8 July 2014
Inspirational Aesthetics
Luxury lifestyle blog in Germany

1) The Panama hat is time-tested warm weather companion, and a very stylish one at that, but what makes the Panama hat such an enduring favorite?

A genuine Panama hat is surprisingly lightweight, compared to other types of hats, such as beaver felt hats. The weave of the straw “breathes” more than felt, so a Panama hat is cooler to wear. Montecristi “Panama” hats are even more lightweight than “Panama” hats woven in other regions of Ecuador. The light color of the straw is attractive and complements summer clothing colors and fabrics. Most likely, the single most important factor in the continuing popularity of Panama hats is that people like the way they look in a mirror.

1a) And why is it called a ”Panama hat” when the style originated in Ecuador?

Ah, the inevitable question. First, “Panama hat” is not a style; it is a type of headwear. There are many different styles of Panama hats: fedoras (I make 5 different fedora styles), Optimo, Homburg, Planter, and so on.

So, what defines a Panama hat? The classic Panama hat is hand woven of straw made from a specific type of plant (carludovica palmata). Typically, the straw is bleached to a light, almost white, color, and the hat is trimmed with a black ribbon. The plant is native to coastal Ecuador. The plants also grow, and hats are also woven commercially from the straw, in Peru, Colombia, and Mexico.

The primary commercial production originated in Manabí Province of Ecuador, around the cities of Montecristi and Jipijapa. In the early 1800s, the primary markets for the hats were Europe and the eastern US. The most convenient port for shipping the hats to those markets was in Panama. So, importers of the hats were buying hats that were shipped to them from Panama. Those importers did not really care, and possibly did not even know, that the hats were woven in Ecuador. To them, the hats came from Panama.

Most explanations of the name attribute it to miners who bought hats in Panama, on their way to and from the California gold fields, and took them to California or back home with them. The name is even more often attributed to workers building the Panama Canal who bought and wore the hats in Panama. However, the term “panama hat” is found in literature as early as 1838, before either the gold rush or the building of the canal.

2) While browsing your extensive offering of bespoke Panama hats, we noticed a clear focus on the Montecristi hat. What is a Montecristi hat, and what sets yours apart?

Montecristi is a city in coastal Ecuador. The city of Montecristi is the administrative center for Montecristi Canton (County). To be a genuine Montecristi hat, the plants used to make the straw must grow in Montecristi Canton. The straw must be prepared in Montecristi Canton. The weaving of the hat must occur in Montecristi Canton. And the traditional artisan preparation of the hat, after the weaver completes his/her part, must be done in Montecristi Canton.

My business was created with the specific goal, or mission, to try to rescue the endangered art of genuine Montecristi hats. It was not a goal to make a lot of money. I have had some success preserving the art of Montecristi hats, and I have been spectacularly successful not making a lot of money.

If you’re shopping for a Montecristi hat -- caveat emptor, buyer beware. As a consumer, be on guard. Fraud is rampant.

Hats produced in a different part of Ecuador, in and around the Andean city of Cuenca, are frequently and fraudulently misrepresented to be Montecristi hats. Cuenca hats are produced, and sold, more cheaply than genuine Montecristi hats, so hat exporters in Cuenca steal a large percentage of the market for Montecristi hats. The hat manufacturers who buy the Cuenca hats don’t know and/or don’t care that the hats are not genuine Montecristi hats; they simply prefer the lower prices. Plus, the exporters can rig the export documents to represent that the Cuenca hats are Montecristi hats. I have examples of this type falsified export documents. I also have Cuenca hats that have an indelible mark inside falsely declaring the hats to be Montecristi hats. Such marks are make with branding irons or ink stamps.

I estimate that more than half of the hats sold globally, which are sold as Montecristi hats, are not really Montecristi hats. I believe that the decades-old practice of selling Cuenca hats misrepresented to be Montecristi hats, and thus stealing sales from Montecristi, is the single most significant factor in the near extinction of genuine Montecristi hats. If this type of fraud could be stopped, the market for genuine Montecristi hats would increase dramatically.

I initiated legal action in Ecuador, which resulted, in 2007, in the first-ever Denomination of Origin designation for a product of the nation of Ecuador. The DO Resolution defines the traditional methods by which Montecristi hats are made, and defines the geographic area in which the hats must be made in order to qualify for the DO designation (in this case, Montecristi Canton).

