MIAMI Inside a Little Havana cigar rolling business in the heart of Cuban Miami, Maria Sierra's gnarled fingers perform the same dance they did for more than three decades for Havana's famed El Laguito cigar factory.
She cuts a teardrop from a broad tobacco leaf then glues, wraps and twists it onto the end of a near-finished cigar, forming the small fan that's the signature of high-end Cuban cigar rollers.
More than five decades after a trade embargo banned imports of cigars from Communist-ruled Cuba, the majority of U.S. cigar imports come from other Caribbean countries as well as Central America.
Yet in Miami a niche industry is growing, centered on a few dozen elite Cuban rollers who make special edition cigars that sell for as much as $700 per box in Europe.
Cigar Aficionado, the industry's leading glossy magazine, recently highlighted Miami's cigar industry describing the city as a "a new hot spot for creative cigarmakers."
Sierra, at age 18, was one of 30 Cuban women selected from thousands to learn the craft from Fidel Castro's personal cigar roller Eduardo Rivera. Women entered male-dominated factories at the urging of Cuban revolutionary Celia Sanchez, a close confidant of Castro's in the 1960s and 70s.
"We would start with one little cigar and they would watch over us very closely, removing those who didn't do well enough," said Sierra, now 64. "A group of 30 or 40 women would come in to learn and after a couple of days only one or two were left."
Sierra is one of 10 rollers working at El Titan de Bronze (The Bronze Titan), a Little Havana store named after Antonio Maceo, a general in the war for Cuban independence from Spain.
Other rollers came from Cuba's respected Partagas and H. Uppman factories. Some were arrested several times trying to escape before they made it to Miami.
"We're basically a boutique," said owner Sandy Cobas, whose father Carlos opened the small shop about 20 years ago. "We don't produce in mass quantities and the cigars are done exactly like they are in Cuba."
In Miami, Cuban rollers are prized for their rigorous training. Unlike rollers in other cigar-producing countries, each is responsible for his or her cigar, from start to finish.
"A lot of the families of plantation owners left for those countries with (Cuban tobacco) seeds in a handkerchief," Cobas said. "None of those countries were known for making cigars."
Tropical Tobacco, which produces Casa Fernandez cigars, opened a small factory in Miami in 2012, hiring a dozen or so Cuban rollers who produce about 1,200 cigars a day. At the company's factory in Esteli, Nicaragua, Fernandez employs 50 to 60 rollers who work in pairs - with one bunching tobacco and wrapping the cigars and another applying the cap - to make 15,000 cigars daily.
In 2012, the bulk of the nation's cigars came from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras, with imports from those countries totaling almost $600 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"The Cuban rollers that are available in the Miami market are the best in the world," said Tropical's owner Eduardo Fernandez. "We saw a niche where we can respond quickly to the market and make high-end cigars on premises."
In Miami's specialty cigar factories, bunches of cured tobacco sit in black garbage bags in walk-in humidors to keep them pliable. They're marked with the country of origin - from Brazil to the Dominican Republic - and whether they are to be used as the cigar's filler or final wrapper.
George Rico's G.R. Tabacaleras Corp, a Miami distributor, opened a small suburban factory in 2012, offering enthusiasts the chance to learn everything about the cigar-making process.
The company does the bulk of its manufacturing in Danli, about 50 miles south of Honduras' capital Tegucigalpa. In Miami it offers the deluxe "G.A.R. Deli" experience for customers who can afford to spend $250 on a box of 25 cigars.
In a two-hour session with Rico, smokers learn that soil and seasons can affect the flavor of tobacco, and also how cigars are made. They sample dozens of tobaccos and finish by creating their own blend, which is handed off to a Cuban roller.
Despite the Cuban rollers' lofty reputation, Rico said there are more of them than there is work available. At the same time not all rollers are as passionate as El Titan's Sierra, who retired from cigar making in Cuba in 2011, but returned to it after moving to Miami to be near her daughter.
"You can make a decent living," Rico said, "but some rollers ... want to move on to other jobs."
(Editing by David Adams and Gunna Dickson)