montecristi Finos, they are, in effect, commissioning another to be woven. It's the only way these treasures will continue to exist."

Harry Rosenholtz is the owner of Worth & Worth on Madison Avenue in New York City.

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