A Denomination of Origin designation means that only products created within a specific geographic area, and only products conforming to defined preparation methods and standards, can use that name to describe the product. Familiar examples would be Napa Valley wines and Champagnes. To be marketed as a Napa Valley wine, the grapes must be grown in Napa Valley, California, and the wine must be made in Napa Valley. Sparkling wines may not be called Champagne unless the grapes were grown and the wine made within the Champagne region of France. They may claim to have been made with the méthode champenoise (champagne method), but they may not call themselves champagne.

A primary purpose of Denomination of Origin is so consumers will know they are buying the real thing, not a knock off. A second purpose is so product standards can be established and regulated.

As part of the process of applying for the DO, the Ecuador law firm arranged for a representative of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a part of the UN, to come to Ecuador to verify that Montecristi hats are distinctly different from the hats produced in the Cuenca area from the same type of straw. The WIPO examiner ruled that Cuenca hats and Montecristi hats are not the same. They are distinctly different, employing different methods of preparing straw, weaving the straw, and finishing the woven hats. I believe I may have commented “Woohoo!” at the time.

My goal in seeking DO status and protection for Montecristi hats was to stop the Cuenca exporters from selling Cuenca hats misrepresented to be Montecristi hats. Unfortunately, the application prepared by the attorneys did not provide for any official certification process for genuine Montecristi hats, and did not provide for any sort of enforcement. The attorneys had a big party to celebrate their achievement. No weavers were invited. And absolutely nothing has changed.

Hats produced in the Cuenca area are still widely sold as “Montecristi” hats to unsuspecting buyers. This practice has been engaged in by some of the most famous retailers in the world, including a very famous hat store in London and another, less famous, shop in Sydney. I contacted both sellers and asked that they stop selling Cuenca hats misrepresented to be Montecristi hats. Both removed the products from their websites, but I have not confirmed if they have stopped selling them in their stores. The Sydney shop made no response to my email request, other than to remove from their website the photos of Cuenca hats captioned to be Montecristi hats. The London hat store replied that they had bought the hats “in good faith,” and believed the Cuenca hats were Montecristi hats. Oh? The company was founded in 1676. In more than 300 years, they have not learned to tell the difference between brisa weave Cuenca hats and genuine Montecristi hats? I could teach a ten year old how to tell the difference in about 15 minutes, maybe less. I also advised them that they were spelling Montecristi incorrectly on their website, and that the straw is called toquilla straw, not tequila straw. Being an incorrigible wiseass, I suggested they should do future research in a library, rather than in a bar. Although I do understand the considerable attractions of bars over libraries.

One very important factor that sets my Montecristi hats apart from those sold by many other sellers is that my Montecristi hats really are Montecristi hats. I often see hats for sale, represented to be Montecristi hats, but which have retail prices lower than the prices I pay to buy genuine Montecristi hats from the weavers and their representatives, at the source in Montecristi. Easy deduction – they are not really Montecristi hats.

Visiting the websites of other sellers, I frequently see photos of hats that are represented to be Montecristi hats, but it is obvious to me, just looking at the photos, that the hats are brisa weave Cuenca hats, not Montecristi hats.

Another important difference between my Montecristi hats and those from other sellers, is that my Montecristi hats are all blocked and finished entirely by hand, the way hats were made a hundred years ago. Virtually all Panama hats, including Montecristi hats, are shaped on a hydraulic press, with ribbons and sweatbands sewn by machine.

My Montecristi hats are bespoke. Each hat is made only when ordered, is made specifically for the client who requests it, and is custom sized/fitted for that client. Clients can choose ribbon color and width, type of sweatband, and can request wider or shorter brims, taller or shorter crowns, etc.

I would estimate that I have blocked and styled, with my own hands, more than 5000 Montecristi hats. I seriously doubt anyone else in the world has that level of hands-on (literally) experience.

When you order the Montecristi hat of your dreams, remember that I have no Montecristi hats ready to ship and ready to wear. The process takes several weeks, from ordering your hat until you will be wearing it. This shocks many clients who have no experience with anything that is actually made by hand when ordered.

My favorite extreme example of this expectation of instant gratification is the client who called several years ago, from New York, on a Friday afternoon in the summer. He said, “You are in Hawaii, right?” Yes. “And it’s 6 hours earlier there?” Yes. “Well it’s 2 o’clock here. Because of the time difference, can you have my hat to me before I leave the office today?” Huh? Get a hat from my workshop to the Honolulu airport, to New York, and delivered to this guy’s office in 3 hours? Once again, the incorrigible wiseass factor came into play and I answered: Well, normally, I could do that. But right now my wormhole is in the shop for repairs. Sorry, can’t do that today.

