What makes a $100 candle worth having?

12/27/2013 12:41 PM

12/27/2013 12:42 PM

Recently I went shopping for candles and ended up spending nearly $900. I know what you’re thinking: Outrageous, right? I thought the same thing.

You might assume I needed a U-Haul to carry home my plunder. In fact, the candles fit easily into a medium-size shopping bag. In total, I bought eight.

If you’re not someone who spends a lot of time on sites like www.candlesoffmain.com or www.candledelirium.com, it may come as a shock to learn that a candle could cost $75 or even more. Jo Malone, a British fragrance company, makes a four-wick version in a glass vessel that costs $445 —more than $100 a wick. For that price, shouldn’t the container be gold?

Every industry has its Lamborghini sports car, its Hermes bag. But what is surprising is how many options the luxury candle shopper has to choose from: Agraria, Astier de Villatte, Fornasetti, Frederic Malle, Lafco, L’Objet, Rigaud, on down through the alphabet to Votivo.

Diptyque and Le Labo, two French brands whose standard candles fall in the range of $60 to $75, have a cultlike following among the entertainment and fashion crowds. Cire Trudon, another brand with French roots, promotes itself as “the oldest and most prestigious wax manufacturer in the world” and sells a $125 (unscented) candle in the shape of a bust of Marie Antoinette.

With Christmas and New Year’s upon us, it is prime candle buying and lighting season. Barbara Miller of the National Candle Association, a trade group, said that candles are a $2 billion-a-year industry and that about 35 percent of those sales typically happen in the fourth quarter. “They’re always a very popular gift item,” she said.

As I learned, luxury candles have been popular among a certain set for years. Jacqueline Kennedy illuminated the White House with Rigaud candles. When Tom Ford designed for Gucci, he placed the same Diptyque Figuier candle throughout the brand’s stores, his offices and his home, so the soothing scent of fig wood trailed him around the globe. But like so many high-end items, in the last few years candles like these have been adopted by an audience beyond the superrich.

Alexandra Fiber, an actress and writer in New York, said she had discovered them while reading lifestyle blogs such as Garance Doré and The Selby. “I haven’t seen a story about some girl’s apartment in the past three years without the Diptyque jar being in their bathroom,” Fiber said. “Almost trendier than the candle is the empty jar. It’s like this status symbol.”

She and her performing partner, Danielle Gibson, referenced Diptyque in “SRSLY,” a web comedy series they created and star in. In one skit, Gibson is contacted by her credit card company after a flurry of charges triggers the fraud alert, including a $75 charge at Diptyque, which the agent pronounces Dip-tick. “It’s Dip-teak,” Gibson corrects, adding, “And that candle was a gift — for myself.”

The exchange pokes fun at both the perceived sophistication of luxury candles and the buyer’s remorse at spending so much on melting wax. “I think you do feel guilty,” Fiber said.

“In the scope of how much a candle should cost, it’s ridiculous,” Fiber said. “But in the scope of something you can buy to make your studio apartment feel luxurious, it’s not. The scent lingers in your home. It makes you feel a little fancier than your current surroundings might reflect.”

The difference

The luxury candle industry certainly believes its products are enhancing. People will tell you how their candles are hand-poured, or use soy wax instead of petroleum-based paraffin, or come in handmade containers of crystal, or are scented by the world’s top perfumers using costly essential oils. Beyond the basic elements of wax, wick and flame, they say, their products bear little resemblance to the $10 candles sold in gift shops in flavors like apple cinnamon or blueberry scone.

Fabrice Penot, the co-founder of Le Labo, offered further explanation at the brand’s laboratory-like boutique in New York, where he sat surrounded by glass beakers filled with gurgling liquid. “The quality of intention we are putting into our fragrances, and the attention we are putting into their making, is a craft,” Penot said. “It has a tremendous impact in the power of emotion we are able to deliver.”

Each new scent is tested in a laboratory in New York, Penot said, to determine the precise formula of essential oils, wick size and wax blend that will best disperse the smell subtly throughout a home. “We have four or five booths in a row,” he said, “and we burn the candle and open the little door and test the smell of these candles after 20 minutes, after 40 minutes and so on.”

Milly de Cabrol, an interior designer who recommends similar high-end candles to her clients and uses them in her home, said their refinement was apparent. “The container is very beautiful, and the scent is fabulous and not that strong,” said de Cabrol, who favors the Agraria Bitter Orange candle at Christmastime. “When you buy a cheap candle, the apple smell or whatever is so strong. It’s like you’re in an airport bathroom.”

There really are two Americas, it turns out — and one smells like a delicate wildflower with round, powdery accents.

Who buys them?

Still, aside from decorators and their well-heeled clients, one wonders who is buying all these expensive candles. Karen Doskow, an industry manager at Kline and Co., a market-research firm in New Jersey, said it is still unusual for people to spend more than $40 on a candle, and even that is regarded by most as too costly.

“Who buys these candles that are $80 and above?” Doskow said. “Hardly anyone. It’s a microcosm. It’s not reality.” But Diptyque and other prestige brands sell miniature versions of their larger candles for around $30, she noted, which give consumers a “slightly more attainable” entry point into the luxury candle world.

That entry point, however, seems to be creeping up: Even a ho-hum candle like the $38 Elton John Holiday Candle by Nest now looks like a relative bargain in a world of $100 candles. Seven years ago, when Le Labo introduced its candles, Penot said, “I was scared; I thought people would never spend that money on a candle.” But people proved him wrong. So did the marketplace. And “there are much more expensive candles nowadays,” he said.

Like those $450 Jo Malone candles. Who buys them?

“You know who buys those?” Doskow said. “Realtors. They light them when they have an open house. Or they give them as a gift to someone whose home they sold.”

At home, I felt confident that I knew how to light a candle. Yet several of the ones I bought to sample, including those from Diptyque, Cire Trudon and Carrière Frères, came with instruction booklets. Considering the cost-to-burn-time ratio could be $1.50 an hour, according to my calculations, it seemed wise to read them before I began.

For best results, they all said with slight variations, I was to melt the surface wax all the way across on the first burn. In successive uses, it was important not to let the candle burn for more than two to three hours, to keep the wick cut short with a wick trimmer and to reposition stray wicks so they were standing upright.

As Valadez explained, “It’s said in the industry that wax has a memory. If you don’t trim the wick, you get that black soot. There is care that our customers should follow.”

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