When I recently moved apartments, I did not salvage a single piece of furniture. I draped a bath towel around my TV upon loading it onto the truck and squeezed my succulents between a box full of art books and a wrought-iron nightstand. (Negligent, I know.) What I did fastidiously wrap in T-shirts, along with the few "good" plates I had, were five luxury scented candles. I recognize that with all the money I spent on them, I could have at least bought a decent armchair, but I don’t regret my choice. A good candle makes even the most spartan environment feel like home.
Humankind was always attracted to perfume, but scented candles are a fairly recent mainstay. Their appeal skyrocketed in the mid 1980s, thanks to the then-thriving potpourri market: "By the late 1980s candles and candle accessories (!) accounted for upwards of 20 percent of the total market of gift shop items. Estimated total sales in the late 1990s for candles alone were between $968 million and $2.3 billion," writes Wendy A. Woloson in the 2020 book Crap, which surveys our obsession with tchotchkes.
When we were mostly confined to our own homes in the early pandemic, the sale of home fragrances and candles skyrocketed, Women’s Wear Daily reported in 2020. But now that lockdowns are a thing of the past (for now), it seems the multi-sensory appeal of candles is here to stay. A report from trend forecasting agency WGSN confirms this: "As consumers emerge from isolation, they will have endured restricted human touch, and will have a new respect for multi-sensory environments, particularly scented ones."
If you want to get into scented candles, or are already a collector looking to expand your horizons, there are some things you should consider.
Know your wax
The building block of any candle is wax, but there’s a necessary caveat when considering what works best for you: Every brand you might be interested in will advocate for the wax of their choice, but the decision is yours.
Paraffin, which is very widely used, holds both fragrance and color quite well, but given that it’s a petroleum byproduct, and its penchant to create soot when not tended to properly, it’s not exactly the most eco-friendly. Beeswax is great on paper: It has a distinctively warm undertone (so it casts a very pleasant warm glow when lit up!), with a longer burn time than paraffin due to its higher melting temperature. However, it’s the most expensive type and its natural sweet scent can’t be fully neutralized with added fragrances. For options that are completely vegan, soy wax is your best bet, at a lower price point than beeswax without the toxic byproducts of paraffin. Soy wax has a cooler undertone, resulting in a lighter, more cool-toned flame, and has a good payoff between melting point and scent throw. Coconut wax, the combination of coconut oil or coconut meat with soy wax, carries more scent than soy wax does, but is is quite expensive.
The type of candle also determines the type of wax. While this guide mainly deals with container candles for the way they can fully double as decor, some people do prefer pillar candles for atmosphere, working well with both a witchy and a church-inpsired aesthetic. Taper candles are narrower than pillars and work best in candlesticks, candelabras, and candleholders. Both of these decorative candles require higher melt-point wax: paraffin and beeswax are the best fit.
So you want to feel cozy?
In an era where coziness reigns supreme (see: hygge, cottagecore, and the candlelit libraries of dark academia), candles are the fastest and most cost-effective way to achieve any of those desired effects. Gourmand candles boast creative scent combinations and are more likely to stave off any suggestions of a cloying, gift-shop stench. Mexican Baroque by Arquiste combines cocoa, vanilla, and smoke; Dreamer in London by Nomad Noé offsets vanilla with firewood and tobacco, while the Croissant bundle by Overose will, predictably, evoke a French pastry shop.
And cozy does not have to mean gourmand: it can also conjure an environment conducive to intense focus. Diptyque’s Feu de Bois is the most famous example, but I am happy to propose alternatives. Bibliothèque by Byredo combines woody scents, vanilla, and leather accords; Bois Ciré has resinous, waxy accents. And a personal favorite is DS and Durga’s Portable Fireplace, which gets right to the point and truly smells like a crackling fireplace.
