Cigar Aficionado

Panama Hat

Probably no two words in fashion say more. To utter them is to instantly conjure up cool images of warm weather elegance and insouciant style: Bogart strolling through the Casbah, Rhett Butler as master of Tara, a jazz musician blowing blue in his porkpie, the English expat beating the heat of the midday sun, cigarmakers surveying their fields. Ironic then that a basic flaw undermines such an eloquent phrase: the hats don't come from Panama. They originated in Ecuador, where the highest expressions of the art are still created by unsung artisans who labor sometimes for months to make one hat.

They probably got their name from being sold at market in Panama, but the best come from Montecristi, Ecuador. Manufacture comprises 15 processes, including picking the finest toquilla plants, pulling delicate straw from the heart of the plant, smoking it, splitting it into strands and weaving -- a painstaking process done in a bent-over posture. Some hats are bleached for color consistency, but that makes them brittle. Well-chosen straw will appear even and luminescent without it. Orlando Palacios of New York's Worth & Worth says a basic measure of quality is in a highly concentrated weave. The top of the line employs 30 strands a square inch.

While the hats come in any number of shapes, from planter's to snap brims, the classic style is the Optimo, or English roll-up, with its crested crown. A finely woven hat can be soft enough to fold along the crest, roll up and stash in a suitcase -- the perfect travel accessory. Or, as legend has it, it can be crushed small enough to pass through a wedding ring. Not that you'd do it, but a good hat should pop back to shape unscathed.

Prices top out at around $10,000, but you can feel like Bogie for about $300.

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