Written by Puff Staff

Sunday, 12 June 2011

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Black’s also been helping the weavers build up their industry, keen to encourage other milliners to buy their produce.

“The weavers are not my employees. I have gone to great lengths to encourage the weavers to become totally independent of the buyers and to retain complete control of their art. The normal practice was for a buyer to pay a weaver a little at a time as the weaver wove a hat. When the hat was completed, the weaver had already received most of the pay for it, had no bargaining position with that buyer, and could not offer it to other buyers. I have changed that.

I pay to make wood forms for the weavers to use for weaving their hats. I give the forms to the weavers at no cost. The weavers are under no obligation to sell hats woven on those forms to me. My goal is to empower the weavers, not to indenture them.

I also provide free sulfur powder to the weavers, something they all need. I have provided free safety masks to protect their lungs and eyes from the sulfur fumes and I have tried for several years to hire someone to make high quality straw for the weavers; no luck on that one. I have also paid for eye doctors and free eyeglasses for the weavers and I have established and funded a weaving school in the village.

I have many competitors when it comes to selling Montecristi hats, especially if we include those selling Cuenca hats misrepresented to be Montecristi hats. However, I have no competitors when it comes to helping the weavers and their families.

The weavers are my heroes. They are great artists, and I give them the respect they have earned.”

The weavers create the hats by slicing the straw of the Toquilla plant into extremely fine, even strips, which are then twisted together to create the crown of the hat. Bent over a wooden stool, the weavers spend months twisting the threads round their mould to create the finished hats.


Black believes he has found the world’s best weaver in Montechristi. Simon Espinal, whose father was a master weaver, spent 5 months creating what may possibly be the finest Panama ever created. It took 5 months to complete and was valued at $100,000.

“Simón Espinal is the best weaver alive, probably the best weaver in history. I buy all of his hats, so he probably comes the closest to being an employee. When we first began to work together, Simón lived in one room of his parents’ house. It had a dirt floor and a ceiling about five feet high. He lived in that room with his wife and three children. He could not support himself and his family by weaving, even though he is the best in the world. He also worked on a fishing boat. He reports that sometimes they did not have enough to eat.”


Brent says he hopes his work has contributed to the changes becoming apparent in the industry.

“Twenty-three years later, the art is, in many ways, healthier than it was in 1988. It seems likely that the prediction itself was a major factor in causing the prediction not to come true.

It’s the practice of misrepresenting Cuenca hats to be Montecristi hats that is, in my judgment, the single greatest factor accounting for the near extinction of Montecristi hats. Well, maybe second largest, following the precipitous global decline in hat wearing over the past 50 years.”

But with hats back on the high-street and Panamas gracing catwalks and film sets around the globe, there’s a renewed hope for the industry. Black has sold his hats to hundreds of happy customers which include a long-list of notable names from Francis Ford Coppolla and Paul Garmerian to Steve Tyler and Sylvester Stalone.

“When my hats were sold by Davidoff (cigars) in their Rodeo Drive store, Charlie Sheen bought one as a Father’s Day present for Martin Sheen, and later bought another 11 hats as ‘wrap party’ gifts. In 2008, he contacted me by email and purchased a $25,000 Classic Fedora. Huge commissions were paid to the weaver and other artisans who created the hat. Additional funds were used to build a water project for the village. So, despite his public persona and his adventures with the media, Charlie Sheen is, to me, a patron of the art of Montecristi and a do-gooder of the first order.

Most of my celebrity clients bought their hats in resort shops in Hawaii when I sold my hats wholesale. Pierce Brosnan bought a hat in a resort on Maui and subsequently called me directly to buy a second hat. He is an extraordinarily nice man. I was speaking with him by phone one day while he was in his condo on Kauai. He had to go answer the door or take another call or something and gave the phone over to his wife while she was cooking breakfast. Also an extremely nice person. At one point, she had to put the phone down because the eggs were burning. I could hear children in the room. I enjoyed being included in their domestic life for those few moments. I will always love them for that. They were nice people, just being nice people.”

Black’s Montechristi of choice is the Classic Fedora style, which he says is the most popular on the website. He gave Puff readers some tips on wearing choosing and wearing a Montechristi Fino.

“Learn before you buy. Visit my website — look at all the different styles and different ribbons, find out why one hat can cost as much as $35,000, discover exactly how the hats are made (it is a complicated process). The more you know, the more you will enjoy your hat.

Also, stay out of the rain. Don’t wear your hat in the shower. Do not sit on your hat. Do not allow others to sit on your hat.

The worst mistake a Montecristi hat wearer can make is always handling the hat by grabbing the front of the crown, like everyone in the movies does. This will make the hat dirty in front, will sharpen the creases in front changing the shape and look of the hat, and will cause the hat to break. Handle it by the brim.

People who appreciate fine things, beautiful things, skilled hand craftsmanship, and who enjoy receiving compliments will love wearing Montecristi hats.”

It’s clear Black considers his work in Montechristi to be his biggest achievement to date and he is immensely proud of the changes that are now becoming evident in the town. When asked how he’d like to be remembered, Black replied:

“As the person who saved the art of Montecristi from extinction.”

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