Stogies' Pleasures Wafting Slowly Over Gender Line

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cigar numbs sorrow and fills the solitary hours with a million gracious images.

--George Sand, 18th-Century, female writer and cigar smoker

So, should a gentleman offer a lady a Tiparillo?

Yes, indeed. But these days, better make that a full-fledged stogie--a fat, fine, handmade Dominican or Cuban cigar she can fire up after a satisfying meal and ponder the complexities of this newest smoking twist:

The many visceral pleasures of the cigar have moved outside the smoke-filled boardroom, wrenched from the finely manicured hands of the good-old-boy network to find favor with a fresh generation of aficionado.

Cigar-chomping women.

Just ask Dora Serviarian, a veteran classical pianist from Pasadena. She recently joined about 65 other cigar lovers aboard the dinner boat Zumbrota for a Marina del Rey smoking cruise co-sponsored by the George Sand Smoker Society, a club for female cigar smokers.

With her sequined bandanna and evening attire, the fiftysomething Serviarian cut the image of some newfangled Mae West (who once owned the 77-year-old boat), embodying the very look and demeanor of this newest brand of cigar-smoker: Moneyed. Conservative. Dead-serious. Self-conscious to a fault. And, yes, even a bit quirky.

And then there was her cigar: a Dominican Republic brand called an Avo, whose maker, the white-haired, Panama-hatted Avo Uvezian, was on-board with fellow cigar maker Paul Garmirian to promote their products.

Serviarian stood nearby, her head cocked--one hand on her hip, the other holding the Avo slightly aloft--letting the smoke float lazily toward the ceiling with so much attitude.

And she talked about her passion.

"The smell. It's very seductive, don't you think?" she whispered. "To me, there's just something very sexy about a woman smoking a cigar."

She puffed, smiled and exhaled toward the water.

"They tell me that I hold my cigar well. The right way. When I light it, I twirl it slowly and puff it lightly. Because you don't smoke a cigar, you taste it."

For Serviarian, a cigar is not just a cigar. It's an experience to savor.

Julie Ross knows this. She's co-founder of the George Sand Smoker Society, the Los Angeles-based club with 120 members that is riding the female cigar-puffing wave. Last year they opened a new chapter in New York; another will open in Chicago this summer.

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All this is quite a turnaround from the perceived female reaction to the lighting of, say, a foot-long stogie, which most imagine to go something like, "Ewwwwwwwwwwwww. Put that stinky thing out!"

For centuries, most women have considered cigars as something disgustingly male, not to be easily tolerated, a thing best spirited away to some extra-padlocked Humidor. They've been about as well-matched as men and Tupperware parties.

Queen Victoria of Spain made her guests exhale into the royal fireplaces so the smoke would go up the chimney. When another, possibly apocryphal, cigar-hating queen passed away, the king proclaimed to his kingdom: "You may now light your cigars!"

But there were also the hard-chomping die-hards. Catherine the Great smoked cigars, historians tell us. And today, the practice has been handed down from monarchs to movie queens, taken up by such Hollywood types as Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg.

The turnaround doesn't surprise Ross.

"A lot of women seem to have some sort of childhood or adolescent memory of cigars while sitting with their dad or granddad while relaxing on the back porch. Usually, they're very pleasant memories. Those are some pretty strong images. And they carry them to every cigar they pick up."

Several years ago, the Redondo Beach computer chip saleswoman began attending meetings of a male cigar smoking group known as Les Amis du Cigare, sponsored by restaurateur Jivan Tabibian, owner of the Santa Monica eatery Remi.

At first, she was the only woman present. But soon, others floated in like the smoke of the fine cigars being sampled and savored. "So we started George Sand to get the word out to women that they were not just being tolerated, they were welcomed."

Nationwide, women are being welcomed to regular cigar dinners and smoke shops. According to industry statistics, they represent 1/10th of 1% of cigar smokers, a number that seems to be on the rise.

"Part and parcel, women are part of the renewed interest in premium cigars," said Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Assn. of America, which represents 63 member manufacturers and suppliers.

"Between 1993 and 1994, the sales of premium handmade cigars increased some 14.6%. For many, the very image of a cigar event is the suggestion of a good evening, a class affair with companionship and camaraderie. Women are a part of that."

Sharp estimated that Americans consume between 6 million and 8 million cigars each year. Some fans smoke as many as two a day. Others consider them more of a once-a-month pleasure.

However often they smoke them, women say they like them. Make no mistake about it, women and their cigars are here to stay.

"These days, when you see a woman in some local cigar shop, don't assume she's shopping for her boyfriend or her boss or her father," said Robert Kemp, publisher of the Southern California Cigar Monthly newsletter. "Chances are, she's picking up a few for the ride home."

While some male cigar smokers have considered the new feminine interest an affront to solid masculine values, Kemp welcomes this breathy new breed of smoker.

"I get all these calls from guys who are rather dumbfounded, amazed," he said. "It's like women started bull riding or something. But I tell them that cigars are no longer just a manly thing. Women have discovered them as a handmade, relatively inexpensive multi-sensory pleasure. Cigars are nice to hold and to taste and to smell. It's that simple."

Uvezian says he crafts his cigars to be enjoyed by both sexes.

"Women have always smoked cigars," he said. "Now they are just more out of the closet. And that's good, as long as they smoke because they enjoy the experience and not to make some kind of fashion statement. And that goes for the men as well."

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Apparently, not everyone at the party was listening. The pre-cruise cocktail hour was filled with comments that would have embarrassed even the most effete wine snob, one-liners such as "Oh, this cigar has such a toasty, chocolaty flavor. I adore it."

Women wore earrings--men, cuff links--fashioned from cigar bands. Many postured in their tuxedos and evening gowns, waving their cigars in exaggerated fashion, trying to capture their image in some shiny surface.

Nobody inhaled. Still, the exhaled smoke spewed fast and furious.

Among all this stale posturing was one breath of fresh air: Isabella Cho stood outside along the boat's railing and talked about her nine-month love affair with the cigar.

The 24-year-old USC music student was offered a cigar by a male friend one night over dinner. She accepted out of curiosity. And much to her surprise, she developed an instant liking for the leafy taste.

"I smoked the whole thing," she said. "Not just for the taste but for the challenge of smoking the whole cigar down and not breaking the ash. Now I can't smoke a cigar without playing with it. It's like a toy. Or an instrument."

Unlike others who enjoy cigars as a social pleasure, Cho likes her cigars in solitude.

"There's just something about being outdoors with a good cigar that relaxes me," she said. "It calms me down. Depending on the size of the cigar, I know I'm going to have at least 15 minutes or so to digest my thoughts.

"What more could a person ask for?"

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