So, if you want one of my hats, and you should want one of my hats, get comfortable because you will have to wait for me to make it.

Happily, you do not have to wait for the hat to be woven, prepared for export by Montecristi artisans, or shipped from Ecuador to Hawaii. I maintain an inventory of about 2000 unblocked Montecristi hat bodies. It is extremely unlikely any other seller of Montecristi hats would have even one-tenth that many Montecristi hats. Dealers in Montecristi estimate that the entire production of Montecristi hats (20 rows of weaves per inch and higher) will be about 1300 hats in 2014. I expect to buy more than one-third of total production and half, or more, of the very finest hats woven each year.

As much as possible, I buy my finest hats directly from the weavers, paying higher prices than other buyers, and putting cash directly into the hands of the weavers. Remember that the mission of my business is to preserve the art of Montecristi hats. I believe that if I want there to be weavers ten years from now, the weavers now must be paid enough so that they do not quit weaving and look for a better job. The weavers now must be paid enough so that others will want to weave hats. For the art to survive, hat weaving must be a desirable occupation.

When I sell one of the finest hats, priced $5000 and higher, the weaver receives a commission, even though I have already paid a high market cash price, and I own the hat. The weaver and the artisans who create the hat receive 40% of the retail value. My hope is that, if those who create the hats receive a higher percentage of the market value of their hats, they are more likely to keep making them than if I simply keep all the money, as other sellers do. This plan of mine would be much more effective if more people would buy hats priced $5000 and higher.

Perhaps you might need a $5000 hat right now. You don’t think so? Well, do you have any $5000 hats already? No. So, if you don’t have any, obviously you need at least one. Simple logic.

3) Before making some of the world’s finest Panama hats, you served as a writer and creative director in some very esteemed advertising agencies. Where did your passion for Panama hats come from, and what made you decide to take the rather big jump from advertising to take the rather big jump the start The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific?

In 1987, I read a book, a travel essay about Panama hat production in Ecuador. There were a couple of chapters about Montecristi. Reading the high praise for Montecristi hats caused me to want see some. The author predicted that the art of Montecristi hats would be dead in less than twenty years. I decided to go to Montecristi to see the hats before they were gone. It seemed like it would a fun adventure. It was.

I went to Montecristi in search of Sr. Rosendo Delgado Garay, a dealer mentioned in the book. I found him. I saw, felt, held, and even smelled my first Montecristi hats. I did not taste them. (I can honestly say I have never licked a Montecristi hat.) They were worth the 11,000-mile trip. I touched their brims, and they touched my heart. I fell in love with Montecristi hats.

A few years later, my tax accountant commented, “You’re not in business with the hats; you’re in love with the hats.” Yeah.

Why? I don’t know. I sometimes joke that the hats chose me. But I’m not sure it’s a joke. There is no logical reason for me to have decided to try to save a hand art form in a country I was visiting for the first time, and whose language I did not speak. Other than baseball caps as a kid, I was not a wearer of hats. I had no exposure to hat making of any kind. I knew nothing whatsoever about the hat industry, knew nothing about making Panama hats.

Ignorance is bliss. Sure, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll buy some of these Montecristi hat bodies, take them back to Hawaii, have them turned into actual hats somehow, with a style shape, ribbon, and sweatband. Then sell them somehow. Not only sell them, but sell so many that I would reverse a 40-year decline in hat wearing, reverse a 40-year decline in Montecristi hat production, and save the art from extinction. Right.

The book had predicted that Montecrisit hats would be dead in twenty years. I made it my mission to prevent his prediction from coming true. Many have said I succeeded, that without my naïve and Quixotic efforts the prediction would have come true. I enjoy the irony that the prediction itself made the prediction not come true.

After twenty years of working to defeat the twenty-year time frame of the prediction, I celebrated the still-shaky survival of the art by commissioning the best weaver alive to weave the most finely woven hat of his life. He did. He wove the most finely woven hat of anyone’s life, the finest Montecristi hat ever woven.

Five years later, in 2013, I commissioned him to beat his own record. He did. Eight months of weaving. Not surprisingly, after eight months and a thousand hours of working bent in half, weaving straws finer than dental floss, Simón declared with some passion: “ I don’t want to do this again.”

