The signature scent of Paris's Hôtel Costes wafts through its hallways and rooms thanks to candles infused with the peppery fragrance. It was formulated for the boutique hotel in 2004 by Olivia Giacobetti, a French perfumer better known as the creator of fine fragrances for Guerlain, L'Artisan Parfumeur and Lubin. Costes is also the bestselling scented candle at premier luxury-fragrance e-retailer luckyscent.com. Each costs about $85.
"It's a real phenomenon – we have people who buy 15 at a time," says Franco Wright, the co-founder of Luckyscent, over the phone from Los Angeles. "It's just so striking and, if you can get that in your home, you are recreating that ambient sexiness. … It's a splurge but it brings that vibe into your house."
Or the Lord's house. For her 2011 wedding to Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge scented Westminster Abbey with her favourite Jo Malone candles. These days, commoners are just as likely to cherish the $75 jarred votives. According to Kline & Company, the global home-fragrance market is growing for the fourth consecutive year (it's larger than fine fragrance and personal care combined), in part due to candles. The growth isn't just because mega-brands such as Febreze have entered the game, but because shoppers are scooping up candles at the top end of the spectrum. According to the market-research firm, premium scented candles accounted for 6 per cent of the growth in 2012, even though the category is crowded with mass-market competitors, as well as plug-ins, melts, reeds and other novelty fragrance diffusers.
If the "lipstick index" measures the state of the recessionary economy through an affordable luxury purchase, then splurging on extravagantly scented wax, a non-essential purchase that's just as personal, could be called the candle index – one that also measures the zeitgeist.
In French, the word for candle is bougie. In English, it's a rather sneering derogatory short-form for "petty bourgeoisie." By no coincidence, many of the most-coveted luxury candles, including Costes, come from France. Each year, Diptyque creates special holiday-edition candles. This December, its trio of limited-edition fragrances ($82 apiece) come in etched, coloured-glass packaging by French artist collective Qubo Gas. Parfums Frédéric Malle offers a $145 Tubereuse candle, poured in hand-blown red Venetian glass, formulated by master perfumer Dominique Ropion. Malle's niche brand was acquired last month by Estée Lauder, as was Le Labo, whose leathery Santal 26 candle ($80) is a bestseller worldwide.
The world's oldest candle manufacturer is Cire Trudon (French, naturally), which dates back to 1643 and the royal court of Louis XIV. In addition to having the best burn, "they feel very regal – they're substantial and heavy, the box they come in is a handmade hat box," says Wright of the $95 candles. "It feels like a real present to yourself."
Swap lipsticks for wicks and that's a holdover from the recent recession. "It is something easy that people can still feel good about allowing themselves to spend money on for themselves," says Suji Meswani, the co-founder of Philadelphia candle company Skeem. "It's something that's affordable for many people – it's still an under-$100 purchase and it's used every day," she says. "It's a very immediate gratification."
The boom also comes from renewed interest in cocooning at home and, by extension, in home decor. As Meswani says, a gorgeous candle is "still cheaper than painting a room or buying new pillows." Skeem approaches its made-in-the-U.S.A. scented candles from a visual perspective – the vessels are silk-screened with original designs and can be re-purposed (as drinking glasses, for example). "A plain candle isn't giving you anything else – it doesn't make you want to display the container out on your mantel," says Meswani.
Skeem's candles, which start at $25, are inexpensive compared to the slew of highend versions, which can cost as much as $500 for a triple-wick number from Fornasetti Profumi (its vessel is a piece of art long after the wax has burned away). Otherwise, the basis of a superior candle is simple, Wright explains, and reflected in the higher price: it's the quality of the perfume oil that goes into the proprietary blend of waxes. "You can smell the difference," says Wright. "For example, our Voluspa candles [$27 U.S.] satisfy a need for a nice candle without spending a lot – they're not cheap-smelling. But in the next category, in that $60 to $70 range, you can then smell top middle and base notes on the nose. That complexity is undeniable. It's special," he adds. "And if they're candles from France, they're even more expensive because of the exporting costs – the Euro conversion and the shipping weight."
A clever luxury candle should also capture the imagination. L'Air de Rien, created for Jane Birkin by British perfumer Lyn Miller (of Miller Harris), conjures the smell of old libraries, with vanilla notes echoing the dusty-sweet scent of the lignin in decomposing paper. Then there's Hollywood, a recent addition to Astier de Villatte's city-inspired range. "We had to have that one even without smelling it," Wright says, "and it does well just based on the idea."
Candles may also have other, more subtle transformative powers. In August, Skeem launched an elegant collection of safety matches with colour-co-ordinated tips ($17.98 for a bottle of 60). They're housed in firefly bottles with a flint on the label. The accessory suggests how the candle's place in ceremonial tradition, once located at church or temple, has moved into the home.
"I think meditation and the idea of setting intentions is something that has really become important in people's development as human beings," Meswani says. "People are paying more attention to that, a lot of people are starting off their morning thinking of a loved one that has passed and lighting a candle in remembrance or saying what it is they want for themselves. That ritual helps with those thoughts and intentions."
"The matches have been so popular," Meswani adds, "that I joked with my partner that maybe we should forget the candles and just be a match-bottle company!"