Forty-five years ago, two Cuban exiles established Joya de Nicaragua – the Jewel of Nicaragua.
Dictator ownership, nationalization, worker control, brand success, market lows, trademark loss and official cigar supplier for the White House … It’s hard to top the history of the first and oldest commercial cigar producer in Nicaragua, Joya de Nicaragua, which this year is celebrating 45 years of social, political and managerial changes with an anniversary brand.
When Nicaragua Cigars was established in 1968, it was the first brand manufacturer in Central America. The company was founded by two of many Cubans who had left their country after the revolution to seek better fortune elsewhere, and the first brand made by Juan Francisco Romero and Simon Camacho was called Joya de Nicaragua, “Jewel of Nicaragua.” It only took a year or so before their cigar made it into the finest of cigar rooms, the Green Room at the White House in Washington.
“With the US trade embargo, Cuban cigars disappeared from the US market, so they were looking for a new official cigar for the White House,” owner Alejandro Martínez Cuenca explains.
“After a connoisseur came upon a box of Joya de Nicaragua cigars in Las Vegas, finding them fantastic, he brought them back to the White House. In 1971, Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza was invited to the White House by Richard Nixon, where he was surprised when the waiter suddenly brought out a box of Joya de Nicaragua.”
In 1974 the cigar became the official brand of the White House, but Somoza’s surprising encounter wasn’t all good for the brand owners.
“He discovered that they had unpaid loans at the national banks, so he gave them 48 days to come up with a solution. When they couldn’t, his solution was to acquire 75 percent of the stock,” Martínez Cuenca continues. “But there’s no record of this transaction, which meant it was a private one. Two years later, Simon Camacho sold his part. Juan Francisco Romero sold his a little after that, but kept working in the company for a while.”
Back on its Feet
After the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979, all Anastasio Somoza’s private assets, including Nicaragua Cigars, were confiscated by the Sandinista government, in which Martínez Cuenca was the minister of foreign trade.
Alejandro Martínez Cuenca took over the factory in 1994, when it was still named Nicaragua Cigars. Eleven years later he changed the name to Joya de Nicaragua.
The factory was nationalized and in 1990, after the Sandinista party lost the first open election, it was handed over to the workers. What followed was a troublesome period in the history of the company. “They had tremendous managerial problems and they weren’t selling their products,” Martínez Cuenca says.
In 1994, Martínez Cuenca was chosen by the employees to take over, upon which he changed the name to Tabaccos Puro de Nicaragua. “The year before they started a process to find a suitable buyer,” he explains. “I was one of three candidates. I had left the government and gone back to my old job as a financial advisor. I’d been working in different countries like Spain and in Africa, so I got together with a group of Spaniards and bought it.”
Since Anastasio Somoza had sold the trademark Joya de Nicaragua to Altadis, which in turn had sold it to another company, one of Martínez Cuenca’s first missions was to buy it back.
“I spent three years negotiating to buy the trademark back,” he says. “Later, in 2005, I changed the name of the company to Joya de Nicaragua.”
To get the company on its feet again the owner created Antaño 1970, a cigar that captured the essence of the good old days. “We want Joya de Nicaragua to be to cigar smokers what Flor de Caña is to rum drinkers, something that catches the Nicaraguan spirit, something that we can be proud of.”
Forty-five years and more than 40 million cigars later, Joya de Nicaragua is definitely back on its feet. “Right now we have distributors in 47 countries, but in five years the goal is to be in 92 countries.” To celebrate the 45 years, an anniversary cigar will be released in the middle of this year.
Martínez Cuenca says, “We’re still working on it, though, so I can’t say much about it.” He can, however, talk about the most recent jewel made in the factory: CyB. “It’s a diversion from what we normally do here. Joya de Nicaragua is known for being a Nicaraguan producer. We’ve always used mostly domestic tobacco, but we wanted to explore and send a signal to the market that we have used other tobacco as well and that we have a spectrum. So for CyB, we’ve used leaves from four different countries. The wrapper is from Ecuador and the fillers from Peru, Ometepe, which gives the cigar flavors and its sweetness, and Estelí. The binder is from the Dominican Republic.”
The name of the cigar refers to the owner and the vice president, José Blanco, and serves as a tribute to the latter, who joined the company not too long ago.
CyB has now joined the other successful brands produced at the factory, Celebración, Rosalones, Antaño 1970 and Dark Corojo, Clásico and Cabinetta.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2013. Read more