These days, the perfect candle exists for every occasion, no matter how niche. Dreaming of cheese but lactose intolerant? Adorn your charcuterie board with Gohar World’s hyper-realistic Gruyère candle. Craving your favorite childhood cereal but need to cut down on sugar? Your kitchen needs Froot Loops-inspired candles by Ardent that resemble — in smell and sight — the real stuff. Wish your home smelled like couture? Balenciaga debuted a candle infused with scents extracted from the walls of its Paris couture house.
Welcome to the belle epoque of the candle. Candles that look and smell like just about anything are on the market. Whether it’s cigarettes, cannabis, the Galápagos Islands or former President Barack Obama, one can find precisely what they are looking for. On Etsy, searches for dip dye candles, terrarium candles, food-inspired candles, seashell candles and ribbed candles are all on the rise, a spokeswoman for the e-commerce site said. Searches for candles in general on Etsy are also increasing — up 80 percent in the last 12 months, compared to the same time prepandemic.
Demand for higher end candles in particular is driving the trend. According to data from the NPD Group, a market research firm, sales for candles over $75 increased by 26 percent this year compared to last. Corporate-branded candles have also taken off: Chipotle, Dunkin’, McDonald’s, Shake Shack and Liquid Death have all made candles.
We may ask ourselves, how did we get here? Is this wax heaven, or is it a wax hell?
For last-minute gift givers, the candle mania is a dream come true. For companies, it’s the next frontier of marketing: What scent symbolizes the ethos of one’s brand? There are also more and more companies being formed around the item itself, furthering the craft of the candle and showing consumers just how much a candle can do — smells can be conceptual, wax can hold politics and flames can be a form of wellness.
For Ryan Bush, 32, the candle array leads to endless delight. Mr. Bush, an artist, has 100 candles in his Queens apartment, of which his favorite is Loewe’s “Tomato Leaves” candle. “It smells like standing in a garden,” Mr. Bush said. “These scents really bring you into these other places and worlds that you are physically not in.”
‘An Ephemeral Pillar of Wax’
The National Candle Association, a trade organization, estimates that one of the earliest uses of candles can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians in 3,000 B.C., as a way to provide light. Early on, candles have also been central to worship and religious ceremonies: both Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, feature candle lighting and date back thousands of years.
During the 1800s, candles were also consistently used as a method of time tracking. “People would take a beeswax candle down into the mines while they were mining, and they were marked with 12 lines, and that’s how they knew what a shift was, by burning a candle down to a certain line,” said Kathy LaVanier, a spokeswoman for the National Candle Association.
Over the years, candles have evolved from utilitarian objects to meltable symbols of today’s overconsumption. They started to be used commonly as décor in homes in the 1960s in the United States, and Yankee Candle, which was founded in 1969, helped popularize scented candles. While some have expressed concern about potential links between scented candles and cancer in recent times, some researchers have found that their use is still safe.
Cereria Introna, an Italian candle company, was first founded in 1840 and has been passed down through six generations of the same family. While the brand was initially focused on candles for religious purposes, today, it’s known for its opulent and highly convincing food candles: decadent cakes, champagne bottles, plates of seafood pasta and more. All calorie free delights.
Compared to 2021, the company’s sales in the United States rose by 40 percent, said Vincenzo Introna, who now runs the company with his sister. At one point, demand rose so much that “we have been forced to stop the orders,” he added.
The handcrafted nature of Cereria Introna’s candles makes them especially difficult to produce on a mass scale. Typically, it takes four to five employees, each with a different specialty, to make a single candle.
In recent years, “we saw a lot of craft candle makers come into the marketplace,” Ms. LaVanier said. “The same thing that happened to beer and wine happened to candles.”
Social media and e-commerce platforms, such as Etsy, allowed for independent craft makers to bring their waxy products to the marketplace more easily.
Ardent, the company that makes the cereal bowl candles, was first founded by Koby Lomax in 2018, when he was a college student. Mr. Lomax made the candles out of his mother’s garage and sold them via Instagram. Eventually, he got on TikTok — and within a week, the brand gained 200,000 followers. Currently, it has over 800,000 followers on the platform.
