In the Footsteps of Hemingway in Cuba

In the Footsteps of Hemingway

“It is good to have an end to journey toward;
but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
– Ernest Hemingway

The streets of Habana, Cuba (better known to Americans as Havana) are filled with vintage American cars; cars that you would stop and admire in any US city are everywhere. Many of them are used as taxis, so I chose a beautiful bright red 1948 Buick Eight convertible as the car to use in a photoshoot along the promenade of the city. I placed the Cuervo y Sobrinos watches I had on various parts of the car, and while I was shooting them, the owner of the car, Ramon Ramierez, asked me what the watches were.

I told him Cuervo y Sobrinos.

“No way,” he said. “My father had a Cuervo y Sobrinos pocket watch. I loved that watch.”

For the people of Cuba, like Mr. Ramierez, and for people of Cuban descent all around the world, Cuervo y Sobrinos is a cultural touchstone. Everyone I met with in Cuba had heard of the brand and most knew someone who had owned one at one point in his or her lives.

I have to admit that before I went to Cuba, I was very anxious about the trip. After all, for decades Americans were not allowed to visit the elusive country. I didn’t know what to expect, but it turns out I needn’t have worried. I was welcomed everywhere I went, from Habana’s main street to its back alleys, even its Chinatown and everywhere in between.

In the Footsteps of Hemingway
In the Footsteps of Hemingway

Rich in History

Cuervo y Sobrinos was born in Habana in 1882 as a high-end jewelry store. Many famous watch and jewelry brands made products inscribed with the store’s name (which means Cuervo and Nephews). Soon, the store became the most important jeweler and watch retailer in Cuba and opened offices in strategic areas around the world—Pforzheim in Germany, where precious stones were selected; Paris, where the jewelry was manufactured; and La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, where Cuervo y Sobrinos-branded watches were produced.

The store in Habana became a meeting point for the rich and famous—Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Winston Churchill Enrico Caruso and Albert Einstein, among others, were clients of the Cuervo y Sobrinos boutique.

At the same time, the company’s watches, designed in-house and manufactured in Switzerland, became quite well known around the world. The company had very good relationships with Patek Philippe, Rolex and Longines, and these companies supplied movements to be put into Cuervo cases. In 1939, for example, Cuervo y Sobrinos designed the Eiffel Tower watch, Patek supplied the movements, and the watch was sold exclusively in the Cuervo y Sobrinos stores.

These rare Cuervo y Sobrinos-badged Rolexes, Pateks and Longines watches are highly sought after today.

In the Footsteps of Hemingway

Cuba Today — Frozen in Time

Going to Cuba is like going back in time. The island nation is stuck in the 1950s: the cars, the architecture, even the way people live their lives.

When I landed in Cuba late one night, it had the feel of 1970s China, which then was a communist country still struggling to pull itself out of its developing state. Cuba has certainly suffered due to the blockade by the USA, and its people are poor, but they are also very proud of their country and its revolution.

There is an elegance to the city of Habana, with grand hotels and architecturally important government buildings, but there is a great deal of poverty. The main streets are in relatively good shape, but go to the calles behind and Habana quickly deteriorates. The second night I was there, I went for a long walk after dinner and in a couple of places, I was a little concerned for my safety. The collapsed second floors of buildings were shocking, looking almost like a warzone, but they were just in disrepair.

I was never in danger, though. I had a number of people say hello and come up and shake my hand, telling me how much they loved America and they hoped we would repair relations between the two countries.

The entire time I was in Cuba, I had absolutely no access to the Internet, which in a way was very nice. Because I knew that I couldn’t read emails or get in touch with people, I didn’t worry about it. That’s not to say that the Cubans don’t have Internet access, they do, but it’s sporadic, with the power going on and off randomly. Most hotels don’t even bother to offer access. In my hotel, I asked the first day when I got there, but they said it was down and likely to remain down for my entire stay.

The lack of connectivity to the outside world added to Habana’s charm, really. Instead of checking my emails incessantly, like we typically all do today, I relaxed and listened to Cuban music in the hotel after dinner. In fact, music is everywhere in Cuba. Every restaurant had a band playing, the hotel I stayed in had a different group every night, and they even had a string trio playing at breakfast.

Stepping back in time while in Habana was a great joy and allowed me to experience life as Ernest Hemingway did while he was living there.

I even went to see the shrine to Hemingway in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway set up residence for much of his stay in Cuba. Though he stayed in several different rooms while there, the hotel has reconstructed one of the key rooms where he stayed as a bit of a museum, with displays to his time in Cuba (his typewriter, his fishing pole, the letter announcing his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 and much more). Hemingway was a client of Cuervo y Sobrinos, so there is a very real connection there. Being in the room where he lived, wrote and experienced life was a thrill for me, as he is one of the authors I truly admire.

To really get a sense for Cuba, I did the open bus tour of the city, seeing the key areas, the monuments to the city’s history and to the revolution, and then I went back to the key places to see them up close and personal. I even went to a boxing match—boxing and baseball being the key sports in Cuba. President Obama had a chance to take in a baseball game during his visit, but the season was already over when I visited. I went to the biggest sports hall in Habana to watch an international amateur event, where I saw the Cuban boxers dominate, bringing back memories of the great Teófilo Stevenson in the Olympics.

