HAVANA, Sept. 20th. Using a Soviet-era planer, Cuban René Reyes smoothes the panel of an old cedar door that he will transform into a humidor, a fine hand-made box to preserve the island’s famous cigars.“People don’t believe that (…) those humidors come from there,” this 55-year-old carpenter tells AFP, pointing to a corner of the premises. Beams, doors and disused furniture are piled up: the raw material for this artisanal business.
While he brushes the door panel, “more than 80 years old,” the warm aroma with sweet notes of old cedar invades this workshop in the center of Havana.
This “cedar smell is the best. This is as if it were gold, old gold,” adds Reyes, an inveterate cigar smoker, bringing his hands full of sawdust to his nose.
Tania Duyos, a 53-year-old independent worker, is the soul of the business. She has been manufacturing these boxes for 20 years, where the cigars retain their ideal qualities at a humidity of between 65 and 70% and a temperature between 16 and 18 ºC.
Dozens of similar workshops carry out this work on the island. According to experts, a chest or piece of furniture of this type can preserve the quality of a cigar for up to 15 years, or even improve it.
The Cuban art of preserving cigars in hand-made chests
“Different” and “unique”
In Cuba, whose cigars are considered the best in the world and with 500 years of tobacco history, artisans use other woods such as mahogany and ebony for these boxes, but it is tradition to use cedar inside.
“Our cedar favors us a lot” because “it protects the tobacco from bacteria and provides it with humidity,” says Duyos, who also sells humidors in Los Almacenes de San José, the mecca of crafts in Old Havana.
“That makes us different and unique,” says this woman, who buys antique doors and furniture, as well as wooden beams from ruined houses.
Carved in relief, adorned with metal embossing, or painted in oil, some of these chests, coveted by collectors or cigar enthusiasts, are true works of art.
Local artisans sell their products directly for up to thousands of dollars, but in local markets, you can also purchase less elaborate boxes for modest prices.
Every year, a humidor auction closes the Habano Festival, which welcomes enthusiasts, distributors and great personalities.
In its most recent edition in February, the auction of six of these pieces raised a record figure of 11.9 million dollars.
The big star of that bid sold for $4.4 million. A circular piece of furniture 165 cm high and 100 cm deep made of júcaro, ocume, cedar and old mahogany wood with titanium and bronze work. The exquisite humidor contained 500 of the best cigars from the Cohiba brand, the most prestigious in Cuba.
“The secret is love”
Reyes is now working on a replica of a more modest box that belonged to Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), Nobel Prize winner in Literature and a great lover of cigars.
Carved in relief, the original piece is part of the collection of Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s house museum in the east of Havana.
After leaving the carpentry, a team of goldsmiths, cabinetmakers, restorers and varnishers is responsible for giving each piece a unique finish.
Duyos admits that in Cuba, which is going through its worst economic crisis in 30 years, “it is very difficult” to manufacture humidors because they must constantly deal with the lack of glues, sealants, varnish, sandpaper or hardware.
“You practically do wonders with nothing,” says Reyes. “The secret is love” for the job, he says.
Duyos has had clients such as former US president Jimmy Carter, former soccer player Diego Maradona (1960-2020) and Mick Jagger, singer of the Rolling Stones.
He also gave a humidor to former United States President Barack Obama when he visited the island in 2016. “Thank you for his gift,” the then-president wrote in a letter that he preserves.
Sales had their golden age during the tourism boom generated by the historic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States in 2015, reversed by Republican Donald Trump, he recalls.
However, he does not give up his dream of “creating different and very beautiful humidors.”