By Lance Brashear
QUITO – Connoisseurs know that the best Panama hats, made of finely woven reed, have never been produced in Panama but instead are painstakingly crafted on Ecuador’s coastal plain of Montecristi, north of the port city of Guayaquil.
About 160 years ago, Forty-Niner gold prospectors traveling through the Isthmus of Panama on their way to California bought the lightweight and durable Ecuador imports and called them Panama hats. The name stuck, and until recently, nobody cared to make an effort to change it.
But the term clearly annoys Alba Cabrera of the Ecuadoran Institute of Intellectual Property. “In Ecuador it is prohibited to say ‘Panama hat. Here, it is the Montecristi,” she said in an interview.
Though many in Ecuador still call them Panama hats, Cabrera’s comment highlights the degree of irritation about the origin – one that is dividing the industry.
Before the first hats ever reached Panama, their production was already well-established in the mountainous area around Cuenca, having spread from their birthplace in Montecristi, a move that was made to fill demand and stimulate a depressed regional economy.
Today, the hats are made in both regions, with most exports originating from Cuenca. But the Montecristi name has a mystique that sellers exploit to add perceived value for buyers.
All Panama hats are made from the “paja toquilla” plant, native to the Ecuadoran coast, where the raw material is harvested, cooked (to soften the reeds), and woven into the emblematic headwear of the tropics.
Able to last generations, the best Panama hats take months to make and command prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. But they can also be made in a matter of days and sold for as little as $25. The difference has less to do with geographic location than it does with the weaver who produces them.
The difference between a $25 hat, the cheapest hat found in the tourist shops of Ecuador, and a $25,000 hat, sold in the high-end marketplace to world leaders and Hollywood stars, is in the weave, measured as the number of rows per square inch. A cheap hat will have perhaps four or five rows of straw per inch and can be completed in a day or two. The finest hats exceed 30 rows per inch and require up to four months of painstaking work.
Brent Black, who deals in high-end Panama hats, recognizes the Montecristi as superior, but also a dying art, which he is trying to save. Black estimates that only about 2,000 Montecristi hats are produced each year compared with the hundreds of thousands made and exported from the Cuenca area. The simple reason is that fewer weavers live in Montecristi.
A study by sociologist and UNESCO consultant, Fabian Bedon Samaniego in 2011 found only 461 weavers in Manabi province, where Montecristi is located. Of those, only seven can weave the finest of hats, such as those Black sells.
Though exact numbers are unavailable, the Cuenca region, by contrast, has thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of weavers.
Among those fine weavers in Montecristi is Simon Espinal. “Simón Espinal consistently weaves the finest, most beautiful hats of any weaver,” says Black, who purchases his entire production of three hats per year.
Black, who finishes hats by hand after procuring them from weavers, said in an email exchange that while he was preparing a $5,000 hat for a client in Hong Kong, his motives are altruistic: “My hat business was created with the goal to save the art of Montecristi hats,” a craft he says is dying because of dishonest practices by producers in Cuenca.
“I believe the practice of selling Cuenca hats falsely represented [as] Montecristi hats has been the single most significant cause of the near extinction of genuine Montecristi hats,” claims Black.
To that end, Black last year created a weaving school in the town of Pile, which he says is funded by donations from his clients through the Montecristi Foundation, which he also created and manages.
Black has also intentionally disrupted the local market by paying higher prices and instituting commissions for weavers.
Espinal confirmed by phone that Black pays him up to $7,000 for a single hat, whereas previously he earned only a few hundred dollars.
But the most controversial move Black made was to request legal protection for Montecristi hats on behalf of the Artisans Association of Montecristi. Ecuador’s Intellectual Property Institute granted a Denomination of Origin designation in 2009 when they concluded that Montecristi hats are distinct from those produced in Cuenca.
Many producers in the Cuenca area, including Homero Ortega, opposed the new distinction.
Alicia Ortega, president of Homero Ortega & Sons, one of Ecuador’s largest hat exporters, says, “To suggested that only a hat woven in Montecristi is the best quality does not contribute to making markets.”
During an interview in their Quito offices, intellectual property officials acknowledged the practice by hat makers of using the Montecristi name to enhance sales; but for now they seem more concerned with simply replacing the Panama designation with the Montecristi name than with truly protecting Montecristi artisans. After four years, they still have no enforcement or certification mechanism in place to guarantee the Montecristi designation to consumers.
“Here the idea is to protect, identify, and clarify what for many years has been confused as the Panama hat, which is not a Panama, but a Montecristi,” says Liliana Carrera, a director at the institute.
But the fact is, the Panama hat is not just a Montecristi. The real Panama hat players come from Cuenca.
Though exports increased 58 percent from 2007-2011, the actual number of hats exported, as measured in metric tons, has declined almost by half in the past decade, an indication that though the hat is more valued, fewer are being produced.
Ingrid Villafuerte of ProEcuador, the commercial arm for the Foreign Relations Ministry, says the difference is that, “now, the consumer of the paja toquilla sombrero is disposed to paying for a product made 100% by hand,” a nice sentiment that overlooks fundamental changes in the structure of the industry.
Ortega points out that many weavers emigrated from Ecuador during the financial crisis of the late 1990s.
Black adds that Cuenca exporters then changed strategies by selling value-added finished hats to their clients instead of hat bodies that sell for less but still required additional work to complete - a move to confront fierce competition from Chinese copies.
Though the United States remains the biggest market for Panama hats, more than 75 percent of hats imported into the United States are from China. Ortega says today her company exports just 20 percent of what it did 15 years ago. They attribute the decline in large measure to China.
But ultimately, and ironically, Black has the same goal as the large exporters in Cuenca: “I am trying to increase the likelihood that I and the rest of the world will still have a supply five years from now, ten years from now.”
And given the market reality today, it seems less important what they call them, than that they simply keep making them and people know where to find the real deal.