From Russia with Luck: Zino Davidoff, the Early Years Pt. II

From Russia with Luck: Zino Davidoff, the Early Years Pt. II

Though attending a university was out of the question, Zino had no regrets. In time, he’d eventually decide what he wanted to do with his future, but for now, he was back to working in the tobacco shop with his father. By the latter half of 1925, Zino, now almost 20 years old, finally made that important decision and approached his parents.

“So tell me, what do you want to do, my son?” his father asked.

“I want to travel,” said Zino. “The school of life will be my university.”

“And when were you planning on doing this?” asked his mother. ”

As soon as possible. I’ve decided to go to Argentina first.”

“I have no objections,” said his father, “But your passport is only good in so many countries. You may need some letters of recommendation. I have some influential clients who owe me some favors. I’ll see what they can do.”

True, Zino only had a Nansen passport, a document created in 1922 for stateless citizens and emigrants by the High Commissioner of the League of Nations, Fridtjof Nansen. At that time it was only accepted in 31 countries, and Argentina was one of them. Several weeks later, with the excitement of transatlantic travel still nipping at his heels, Zino bought a third-class ticket for sea passage and was ready to begin his journey.

“I’m leaving on the first ship tomorrow morning,” Zino told his parents one night after dinner. “Do you have enough money?” asked his mother. “About 300 francs.” “That’s not a lot of money.” “It will have to do. Somehow, I’ll find a way to stretch it. Maybe I can pick up some work along the way, too. I’m going upstairs to pack.”

Everything Zino needed for his trip was laid out on the bed: The Nansen passport, the letters of recommendation, the 300 francs, his shaving kit and plenty of clothes. As he was placing his things in his trunk, Zino heard footsteps. It was his mother, Rachel. She entered the room and handed Zino a new, black two-piece suit.

“This is for you,” said Rachel. “In case you meet some important people, you have to look nice.”

“Thank you, Mama. I love it!,” said Zino. He put his arms around her and kissed her cheek. He noticed the tears in her eyes. “Don’t worry Mama. I’ll be fine, and I’ll send you postcards from all the places I visit.”

*   *   *

The ship’s foghorn bellowed in full basso profundo fashion as Zino waved goodbye to his parents from the deck. Shortly, the small craft would depart for Normandy, port of La Havre. But to get there, Zino would have to go through Paris, then transfer to an ocean liner that would take him across the Atlantic to Buenos Aires.

During the mid 1920’s, Paris was all the rage. It held all the trappings to seduce a man just twenty-years of age. The “City of Lights” was ablaze with music halls, theatres, restaurants, art galleries, nightclubs, brothels and smoke-filled cafés where Zino would often revel with other Russian emigrants. It was a short-lived, yet exhilarating experience that overflowed with fine food, cigar smoke, cognac, champagne, absinthe and dancing with beautiful women. Had he not had the wherewithal to remember why he was making this voyage, Zino may have succumbed to this bohemian lifestyle and eventually wound up broke. Besides, he had already spent a good portion of his 300 francs, and it was time to move on.

With the ocean liner now on its way east, Zino leaned against the ship’s railing and looked out at the miles of open sea. Beyond the horizon lay Buenos Aires where, a month later, his true destiny would begin.

That night, as Zino was walking to his room on the third-class deck to prepare for dinner, he was approached by a steward. What happened next would be Zino’s first lucky break.

“Pardon me sir,” said the steward, “Do you happen to have a dinner jacket?”

“Yes!” replied Zino, remembering the suit his mother gave him.”

“If you don’t mind sir, please put it on and follow me.”

Perhaps it was Davidoff’s kind face, his inherent charisma, or well-bred demeanor, but no one knows why this particular steward was so impressed with him.

Now dressed in his best suit, Zino followed the steward to the first-class dining room. This is where the upper-crust of society dined. The steward pulled out a chair for him and Zino found himself seated next to an attractive dancer with the Teatro Colón ballet company. Behind them a band was playing the popular songs of the time. Zino’s love of music bestowed him with an ear for rhythm and a talent for dancing. He asked the ballerina if she would join him for The Charleston, but she declined. Maybe The Charleston wasn’t her thing, he thought, but there were plenty of other attractive women to dance with. This early experience of mixing with affluent people amid opulent surroundings would serve as a “preview” of the life Zino would eventually ascend to – the good life. To get there however, he had a lot more learning to do in “the university of life.”

During the 1920’s Buenos Aires was a bustling metropolis with a strong economy. It was also a cultural center for the arts of every kind, frequently visited by the world’s most famous musicians, artists, dancers and writers. Not unlike Geneva, Buenos Aires was also a culturally diverse city, which may be one reason it appealed so much to Zino.

Because he had studied languages in secondary school, Zino, who had a natural talent for picking up foreign languages quickly, already spoke Spanish well enough to get around. Once he settled-in he needed to find work. After two short-lived jobs as a Tango instructor and a dishwasher, in December of 1926 Zino found a job working in the accounting department for Piccardo y Cía. Ltda., “Manufactura de Tobaccos.” Though he was much more at home working for a tobacco company, he rarely, if ever, got to work with the tobacco.