Steve Romero, the company’s chief executive, said that he started to approach it like a sneaker brand. “We build up hype, and then we have some surprise drops once a month with a new cereal,” Mr. Romero said. “It was crazy. We were sold out almost half the year last year.”
In 2021, Ardent made $1.2 million in revenue. This year, that figure more than doubled, to $2.5 million, Mr. Romero said.
Consumer interest has also been on the rise for status candles, a waxy way to show off wealth.
The New York-based brand Malin+Goetz sells candles perfumed with mojito, dark rum and leather. Its most popular candle is one with a whiff of cannabis, priced at $58 each. The brand also sells a “supercandle,” which burns for 180 hours, for $150. When Malin+Goetz first debuted the supercandle in 2020, it sold out within two weeks, and candle sales as a whole this year have been on the rise, said Rachel Lavipour, the vice president of sales for the company.
Diptyque, a Parisian fragrance brand which is considered the crème de la crème of wax, sells its classic candles for $72 to $84. But its 1.5 kilogram, 120-hour burn time candles go for $400 (or $420, if it’s a special edition).
Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist at Brown University and the author of “The Scent of Desire,” said that with these kinds of high-end candles, “people are often buying the label, just like fashion.”
And, the more someone smells a specific fragrance, the less they’re able to actually detect that scent, Ms. Herz added. So candles are not only disappearing in their physical form to the consumer, but also to the nose. “People spending $350 on an ephemeral pillar of wax are making a statement about who they are and what they can afford,” she said.
Uncommon Scents and Politics
The social isolation and loss many people have endured throughout the pandemic also likely contributed to the candle craze.
“Similarly, following 9/11, there was an increase in interest for home fragrance products,” Ms. Herz said. “Scent is so tied to emotion and creating moods, especially comfort. Candles gave many people a quick form of emotional solace in the pandemic.”
“Hygge is the art of creating a nice atmosphere, and candles are key to that,” Mr. Wiking said. “They give off a warmer, softer light. The same way a light from a fireplace would be considered more hygge than the overhead light in your office.”
In his research, Mr. Wiking came across one family whose dinners lasted longer after they started lighting candles at the table. “Instead of sitting down and shoving down their food as fast as possible, they’d have nice conversations and learn more about each other’s days. Candles can change how a family interacts,” Mr. Wiking said.
The growing wellness industry has embraced candles as well. Some companies have hawked candles aimed at helping people sleep or heal.
For Courtney Zhu, 25, lighting candles is an exercise in self-care. “One of my favorite rituals is a lights-off shower lit by a single candle,” Ms. Zhu, who works at a health care data science start-up, said. Since she moved to Manhattan this summer it’s been hard to find peace, she said, but the calmness that candles bring her has helped. Ms. Zhu currently owns about two dozen candles, and she starts each weekday morning by lighting one.
And as any modern object has taken on the role of a canvas for a political statement — take, for example, hoodies that say “Pizza Rolls Not Gender Roles” — candles have also been used as ways to take a stance.
Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness site, made a “Hands Off My Vagina” candle that blew up on social media earlier this year. “It’s certainly a gimmick, but it came at a time when women were feeling pretty powerless, especially after the Roe decision,” said Casey Lewis, a trend researcher who writes about youth culture in her Substack newsletter, After School.
Boy Smells, an L.A.-based company, also considers the politics of gender through its candles by bringing together both traditionally masculine and feminine scents in their products. “The word that we use is genderful, rather than genderless, so there’s fullness in the spectrum of our identities,” said Matthew Herman, who co-founded the company with David Kien. “We wanted to mix, not separate, things that were typically thought of as feminine, like jasmine or rose, with things that were thought of as masculine, like wood or musk.”
In 2020, Mr. Bush, the candle aficionado in Queens, started a virtual scent club, where he and some friends would purchase candles without smelling them (“blind buying”) and conduct scent reveals together virtually. “We’d see each other’s live reactions and share what notes we picked up, but the more fun conversations would start when we’d ask each other ‘what does this remind you of?’” Mr. Bush said.
Now, Mr. Bush has a hutch dedicated to his candle collection in his apartment, and he frequently posts reviews of candles on his TikTok and Instagram pages. “It was really a form of armchair travel for me,” Mr. Bush said. “The hobby started at a time when we couldn’t travel because of the pandemic, but each new candle was an incredible, sensory experience.”