ON the hot, dusty streets of Tehran, a boy climbs off his bicycle, cups his hands around his eyes and leans close to the window of the store. He gazes longingly inside. In the window display there is a set of cufflinks, a silk tie and a gentleman’s panama; but he doesn’t see these, he only sees the pipe. It is elongated, elaborate, gaudy even. But in this boy’s mind, it is the ultimate symbol of sophistication. The boy is 16-year-old Edward Sahakian – and he repeats this little ritual every day on his way to school for months. “That pipe captured my imagination,” he chuckles now, some fifty-odd years later. “I can still remember it; the way it looked in the window as I went past each day, the shape of it, the curves. I just had to have it and I saved all my money until one day I finally went in there and bought it.” The incident is a formative one. Since that fateful day, fine tobacco has remained a golden thread running through Edward’s life.
Today, he is the world-renowned face of Davidoff of London, the quintessential gentleman; always quick with a smile, a kind word, a glass of Champagne. But he wasn’t always a London cigar kingpin.
His education began slowly.“I bought some pipe tobacco on the black market – Amphora Red, I believe it was – and I began smoking my pipe in secret; with friends, in my garden, always making sure my father wasn’t around! “We tried all sorts of ways to keep the tobacco moist,” he laughs, “from lettuce to apples and more. Eventually I had several jars hidden away with various ‘experiments’ going on, different blends of this and that. I used to blend them myself to see what it would taste like.” Edward’s inquisitive nature had found a new passion and his experiments helped him unwittingly develop an acute palate for tobacco nuances.
This went on for some time, until, aged around 18 and now working in his father’s soft drinks factory, a visiting sales rep handed Edward a box of cigars. Another crucial moment. “It was a box of tubed Partagas,” he recalls with trademark uncanny certainty. “I took one out and smoked it. “It nearly made me sick.” An inauspicious start to the career of one of the cigar world’s most famous names. “It taught me a very valuable lesson; never smoke strong cigars on an empty stomach. I put the box back in the cupboard and forgot all about it. Some time later, when it was morning coffee time, I realised I had forgotten my pipe tobacco. I went rummaging through the cupboards to find some and I came across the cigars. You know what it’s like – when you want a smoke, you want a smoke! So I took one out and tried it again, against my better judgment. I was amazed! The experience was totally different.” After marvelling at the complexity of the smoke in comparison to the first occasion, Edward smoked this Partagas to the very end. From now on, he took a different view of handrolled cigars.
While travelling through Geneva, Edward stopped off at Zino Davidoff’s famous store and bought cigars from the man himself. He purchased a cabinet of Davidoff Chateau Y’Quem. “Zino took me into his cigar room – it was like a little slice of heaven. The smell, the lockers, the cigars. Anyone who loves cigars knows what I’m trying to say. It was indescribable, my heart was pumping.” Edward found the Y’Quem strong and bitter and not to his taste. But learning from his experience with the Partagas, he now knew it was just a matter of finding the cigar to suit his palate. The next time he ventured to Geneva, he sought out the maestro once more. “I told him that the last box I’d bought hadn’t quite been to my taste and he asked me what I’d had. I reminded him and he thought for a moment and handed me a box of Davidoff No 2. “I fell in love with that cigar. They were perfect – beautiful looking brown wrapper, not a mark on them and every single one drew and smoked perfectly. Incredible.”
Edward’s education in cigars continues apace while he continues to work for the family business in Tehran. But a seismic shock awaits, an unimaginable upheaval that will lead the Sahakian family to a new home thousands of miles away…
OUTSIDE Havana, London has arguably been the cigar capital of the world for centuries. Cigar merchants traditionally stockpiled great stores of the finest Havanas to age them in shadowy keeps, for the English palate dictated that aged well, cigars were infinitely preferable to newly rolled ones. The ‘EMS’ or English Market Selection legend was born; cigars selected to be sent to these shores were the cream of the Cuban crop.“In the early 1970s, I used to come to London at least once or twice a year to visit the head office of Canada Dry International, which had moved here from Beirut,” Edward says of this time. “And of course, I made sure I visited the cigar shops.“I started visiting the magnificent Dunhill store, which at the time was by far the best in London. I would buy a couple of boxes and ask Dunhill to keep them for me. Some of my cigars are still there. I was buying at that time the Don Candido in Churchill – I still have some of those too. I’d go there two or three times a week while l was in town and select a couple of cigars that looked and smelled right, straight from the box. The attendant would open this great big old ledger and make a note of what I had taken and how many were left. It was wonderful.”
But trouble was looming like a distant thundercloud. The political landscape in Iran was changing. Daily demonstrations grew to riots; shots were fired on the streets. The increasingly pro-western Shah regime was under attack from hardline opposition led by Ayatollah Khomeini.“I was in London on business in late 1978 and I took a call from my wife who told me things were going from bad to worse. It was near Christmas and I calmed her down a little and told her to bring the children, we’d stay for a little while, find a school for the children for a few weeks and go back when things had calmed down.” The Sahakian family arrived three days later and Edward began settling them in for a medium term stay in the capital. They lived in a small flat in St John’s Wood and Eddie, aged 8, and Caroline, aged 6, were found places at an American international school in Knightsbridge. On December 28, Edward took the time to travel home to collect a few belongings; a suit here, some jewellery there, a couple of keepsakes he could carry on board a plane. “My wife asked me to bring some Iranian rice back,” he said. “We had a friend who was especially fond of it. Apart from that, she said we didn’t need anything else.“I had my tuxedo, a tie, a 20k bag of rice, 6kg of caviar and I came home. We spent a lovely New Year in Tramp’s I recall. Armenian Christmas was on January 6, so we decided to stay until then and go back a couple of days later. “Then I took a call from a friend in Iran; an organised mob had attacked the three breweries we owned. They set fire to them, beat up the manager and I was advised in no uncertain terms not to go back just yet. So we sat glued to the shortwave radio to find out what was going on back home.” On January 15, TV footage of the Shah boarding a plane to leave the country was shown. There was a new power in Tehran. “When I saw that, I realised what was coming next,” said Edward.“I told my wife we weren’t going anywhere. My home, our clothes, our belongings, our furniture; everything was just as we had left it.”
“And we never saw any of it again.”
Next – fate brings Edward to a little slice of Heaven on the corner of Jermyn Street and St James’s Street…
Written by our dear friend Nick Hammond of Strangebrew Copy.