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What Ignited Our Burning Desire for Luxury Candles

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Ever since French candle brand Diptyque first opened its New York City flagship on ritzy Madison Avenue, shoppers have raced to the store as soon as the annual holiday collection drops in early November.

Diptyque is well aware it inspires a certain kind of devotion. Candles from the Paris-based company that was founded in 1961 by a group of artists are so popular in the fashion and design worlds that the brand has become the undisputed king of the luxury candle market. You may have heard of its perennial bestseller Baies, which smells of "rose and blackcurrant" and has been Diptyque's most popular scent for years; images of Baies candles (often strategically placed next to vases of peonies) are commonplace on Instagram.

Still, the company is never quite prepared for the fancy wax-obsessed mob that chases after the exclusive holiday collection. This year's limited-edition scents — Sapin ("a familiar yet unprecedented meeting of citrus and woody notes"), Liquidambar ("enveloping liquid amber spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon, then cloaked in the scent of muscovado sugar"), and Oliban ("sweet oriental vapors of incense") — are selling out on the brand's website (and then being restocked as quickly as possible, only to sell out again) and can barely be kept on shelves in brand boutiques and department stores.

"We literally have people coming into the store a month before the collection comes out, asking if they can see and smell it," Lori Ferme, the manager of Diptyque's Madison Avenue store, tells me last month. "Once it's for sale, people are buying anywhere from 15 to 30 at a time. And I have to say, almost everything is pretty much gone... and it's not even Thanksgiving."

Donna DiDonato, Diptyque's US managing director, calls the holiday season "frightening."

"I say that because as soon as we start selling the new collection, we already have both wholesale and retail requesting more product because they never seem to have any left," she explains. "It's insane how much of a following these candles have."

Not to mention, Diptyque's holiday candles — which come in specially-designed packaging, with this year's featuring work by French artist Julien Colombier — are actually more expensive than the ones it sells year-round, retailing for $70 for a 6.6-ounce candle and $35 for the 2.4-ounce version, as opposed to $60 and $30.

"Diptyque goes all out with presentation, so yes, the vessels are gorgeous and the fragrances exclusive, which makes it that much more enticing," Christina Rylan, who runs the blog Candle Find, says of the holiday collection. "It's a very expensive brand and candle lovers that have the money don't mind spending it on a quality product."

The rest of the year, Diptyque is a top-of-mind obsession for many candle fanatics too. People happily wait three hours in the rain to enter its sales. Sites are littered with reviews like, "Love and can't stop buying! Totally addicted and I'm ok with that!" and "I'm a candle snob and out of every candle line out there, Diptyque wins. Just burn one and you'll get it... It will change your life."

"The first time I walked by a Baies candle, I knew I had found my 'forever' scent," blogger Rachel Lyu of RaeViewer says. "It was the perfect balance between rose and blackcurrant — a hint sweet with plenty of green. Baies was memorable. It was unlike any candle I had ever smelled before because it was sensual yet fresh. That was the beginning of my Diptyque addiction."

While the price tags on luxury candles — whose wax, no matter how delicately perfumed, will inevitably melt — might raise some eyebrows, the market has seen explosive growth over the last few years, with brands like Diptyque, Jo Malone, and Cire Trudon seeing a noticeable rise in sales.

In the US, candles bring in $1.8 billion in annual revenue, according to IBISWorld. Though Yankee Candle controls 46 percent of the market and will bring in an estimated $832 million in revenue in 2015, IBISWorld notes the rest of the industry is comprised of "numerous small and dispersed operators" and that profit is "high for niche candle makers that can differentiate the product and justify a high selling price."

According to retail analyst Karen Doskow of Kline & Company, sales of luxury candles from brands like Diptyque are outpacing the rest of the candle market completely. Candles are even selling better than perfume. "There's been a real appetite," Doskow says. "People are willing to shell out and spend on name-brand candles."

"The days of buying inexpensive Yankee Candles are over," echoes Andy Kindfuller, the CEO of ScentAir, a scent marketing firm that works with clients like Westin, JW Marriott, and Hugo Boss to pair scents with brands. "We've moved beyond that. People now want excellent fragrances that demonstrate wonderful luxury."

"The days of buying inexpensive Yankee Candles are over. We've moved beyond that."

DiDonato says that Diptyque's business "has quintupled" over the last three years. She wouldn't confirm exact numbers, but WWD reports the brand is seeing around $40 million in annual retail sales these days, way up from the $10 million figure it shared in 2005 when it was acquired by private equity firm Manzanita Capital. Its brick-and-mortar presence has expanded too. In 2011, there were only three Diptyque stores in the US; there are now 14, and DiDonato says the company plans to have 18 by the end of next year.

Cire Trudon is another fancy French candle brand, one that traces its origins back to 1643 and says it was the official candle of choice of Louis XIV. Its scents are named after historical figures like Napoleon, the holy city of Nazareth, and Louise de La Vallière, the secret mistress of the Sun King.

The brand, which is often referred to as the "Rolls-Royce of candles," sells its classic 9.5-ounce wares for $95, whereas a mini version retails for $55. (For context, Yankee Candle prices range from $5 to $27.) Despite its steep prices and exclusive distribution model (candles are sold only at Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, and select Saks Fifth Avenue stores, and the brand has a limited retail and online presence), Cire Trudon has also seen an unprecedented increase in sales. The brand confirms it makes between $10 and $15 million in retail annually between its two Paris outposts and its ecommerce site, and just two weeks ago, it opened its first US store.

"The brand is on fire," says Kim-Van Dang, Cire Trudon's North American brand director. "There's been double-digit growth every year."

