Art in a Box

Traditional Humidors Get a Shot of Creativity and Color from French and English Design Teams

Look around the office of any cigar smoking executive and you'll probably spot a humidor. And, whether the box is an antique or was recently manufactured, it will have several, seemingly de rigueur signature elements. It will be some shade of brown; It's shape will be square (or squarish); And, no matter how the gloss or lacquer highlights the grain of the wood, the humidor will be conservative and elemental. Just as the grass is green, a humidor (perhaps, reassuringly to some people) will never startle or excite the imagination.

Or so it always seemed. But just as cigar blends are now becoming more diverse with the advent of a wider cigar smoking public, humidors are also changing in shape, color and design. Since our humidor test nearly two years ago (see Cigar Aficionado, Winter, 1992) Dunhill and Elie Bleu-- manufacturers already well known for producing high-quality humidors--have made tremendous strides in technology and box construction.

Perhaps the most intricately crafted humidor today is made by David Linley Furniture Ltd., for Alfred Dunhill. Linley (son of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon), a custom furniture manufacturer based in Gloucestershire, England, was commissioned by Dunhill in 1993 to design and create five humidors, with each box a miniature version of classic British architecture. The boxes were then recreated, with production limited to a total of fifty "apex" units for the entire run--and a limit of 125 smaller "disciple" boxes designed as companions to the oversized treasures. (Disciple boxes are also sold separately, although they were intended to match the apex humidors and highlight a specific aspect of the architecture, such as a unique capitol or column.)

The architects whose works are emulated--Inigo Jones, Christopher Wrenn, William Kent, John Soane and Augustus Pugin--are said to be masters of various historical stages of English design, making the set of humidors a sort of purchasable homage to the men and their work.

Living up to the Linley name, these pieces are beautifully finished. A combination of wood choice (no less than five woods are utilized in each design) polishing and expert hand fitting allows Linley craftspeople to create the illusion of 3-D. On the Inigo Jones box, Queen's House in Greenwich, windows appear to be recessed, while the sills jump off the flat surface. The seam on the bottom accessory drawer is invisible, so that only the owner knows how to open it (far more discreet protection than a key hole).

A rubber gasket lines the inside bottom rims of both apex and disciple box lids, and top lids are counter-sunk, to insure a tight (and dampened) closure.

A crowning touch on the inside lid of each apex unit is a plaque indicating the number of the humidor within the production run ("number one of five," for example). There's certain caché to owning such a humidor, and the $14,000 price tag ensures this. The disciple boxes are not numbered, but because of limited production $1,950 for a 50 cigar box (the price is the same, believe it or not, for the 100 capacity unit), seems like a wise investment for what is likely to be collector's item.

Dunhill has also come out with some mid-line humidors. Made in France, these models are made to compete with other makes.(Retail prices range from $560 for a 25-cigar unit, to $800 for a humidor which holds 100 cigars.) The woods--mahogany, walnut, macassar, thuya and walnut--are pretty standard, but these boxes are made of solid wood--often, to save money, manufacterers will use pressboard in between layers of rarer woods--which makes them very heavy and sturdier than most humidors in this price range. With nice marquetry touches, beveled corners and raised inside linings, the new Dunhills are made with excellent care and craftsmanship.

Dunhill stores also provide a unique touch in humidor service--bespoke boxes. If, like many cigar smokers, you want something very much your own, Dunhill will custom-make your humidor. The store will provide you with a form and "swatches" of wood. From there, you give them the measurements, the wood, even a logo, and they'll build you a box. It won't happen overnight, and it's not cheap, but it will be a one-of-a-kind humidor.

And, as if Dunhill hasn't broken enough new ground, each new Dunhill humidor--from the $560 model to the Linley Apex unit--features a new humidification device. Dunhill has eliminated its quaint but inadequate water vials and replaced them with a modern, lid-mounted system which is easy to monitor for correct moisture content.

Instead of the standard analog hygrometer (notorious for erroneous readings), each Dunhill humidification device has a handle at one end. When you grasp the handle and let the device fall away underneath your hand, it's very much like holding a scale. Inside the device is a spring calibrated to reflect the weight of the moisture content as humidity level. When the spring is let out, numbers on a bar (from 10 to 100) that connects the handle to the device pass through a window on the unit. When the scale stops moving, the number in the window will be an accurate humidity reading. According to Dunhill, it will only be necessary to add distilled water every 30 days, but if you're in doubt, now you have an easy way to take an accurate reading. Just grab the handle and look inside the window. If the number 70 appears, your cigars are safe. If the number is lower, simple add distilled water until the reading equals 70.

There is one caveat. According to the instructions that come with the humidity control system, both the composition of the moisture pad and the reliability of the scale may become faulty after 18 months. A replacement can be purchased at Dunhill for $50; which seems a bit pricey for something you'll have to replace so frequently. However, this is the only failing in an otherwise stellar group of completely overhauled Dunhill humidors.

Compared with Dunhill, Elie Bleu was already producing very stylish boxes two years ago. Since then, however, they have increased their profile, adding great panache and color to an already stunning variety of gemlike humidors.

And while it is not the most colorful model made by Elie Bleu, the 150 cigar cabinet humidor in burl is gorgeous and one of the smartest designs we've ever seen. Open the doors on the front of the humidor and you'll find out why. Below the six drawers (each drawer is slotted to allow for moisture and air flow) is a half-inch-thick humidification device which covers the entire bottom surface of the box. This allows for the perfect staggering of your cigars. If you have to revive dry cigars, put them in the top drawer for a few weeks. Then, after they've had a small dose of moisture, you can move them down, closer to the humidification system. By the time they've reached the bottom drawer, they'll be perfectly revived, without having been through "moisture shock"--too much moisture delivered too fast, and the kind of thing which usually destroys great cigars.

There are other benefits to this box, and a few minor drawbacks. The drawers are removable, allowing for easy maintenance of your cigars, and, if you've got guests, you can remove a drawer and "serve" cigars from it. However, the humidification device requires servicing every three weeks, which is a bit more frequent than most units, and, despite the capaciousness of the cabinet and$1,595 price tag, inadequate rubber feet are glued to the bottom of the unit.

Elie Bleu has also introduced some eye-popping colors to its lineup of standard-shaped humidors, including bold designs and vivid marquetry. There are 80-cigar units with beveled glass tops which come in red, green and midnight blue, and 75-cigar "Medals" boxes (on the lid, gold-foil covered medals artfully surround an inlaid wood cigar and arching above the stogie are the words: for fine Havana cigars) which are made in every color from natural mahogany to Ferrari yellow. There's even a stunning sapphire blue box offset with bold, red marquetry. Also new from Elie Bleu is the 100 cigar Slimline model in burl. This unique shape is surely different from others on the market, but still understated.

Every Elie Bleu unit is appointed with reinforced hinges, locks and an excellent humidification device. The system works smoothly, and water need only be added monthly. On that score, Elie Bleu shouldn't change a thing.

Fortunately, some traditions change. Since our first humidor test, when some humidification devices were rudimentary and boxes crudely finished, the entire humidor market has turned around. Manufacturers are now listening to consumers, and working hard to meet an ever-expanding market. In upcoming issues, Cigar Aficionado will critique new humidor lines, as well as the latest in other cigar accessories. Keep reading.