By Thomas Swick
City & Shore Magazine
On a damp and placid Tuesday evening in Palm Beach, Yovanni Mero Pachay sat in the window of Sequin, the Worth Avenue jewelry shop, weaving a Panama hat. Not just any Panama hat, but a Montecristi, the Dom Pérignon of Panama hats, named for the city in Ecuador where they are made. (The Panama hat got its name from the Isthmus of Panama, where the distinctive headwear, having made the journey north, was purchased by men heading off to, or back from, the California gold rush.) The gracious Ecuadoran city of Cuenca produces its own style of Panama.
Pachay leaned over his hat, which looked like a straw helmet that for some strange reason was wearing a grass skirt, and deftly wove hanging strands to slowly, painstakingly, construct the brim.
“They can only weave at certain times of the day,” Maria Melhado explained to me.
“Because of the humidity,” I said, hoping to impress. I had read Tom Miller’s excellent travel book The Panama Hat Trail.
“Yes,” she said, as invitees walk in. Many of the women wore cocktail dresses; a few of the men had on sport jackets. One man sported a bow tie and carried an umbrella like a walking stick; he looked like the perfect candidate for a Panama.
Melhado told me she works for Toquifina, a company that specializes in the sale of Montecristis. (The name comes from the name of the straw – toquilla – that’s used to make Panama hats.) She explained that they give different grades to Montecristis, starting with 1 (13 to 14 stitches per inch) and going up to 13 (32-35 stitches per inch). This latter type, she said, can take up to a year to make. Prices for Montecristis range from $180 to $3,000.
People gravitated to the back of the store, where there was a sofa and a coffee table set with a tray of small, Cuban-style sandwiches, cookies and a medley of fruits. The offerings seemed more appropriate for this crowd than guinea pig, a popular Ecuadoran dish.
Montecristis in various styles sat atop the jewelry cases. Melhado showed me a teardrop fedora (so named because of the shape of the top) and a colonial (also known as optimo, or ambassador), which had a distinctive crease in the middle. “This is good for traveling,” she said, “because you can fold it.” The “classic” had a more elongated shape, and its dimples were more noticeable.
“Montecristis are always tan,” Melhado said, adding that Cuenca’s Panamas are mostly white, because the straw goes through a bleaching process. Though they can also be colored.
I visited Cuenca a number of years ago, and saw shops filled with hats, but my favorite memory of Panamas comes from the Fiestas de Quito. As part of the festivities, the capital hosts bullfights. After the performance of one particularly accomplished matador, many of the men in the audience, as a sign of appreciation, took off their hats and tossed them into the ring. They floated like Frisbees – a thick shower of headwear – and landed softly onto the red dirt. As the matador made his triumphant walk around the ring, members of his entourage gathered the hats and gently flicked them back into the stands.
Four years ago, the Panama hat was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
In The Panama Hat Trail, published in 1986, Miller wrote that skilled hat weaving was dying out in Ecuador. Melhado said that, in fact, a weavers’ school had been set up in Montecristi to keep the art alive. But students, she said, were still being recruited from families of weavers. Pachay was a fifth-generation weaver.
To my surprise, Melhado said that different people will work on the same hat; sometimes weavers will exchange unfinished hats. Pachay is known as a finisher.
He was now shaking hands with a tall man in a pink shirt and a Panama hat. This was retired First Sergeant Matt Eversmann, a hero of the Battle of Mogadishu, immortalized by the book, and the subsequent movie, Black Hawk Down. (In the movie, Eversmann was played by Josh Hartnett.) He is now a business development manager, and motivational speaker, living in South Florida. I asked him what he thought of the movie.
“It was very accurate,” he said. “If you want to know what an urban battle is like, watch that movie.”
It all seemed a long way from Worth Avenue.
“Florida is the perfect place for a hat,” Eversmann said, taking off his new Montecristi and gazing at the inside.
Melhado stepped up and showed him how to properly put it on: You don’t grab the top, she said, as that can alter the shape; you place your hands on both sides of the brim.
“That’s good to know,” Eversmann said.
The hat now perfectly placed, the retired sergeant looked very dapper.