Waxing lyrical: Candles are ideal way to light up her life on Mother's Day

Candles are a luxury but anything that lights up your life and is not a screen has to be a good thing, says Rachel Marie Walsh

AS Mother’s Day approaches, you may go shopping in search of an expression of the bright and fragrant presence the woman is and wonder just when candles got so pricey. Matthew Williamson’s ‘Winter Oud’ Candle, €98, Fornasetti’s ‘L’Ape’ Candle, €161, and Jo Malone London’s Peony & Blush Suede Luxury Candle, €365, all get you puzzling about content. It is still just wax, perfume and dye in there, isn’t it?

“Hand-poured candles, measured consistency, a unique fragrance based on months of testing at the world’s finest perfume houses…you really are getting your money’s worth when you buy a luxury candle,” says Tobi Tobin, an LA-based entrepreneur whose eponymous brand makes candles that Britney Spears and Reese Witherspoon light at home. The fragrance part, it seems, is especially tricky. Some popular perfume ingredients don’t smell so pretty when burned, for example, while others are dulled when mixed with soy wax.

Around this time last year, the CEO of French candlemaker Diptyque told Business Insider their customers get a good deal. “Our candles are made of very specific materials. They are developed carefully with a lot of raw materials,” said Fabianne Mauny. “The work is done manually, and production can only be done in small batches. It’s not a simple cooking recipe. It takes a lot of time and adjustment to make sure we create the right wick and wax mix to ensure that the candle will burn in the right way.”

Few among us actually need candles. And yet sometimes you take one as a hostess gift, look around the party and realise your thoughtful choice is a bit ‘coals to Newcastle.’ What is going on? Are they a harmless indulgence or just a pretty way to burn money.

Status and screen-time

While candles may seem more expensive than ever, in luxury terms they are affordable or ‘entry’ level ways of attaining a designer name. Louis Vuitton and Gucci both introduced branded candles in larger stores last year and lifestyle-pioneers like Dior and Versace have long been waxing extravagance. While their prices would make eyes bulge if shelved next to mass names like Yankee, they look like a steal when set among designer handbags.

Like any entry level-product, it is the logo-stamp that attracts savvy (some would say insecure) eyes as much as any scent or design detail. A Cire Trudon candle could be perceived as ‘upgrading’ an Ikea-furnished flat the way a Mulberry bag smartens up cheerful slip-dress. Plus, their reusable jars long outlast the wax.

Candles are a lifestyle accessory and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a celebrity in possession of a beating heart must be in want of product associations. It is widely reported that Beyoncé loves Diptyque ‘Vanille’ Candle, €70, for example, and Taylor Swift told Vogue.com’s camera of her love for Byredo ‘Tree House,’ €55. The candle’s scent as a status item is further aided by television and film. A Diptyque candle is lit by Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf is shown surrounded by the things (in Season 4 of both series). Pretty packaging also makes them eminently Instagrammable in real (or curated) life, with art-decorated jars like those of Italian brand Fornasetti looking especially good in photos.

The perfect present?

Vogue UK beauty and lifestyle director Jessica Diner describes candles as her go-to beauty gift. “You can’t go wrong, you can never have too many candles in your life. Makeup and skincare are a bit more prescriptive but candles are foolproof.”

Candles encourage calm, wellbeing and relaxation. They seem caring but not too personal, like perfume’s less intimate cousin. They are also a relatively affordable way for corporate offices to show clients they care (especially now nutritional sensitivities make hampers a minefield), with brands like Molton Brown receiving bulk orders from relationship managers each Christmas season.

They convey generosity with some staying power. Flowers die, eaten chocolates are soon forgotten but candles can hang around up to 80 hours and that is only if you keep them lit.

They are both family-appropriate (stood at a childproof height) and as unisex as their fragrance allows. They are also seasonless (disregarding obviously festive scents), as they provide more ambiance than actual warmth.

I’ve mentioned two French brands so far — Diptyque and Cire Trudon— and though the French are exceptionally good at every luxury, the Irish can hold their own in this particular category. You can support small businesses around the country by picking up a candle from brands including Waters + Wild in West Cork, Galway-based Cloon Keen, Max Benjamin and Brook & Shoals in Wicklow and Purcell & Woodcock in Dublin.

Sligo-based Voya does excellent soybean and rapeseed candles. It is important to choose natural waxes like these over paraffin, which can release chemicals and known carcinogens including toluene and benzene when burned. These can cause instant problems for asthma sufferers, as well as affecting your respiratory health long-term (the particles release by burning even natural candle-fragrance and dye in cosy spaces can also irritate asthmatics, who may be the exception to the “foolproof gift” rule above).

Making memories, changing moods

The fragrance industry is well aware of how scent (including scented candles) influence consumers. The olfactory bulbs are part of the limbic system and connect with structures that process emotion (the amygdala) and associative learning (the hippocampus). None of our other senses have such an intimate link with these neural areas, therefore there is a strong neurological basis for why odours trigger emotional connections and memory. So-called ‘aromachology,’ is used to steer us commercially.

Perfumes are sold as indicative of personality type— elegant, feminine, etc — with notes that suggest these characteristics to noses chosen accordingly. Creed ‘Green Irish Tweed’ and Chanel No.5 are instantly recognisable as classic and expensive, for example, while Marc Jacobs ‘Daisy’ collection is as sweet and fresh as the name suggests. Even bestsellers are subjective, however, and you never know who has had a traumatic experience with Elizabeth Arden’s ‘White Diamonds’ or feels suffocated by the sheer ubiquity of Hugo Boss. This risk is just another reason the less intimate candle is a safer gift-choice than fragrance.

Scents can also influence your mood and perception, studies show, and this can be useful in candle selection. Cucumber and apple scents, according to the New York-based Scent Marketing Institute, can make a room seem bigger, while leather and cedar can evoke an expensive hotel suite and rich floral scents encourage women to linger longer (it is worth noting that some of this body’s research results may be US-peculiar, they do credit the smell of pumpkin pie with stoking male arousal). Rosemary can improve cognitive performance and lavender is famously relaxing. The smell of coffee and baked goods clearly draws in cafe customers but has also been shown to make people more open to helping others. 9Mrs May might light Jo Malone London’s Sweet Almond and Macaroon Home Candle, €52 at Brown Thomas, in her office and then pour herself a cup of ambition.)

Beyond enhancing your environment, fragrance spurs memory and candles can be used to mark special occasions in the mind. Companies including Jo Loves, the current home of fragrance mogul Jo Malone, offer to professionally scent events for both purposes. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle filled their wedding with Diptyque’s fresh and floral candles (though the brand didn’t reveal exact choices, their Figuier Candle, €70, was once spotted on the now Duchess of Sussex’s Instagram account), and who wouldn’t want a scent that helps you better recall the most special moment of your life?

Burning love

Candles are a growing part of the fragrance industry but still unpretentious, at least compared to perfume. I have sat in an office listening to someone explain how to pack a “fragrance wardrobe’ for a weekend (using a devoted travel box), and am glad candle brands don’t seem to be there yet. They are also a luxury aimed at promoting shared enjoyment.

Any such thing that lights up and flickers and is not a screen is good for our social sustenance as a species.

Candles probably are overpriced, no matter what Diptyque says, but while you can’t cost time with people you care about (nor the enhanced memory of this time),the shelf price is not really the whole ball of wax.

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