Everything You Need To Know About Candles (And Caring For Them)
Humans have lived with them for millennia, but when you actually stop to think about it – perhaps under the harsh glare of 60-watt lightbulb – on the face of it, it really is rather odd that we still use candles. Let alone that we often pay a premium for a really nice one. And yet, few things set the mood, relax us or create a romantic atmosphere quite like lighting one.
Like the Rubik’s Cube, Air Jordans and SodaStreams, our current love affair with candles was born in the 1980s, when consumerism and a healthy dose of decadence meant the so-called “lifestyle” we lived, grew in importance in terms of our identities. And scented candles, perhaps the dictionary definition of a “luxury object”, became – and remain – symbols of status as much as things that made a room smell nice or gave off a soothing glow.
As the history books will tell you, though, the idea that we went from using candles as purely functional objects to ostensibly decorative or olfactory ones is just a little bit too simplistic. Even before the advent of electricity, candles were considered far more than a mere source of illumination, in part thanks to their use in both religious rituals and civic ceremonies. “Candles as objects of pleasure have a long history,” explains Dr Benjamin Wild, a cultural historian, senior lecturer in contextual studies and candle enthusiast. “There has always been an element of joyousness in candle burning.”
The scented part of the equation isn’t new, either. Candle wax has only recently become cheap to produce. Back in the Middle Ages, the substance was prohibitively expensive for anyone other than the super wealthy and so, the vast majority of people used alternatives made from tallow or animal fats. Which, to put it mildly, wasn’t a treat for the nose. (Or, to use Dr Wild’s words, it was an “objectionable olfactory assault”.) And so, herbs, spices and other essences were introduced to render them redolent. “[It] was particularly important in turning them into objects of desire,” Wild says.
Then there’s the more primal explanation for why candles retain their hold over us. At our core, we haven’t really evolved as much as we think we have, as Dr Wild explains. Much like moths or magpies, we still like shiny, bright things. “For centuries, fire has represented the passage from darkness to light, and by implication, from evil to good and from harm to health,” he says. “Fire – [and] on a more domestic scale, the candle – still possesses this intoxicating enigma, which makes us feel that we’re being transported to somewhere preferable beyond our present. The magic remains, whether we’re seeking relaxation or romance, it’s really just that matches have replaced wands as the preferred fire starter.”
All of this goes a little way to explaining why candle sales have, reportedly, soared over the past year. As we spend more time at home and deal with the pressures and challenges the coronavirus has presented us, we at least want our surroundings to feel cosy and comforting. “The flickering light and gentle scent of a candle allows us to escape our troubling present, or at least temporarily cast it into shade,” explains Dr Wild.
And while a candle can’t replace a therapist, it does force you to take a momentary pause and temporarily soothes our stresses. “It’s inevitable that we’ve sought to make this experience as bearable as possible.”
Then there’s the effect a candle can have on a room. For most of us, our budgets may not stretch to redecorating our homes or installing a meditation room, but a candle? Even one of the more pricey options feels like money well spent when we’ve got little else to splurge on. “A candle is instantly transformative, particularly if it is scented. A home office by day becomes a sanctuary at night,” Dr Wild says.
In the interest of helping you find one that will transform your space, we’ve compiled a list of a few of our favourite brands, which, helpfully, are all very well stocked at MR PORTER.
To many, French brand Cire Trudon, which has been making candles since before King Louis XVI was on the throne, is the best in the business. The company recently released a pure beeswax candle as an ode to its past methods of manufacture, but today they use a secret blend of vegetable waxes as well as 100 per cent cotton wicks to ensure a long-lasting, clean burn.
These days, you’re just as likely to see Diptyque’s candles used as pen pots or trinket jars, such is the appeal of their neo-classical packaging. The brand started life on the Bohemian stretch of Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris in 1961 and was the brainchild of three creatively-inclined friends. Originally a “bazaar” to showcase their fabric designs, the shop soon added candles to its offering and they were a hit with the city’s well-heeled residents. Famously, the company has never used synthetic fragrances in their blends, opting for entirely natural scent extracts.
Known for its thoughtful scent combinations, Jo Malone makes candles to complement its celebrated fragrance range. But don’t for a second assume they play second fiddle. The brand puts a great deal of thought into everything from the wax (sustainable soy) to the wick (cotton and linen), and it takes a grand total of 16 separate artisans to craft each one. Its bestseller, Pomegranate Noir, is a warm, wintry and spicy concoction, while its signature scent Lime Basil and Mandarin is basically spring bottled.
Another fragrance-plus-candles outfit, cult French brand Byredo was founded by Mr Ben Gorham in 2006 with the express intention of turning memories into olfactory experiences. Inspired by simple pleasures like the scent of freshly laundered cotton and childhood adventures, the mysterious-sounding monikers – think names like Tree House, Apocalyptic and Loose Lips – add to the intrigue, as does the jet-black wax, made from a custom blend depending on the formulation.
Founded in Milan in the 1950s by sculptor, artist and interior designer Mr Piero Fornasetti, Fornasetti’s candles are as much about what’s outside as what’s in. Each ceramic vessel is decorated with images of renowned opera soprano Ms Lina Cavalieri, who was nicknamed “the most beautiful woman in the world” by her contemporaries. Mr Fornasetti became enamoured with her face, which he thought of as an archetype in the vein of classical statues. As for the scent, the brand’s signature smoky Otto aroma was created by master perfumer Mr Olivier Polge, the son of the nose behind Chanel No 5.
D.S. & Durga
With unorthodox names like Tomb of the Eagles and Concrete After Lightning, it’s not hard to see how D.S. & Durga has cornered its own niche in the candle market. Quirky, idiosyncratic and just a little bit kitschy, the brand was founded by a couple of Brooklynites (who else?), trained architect Ms Kavi Ahuja and former musician Mr David Seth Moltz. They started the brand to make custom scents for their nearest and dearest and just kept going. Today, their blends are completely vegan while all the packaging is completely recyclable.
If you’ve ever wanted to make your home smell like a summer holiday, then La Montaña is the first place to turn (after you’ve checked ice lollies and strawberries off your shopping list). The brand was founded by couple Ms Cass Hall and Mr Jonathan Hall, who met in a secluded Valencian village and relocated there in 2011. Its candles are designed to evoke the spirit of the sunny Spanish countryside and use mountain herbs like fennel, rosemary, rockrose and pepper, while the vintage-style postcard labels on the front make them extremely mantle-worthy.
L’Objet is the “life work” of founder Mr Elad Yifrach, a self-described globetrotter who was born and raised in Israel before becoming an interior designer in the US. As the brand’s name suggests, L’Objet’s candles are as much about their decorative function as they are their olfactory presence. Made from a concoction of natural oils and essences and inspired by Yifrach’s travels, each one is housed in a unique, tastefully ostentatious, vessel, variously adorned with evil eyes, precious stones and intricate carvings.
Candle care 101
Believe it or not, there is a right and a wrong way to burn a candle. We’d urge you to follow the instructions for your specific candle, but keep these five tips and tricks in mind.
Use a snuffer to extinguish the flame so you don’t cause the wick to drift or slant. If needs be, straighten the wick after you’ve put it out.
Candle smoking? Trim the wick to approximately five millimetres after every use to ensure a clean flame.
Burn your candles until a full layer of wax has melted, to minimise the risk of so-called “tunnelling”.
To avoid black soot marks, light candles away from drafts or open windows.
- Never leave a candle unattended and stop burning it when there is about a centimetre of wax left to stop overheating or damage to surfaces.