Cigar Profiles

A Q&A With Pedro Balgañón, Owner Of HumidifGroup

May 16, 2023 | By Gregory Mottola
A Q&A With Pedro Balgañón, Owner Of HumidifGroup

If you’ve seen a cigar box—especially from Cuba—with a luxurious piano finish, chances are it was made by the HumidifGroup, a Spanish company that specializes in packaging and presentation for the cigar industry. The man behind these beautiful boxes is Pedro Balgañón, CEO and owner of Humidif. He’s spent half his life perfecting the art and craft of fine cigar packaging and works very closely with cigar companies, both Cuban and non-Cuban, to make the most expressive boxes possible.

Cigar Insider’s managing editor Greg Mottola sat down with the 40-year-old Spaniard to talk about his business and how he’s combining new interactive technologies with old-world craftsmanship.

MOTTOLA: How long have you been with HumidifGroup?
BALGAÑÓN: Since I finished my studies, because it’s a familial business that was created by my father. He started the brand and company Humidif in 1994. 

Q: And what year did you start? 
A: When I was 21, so 2002 or 2003. 

Humidif Group
Boxes of Cuban Reservas and Gran Reservas like the Romeo y Julieta here are a prime example of Humidif’s piano finishes. Notice how a colorful band of trim is perfectly placed under the finish. (Photo/Habanos S.A.)

Q: What did Humidif make in the beginning? Was it just cigar boxes for other companies or was your father making humidors?
A: When my father bought the factory, he was making luxury boxes for leather items. Spain is one of the main countries doing luxury leather items, so we produced special packaging for these kinds of products. And my father had the idea to develop a new line of cigar accessories.

Q: When you say boxes for luxury items, do you mean watches and jewelry and that sort of thing?
A: No. Mainly for leather goods like wallets. He was making packaging for wallets.

Q: When did he start making packaging for cigars?
A: At the beginning we created our own line of humidors and accessories that we sold worldwide.

Q: And these were for consumers?
A: Yes in 1994. Not only humidors. We produced ashtrays, lighters, but all made in wood. 

Q: Everything produced in Spain?
A: Yes. In a small workshop in the north of Barcelona. 

Q: Do you still make humidors for consumers or are you just business-to-business?
A: Now we are focused on business-to-business.

Q: When did you stop making products for consumers? 
A: Mainly when we started with Habanos. At the beginning of the 2000s, Habanos contacted us because they knew about our Humidif brand and wanted us to develop the Cohiba 35th anniversary humidor.

Q: Was that the first project that your company did with Habanos? 
A: Yes. In 2001. We became quite famous because we were selling worldwide. Our main customers were the Habanos distributors around the world—Switzerland, France, Andorra—because they sell the cigars but also accessories. So Habanos knew about our brand and when they contacted us, it was the first time that Habanos decided to produce a humidor outside Cuba.

Humidif Group
Humidif has been making these darkly lacquered, piano finish boxes for the Cohiba Behike BHK series ever since it was released in 2010. (Photo/Habanos S.A.)

Q: When you made that Cohiba humidor you made everything in Spain and shipped all the boxes to Havana?
A: Exactly.

Q: What was the next project you did with Habanos?
A: After the Cohiba Anniversary we did the 510 [Aniversario] humidor that was to commemorate when the Spanish discovered tobacco and cigars in America. 

Q: What year was that and for what brand?
A: 2003. It had many Habanos brands. We also made the Romeo y Julieta 130th anniversary humidor, the San Cristobal de la Habana 5th anniversary humidor. And after all these humidors, we developed the box for the Montecristo Reserva No. 4 in 2006.

Q: That’s a pretty serious box. The piano finish is very thick and glossy. Tell me about producing that box.
A: I was in the workshop and I put in the filetes. I screwed in the hardware, and it was one of the first very special cigar boxes in from Habanos. We introduced all the hardware with the logos. I think nobody did it before. It was a challenge for us.

Q: Why?
A: It was the first time that Habanos ordered a very big production. At least for us it was very big because it was 5,000 boxes. We were a small workshop. And after this production we realized that if we want to grow and wanted packaging to be our main business, we had to move to China.

Q: So you have production in China as well as Spain?
A: At the time, we did both. We used China for big production and Spain for limited production. For example, the Cohiba Behike box, we produce in China. 

Q: The Cohiba Behike BHK series came out in 2010. Were you always producing these boxes?
A: We have produced 100 percent of the Behike boxes. 

Q: And always in China?
A: Correct. 

Q: But you’re still doing humidors as well, right?
A: Yes. For example, the Cohiba Majestuoso.

