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Smoke Houses

To aficionados, humidors aren't just boxes to keep their cigars fresh. Sophisticated cabinetry has elevated them to heirloom pieces, which are displayed proudly in homes.

September 21, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although most people won't allow smoking in their homes, even detractors might say that when the smoke clears from the cigar phenomenon, humidors--the exquisitely crafted boxes the cigars are stored in--are worth keeping.

Even anti-smoking advocates have noticed that while humidors provide conditions around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 70% relative humidity, right now they're hot.

Like grandfather clocks or music boxes that are no longer mere timekeepers and jewelry cases, sophisticated cabinetry has elevated humidors from functional units to heirloom furniture inside the homes of aficionados.

"We had one customer who came with a decorator. Drove me nuts!" recalls Annie Hallajian of Fashion Island Newport Beach's Newport Tobacco. "The decorator came six times. They had to find the right brown, the right size, to match the other furniture. They ended up with a humidor that holds 1,500 cigars--a big one!"

Daniel Marshall, one of several manufacturers producing heirloom-quality humidors in Orange County, and by far the best known, offers a similar experience.

"I've had people say they buy the humidor from me and buy the furniture to match," says Marshall, who's been making humidors in Santa Ana for 14 years. "Some have asked me to make matching furniture. It's gone that far."

It's gone further than that.

That John F. Kennedy's humidor recently fetched $575,000 at Sotheby's or that George Burns' collection goes on the block Oct. 10 is only the most visible evidence.

Any number of devotees are making humidors the focal point of a room. Ron and Linda Cedillos of Laguna Niguel have done so in more than half a dozen rooms of their hilltop manse.

One Chinese box on a stand, for instance, dominates the dining room table. Another, decorated with a polo scene and of Philippine origin, is the focus of the parlor room. All eyes are drawn to a 19th century Chinese box--the handle on top formed by clasped golden hands--at the center of the sitting room.

Linda Cedillos finds the boxes while traveling, then has them converted into humidors as gifts for Ron.

"These are works of art," Ron Cedillos says, beaming. "They're treasures. Plus I can mix and match, move them around."

Cigars are made without preservatives and other chemicals used in cigarettes and need to be coddled, not unlike vintage wine. A correctly humidified environment is essential, and devotees consider death-by-negligence of a quality cigar a pitiful state of affairs. Proper storage remains paramount.

The Cedilloses own 15 humidors, including two contemporary Elie Bleus--which Ron considers the Rolls-Royce of humidors--and not counting the walk-in humidor being built adjacent to his at-home office with a projected capacity of 10,000 cigars.

"What I like is uniqueness and individuality," says Cedillos, owner of La Jolla's Kiva Grill and a Republican Party hotshot. "Dunhill, Davidoff, these [brands of] humidors are beautiful. But I want something that nobody else has. And I know nobody is going to have a humidor like any of these here," he says.

The sky's the limit on such items. Portofino in Newport Beach features a huge free-standing humidor made in 1892 of Honduran mahogany and beveled glass that proprietor Mark Evans would have trouble parting with for $50,000.

"This is my pride and joy," says Evans, who also collects toy boats. "It's an old cigar store humidor--you can still see the scratches on the glass from a million nickels. People are putting this size humidor in homes now."

But humidors hardly need to be big, cost thousands and thousands of dollars or be found overseas to serve as design centerpieces.

While functional wood or plexiglass humidors, and even some antiques, can cost as little as $200, collectibles at Portofino in Newport Beach start at $395. They include a leather humidor with a cedar-lined porcelain interior from the '30s and a small metal humidor from the 1920s.

"These are things of beauty," notes Evans, who began collecting cigar-related antiques three years ago.

Most people stick to contemporary models in tabletop sizes. Fine examples, starting at around $500, are usually made of walnut, mahogany or rosewood and lined with Spanish cedar. Portofino carries contemporary humidors by cabinetmaker Edward Jorgensen of Buellton using such woods as myrtle burl with Makassar ebony inlay, bird's-eye maple and cherry.

Rich Berg, whose home is adjacent to John Wayne's former Newport Beach residence, owns several humidors: one for his bedroom dresser, another for the yacht Jalapeno, and he's just purchased a third, made by Jorgensen, for his living room.

"Look at the workmanship, first of all the finish," Evans says of Berg's latest purchase. "Book-matched veneer. I don't want to insult anybody, but nobody [working today] matches this stuff."

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