Panama Hat Art

From Napoleon’s tricorn to John Wayne’s stetson, hats have always played an essential part in the birth of the legend. But none can rival the pedigree, the popularity and the ubiquity of the panama, a guarantee of elegance whatever the circumstance.

Review some of the greatest movies since Casablanca and Key Largo, from The Man Who Would Be King and Death in Venice right up to The Year of Living Dangerously or Hannibal. From Sydney Greenstreet and Edward G. Robinson to Anthony Hopkins via Sean Connery and Dirk Bogarde, Klaus Kinski and dangerous lady Sigourney Weaver, swarms of screen characters have expressed their sophistication – for better and for worse – by wearing a sombrero de paja toquilla, the prince of straw hats.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that several years ago Jannick Gerthofer, known as a cigar aficionada, decided to offer her exclusive clientele at the Comptoir Cour Vendôme in Gustavia a selection of these peerless hats. To help you make your choice, she will tell you all about the manufacturing process, from fermentation of the straw to blocking and finishing, the story of craftsmen whose art is the mark of an entire culture.

A series of encounters has fueled her infatuation with the panama hat. Fifteen years ago, Jannick met Orlando, a Nicaragua born sculptor of wooden heads used for blocking Montecristi hats. Orlando was the first to transfer his dedication to these works of art, and then, several months later, Nicole Fougeret crossed Jannick’s path, a European hat importer, whose intimate relationship with her hats stems from a passion for carefully selecting the best specimens and turning them into signature hats thanks to tireless attention to detail.

A few years ago, one day in November, an American actor asked Jannick if she might have hand-downs, nobly time-worn hats, who wear their personality on their brim … About the same time, Jannick met Olga Berluti, who turned out to be peerless when it comes to using essential oils to give a Montecristi hat a personal patina, not unsimilar to that which makes Berluti shoes unique. It takes a special head for Jannick to suggest one of these rare works of art.

So it is no fluke that Silvester Stallone, George Hamilton, James Levine, Sting, Denzel Washington, Robert Redford, Arnold Schwartzenegger and many others have called on Jannick at the Comptoir ... and left the boutique smiling after finding that special hat to highlight their personal style. For Jannick, there are other rewards too, for example when Jeanne Audy Rolland gifted her with Rudolph Nouryev’s Montecristi, moments to be treasured, in which the love of beauty and authenticity is shared.

To understand, feel and live in harmony with a work of art, it helps to know a little of its story. The history of the sombrero de paja toquilla, a complex and profoundly Ecuadorian character, is somewhat of an adventure tale. The hat actually only turned into the «Panama hat» when in 1848 a few traders from Montecristi in the Province of Manabi decided to sell their hats 600 miles further north, in the town of Panama, which had become a rallying point for everyone joining the gold rush to California. One of these enterprising men was Eloy Alfaro, son of Manuel, who ten years earlier had created the first true Montecristi hat workshop. The sales trip turned out to be a brilliant idea, for in 1849 alone he exported 220,000 hats to the United States and several years later he turned his business career into a successful Presidency of Ecuador. After Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the canal construction site sporting a Montecristi in 1906 and his photo was wired around the world, there was no more stopping the demand for this new fashion accessory.

Naturally, Ecuadorian craftsmen remain less than enthused that a marketing gimmick should have «stolen» their hat, but they console themselves in knowing that only they, in the small town of Montecristi and the surrounding villages, have kept alive the art of this most Ecuadorian hat. To be sure, they face competition further inland, in Cuenca – where hat production was launched by migrants from Montecristi as early as 1836 – and whose mass output has swamped the world market with more affordable straw hats. Cuenca is also where the Brisa is made, another well-known type of panama hat weave.

What really distinguishes Cuenca and Brisa hats from the authentic Montecristi are the shortcuts taken during their manufacturing process, which leaves them with the look, but not the quality. Differences begin with the selection of the paja toquilla, the «hat straw» from the Carludovica palmeta palm. For Montecristi hats, only young and tender palm leaves pass inspection, making for more pliable, softer and ultimately finer straw. Fineness is the first defining quality factor. The finer the straw, the more regular and the closer the weave and the more supple the finished hat. While Cuenca and Brisa hats are woven in a matter of days or two or three weeks at the most for the best specimens, the legendary Montecristi requires three months or more of patient, artful handcraft. Just think about it: every time one divides the width of the straw by two, weaving time quadruples!

And thus the regularity and fineness of the weave augments, producing an esthetically superior result. This being said, small irregularities, both in the weave and in straw color, which for a Montecristi will be varying shades of ivory, are part of the hat’s character. Nothing is quite as bland as varnished perfection, with no trace of the artisan’s handwork.

By contrast, a peroxide-treated Cuenca hat is uniformly white, it’s once sensual surface glossed over, it’s story lost in the production line. Blocking and finishing techniques also differ. While the brim of the Cuenca is machine-sown, the individual straws of the Montecristi are astutely woven back into the brim without leaving a clue for the eye. While the Cuenca hat is machine-shaped under a vapor press in a matter of minutes, the Montecristi dries for several days on its wooden block, receiving regular attention, skillful hands carefully forming it to perfection.

While one honors an old craft and respect for tradition and authenticity, which guarantee a unique result, the other pays tribute to the demands of mass production.

Every single Montecristi hat has a story to tell, inspiring your admiration with each touch, and bringing a contented smile to your lips, while earning the admiration of those who admire your most handsome headwear.

Source: Tropical Magazine n°17, season 2007-2008, page 21.

Photos: Alain Charlot

Text: Vladimir Klein

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