Simón has no peers, no rivals. So far, no prodigies have emerged from the weaving school we created. (The school is entering its fourth year with a student body of 12 and a faculty of 2.) The finest Montecristi hat ever woven is probably the finest that ever will be woven. Simón will not weave a finer hat. There will not be a finer weaver. This hat is, and will remain, the finest Montecristi hat ever woven, the highest example of a legendary art form.

Perhaps it is your size.

Here’s something to ask yourself: Who should wear the finest Panama hat ever woven? Bill Gates? David Beckham? A movie star? Jay-Z? A woman? Send your Top Ten candidates list to this blog.

With regard to the jump from creating advertising to making hats, I did not quit my day job right away. I was clueless. I knew less than nothing about hats – what I thought I knew was wrong. I could not find my butt with both hands, a good mirror, and a strong light. I’d have fallen flat on that butt in a big hurry if I’d quit my job to be a hat maker.

I found someone to block the hats. I found a resort hotel shop to buy them. My advertising experience enabled me to create and produce sales and marketing materials. Over time, I added clients. Most were shops in luxury resort hotels in Hawaii. A few were hat shops and cigar stores on the mainland US. Even a couple of stores in Europe. The business grew. It became a real business. I still had not quit my day job.

I was working for a dot-com company in 2000 when the dot-com bubble burst and my job disappeared. I decided, what the hell, maybe it was a sign from the hat gods that it was time for me to become a full time HATMAN (my license plate now). Predictably, the plate is on the Hatmobile. Orders often come in on the Hatphone.

After twenty-eight years in the not-always-mellow world of advertising, I longed for the peaceful ease of hat making. Turns out that was like a tuberculosis patient longing for the peace and ease of Ebola. Hat making has been anything but peaceful and easy. It has also been the right path.

One of the best hand blockers, who had made hats for me, had recently closed his store in Springfield, MA and retired. He agreed to teach me to do my own blocking. Another hat maker in Nashville passed away and his widow wanted to sell the hat making equipment, blocks, flanges, vintage ribbons, tools. Good stuff to have if you think you’re going to make hats. I bought it. I bought more equipment in Springfield from my teacher, the retired blocker.

I updated and upgraded my website. The site originally was intended to be an online reference library with information about Montecristi hats. I have always believed that the more people know about Montecristi hats, and the more they understand how they are made, the more they will want to wear one. I knew, from my own frustrating searches for accurate information about Montecristi hats, that there was very little information available, and most of what I did find turned out to have been inaccurate.

Fortunately for my business, a good friend who was the driving force in getting my website up and running was relentless in his insistence that I had to get a toll free number, find a credit card processor, and sell hats on the website.

Seemed crazy. Who was ever going to buy a straw hat he can’t see, feel, or try on -- for $500 and up? Not likely.

But I eventually yielded and did what he said. Good thing. Turns out people visiting my website could tell from reading the site that I am sincere and passionate about Montecristi hats. They started buying hats, and I did not have to go back to working in advertising agencies, which I did enjoy and sometimes miss.

4) In addition to your company, you also established The Montecristi Foundation, which supports the artisans weaving your hats and their communities. What made you go this extra step?

The purpose of my company, the reason it was created in the first place, is to keep alive the art of fine hat weaving in Montecristi. To save an art, one must save the artists. My company was beginning to fund medical care, food for weavers, eyeglasses, and other projects of a charitable nature, “good works.” I was advised that setting up a non-profit foundation would allow the business activities to be clearly separated from the charitable activities.

The Montecristi Foundation, Inc. is a not-for-profit private operating foundation. For several years, we focused on providing free medical care to the village of Pile. Then, finally, the government discovered the village and began a regular program of medical care, so we redirected our resources to free eye exams, free eyeglasses, free supplies to weavers, free safety masks to protect weavers from sulfur fumes when bleaching the straw, and so on. The foundation, along with Hartford York hat catalogue, funded an important water project for the village. The foundation established a weaving school in Pile where the next generation is learning to weave the very finest Montecristi hats, learning to keep the legend alive. The foundation helped to fund the cost of the legal action to apply, successfully, for the Denomination of Origin for Montecrisiti hats. Most of the effort was pro bono by Paz Horowitz law firm in Quito. The foundation has designed an environmentally safe, worker-safe “oven” for bleaching the hats with sulfur.

I think that’s all good stuff. Stuff worth doing. The foundation helps me do it. I wish we could do more.

5) When daydreaming about which hats we would like to order the most, “Hemingway’s Hat” emerged as a clear favorite among our team. For this hat, you clearly put your creative skills to use when crafting its backstory. What was the inspiration behind the story, and what makes a “Hemingway’s Hat” so special?

