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Fuente's Secret Weapon

The Cigar Family turns to a Powhatan artist.

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What could have been a deal-breaker turned into opportunity. And 20 years later, Snyder, now a resident of Powhatan County, has helped reinvigorate the long-lost art of cigar labels. She forged a close-knit relationship with one of the biggest cigar makers in the world, and has found herself designing labels for some of the top-selling premium cigars at the height of the mid-1990s cigar boom.

It started with Levin's Ashton smokes, in the small printing shop in Philly. After discovering the cigars were real, Snyder spruced up the simple black, white and gold Ashton logo, giving intricate attention to the borders and backdrop. The improvements gave the cigar a crisp, new look.

Levin was so impressed he asked Snyder to help a friend and business partner, Carlos Fuente Jr., president of Dominican-based Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia, a.k.a., The Cigar Famiy, one of the most prestigious makers of handmade cigars outside of Cuba. Word got around. On Levin's recommendation, Fuente asked Snyder to help with a new cigar he had been secretly working on. It would become the family's top-of-the-line cigar, a hard-to-find $20 toke called Fuente Fuente Opus X.

"I did go to many artists in the past," Fuente says. "There was an era that was lost with the art. Labels and designs became so simple."

At first, Fuente didn't think he could work with Snyder. She didn't have the experience to recapture the look of the Old World, he thought. The bubbly American artist — her dream in college was to work for Hallmark — didn't exactly exude Cuban artistry. But he gave her the chance nonetheless.

"She had the patience. She acted more like a family member or a psychologist," Fuente says. "My traditions and my feelings, I envision things from my memory. Slowly but surely, Sam was able to capture these ideas and materialize them."

Snyder spent a lot of time with Fuente, asking about the cigar business, listening to him describe his childhood growing up as a fourth-generation Fuente cigar maker. Today, Snyder works exclusively for the family.

There are no contracts, she says, just an understanding. In the sometimes dangerous world of tobacco kingpins — rebel Sandinistas burned down the Fuente family's first factory in Nicaragua; their second factory in Honduras also went up in flames — Snyder says it's best she sticks with Fuente. She visits the family's Chateau de la Fuente, a sprawling plantation in the Dominican Republic, frequently. (The family experienced a fire in the Dominican, as well, and had an incident a few years ago where "men with guns" accosted a top Fuente grower, Snyder says.)

She turns away others who ask about her services. "They ask, 'Can you work outside the family?'" says Snyder. "And I say, 'It's better that I don't.'"

Snyder, however, does work for business partners of Fuente. She's designed labels for the Peterson cigar family, J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and Levin. She's designed the Maximus, Cuesta-Rey and La Unica labels for Newman, along with several Fuente cigars. One of her more popular recent designs, La Aroma De Cuba, is an old brand revived by Levin a few years ago. Her single ad design, for Ashton, features a woman who looks strikingly similar to Demi Moore, straddling a chair with a cigar in hand, a la "Striptease." Moore, in fact, liked the ad so much she asked Snyder for a reprint.

The cigar-label artwork is so detailed that there is only one printer capable of capturing the tiny nuances, Snyder says — Vrijdag B.V. in the Netherlands. Another Powhatan artist, Ken Malczak, does the graphic production work.

Snyder's artwork helped jump-start a return to artistic cigar labels, Fuente says, something that more than a century ago was restricted to Old World Cuban artists.

"It's very difficult to demand something that you really can't see yet," he says. "When she designs something, she puts an image together. It's alive." S

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