The most enjoyable moments of my stay in Cuba were exploring the city, talking to the locals, riding in the vintage taxis around the city and visiting the Cuervo y Sobrinos boutique.

In the Footsteps of Hemingway
In the Footsteps of Hemingway

Cuervo y Sobrinos in Habana

Today, Cuervo y Sobrinos has a boutique in the main shopping area of Habana. In a great spot across from a park and a church, the boutique also houses a museum of antique Cuervo y Sobrinos pieces and an elegant bar, as well as an original painting on the walls depicting the history of timekeeping, from sundials up to Cuervo. Standing out in this exquisitely Art Deco atmosphere is an original Cuervo y Sobrinos safe, transferred here from an old site in Calle San Rafael, and it is perfectly at home in its new environment.

The original Cuervo store, which has been converted to a dress and sundries store, is in a less prestigious part of town. I went to see it while I was in Habana, and three of the four Cuervo y Sobrinos safes are still in the wall. Like its new boutique in Habana, the Cuervo y Sobrinos brand has been reborn to combine the Latin lifestyle with high-end Swiss watchmaking. The designs are inspired by the Latin soul, while the heart of the timepieces are all Swiss.

“Cuervo y Sobrinos has created a new image, a lifestyle joined to the emotions as in the late 19th century when writers, politicians and intellectuals were meeting at the Cuervo y Sobrinos boutique in Habana,” says Marzio Villa, president, Cuervo y Sobrinos. “Cuervo y Sobrinos was born in Cuba in 1882 when the aesthetic concept and the pleasure of time were milestones. Today, Cuervo y Sobrinos is able to recreate the same emotions, to approach the lifestyle that our stressful and frenetic attitudes make almost impossible, and it is the only Swiss luxury brand with a Latin soul.

“Cuervo watches are the witnesses of a world in which elegance, excellence, quality and style were experienced in a ‘natural’ way, in that they were values of everyday life,” Villa continues. “Today our watches, true works of art, are icons of this style of life, and wearing a Cuervo y Sobrinos means acquiring the essential values and emotions of this style.”

Due to the current economic situation of Cuba, the customers for the Cuervo boutique are not Cubans living in Cuba, but rather Cubans living abroad and tourists from all over the world who visit Cuba. Cruise ships from the USA have just started porting in Habana, so hopes are high that this will stimulate business.

And if the USA ends the embargo against Cuba (known as el bloqueo in Spanish), and all signs point to this being a very real possibility, open travel to Cuba, investment in the country and financial prosperity could be a real possibility.

Pro-American sentiment was everywhere I visited, but at the same time the Cubans are exceedingly proud of their country, their revolution and their leaders.

In the Footsteps of Hemingway
In the Footsteps of Hemingway
In the Footsteps of Hemingway

The Watches

Cuervo y Sobrinos has taken care to make sure all the designs hark back to the Cuban and Latin heritage of the brand. “This is perfectly translated into the collections by the colors and silhouettes of a famous historic era in the early 20th century, a flourishing and artistic period,” Villa details. “Eras and fashions do not affect our solid philosophy still anchored to the company’s own origins — ‘El tiempo lento,’ living moment by moment.”

To Villa, the product that best represents the brand is the Esplendidos, because it’s the watch that has signaled the Cuervo y Sobrinos path since its inception: “A unique rectangular case distinguished for its original design, coming from Art Deco age, and the absolute perfection of the form that became a symbol for the brand, modern and glamour.”

All Cuervo y Sobrinos models are presented in an elegant wooden case which doubles as a luxurious cigar humidifier, exclusively created for the label by specialized craftsmen. The case is made of Spanish cedar, which allows the perfect conservation of tobacco and emphasizes its aroma, thanks to its unmistakable perfume. All the elements are gold-plated and no adhesives are used so that the flavor and perfume of the cigars are not altered. Smoking a Cuban cigar is an authentic ritual, a ceremony that requires calmness and is in direct harmony with the philosophy of Cuervo y Sobrinos. Like a watch, a good cigar must be conserved with the highest possible care, and then it can be enjoyed with the greatest pleasure.

I wore the new Vuelo while I was in Habana, and I really enjoyed having it on my wrist. I love a chronograph, and the broad hands and the large arrow-tipped second hand was really visible when the chronograph was in operation. I got a number of comments from people in Cuba about my watch, as well as on the flights to and from the tropical island. I particularly enjoyed the unique color combination, which was very Latin-inspired, contributing to my transition to life in Cuba.

In the Footsteps of Hemingway
The CyS Torpedo Pulsometro and Taquilmetro Chronograph (left) and the CyS Historiador Vuelo (right)
In the Footsteps of Hemingway
A collection of vintage Cuervo y Sobrinos watches

The Future

If Fidel Castro hadn’t taken control of Cuba in 1959, who knows what would have happened to the Cuervo y Sobrinos brand. It might have become one of the most famous brands in the industry. As it is, Cuervo y Sobrinos has a solid historical foundation and key hook—the Latin American heritage and design inspiration.

Cuervo is perfect for a watch lover who wants something different, something with a Latin spirit.

In the four days in 2016, I spent in Cuba as the first American watch journalist there, I appreciated the slower pace of life and enjoyed the Cuban spirit so much that when it came time to leave, I wasn’t quite ready.

Cuba, and Cuervo y Sobrinos, have touched me and changed my view of life, work and time.

Cuba libre. Cuervo libre.

Viva la Revolution.