Q&A: John DeCosta, Founder and Head Designer of Cigar Sanctum
This week we asked the charming and enigmatic John DeCosta some interesting questions about his business, Cigar Sanctum, his view on Cuban cigars, Cuban cigar history and what it takes to throw a good party in Havana. His answers reference his younger years, personal and business lives and some of his favourite Cuban cigars. Read on to find out what makes the man tick.
- You are the founder and head designer of Cigar Sanctum, a fantastic jewellery collection. Can you tell us how that started?
It started, as things often do, over a few bottles of wine. It was 2014 and I remember that we were listening to Bill Evans and drinking Barbaresco. We spoke about the fact that passion permeates every aspect of how the cigar smoker sees the world. We're passionate about our friends, art, travel, how we pass a lazy Sunday, the cigars we smoke, the wine we drink and the clothes we wear. We also spoke about the fact that many of us wear jewellery - some classic in style, others more rock and roll - however, there was nothing on the market that allowed us to pay homage to one of our greatest pleasures: smoking. And, so, Cigar Sanctum was born: the first design company aimed solely at creating jewellery for the passionate cigar smoker.
- How did you get into design? Can you tell us a bit more about your career?
Completely by chance. No guru, no method, no teacher (to quote Van Morrison). I spent my 20s travelling the world, which required constant funding. You want the perfect cocktail? I can make that for you. Is that lamb in a breached position? Yes, I was a shepherd for a season. And then I landed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1989, where I met my business partner. We needed money to continue travelling and just fell into jewellery design. Then, one day, the company grew up.
- Do you have a favourite jewellery designer?
I'm actually the opposite. I'm interested in historical pieces, whose makers are long forgotten. From medieval gemstone rings (where each stone has its own protective power) to 17th century Memento Mori pieces (a reminder that our time here is fleeting) to Georgian eye miniatures (a watercolour on ivory, depicting the eye of a spouse, loved one or child). I love the pieces and I love the stories behind the pieces. The makers are dust; no-one will utter their names again. And that, in itself, shouts Memento Mori!
- It's obvious that you are a big fan of Cuban Cigars, what's your favourite brand and why?
I'm afraid I'm going to have to give you two: Ramon Allones and Partagas. Their histories are, however, inextricably linked and date back to the early days of brand registration in Havana. So, to begin with, I love the history and romance of these two brands. Then, it simply comes down to flavour and body. Really, can one be any happier than smoking a perfectly constructed and aged Ramon Allones Specially Selected Cigar or Partagas Lusitania Cigar on a summer's afternoon?
- Cigar Sanctum also sells Cigar artefacts and vintage goods. If your warehouse went up in flames, which one would you save and why?
This reminds me of a conversation I had at dinner once with Sebastian Peake, son of the novelist, poet and illustrator, Mervyn Peake. He told me his parents used to pose a question to their guests: If there was a fire and you could save only one thing, would you save the Rembrandt or the cat? Mervyn opted for the Rembrandt and his wife, Maeve Gilmore, the cat. There are a few historic Cuban cigar boxes that I'm partial to.
- How do you seek out your vintage items?
In every way possible. There are obviously internet auction sites, but also no shortage of collectors, with deep pockets, who regularly check those sites. Sometimes, however, it's just by pure chance. I was sitting in the garden of the Chelsea Arts Club with a friend I hadn't seen in years. Out of the blue, he mentioned that he owned an entire wall of Alfred Dunhill Keep Doors from the 1920s Jermyn Street shop. A time capsule from Dunhill's early years. No amount of research on the internet would have lead me to those doors. I bought them immediately.
Four Alfred Dunhill private keep doors (part of a larger set), circa 1925, from the Jermyn Street Dunhill shop.
- We see that you are in Cuba a lot, why do you go there so often?
It's under my skin and there is no known vaccine.
- When people think of famous cigar smokers, Freud and Churchill regularly come to mind. Who would you smoke a cigar with out of all the famous cigar smokers and why?
I'm going cliché on this one: Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.
- Of all the Cuban Cigars for sale on our website, which one would you want unlimited amounts of?
The Ramon Allones 'A' Cigar, please. Ramon Allones loves the decades and these will still be full of life. As well, they were made at a time when every leaf in a cigar came from the same plantation, which resulted in consistency of production. And, finally, there's just nothing like that classic Ramon Allones flavour.
- Of all the pieces in your collection, which one stands out for you and why?
It changes with my mood. At the moment, I have a renewed fascination with a Malacca walking stick that I bought at auction. The silver top is engraved 'Robt Steell Havanna 1763', which places it during the 1762 - 63 British occupation of Havana. The top of the handle is engraved with a tobacco flower, which suggests that Robert Steell was involved in the cigar trade. As far as I can research, this is the oldest known artefact, directly related to the cigar trade in Cuba.
- You hold a party at the Habanos Festival every year, can you tell us a little bit more about that?
It started off as a one-off gathering to launch Cigar Sanctum back in 2014. Immediately after that, I negotiated the Partagas license with Habanos and - bang - you can't do that without a party. Next came the Casa license. By then, everyone was saying that the Cigar Sanctum party was among their favourite events during Festival Week. This year, we had the legendary Roberto Fonseca play the gig. That was mind blowing. Stuart Fox called it an historic event and who am I to disagree with him?!
- Where is your favourite spot to smoke in London and why?
The garden of The Chelsea Arts Club. It's my oasis and filled with eccentrics and misfits who enjoy imbibing far too much. But everyone is creative, interesting and friendly and, with no electronic devices allowed, we talk away the evenings.
- Who inspires you the most in the cigar world?
The legend that is Simon Chase.
- What do you usually pair with your cigar?
- What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Finding a green place where I can watch my 6-year-old son play and the wind doesn't keep changing direction.
- Are there any other projects on the horizon for Cigar Sanctum?
I'm currently working on a project with Havana Club. I've designed a signet ring showing La Giraldilla - the symbol of Havana - which is part of their trademark. We're doing a limited run of 100 rings, which they'll give to their top VIP clients around the world.
- You're very interested in the history of Cigars. What's the most interesting piece of information you've uncovered?
It's not really 'uncovered', but I just love the idea of a cigar being the complete product of one plantation - a sort of Cuban mise en bouteille au château. Considering the current climate, where there are so many construction issues with Cuban cigars, that was the Golden Age: consistency of and pride in production. This practice came to an end in the early 1960s.
- If you were a cigar, which cigar would you be?
That's easy. A Cuban one.
Cigar Sanctum offers an eclectic selection of jewellery and accessories for the passionate cigar smoker, including the best selling Partagás Cigar Rest (below).
Cigar Sanctum Partagás Cigar Rest. 'Everything should be as simple as possible - but no simpler.' Albert Einstein.
The Cigar Sanctum Collection, as presented on the Habanos S.A./5th Avenue stand at InterTabac, Dortmund. To explore more of Cigar Sanctum's world, visit cigarsanctum.com or follow John on Instagram: @cigarsanctum.