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Wonderfully wick-ed

Perfumers are deploying ever more subtle and evocative scents for candles, says Vicci Bentley.

December 01 2011
Vicci Bentley

Exquisite perfume that glows in the dark – what’s not to warm to? And as a hostess gift, they’ve become the new soap. “Perfumed candles clearly say something about your taste and style as a giver,” says perfumer Roja Dove. “But because they’re less intimate than perfume, they are more acceptable – the risk of the recipient not liking them is much less.”

At Ormonde Jayne, a bespoke perfume house that began life as candle-maker to prestige labels such as Chanel and Burberry, scented candles still represent a steady 30 per cent of annual turnover, with sales rocketing as the yuletide spirit gathers momentum. As the Western hemisphere spins into the introspection of its shortest, darkest days, the gift of light alone is a glimmer of optimism. Add scent, and the soft, multisensory assault makes it hard not to be enthusiastic.

“Scented candles transform a basic room into a place of comfort, especially on cold winter nights,” says Linda Pilkington, perfumer at Ormonde Jayne. “If you don’t have a fire to light, they’re the next best thing to make children feel excited and adults relaxed,” she believes.

And as scene-setters and ice-breakers, nothing launches the holiday mood with such immediacy. Ormonde Jayne’s seasonal Limited Edition Navidad Festive Candle (£62) is vibrant with pomander notes of clementine and spice; Jo Malone’s Pine & Eucalyptus Home Candle (£38) evokes forests of cool, blue spruce, while its magnificent Roasted Chestnut Deluxe Candle (£80) conjures an open fire convincingly.

At the newly opened Cire Trudon boutique in Marylebone’s Chiltern Street in London, the Nazareth Grande Boujis (£395), in its glowing crimson glass, raises spirits with clove, cinnamon, orange and olibanum, and the promise that 10 per cent of sales are given to French bee-protection charity Terre d’Abeilles as thanks for the natural wax. With three wicks and more than 300 hours of burning time, Nazareth can suffuse an entire house with “night before Christmas” anticipation.

Yet the candle cognoscenti argue that, just as décor informs the feel of a room, scent strategy is crucial to ambient control. What you burn where can manipulate mood, says Roja Dove, whose strategically placed Perfumed Candles (£75) provide a sympathetic background to the Connaught hotel’s Coburg Bar.

“As you walk in, there’s Neroli – rich, sensual and with a sense of anticipation. At the back of the bar, Vetiver is warm, dry and earthy; a scent to get you snugged in for the night,” he says. Somewhere in the centre, where guests mingle, the two scents collide to create a slightly sweet, reassuring sense of stability that suits the style of the space, Dove believes. Perfume (from the Latin per fumum, through smoke) has always been used to create atmosphere and effect, he reminds us, while affirming that “burning candles uplifts and transports us to a better place”.

Such as the dining room, perhaps? Gem-like facets of crystal glasses illuminated by flickering candlelight make an irresistible tableau. But whether perfume heightens appetite or simply mugs tastebuds is a delicate debate. Miller Harris’ slender Bois Fumé Dinner Candles (£30 for six) are dipped in a light wash of fragrance, so that their subtle birch and black tobacco smokiness won’t distract the palate from the main dish. Dove prefers to burn leathery Labdanum in the early evening, snuffing it out an hour before guests gather around the table, so the atmosphere is “enveloping, but not overwhelming”, he says.

Back around the fire, after-dinner candles settle guests into toasty, late-night cosiness. Frédéric Malle Coffee Society (£58) is perfumer Carlos Benaim’s impression of living-room moments after a Parisian dinner has ended. Penhaligon’s indulgent Maduro Leaf Candle (£95) exudes marshmallow-soft leather chairs and wafts of cigar smoke, sweetened by traces of musk from some elusive perfume, suggesting salacious laters.

The jury is out, however, on whether candles soused in skin perfumes are an ambient outreach of personality or – like the cloying intensity of a recently vacated lift – downright overbearing. “What’s far more stylish is to sublimate your personal fragrance with just one of its ingredients,” Roja Dove believes, suggesting jasmine or rose to complement his oriental floral fragrance Reckless.

Yet some skin perfumes, such as suave, mossy-green chypres and spicy woods, transcend boundaries easily. The 03 Century Candle (£50) by über-cool New York men’s lifestyle label Odin (they won Fashion Group International’s Rising Star Award last year) emanates a cool woodland breath of cypress, mint, musk and amber. Maison Martin Margiela (untitled) candle (£60) is just as intensely green and softened with cedar and incense as the original, off-beat fragrance.

Meanwhile, for those with a taste for the bizarre, the aroma rising from The Hype Nose’s Art Plastic Candle (£39) eludes analysis, but might send febrile girlie girls (of any age) giddy with nostalgia. This is the shiny, pink nylon soul of Barbie, trapped in soy wax by Parisian synaesthesiast Stephane Humbert Lucas. And like the doll herself, the softly hissing wooden wick stays resolutely upright to the last flicker.

Smoking and drowning wicks are candles’ smutty downsides. So too is the irksome cavity of a lopsided burn, yet according to Pilkington, all are avoidable. “If you blow the candle out after an hour and repeat that pattern, a small funnel will form at the centre and the sides will never burn down,” she warns. “From the very first burn, keep the candle lit until the wax is molten to the edge. Then, when you snuff it out, guide the wick back to the centre and trim it,” she adds, noting that wicks burn slowly and smoke less.

To the growing cult of incense-burning fans, a curling plume is an ambient asset. “Smoke is the visible embodiment of perfume,” maintains Laurent Delafon, CEO of United Perfumes and co-creator of Fornasetti Profumi. Escaping from keyholes or the top of winking heads, smoke is crucial to the visual puns of Fornasetti’s ceramic Scent Sphere (£195), and its Bacio and Pensée Incense Boxes (£145), where smoke smoulders from a kiss or flower in the palm of a hand.

To ensure the integrity of their signature scent, Otto – already exquisitely rich and birch-tar smoky – Fornasetti approached Nippon Kodo, a Japanese house with a 430-year tradition of temple-incense-making, to formulate their burning sticks. “Hippies gave incense sticks a bad name, but they can be very sophisticated,” says Delafon.

Candles take 20 minutes to suffuse a room but incense is instant. “It permeates fabric and wood to create a lingering ambience,” adds perfumer Lyn Harris, whose Fleur Oriental and La Fumée sticks (£30) for Miller Harris are hand-blended and rolled in Kyoto, and burnt in London-fired, grey-washed ceramic holders (£20). “Candle scent is limited to an area, whereas incense becomes part of the space.”

Smoke without fire? Futurists or those with small, inquisitive children may prefer to safely, stylishly diffuse their scent from the Illumium Aromarizor (£125) – a matte-black cube resembling a compact hi-fi speaker that releases perfume from gel-pack cartridges. Or Edition Frédéric Malle’s Rubber Incense Saint des Saint (£68), a mini mouse-mat alternative to scented sachets, designed to scent confined spaces such as closets or cars for years without fade. But for this season, at least, traditionalists will stay faithful to old flames.

As Dove points out: “Perfumed candles are genuine luxury items. No one really needs them, but with them life seems brighter, more optimistic, and far sweeter.”

See also

Candles