“Hemingway’s Hat” was introduced in 2013, and became an immediate best seller. The mini-story I wrote to capture the spirit of this style begins with a very fun premise – that Hemingway called me from Cuba when I was ten, told me I would be a hat maker some day, and described the hat he wanted me to make for him.

I am hugely flattered that so many readers have been tempted to wonder if the story is true, As a writer, for people to think something I wrote might have been written by Hemingway is an ultimate compliment.

When National Geographic decided to publish two of my photos, it was an ultimate compliment. National Geographic. The holy grail for travel photographers. I was dancing on the walls for days. When they told me they were sending a check for $1700, I remember thinking I’d have paid them twice that much to publish my photos.

The style “Hemingway’s Hat” is exactly the same style as my Classic Fedora, shaped on the same blocks. But instead of choosing the hat to be blocked from my normal inventory, I choose a “second,” a hat with some issue that caused it to have been demoted out of the regular inventory. A spot. Some broken straw. An excessively irregular brim edge. A break in the back weave. Maybe it’s just an older hat. The HH prices are lower, for the same weave counts, than the Classic Fedoras. A “Hemingway’s Hat” priced at $1000 would have been a $2000 Classic Fedora, if only it didn’t have that little “bruise” from the apaleador. I’m working on that very hat right now.

A client in Russia bought a $3000 Classic Fedora and wanted an obviously finer weave. Ay yi yi! The weave of a $3000 hat is already so fine that you need a magnifying glass to see the weave clearly. I remembered a hat I had which had been woven by Simón Espinal. Weave count in the low-40’s. His “normal” hats are about 50. The hat has a sort of blue-ish hue, not objectionable at all, but not what people are expecting. If I had a store where people could see the hat, someone would have fallen in love with it. But on the Internet? Not so much. We agreed on $7500. I put a vintage gray ribbon on it to complement the straw color. The client was ecstatic. A beautiful hat had found a happy home. Simón received a nice commission. The client also made a generous donation to the weaving school. There should be more days like that.

The “Hemingway’s Hat” has been so well received and enjoyed that I decided to expand the idea to include several other styles: the Optimo HH, Havana Fedora HH, and the wider brim Aficionado HH and Plantation HH. The current style will become the Original Hemingway’s Hat.

6) What is the biggest piece of advice you would give someone considering making an investment in one of your hats?

Order now.

Or possibly:

Don’t spend above your comfort zone. Someone might spill red wine on your hat three seconds after it is out of the box.

Do your part. This is a team sport. My system for custom fitting your hat works very well. With clients in 70 countries, it is imperative to get the size right. Can’t be shipping hats back and forth between Hawaii and Azerbaijan or Bakobeeyahnd.

Measure your head carefully so you will receive the right size test bands. The size test bands you will receive are your way to “try on” your hat. Please try them on thoughtfully. You don’t want to wait weeks for your custom hat, then have to send it back to be re-sized.

Enjoy the process. Rejoice that, in our instant-everything mass-produced McWorld, there is still one fool willing to try to hand block Montecristi hats as they were blocked a hundred years ago. Savor the slowness. Allow me the luxury of working without being rushed, of having the latitude to decide I just don’t like how your hat came out and start over. Some hats block beautifully and relatively easily. Others . . . not so much. I just keep working until I like how your hat looks. I figure if I like it you will too.

Yeah, it would be better if it was faster and easier. But it’s not. So, get comfortable. Get Zen. Get Zacapa rum. And read my website while you wait. The more you know, the more you will enjoy your hat.

7) As an indisputable connoisseur of Panama Hats, which is the hat you reach for before heading outside in the Hawaiian sun?

It depends on who I want to be that day. Different styles have different personalities. Change your hat and you’ve changed your whole look, even if the rest of the clothes remain the same.

On days when the A.Q. (Adventure Quotient) is high, a Kentucky Smith® Safari Edition is often the choice.

Most days, it’s a Montecristi Classic Fedora. To me, the Classic Fedora is what a real Panama hat should look like. It’s what I would want to be wearing in a Bogart movie.

The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific dba Brent Black Panama Hats 1314 Center Dr., Suite B-448 Medford, OR 97501 There is no retail store at this address. (more) Toll Free: (888) 658-6500 Phone: (541) 201-3113

Text and photos © 1988-2022, B. Brent Black. All rights reserved.

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