Diptyque's popularity has influenced the success of luxury companies like Cire Trudon, but it's also "caused a trickle-down effect to produce lower-priced candle brands," says Kline & Company's Doskow. "Diptyque has given way to less expensive candle companies, which we refer to as premium candles. The middle tier is new and growing — now, there are more and more people willing to spend $25 on a candle."

This new premium (also referred to as prestige) candle sector offers specialized scents and well-designed packaging costing a more affordable $20 to $40; market research firm NPD Group reports that sales of premium fragrance candles grew 28 percent in the US this year. Best-selling brands in this segment include Voluspa, Illume, and Jonathan Adler, which is famously responsible for the grapefruit candle it makes for SoulCycle.

Leading the mid-range pack, though, is Nest Fragrances, a relatively young company that first came out with a collection of candles in 2008. CEO Nancy McKay says the brand has almost quadrupled its business at Nordstrom — it went from 30 doors last year to 116 in 2015 — and is now in over 1,000 high-end department stores and specialty boutiques. Nest wouldn't share official numbers with Racked, but according to data compiled by Privco, its revenue has doubled over the last two years, jumping from $37 million in 2012 to $74 million in 2014.

"We have a welcome price point for prestige, but the DNA of the brand is for a true fragrance aficionado," says McKay. "I'm incredibly optimistic about our brand, and about the prestige candle category in general. There seems to be a real acceleration in this business, and I think it's because there's something about candles that provides a little bit of tranquility in this crazy world."

"Candle lovers get addicted to fragrance because the possibilities are endless — literally endless," Candle Find blogger Rylan explains. "It's addicting. Citrus scents freshen a room. Fruity scents brighten a room. Holiday scents create an added festive atmosphere. You can burn romantic scents for date night, elegant scents for a dinner party. They can literally alter your mood, calm you, de-stress you, wake you, sooth you."

"Your interior scent design is as important as your visual design," proclaims fragrance expert Chandler Burr. "We were evolved to be conscious of the scents around us. We were not evolved to exist in a giant olfactory void. That's unnatural. Create a terrific scent environment, and it speaks to your instincts. Interestingly, there are a number of candle scents that are many times more beautiful and innovative than the fine fragrances on or coming on the market."

Luxury candles in particular are often created with such care and intention, the process borders on scientific. Each Cire Trudon candle, for example, contains a mix of anywhere from 15 to 30 essential oils, with top, middle, and bottom scent notes. Jo Malone candles pass through the hands of as many as 16 different people during production. It can take up to six years for Diptyque's team to develop the aroma and branding of a new scent.

Even though Cire Trudon claims its candles surrounded Marie Antoinette's bathtub 250 years ago, luxury candles really only came into vogue in the early ‘90s, says Carol Freysinger, the executive director of the National Candle Association. She attributes this to a cultural shift that occurred a couple of decades ago when "consumers first became interested in emulating lifestyles of the rich and the famous." And the rich and famous love their fancy scented candles, especially if they're made by Diptyque.

Beyoncé, Lindsay Lohan, and Naomi Campbell have all helped fuel the craze at various points. Jennifer Lopez reportedly demands Diptyque candles be stocked on her tour bus and Madonna burns the brand's Gardenia scent during press interviews. A former interior design intern tells Racked that Sean "Diddy" Combs orders Diptyque candles by the case.

And as far as It items go, name-brand candles are relatively attainable — certainly more so than $700 shoes or a $2,500 bag. "Candles are an very affordable luxury," ScentAir's Kindfuller says. "Even if you're spending $80 on a candle, that's still an experience most can afford to bring home."

But what happens after you burn through a $60 candle? "Candles from Diptyque, Frederic Malle, Byredo, and 12.29 come in attractive glass or porcelain vessels, which are then repurposed to hold fresh flowers and writing utensils," says Jennifer Sunwoo, an executive vice president and general merchandise manager of Barneys. Some people even buy empty containers on eBay.

Also contributing to this uptick in sales has been the evolution of the industry's scent offering, notes NPD's Karen Grant. Today's most popular scents — Diptyque's Baies, Nest's Bamboo, Cire Trudon's Balmoral, Voluspa's Baltic Amber, Jo Malone's Lime Basil & Mandarin — are multi-faceted and complex. This is not a market hinging on simple vanilla votives. Brands are veering towards options that have a more "esoteric meaning," as Cire Trudon's Dang puts it, and customers are taking the bait.

"Even if you're spending $80 on a candle, that's still an experience most can afford to bring home."

"Everything was so floral and mature. I wanted a punchy, modern take," Jonathan Adler says. His brand's popular candle scents include hashish, champagne, and tomato; the latter "reminds me of gardening with my grandfather when I was a kid," he explains.

"The fragrances today are more gender-neutral, and I believe this is what's driving the market," Grant says. "If everything smelled like flowers and daisies, it wouldn't appeal to everyone. But the combinations out there today — richer scents with musky and oriental adaptations — are much more inventive and don't rely on the hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine consumer."

This especially resonates with younger consumers.

"Nowadays, millennials are driving luxury candle sales with their desire for a new and unique experience and their willingness to spend more to buy less," Freysinger says. "They want an experience that is fun, curious, and worthy of talking, blogging, tweeting about. Deliver on that, and they will pay for it and tell their friends."

In order for these candle brands to continue to thrive though, Freysinger says they must keep making "a distinctive product that speaks to being artisan, local, imaginative, and spirited," as well as figure out what other product categories make sense for them to explore. For their part, Cire Trudon is debuting melted wax diffusers in the spring, and Diptyque is experimenting with vases and other household ceramic objects. Because as popular as Baies is, there's certainly even more money to be made in the world of luxury candles.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Photos by Alex Ulreich
Styling and photo illustrations by Brittany Holloway-Brown


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