Strike a light! Cigars - and humidors - are back in fashion

Collect to invest: John Windsor on the enduring enticements of Cuba

Cigars are back in fashion as are humidors, the decorative boxes that keep them fresh. Prices at Bonhams, the London auctioneers, have doubled in 18 months. A novelty Louis Vuitton leather and brass-bound humidor fetched pounds 950 this month, well above its pounds 500-pounds 700 pre-sale estimate.

There are no antique purpose-made humidors: the preference for relatively moist cigars - firm but spongy instead of dry and crackly - came only after the war. A new trade has sprung up: customising Victorian workboxes by inserting a cedar lining, humidifier and hygrometer (humidity gauge) - and making new ones.

The latter signals a revival of the craft of marquetry and is likely to yield limited-edition collectables of the future.

Viscount Linley, the Queen's cabinet-making nephew, has only one left of his five classic architectural humidors, each in an edition of 10. It is a miniature villa in the style of Sir John Soane, with urns and columns in rare woods. Price: pounds 9,500. His modest walnut ones cost pounds 1,200.

More than half the buyers in this country are American. Back home, they lounge smoke-wreathed in newly-formed cigar clubs, known decadently as divans.

Britain's first divan, the luxurious members-only Monte's (as in Montecristo Cuban cigars) opened in Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, west London, two years ago. Its enticements include French silk upholstery, Lalique glass panels, dining, dancing and Cohiba Esplendido cigars at pounds 24 each.

The renewed popularity of cigar humidors is due to the combined efforts of two cigar fanatics. One is the American publisher Marvin Shanken, 53- year-old founder of the 500-page lifestyle quarterly Cigar Aficionado, which in five years has achieved a circulation of 400,000.

At Sotheby's much-hyped Jackie Onassis auction in New York last year, his purchase for a whacking $574,500 (pounds 375,500) of John Kennedy's walnut Dunhill humidor earned him publicity worth many times that amount. At Big Smoke cigar conventions, the famous humidor, in which the President is alleged to have stashed Havanas before imposing the still-existing trade embargo on Cuba in 1962, is locked in a glass display case with two guards on 24-hour watch.

The other aficionado is the Russian-born cigar merchant Zino Davidoff, who died two years ago, having popularised the Cuban taste for relatively "fresh" cigars and pioneered humidors to preserve them. He once remarked: "I discovered Cuba's perfume and her sensual warmth as an immature adolescent discovers an ardent, knowledgeable woman."

One of Monte's suppliers, London humidor maker Wendy Salisbury, describes the function of the magic boxes as "kidding the cigars that they're still in Cuba: Havana is one big humidor".

At fairs and auctions she buys antique gentlemen's travelling boxes that have lost their silver-topped jars, women's workboxes,even gun boxes on stands then has them stripped out and kitted with the necessary cedar lining, hygrometer and humidifier - a pad moistened with distilled water in a metal grille. She insists that her boxes should lock air-tight, gently squeezing together the rubber seals inserted into grooves.

Converted, they sell for between pounds 900 for a Victorian box in rosewood, mahogany or walnut to pounds 5,000 for a Victorian travelling trunk on a stand, holding up to 500 cigars. Prices of her brand-new cabinet-makers' humidors with intricate veneers begin at pounds 600.

Another London maker, Adrian Lesley, spent six months finding suppliers of components and brass fittings for his Palladian-style humidors in pear, ebony, satinwood and rippled sycamore, that sell in editions of 100 at pounds 1,475 each.

Members of Monte, soon to be offered an edition of Mr Lesley's bearing the club livery, will appreciate that all his humidors contain the most accurate hair hygrometers obtainable. The hair, his importer assures him, is culled annually from a Himalayan tribe whose genes make its elasticity uniquely sensitive to changes in humidity.

The investment value of humidors depends to some extent upon whether cigar-smoking is here to stay or a passing fad. The signs are healthy (whatever you may think of cigars themselves).

The Americans are capable of smoking 8 billion of them a year (1970s peak figure) compared with today's figure of some 3 billion (a significant increase on the low of 2.14 billion four years ago).

Although the current re-ignition owes much to the misconception that cigar smokers do not inhale and smoke less than cigarette smokers, its clubability and prohibition-style anti-correctness could have lasting appeal.

For humidors:

Alfred Dunhill, shop and museum, 50 Jermyn Street, St James's, London SW1 (0171-499 9566); Davidoff, 35 St James's Street, London SW1 (0171- 930 3079); David Linley Furniture Ltd, 60 Pimlico Road, London SW1 (0171- 730 7300).

Wendy Salisbury, Hamilton-Blake Ltd, 95 Elgin Avenue, London W9 (0171- 286 6787).

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