The Art of the Cigar Band

Cigar Band Art

You’re at Georgetown Tobacco, choosing a cigar from among the hundreds we offer.  You consider the cigar’s vitola (is it right for my body size?  will it last for an entire round of golf?), its flavor and strength (Dominican?  Nicaraguan?  Ligero?  Volado?), the wrapper color (natural? maduro?), and maybe you give it a gentle pinch to make sure it’s not rolled too tightly.  But perhaps you’ve overlooked the most colorful part of your choice:  the cigar band!

True, the band doesn’t contribute to a cigar’s flavor profile, and it might not be the first thing you consider when choosing a cigar.  But for over a century, cigar bands have contributed to the pleasure of smoking.

Gustave Bock (aka Gustav Bock Muller, 1836 – 1910,) a “King of Cigars,” author, and an extraordinary businessman, is credited with the first use of cigar bands in the mid-1800s.  Bock introduced cigar bands after immigrating to Cuba from Germany as a way to distinguish his Cuban cigars from those of his competitors.  Forget the legend that he added bands to cigars to protect the white-gloved fingers of cigar smokers.  His was strictly a business decision taken to add prestige and distinction to his cigars.  His tactic was so successful that by the 1850s nearly all Cuban cigars, whether made by Bock or not, were banded.

Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, a number of firms made cigar bands and box labels here in the U.S.  Important firms included F.M. Howell, Krueger and Braun, and Conover Litho.  Nicolas Witsch and Jacob Schmidt started one of the nation’s more important cigar label companies in 1879.  Bands were carefully printed on paper and embossed with gold foil.  Chromolithography, a technique first developed in Europe and taken to America, played a central role in the rise of banding because it was a comparatively inexpensive way to mass produce colorful eye-catching labels.  An inventory taken in 1879 at Heppenheimer & Maurer, one of the more important New York City lithographic establishments specializing in cigar labels, included 25,000 registered lithographic stones and 7,000,000 cigar labels.

Throughout the “golden age” of cigar bands (1890-1920), bands had other purposes besides brand distinction.  Affluent smokers often personalized bands by adding their image to them as a way of advertising their wealth.  For those less well off, bands sometimes served as cheap and (let’s hope) temporary engagement rings.

Cigar bands today still serve as eye catching brand emblems, compliments to family, and believe it or not, security devices.  They range from visually stunning ornate (even overstated) creations to very subtle designs with crisp type font.  Flowers, words, geometric designs –and since the 1800s, women–have all been featured on bands.  New World cigars feature a very picturesque label, and the Rocky Patel Age Limited Rare actually has a cummerbund type band below its more traditional band.  Compare those ornate designs with the clean, modern font of the Nub or the elegant script of a Davidoff.  Sometimes the manufacturer forgoes elaborate design and highlights the cigar name itself such as with the big, bold, unadorned label of the Camacho.  Did you notice that the label of the Camacho is oriented down the body of the cigar rather than perpendicular to it?  The band can feature the format of the cigar highlighted by a background badge.  For example, the band of the Ashton Symmetry says “Ashton Symmetry” over a background device, and the “F&F” on an Opus X stands for Carlos Fuente and Carlos Fuente, Jr.  If you’ve smoked any of the Padron 1964 Anniversary, 1926 Serie or Family Reserve cigars, you may have noticed that each has a unique serial number to emphasize how exceptional they are and to guarantee authenticity. Not every cigar we carry has a band, but now you may appreciate those that do a bit differently.

Cigar bands have also been used by many artists over the years, such as in the collage featured above, “Cigars and Whiskey” by artist Alexander Gashunin.

Should you remove the band or leave it on?  It’s a question we’ve all asked, and the answer is “it depends.”  In Great Britain, bands are often removed so one’s taste in cigars (or lack of it) isn’t disclosed.  But we’re more relaxed about the matter here in the U.S.  If you’re smoking a particularly dignified brand and want to brag about your choice, leave it on.  But if not, or if you plan to smoke your cigar to the nub, take it off.   So do whatever you want—leave it on or take it off, and don’t worry about it.  But one hint:  if you remove the band, let the cigar warm up a little first.  This will loosen the glue that holds the band together and reduces the chance of damaging the cigar wrapper.

Should you collect cigar bands?  Cigar band collecting, called vitolphilia, is more popular in Europe than the U.S.  Collectors typically collect bands as examples of folk art (especially those bands made before 1900) or as keepsake reminders, and are even represented by the International Label, Seal and Cigar Band Society.  But is a collection worth anything?  Can you build a retirement plan around them?  Unfortunately, no.  Even the largest collection, that of Joseph J. Hruby with bands dating back to 1895 and consisting of over 250,000 samples, sold for just a little more than $15,000 earlier this year.  And if you decide to collect seriously, you have quite a job ahead of you.  There are literally thousands of brands on the market today.

OK, we’ve convinced you:  valuable or not, bands have an intriguing history, and are distinctive, creative and beautiful.  So while you choose a cigar at Georgetown Tobacco, take a look at the label and remember the Anilladora who added that final colorful touch.  Then enjoy your smoke!