Aapproach this story carefully, as if I were meeting the famous man from Geneva for the first time all over again. I enter his shop in the Rue de Rive. It’s before noon, and the master receives me personally. Even at his distinguished age, Zino Davidoff finds time to serve his customers. Every morning, he spends at least one hour in his store. If the store is cigar heaven, then what lies beneath our feet is yet another paradise. Over two million cigars lie in wait, under optimal conditions, in the 250-square meter cellar.
His entrance: “Madame?“ My French is… terrible. Gallantly, Monsieur Davidoff switches with ease to fluent German. Spanish, Russian, and English come as naturally to him as Italian or Yiddish. Whichever language he chooses, an unmistakable Slavic timber resonates throughout his speech. The cosmopolitan man greets me with a welcoming gesture, grey-blue eyes, and a sprightly smile. Elegant and well-groomed, with a dash of British flair, Davidoff is wearing a suit and tie, as always.
The avid bridge player loves long hikes and reads whenever he gets a chance, particularly books on history. His favorite meal consists of fried herrings with onion sauce and boiled potatoes – the simple, salty, and satisfying tastes of his childhood.
Lenin in the Back Room
Zino Davidoff’s parents owned a small tobacco shop in Kiev, where they hand-rolled cigarettes with gold mouthpieces from blond Turkish tobacco. The future proponent of the “fine smoke“ treasured this modest lifestyle: “Everyone has to find his own way, and rightly so.“ In 1912, the Davidoffs fled the Russian czarist pogroms, ending up in Geneva, where the father opened a new tobacco shop. The hard work of the seven-member family proved successful, and they were soon able to maintain a similar lifestyle to one they’d left behind in the Ukraine.
In the little shop’s back room, tobacco was selected, mixed, and rolled amid talk of revolution. Davidoff’s business served as a meeting place for many exiled Russians-one of whom, Vladimir Ilyitch Ulianou, was notorious for seldom paying his tab. He would later found the USSR under the name Lenin.
The Love of His Life
Zino’s love of cigars caught fire during his travels through out the New World. His journey began in Argentina in where he was fascinated by the tobacco he found there: “I recognized at once that the nobility of our craft lay here in these large, powerful leaves.“ It was Cuba, however, that captured his heart. With a passion “curious, enthusiastic, and insatiable“, he began learning everything he could about the Cuban cigar. His five learning years on the island were the inspiration for the future innovations that would trans form smoking culture.
Back in Geneva, Davidoff, intent on large-scale plan to import Puros, embarked on a mission to convert his own father. He needed to convince him to invest in a climate controlled cellar. He was successful, and soon he owned the first operating humidor on European soil. His cigar trade could now really take off.
Zino Davidoff is what you would call a networker. At a time when others were cutting their ties to Cuba, the man on Lake Geneva could always rustle up some Havanas. His connections to the Caribbean island lead journalists and aficionados to nickname him “our man in Havana“. And so it was: although Monsieur Davidoff was physically in Geneva, his heart was gliding through Cuba – through the Vuelta Abajo, “the blessed four corners, ocher-red, my homeland, my chosen homeland“, as he writes in his Connoisseur’s Book of the Cigar.
Advising Not Selling
Meanwhile, around 1946, the small Geneva tobacco shop had become the Mecca of the European cigar scene. Davidoff was its prophet, continually shaping his own history. He next introduced his own line, the Châteaux Series, in cooperation with the Cuban factory Hoyo de Monterrey. The cigars bore the same high quality as their namesakes, five top Bordeaux wines. It was the beginning of the success and vision of the Davidoff brand. In the first six months, Zino sells 100,000 cigars, a feat to which he would refer afterward as “my fortune, my pride“. Celebrities from around the world came to Davidoff, seeking advice. He was especially proud of this duty, later writing, “I was never a salesman. I was always an advisor“. Raymond Scheurer, a colleague of Zino’s for 34 years and today Senior Vice President at Davidoff International, elaborates: “Zino always valued his customers”.
For him, the best customer service that one could give was to share and foster enthusiasm. His cigar legend practiced what he preached A list of his customers includes Isaac Stern Orson Welles, King Fuad II of Egypt, Prince Rainier, Ebvis Presley, and last, but not least, Harald Juhnke. “We often formed deep connections with one another, because the cigar brings people closer together“, he remembered. He shared a profound, mutual respect with Arthur Rubenstein, who, in the eyes of Davidoff, was a “complete amateur in the noblest sense of the word” Rubinstein, in turn, calls his friend “great” and “one-of-a-kind”.
