The 2011 film W.E., directed by Madonna and portraying the affair between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, may not have been a box-office smash, but it won well-deserved acclaim for its sets and costumes, with costume designer Arianne Phillips nominated for an Oscar. In one memorable scene, elegant accoutrements are strewn across the king’s desk: a silver letter opener, a jar of pipes and a crocodile cigar case with a ridged silver collar.
“That cigar case jumped off the screen,” says Tim Bent, founder of antiques store Bentleys. “It had such tactile appeal – the conker-brown scales, the fine stitching – you just wanted to pick it up and hold it.” Bent stocks a range of cases in everything from plain cowhide (from £195) to blue shagreen (£2,500) with a 9ct gold collar (as the top of the case, into which the lid slots, is called).
Cigar cases began to emerge in the mid-19th century, as smoking took over from snuff as the prime way of consuming tobacco. Initially moulded from cowhide and later from more expensive materials such as crocodile, these cases have become increasingly desirable, driven by a confluence of vintage trends, a rise in male spending on luxury goods and an upswing in cigar smoking. Jayson Woodbridge, owner of Napa Valley winery Hundred Acre, is one such cigar aficionado, who has an impressive collection – many bought from Sautter in London – which he keeps in his homes in Australia, Switzerland and the US and his boat in Vancouver.
“I’ve certainly seen an increase in case popularity since I bought Sautter,” says Laurence Davis, who took over the Mount Street cigar emporium in 2008. “One of the reasons I loved the store as a customer was its inventory of vintage products, be it old cigars or cigar cases.” Davis offers 12 original crocodile cases, ranging from £550 for a small 1920s one, to £3,000 for a larger, silver-mounted piece.
“The difficulty lies in finding a design to suit a customer’s needs,” says Bent. “The Victorians and Edwardians smoked much smaller cigars, or cigarillos, so the cases are often a little small for modern usage. You need a model that would have held seven or eight cigarillos, which can now hold three or four Robustos.” It helps that the cases are usually made in two halves, with one half slipping inside the other so they can open out to any length. For large cigars, Bent recommends cowhide cases that were designed to be taken on a day’s hunting. Bentleys has an 1860 example (£550) that would happily hold 18 50-gauge Robusto cigars.
“Seek out cases from the 1920s and 1930s,” advises Simon Khachadourian, owner of the Pullman Gallery. “They tended to be better made than Victorian models, with finer stitching – which is unusual, because normally the Victorians were fanatical about detail.” But it’s not just art deco examples that are desirable: highlights of Khachadourian’s wares include a rare green 1910 crocodile case (price on request) with a rose-gold collar, and a set of three 1898 Asprey crocodile cases (price on request) in different sizes – intended for cigars, cigarillos and matches. Cases by Asprey, the best-known marque that made such pieces, are avidly collected, although lesser-known houses such as Finnigans, a manufacturer based in Manchester, also produced fine examples.
“I have one Argentinian customer who always picks up Asprey pieces when I have them,” says Khachadourian. “He has a large room at home filled with smoking paraphernalia – lighters, cutters, boxes – nearly all by Asprey.” Another passionate collector is Alexander Kraft, chairman and CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty France-Monaco: “These accessories have such character, and develop a beautiful patina as you use them. I keep mine in different rooms, in my bags and cars. I often find that whenever I want to smoke, I’m nowhere near a humidor, so I try to keep them stocked and handy,” he says, adding that his collection has two dozen or so cases, a number of which came from Grays Antique Centre in Mayfair.
London is certainly one of the best places to seek out quality cases – although international buyers should bear in mind that shipping vintage crocodile pieces often requires a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) certificate to prove the provenance of the skin – but the market is strong in the US too. One Stateside dealer with an interest in crocodile cases is Caroline Finberg of The Antique Jewel Box, who once sourced three for a New York store, including an interesting one that opened along the middle of a silver monogram.
American designs tended to be made out of steel or silver, rather than leather, and were often produced in Baltimore and Boston. A good source for silver models is The Cary Collection in Connecticut. Its current stock includes a 1920s silver example ($750) that looks like a dual-cigar case, but in fact conceals a flask on one side. This neat two-in-one design also crops up at London’s Evonne Antiques, which has a c1897 silver flask-cum-cigar holder for £1,850.
The charm of such a piece is obvious to Bent: “A lot of the attraction for men is having a beautiful yet practical thing to carry in the evening. Add the masculine appeal of case carriers such as Edward VIII, Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who was photographed using his Asprey crocodile case at the 1945 Yalta Conference, as Stalin looks on chuckling, and it’s unlikely these vintage accessories will lose their appeal any time soon.