Humidif Group
One of Humidif’s more lavish projects, this Cohiba Majestuoso 1966 humidor commemorates Cohiba’s 50th anniversary. Only 1,966 were produced. (Photo/Habanos S.A.)

Q: What other boxes do you make for Habanos? 
A: We make the Romeo y Julieta Línea de Oro, the Reservas and Gran Reservas.

Q: When you make a piano finish, how difficult is that process?
A: It’s not like painting. If you want to get a nice finishing, you need to cover it a lot of times with the piano finish. And one of the main processes in the piano finish is the polishing. Before we apply the black lacquer, we apply a sealer to close the pores of the wood. After the sealer we apply the lacquer and after that, we apply the piano finish. 

Q: Do you apply many layers on top of the lacquer?
A: Yes. You have to if you want to correctly cover the logos and get a correct piano finish.

Q: How do you get the finish so perfect? 
A: The polishing process. It’s very important. If the polishing is not well-applied, or you don’t use the correct cream or correct machines, you’ll be able to see the pad marks from the polishing wheels. We don’t show anybody how we do it. 

Q: Is Habanos your main customer?
A: Yes. 

Q: But they’re not your only customer.
A: No. Almost all of our Habanos production is made in China. Our factory in Nicaragua is more focused on the U.S. market, especially for all the brands produced in Nicaragua. 

Q: When did you open the factory in Nicaragua?
A: Next year it will be 10 years. Three years ago, we moved to a new location to double the capacity. 

Q: For the American consumers who don’t have access to Cuban cigars, which brands have you done that they would recognize?
A: VegaFina Year of the Rabbit, Year of the Ox. We produce a lot for Villiger. We produce a lot for A.J. Fernandez, for example Ramon Allones and Días de Gloria. And we produce a lot of boxes for brands that A.J. Fernandez makes for Altadis, like H. Upmann. We also produce for Joya de Nicaragua as well.

Humidify Group
The brilliant blue finish on this box of Joya de Nicaragua Número Uno cigars shows that Humidif can achieve bright colors as well as dark. (Photo/Joya de Nicaragua)

Q: The Joya de Nicaragua Número Uno looks like your work.
A: Yes, the Número Uno is made by us. 

Q: A lot of companies have their own box factories. What’s the advantage to going to you rather than taking the operation in house?
A: I haven’t visited all the factories, but I’ve visited a lot of them and they are not making piano finishes. We are making piano finishes in Nicaragua. That’s the main advantage if I had to choose one. All these other companies that have their own factories have to buy piano finishes outside if they want them. 

Q: You have three plants then? One in Spain, China and Nicaragua?
A: Only China and Nicaragua now. 

Q: When did you close down the operation in Spain? 
A: Around six years ago.

Q: Is it difficult to get cedar and other materials?
A: It’s becoming a very big problem and more expensive. Our main material is okoume from Africa.

Humidif Group
A.J. Fernandez turned to Humidif to produce the striking, contoured boxes for its Días de Gloria brand. (Photo/A.J. Fernandez)

Q: Habanos recently released the Cohiba Year of the Rabbit with an NFC-enabled box. Was that the first time you put an NFC chip in a cigar box?
A: Not the first time. We already did it for Ferio Tego.

Q: Can you talk about that process and what it means to have an NFC-enabled smart chip in the box?
A: Our company is constantly innovating. We were the first company to introduce the QR codes in the boxes. One of them was a Partagás Gran Reserva from Habanos. That was in 2013, so we’ve been using connecting technologies for a while. 

Q: But a QR code is different from an NFC chip.
A: It’s different, yes. Four or five years ago Habanos contacted us because they were very worried about counterfeiting. Not only the counterfeiting of the cigars, but also our boxes. So they asked if we can find a solution where the consumers can authenticate the box at the same time that they’re authenticating the whole product. We realized that the best solution was to use NFC technology. 

Q: Was it difficult to install those chips?
A: It’s not just putting a chip in the box. You need to develop a platform behind it where you have all the chip information. When we were developing the platform, we realized that when the customer is authenticating the box with his phone, you are opening a direct channel with him. It’s a moment you can use to explain your company, your brand, about the product about whatever you want. There’s the authentication and the marketing purpose. 

Made to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, the Cohiba Siglo de Oro is Habanos’ first NFC chip-enabled cigar box. (Photo/Habanos S.A.)

Q: And this is all through the phone? They scan it with their phones?
A: Yes. 

Q: Will we see more of this Smart packaging from you in the future? 
A: Yes, it’s our main goal to get more customers to use this technology. We are not here to disrupt the market. We are here to use new technologies to keep the old traditions.

Read Next: A Q&A With Cigar Veteran Eladio Diaz And Luis Torres of Freud Cigar Co.

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