A curious thing about panama hats is that they are not from Panama at all. They are from Ecuador. And equally curious is that when I visited Ecuador recently no one was wearing a panama hat. Lots of Ecuadorians wear hats, either to protect their heads from the powerful sun (Ecuador is on the Equator) or to keep their heads warm (much of Ecuador is above 3,000m so the nights are very cool). But for some reason the hat of choice for Ecuadorians is a felt trilby, and not a panama.
I have given a lot of thought to this and the best analogy I can think of is a gold mine. In the villages around a gold mine you don’t see anyone wearing gold jewellery. The occasional gold tooth maybe, but locals don’t adorn themselves with gold bracelets and rings. This is because all the gold is exported. It’s too valuable for local consumption. In the same way, if you visit a British fishing village and try to buy fish you’re unlikely to have any luck. All fish are whipped straight up to the fish markets in the big cities, with the locals hardly getting a look in.
And yet panama hats are a really important part of Ecuador’s identity and their manufacture provides 1000s of much needed jobs. They are immensely proud of their panama hats and their long tradition of weaving. But after many attempts to agree a quality classification system that ensures you get what you pay for, much the like the French AOC wine classification, there is still no consensus. No two weavers can agree on the same system for grading hats, so as a consequence buying a panama hat can be fraught.
Some weavers judge the quality by holding the hat up to the light and counting the rings in the crown. This does give an indication of quality, and shows the considerable skill involved in making a panama hat, but it doesn’t provide a definitive grade. Similarly, a high price is an indication of high quality, but it doesn’t guarantee it. If that hat is under £40, it is not going to be a genuine high quality panama hat, but if it is over £40 it may not be either.
Maybe the best solution is to get the United Nations involved. Not as a fighting force to keep the peace, but to provide an incentive to put aside differences. This is what happened recently with the tango, South America’s much loved dance. After decades of feuding, Argentina and Uruguay agreed to bury their differences about where the dance originated so that the tango could be added to the UNESCO world heritage list. Being on the list brings with it considerable kudos and financial assistance, that would benefit all genuine panama makers. Maybe if the weavers of Ecuador could agree to disagree, then UNESCO would recognise the cultural importance of the panama hat, but to Ecuador of course not to Panama.
For more information about Panama hats, please watch the following videos:
Weaving life - The Story of Ecuador's "Panama Hat" (1/3)
Weaving life - The Story of Ecuador's "Panama Hat" (2/3)
Weaving life - The Story of Ecuador's "Panama Hat" (3/3)
The Panama Hat Trail by Tom Miller