Make it art
Beyond their scent, some manufacturers just make really cool-looking vessels. For the minimalist folks, they’re a safe way to dip their toes into maximalist aesthetics. L’Objet, by Elad Yifrach, pairs its signature scents with porcelain vessels richly adorned with bas-reliefs, sculptural and painterly details. Just in time for Fall, Veuve Noire, redolent of pink champagne, comes in a brown vessel with a lid decorated with a spider web and with a rhinestones-encrusted spider crawling on top. Fornasetti’s vessels feature classicized imagery combined with botanical illustrations: Se Poi has butterflies fluttering around a Mediterranean garden. I am also partial to Gucci’s collaborations with porcelain manufacturer Ginori, whose vessels evoke the appearance of an old-time apothecary or alchemist’s laboratory: see their Magnetismo candle, for example.
Did you jump on the taper-candle bandwagon? Get yourself a design-friendly holder: I am partial to this potion-lab inspired holder made of colorful, handcrafted glass or to this mirrored one. (There’s no need to be sparse and minimalist with candles.)
A candle for every occasion—or room
Why would you limit yourself to just one scent? I am a firm believer that a different candle in every room or corner of your home sets a different scene. I used to have one that I lit specifically for studying and intense work: Diptyque’s Hiver, the 2014 version "cold-themed" scent they release for each Holiday collection, but, alas, it’s been discontinued. I personally like woods in living rooms, such as the aforementioned Portable Fireplace by DS and Durga and earthier, more subdued scents in the bedroom, (see Hinoki Fantôme).
Mostly, I’ve been a strong proponent of herbal scents in my office space, where I spend the majority of my day. Everybody has been raving about Flamingo Estate’s Tomato Candle, but I think their Tuscan Climbing Rosemary is the perfect deskside companion, because for centuries, rosemary has been used as a mental stimulant. If smelling rosemary makes you hungry—Ovenly bakery in Brooklyn does make decadent cranberry and rosemary scones—go with Mint, like this variant by Carrière Frères.
Don’t forget the accessories!
When you decide to invest in a candle or gift one on the pricier side: you’ll want it to burn for as long as it can. Plus, you’ll want to avoid the dreaded tunneling (when the candle melts through the center and not the whole area of the vessel). The main thing is keep the wick at an ideal length: from 1/8 to 1/4 inch. In this case, don’t just use your standard pair of scissors, even though yes, we’ve all done that before. It’s better to rely on a wick trimmer—a pair of scissors with a long handle and with the edges set at an angle.
When you’re done burning the candle, you should avoid just blowing it out. Recommended tools include a wick extinguisher, a bell-shaped tool that dates back to the 17th century. Yet, a sizable portion of the candle-burning aficionados prefers wick dippers, essentially stems with an angled end, which is used to dip the wick into the wax: doing so will prevent any smoke or soot and the unpleasant smells associated with it. In addition, doing so will coat the wick with wax, making the scent more long-lasting—just remember to trim it before your next burn.
These accessories have an inherent steampunk aesthetic about them. If you like wooden handles, this set by Rosy Rings takes care of all the candle-maintenance needs, while Diptyque has a sleek yet sturdy line of candle-care products in a tasteful chrome finish. For something less in your face, cozy-interior-purveyor Anthropologie has a surprisingly demure set in black.
For the flame-averse
Some people just don’t like clutter, or they don’t want to commit to 60-plus hours of burning time. Fortunately, candlemakers have now been offering their signature scents in incense form as well, which makes for a more wallet-friendly and clutter-averse alternative. L’Objet, for example, sells their signature iris fragrance Oh Mon Dieu both in candle and in incense form. Astier de Villatte has a similar formula, and their line of incense holders has a tactile and hand-drawn quality that makes them similar to archaeological findings.
If you don’t want to bother with burning and smoke, diffusers are a solid alternative. While they personally make me think of hotel bathrooms and airport lounges, I have made good use of Hinoki by L.A. Bruket and of Diptyque’s Tubereuse room spray.
Regardless of what method you choose to scent your home, just remember that it's your house, your rules: light a candle or three, experiment, and see what works best for you.
Photo courtesy of Noka Design