The History of Clove Cigarettes

The story of kretek begins in the city of Kudus, Central Java, Indonesia. It was here in the 1880s that Haji Jamhari, a local resident, first invented the kretek cigarette, mixing locally-grown cloves with tobacco to invent a cigarette to ease his chest pains.


Kudus, Central Java, Indonesia


This fortuitous discovery was taken a step further by M. Nitisemito, another savvy Kudus resident who, seeing an opponunity, took it upon himself to  market and begin mass-producing the unique new cigarette. In doing so, he  created what would eventually become an enormous industry with a worldwide  reach. Such is the scale of the kretek industry today that 95 percent of the  world supply of cloves goes to kretek manufacturing.  Sadly, Nitisemito‘s  company, Bal Tiga, is long gone, but a road bearing his name still exists in  Kudus, testimony to his legacy.

Today, Kudus continues to occupy a focal point on the kretek landscape, maintaining its tradition of kretek manufacturing. Of an estimated 600 kretek  manufacturers in Indonesia, the majority are based in Kudus. 



Kretek, the clove-infused cigarette of Indonesia, was created in the town of Kudus,  Central Java, in the late nineteenth century. What was once a small-scale cottage  industry has grown over the course of more than 100 years to become one of the  largest contributors to the Indonesian economy, second only to oil and gas.


cutting clove cigarettes 

The Quest for the Spice Islands

The history of the clove, the key ingredient in kretek, is interwoven with the history of Indonesia itself. Cloves were once highly prized for their medicinal  properties. Even in Roman times, cloves demanded high prices. It is little wonder  then that many a merchant became rich through the buying and selling of cloves.  The highly sought—after spice originally grew only on five tiny islands east of  Sulawesi and west of Papua. In order to control the buying and selling of the  spice from its source, the Dutch and English East India companies were formed  at the beginning of the 17th century. Thus began an era of colonization and  foreign intervention in Asia.

It was not until the 19th century that people began adding cloves to their kretek. The trend caught on quickly, and within a few years kretek were being produced  on a commercial scale and the beginnings of a new industry were been born. 


The Inventor of Kretek

Tobacco was first introduced to Indonesia at the beginning of the 17th century.  Cigarettes of that time were homemade, hand-rolled and wrapped in cornhusk. It  was not until the late 19th century that cloves were added to the tobacco.

It is believed that the first person to add cloves to his cigarette was a man called H. Jamhari, a resident of the town of Kudus, the birthplace of kretek. During the  1880s he suffered from mild asthma, and found that rubbing clove oil on his  chest could offer some relief. He then thought of a way to bring the healing  properties of the clove closer to his lungs - if he sprinkled some cloves into his  cigarette and then smoked it, would this not be even better?  Miraculously, H. Jamhari was cured. He began to produce and market his  invention, extolling its medicinal properties - the first kretek were sold through  pharmacies. As the popularity of kretek grew. so cottage industries began to  spring up. all producing hand-rolled clove cigarettes.


Next: Kretek Yesterday


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