When Maison Birks decided recently to venture into the high-end candle market it hired London perfumer Lyn Harris to create a scent that celebrates the Canadian outdoors. She came up with a candle that has notes of pine, honey and smoky ember – an aroma instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time exploring our mountains, lakes and forests.
The Birks Boreal, $95, with its frosted glass and interior gold trim, manages to somehow be both refined and woodsy at the same time. It would make the perfect gift the next time I visit a friend’s farm or cottage for a weekend – thoughtful, generous, but not something that would break the bank.
By jumping into the luxury candle sector the 140-year-old jewellery retailer joins a long list of high-end brands – Dior, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, etc. – that have realized candles with class are a perfect way to introduce customers to their brands at price points that are more palatable than, say, a $5,000 ring or handbag.
As Jean-Christophe Bédos, president of the Birks Group said in January, his company decided to introduce its first candle after studying the “evolution” of the jewellery customer profile, explaining that it “provides the ultimate home accessory that is an accessible luxury item.”
The key word here is accessible. Priced less than $100, it allows consumers who can’t spend hundreds on a signature piece of jewellery to treat others – or better yet themselves – to a bit of comfort with a touch of extravagance.
Gone are the days when a candle was that last-minute gift you picked up as a hasty thank you. As Laura Slatkin, founder of Nest Fragrances of New York says, consumers – particularly millennials – don’t consider candles a once-in-a-while luxury. “They consider home fragrance an integral part of their everyday lives. Just as important as makeup, or skin care, or a smart TV.”
Once simply a source of light, candles are now must-have adjuncts to our homes and synonymous with wellness and self-care.
“Most baby boomers tend to light candles when they’re entertaining … and then they blow them out and put them away for the next special occasion,” says Slatkin, whose candles, diffusers and body-care products are sold in Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Sephora and others.
“Millennials use home fragrance to create a pleasing ambience for themselves to enjoy. They light candles when they get home, when they’re reading, when they’re taking a bath or just lounging at home. It’s a coveted commodity to them and part of their everyday routine.”
The candle market is still dominated by mass-market giants such as Yankee Candles, which has a 46 per cent share in the United States. However, sales of prestige candles totalled almost US$102-million in 2017 according to market research firm NPD Group. While it’s only a small slice of the US$4-billion prestige fragrance market (which includes perfume), it’s the fastest-growing category, jumping one-third over the past two years, according to NPD.
That growth rate has motivated the likes of Birks, Gucci and LV to slide into the sector, along with a slew of others such as wellness retailers Goop and Honest, beauty chain Sephora, hair guru Frederic Fekkai, award-winning vintner Jean-Charles Boisset (JCB) of California, and even Canadian cannabis purveyor Tokyo Smoke.
“Our customers want their scented candles to slip seamlessly into their home’s decor,” Slatkin says. “It’s so prevalent in the millennial psyche they are fragrance ‘wardrobing’ in their homes by having a floral scent in one room, a citrus in another and an exotic-spicy scent in another. They are very savvy and serious when it comes to home fragrance.”
Simon Tooley, owner of Montreal’s Maison Etiket, believes the growth in high-end candles comes down to two things: “We’re spending more time in our homes and we’re spending more money on the ritual of it.”
“People are inspired by what they see on Instagram and every posting that suggests serenity and well-being has a candle in the background,” says Tooley, whose company sells skin-care, beauty and fragrance products. His top selling candles this past Christmas were an interesting mix: Arquiste’s St. Regis Caroline’s Four Hundred ($95, inspired by the hotel chain’s founding matriarch Caroline Astor, which smells like you are walking through a fresh garden in spring) and the cheeky Bullshit candle from London’s IIUVO, whose name mocks the prestigious names of the most expensive bougie. It has top notes of Sichuan pepper and grapefruit, a mid-range infused with lavender and rose and a musk/tonka bean/vanilla base.
Kirk Stratakos, whose family are multigenerational candlemakers with three Yummi Candles stores in the Greater Toronto Area, believes the high-end candle market will continue to flourish, but not only at the very top end.
“We can make a candle and put a $400 price tag on it, but we ask ourselves is it really worth that? The $30 candle I sell is very similar, if not identical, to someone producing a candle for a luxury house that is retailing for $150,” he says.