IF ZINO DAVIDOFF's mother had had her way, her son would have become a dentist. Instead, he followed in his father's footsteps, learning the art of tobacco-blending in Geneva in the early years of the century, and preparing himself for a seven-decade career which made him the world's best-known merchant of Havana cigars.
Davidoff recalled during a visit to London last year how different it might have been: 'I found that I really could not work inside the mouths of people, so I did not become a dentist, as my mother wished. But, in a way, that is what I have become but with smoke, rather than teeth.' Davidoff liked to describe himself as 'a man of smoke'. Easily recognisable by his benign appearance, countless laugh-lines and a rich thatch of white hair that extended down his forehead nearly to his eyebrows, he was known to his colleagues as 'the little Russian'.
Davidoff was born in Kiev, in Ukraine, in 1906. His family, to escape Tsarist pogroms, moved to Istanbul, then Geneva, where his father set up a tobacco shop on the Boulevard du Philosophe. The shop became a meeting-place for Russian expatriates during the First World War and even claimed Lenin as an early customer, though the firm's records show that he did not pay his bill.
It was Zino's first encounter with famous customers, who abounded once he succeeded his father in the 1930s and began to deal in hand- rolled Havana cigars. His taste for cigars dated from the mid-1920s when his father sent him first to Cuba, where he apprenticed with a Senor Palacios, proprietor of the Hoyo de Monterrey cigar company. The bond with Palacios lasted for decades, and Hoyo cigars were those initially used as Davidoff's own-brand cigars, when Zino Davidoff started marketing after the Second World War. Up to the time of his death, he smoked two cigars a day, one after lunch and the second after supper. The chances were good that, if he was not smoking one of his own, he was smoking a Hoyo. 'I was blessed with a good sense of taste,' he told me, 'and was able to tell if a cigar was too strong or too weak, and could recommend how it could be improved through blending.'
Davidoff also developed business acumen, introducing humidified cigar storage to his shop in the 1930s - he claimed this as a first, though Alfred Dunhill had been experimenting with humidification in Britain. During the Second World War, Davidoff's international repute advanced when he cornered the European market in neutral Switzerland for Havana cigars. The Cubans struck a deal with him by storing under his protection in Switzerland cigars that would normally have gone to France and Germany. The better-heeled refugees fleeing Vichy France also found in Davidoff a ready buyer for their cigar stocks.
In the post-war years, Davidoff started using the names of French wines, such as Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux, on his cigars, a marketing technique that the Cubans said would never work but turned out to be a great success. Davidoff survived the rise of Fidel Castro, and the subsequent disruption of the Havana cigar trade, by maintaining his own, typically Swiss, strict neutrality. 'I only dealt with ministers of agriculture, commerce and production, but never made politics. I never met Castro or Batista,' he recalled. As a consequence his own supply lines remained open.
In 1970, Davidoff sold control of his company to the Swiss firm of Oettinger and Co, which was able to give international clout to his reputation and which began franchising Davidoff shops throughout Europe and the United States (and now the Middle East and Asia). Until his death, Zino Davidoff was the firm's ambassador-at-large.
An upheaval occurred in 1990 when Cubatabaco, the state monopoly, tried to acquire control of the Davidoff trademark as part of a drive to enter cigar retailing. When refused, the Cubans threatened to cut supplies, at the same time taking Davidoff to task for its premium prices. Davidoff replied by claiming that Cuba's tobacco quality had deteriorated, alleging that the supplier was selling 'pirate' Davidoffs to export markets on its own. The row culminated when Davidoff shifted its source of hand- rolled cigars from Cuba to the neighbouring Dominican Republic.
'Cuba was like a nice lady, with whom I had had a 50-year relationship. But one day, when you have had enough, you have to go, so I found a new lady, younger, thinner, lighter, more co-operative. That is why I am in the Dominican Republic,' he explained.
Davidoff never sold cigars to Winston Churchill, but his Geneva shop saw many other customers: Marshal Tito, the violinist Isaac Stern, the pianist Artur Rubinstein, even Orson Welles. But none matched Egypt's infamous and rotund ex-King Farouk who came into the shop after his exile in the 1950s. After lengthy negotiations, Farouk ordered 40,000 Hoyo double corona cigars, complete with his own cigar bands, but not before Davidoff ran a credit check in Rome, where Farouk was living in a somewhat financially careless style.
The deal was struck, the cigars were delivered over a period of months and Davidoff got paid. 'It was my biggest sale ever.' At today's prices, such a sale would be worth pounds 400,000.