In 1948, Zino crossed paths with Dr. Ernst Schneider, son-in-law of the director of the Basel tobacco wholesaler Oettinger. At that first meeting, neither could have possibly guessed that this would be the beginning of a huge, collaborative undertaking and a lifelong friendship. Ernst Schneider, today President of the Oettinger Davidoff group, remembers: “He always welcomed me with open arms, just like he did everyone else. He was also, however, very savvy, and always expected discounts.”
Shortly before the two became business partners, another important event catapulted the Davidoff name into the upper echelons of the cigar industry. In 1967, a Cubatobaco delegation traveled to Geneva, where they proposed to name an exquisite Cuban cigar after Zino Davidoff, a gesture thanking him for his services to the Puro. One year later, the Davidoff Nr. 1 was born. The Davidoff Nr. 2 and Ambassadrice followed soon after, raising the pulse of aficionados everywhere. At what he assumed was the high point of his career, “our man in Havana“ began to prepare seriously for retirement. But Ernst Schneider had very different plans. In 1970, he bought the building on the Rue de Rive for four million Swiss francs, under the condition that his friend would be the firm’s ambassador for the next three years. Schneider, on his part, would continue to shape his vision of Davidoff as a world-wide brand. Three years of business partnership turned into 25. The Davidoff brand became synonymous not only with expensive cigars and accessories, but also with luxury articles like Cognac, perfume, stationery, sweets, and coffee.
A Banderole as a Passport
In the 1990s, the first meeting with the as-yet-unborn European Cigar Cult Journal took place – a Davidoff evening in Vienna, organized by Dr. Helmut Romé and Beppo Mauhart, at that time director of Austria Tobacco. Mauhart remembers, “Zino Davidoff was, with his passion, honesty, and professionalism the frontman of Davidoff. The chemistry between us clicked straight away.” The relationship with the European Cigar Cult Journal became more and more familiar, remembers “Don” Sebastian Zimmel, a Vienna-based tobacco wholesaler and cigar author. “He was like a kind grandpa to my son, David. Once, when I picked him up from the airport for the millionth time, he discovered he’d forgotten his passport. I was able to smuggle him through passport controls via the Duty Free Shop. It was all over the papers: Zino Davidoff only needs a cigar ring, not a passport!”
A Queen Loses Her Throne
There was a single hurdle in the Oettinger-Davidoff success story. In 1989, after a struggle with the Cubans, Zino Davidoff, who once crowned the Cuban cigar as his queen, was forced to de-throne his beloved. He remembered the old Brazilian planter who told him that his own destiny would always be intertwined with Cuba – “there will be nothing else for you” but now it seemed as though that prophecy would not be fulfilled. On the Davidoff side, word spread that the desired quality of cigars – the foundation of the Davidoff philosophy-was no longer being met. Furthermore, the islanders attempted to keep hold of 51 percent of the Cuban daughter company. Cubatobaco contested the allegations of inferior quality, but did indeed insist on co-ownership. When the conflict came to a head after Davidoff publicly burns 130,000 Cuban cigars, his relationship to Cuba went up in flames as well. As for who finally terminated the contract, that’s still a secret today.
While the whole cigar industry speculated whether consumers would accept the Dominican cigars that Davidoff would from now on produce, the Schneider-Davidoff duo had already harnessed control of the Cuba crisis. Hendrik Kelner, one of the world’s best cigar producers, was put in charge of blending the tobacco. He would also oversee production, from the seeds all the way to the cigar. Most importantly, he introduced new tobaccos and world-class cigars that appealed to a younger audience. Davidoff found a niche in the trend of new, young connoisseurs.
When Zino died in 1994, Davidoff had become a trademark for flair, luxury, refined living, and pleasure. Today, Davidoff-Oettinger is a globally active, family-owned corporation. Around 2,700 employees work at the headquarters and in the 30 daughter companies operating in 120 world markets. In the 54 Davidoff shops worldwide, at 550 specialty shops and 1,700 bars and cafes, perfect cigars lie in boxes, waiting for that moment of truth – that precious hour in which the consumer tips his hat to “the good life“. Younger employees report that colleagues who have been at Davidoff for a long time constantly talk about Zino.
If you ask Dr. Ernst Schneider about his friend’s legacy, his answer comes back loud and clear: “He lives on.“ Let us now leave Zino Davidoff’s shop in the Rue de Rive, still reflecting on his life philosophy. „I think life is wonderful. I hope to remain healthy till I’m100, and I will always stand by my products“, he once said. A gentle „aurevoir“ bids me farewell. I leave knowing that I’ve just met a creative, respectful, passionate, and open person – a man who glows with the joy of being alive. I feel the way that everyone who enters the shop must feel: that I’ve come as a customer, and now leave as a friend. Friendships are what make people immortal. Zino makes time stop.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2006. Read more