After two years at Piccardo y Cía, Zino had had enough of Buenos Aires. His interest in learning more about tobacco had now become his mission, so in 1928, he left for Brazil.

Another exhausting voyage later, Zino Davidoff arrived in the Brazilian capital of Sao Salvador. The second leg of his journey would take him by train to the most fertile regions of the country for growing tobacco, Arapiraca and Recôncavo, and later, to Mata Fina. It was in Brazil that he discovered the dark, sweet, and natural maduro leaves that are indigenous to the region and commonly used for wrapper. After several months of working on the plantations, one day an old Brazilian planter he befriended approached Zino:

“I see that you love tobacco, my son,” said the old man.

“Very much so,” said Zino. “I’ve learned a lot since I came here. The soil, the crops, the flavor of the tobacco; I’ve never seen or tasted anything like this.”

The old man laughed. “What’s so funny?” Zino Davidoff asked.

“If you think the tobacco is good here, then you must go to Cuba, to the red soil.”

“The red soil?”

“Yes. There you’ll discover the puro.”

“What is ‘the puro’?”

“A cigar that is made from leaves all grown in the same country. The soil in Pinar Del Rio is the best in the world for growing tobacco. Once you discover the puro, from then on, everything else will pale in comparison.”

Several days later, Zino was on a steamer headed for Havana. Havana was a bustling city, often referred to in later decades as “the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.” Zino instantly fell in love with the island’s Afro-Cuban music, dances, and beautiful women. Artists, writers and musicians from all over the world had found a new home in Havana, but it was also haven for every vice and whimsy known to man. The abundance of casinos, bars, brothels, dancehalls, and cafés catered to the wheeler-dealers, gamblers, and industry tycoons who were naturally drawn to Havana’s more decadent pleasures. Men in white suits and Panama hats, proudly smoking a Cuban cigar, often with a sultry Cubanita, were a common sight. Cigars from Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Mexico were available, but during the late 1920’s, it was “the Havana” that had become a symbol of power, fortune, and fame.

In spite of all its temptations, Zino refused to let Havana’s decadent tentacles envelop him. He was headed for the Vuelta Abajo region in Pinar del Rio, land of “the red soil.” Located 125 miles southwest of the capital, during the journey he was fascinated by the ever-changing landscape of Cuba; in particular the Valle de Viñales with its massive limestone mogotes (pillars) that date back over 150 million years.

After arriving in the Vuelta Abajo, Davidoff was astonished at the richness of the soil. “The old Brazilian was right!” he thought. Combined with the tropical climate, it was the ideal location for growing tobacco. Lush green fields of black tobacco seemed to spread out for miles in every direction. Based on what he had learned in Brazil, he could see how this perfect combination of soil and weather could produce such a naturally spicy and rich-tasting leaf.

Zino spent two years in Cuba learning every aspect of tobacco cultivation and cigar making, which amounts to over 300 manual operations and about 170 processing steps. From planting, to transplanting, fertilization, barn curing, fermentation, and stem stripping, to learning how to properly bunch and roll cigars, right up to aging, sorting and boxing the cigars, Zino did it all. He even developed a talent for being able to distinguish between the different varieties of Cuban tobacco by their aroma alone.

It now appeared that Zino Davidoff had truly found his calling. He visited all of the top Cuban cigar factories: Partagas, Bolívar, H. Upmann, Punch, Romeo y Julieta, and carefully observed how they were made. He smoked them all, too, and learned to appreciate the unique characteristics of each blend.

The blend that most appealed to Zino was Hoyo de Monterrey, the brand founded by José Gener in 1860. Zino was so impressed with the Hoyo brand he became a regular visitor to their operation. Wanting to learn more, he helped pick crops, worked in the curing barns, or assisted the factory workers. In time, he developed his own personal knowledge of tobacco, its cultivation and processing which, years later, he would apply to his own Cuban-made Davidoff cigars.

By the time Zino Davidoff left Cuba in 1930, he had acquired such a profound passion and respect for handmade Cuban cigars, his enthusiasm for the product was so evident, it helped close many a sale when he returned to Geneva to resume working with his father. Soon after his return, Hillel gave his son the following sagely advice:

“It’s important to stand on your own two feet in the first years. Now that you have acquired all of this knowledge and experience overseas, do the same here in Switzerland; learn how to run a business.”

In Part 3, Zino invents the modern humidor and cashes-in on a Cuban cigar gold mine during WWII, and creates his first brand…

Gary Korb

Gary Korb

Executive Editor at

Gary Korb has been writing and editing content for since its debut in 2008. An avid cigar smoker for over 30 years, during the past 12 years he has worked on the marketing side of the premium cigar business as a Sr. Copywriter, blogger, and cigar reviewer. A graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, prior to his career in the cigar business, Gary worked in the music and video industry as a marketer and a publicist.

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