by Grady Timmons
photo by Dana Edmunds
Long known as the "hat of kings," the Panama hat has been worn by Napoleon Bonaparte, Edward VII of England, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, not to mention cinematic royalty like Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. In 1987, Honolulu ad man B. Brent Black became enamored of the classic hats when he took his first trip to South America and visited the area of Montecristi, Ecuador, where the fine toquilla-palm straw that goes into the hats is found. (Montecristi is the true home of the hats, Black says; the name "Panama hat" came about only because that’s where they were primarily sold.) When he discovered that the meticulous creation of authentic hats was a dying art formonly about twenty weavers remainhe decided to do something about it. Today, he imports hand-woven hats from Ecuador and blocks them himself to get the quality he desires.
Black’s hats, which he advertises as the world’s finest, take between a month and six months to complete, and they are not cheap, ranging from several hundred dollars all the way up to $30,000. His creations have been seen adorning the heads of celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Tyler, Martin Sheen and Bill Cosby, and they appear throughout the film The Legend of Bagger Vance, starring Will Smith and Matt Damon. The hats are available in stores around the world, or directly from Black’s Panama Hat Company of the Pacific at (888) 658-6500, or brentblack.com.