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January 1, 2005

"The secrets of candle fragrances" By Luca Turin

"The secrets of candle fragrances" By Luca Turin

My hero Michael Faraday [1791-1867] led a strangely blameless life. That may explain why, despite his eminence as a scientist, there are no best-sellers or movies about him. Poor and unschooled, he became the greatest experimenter ever, and once noted in his diary something everyone needs to know: “Nothing is too wonderful to be true”. One of the oddities of this gentle genius was his love for candles. About them he wrote his only book, compiled from yearly lectures he gave to children. He told the kids candles were “the most open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy”. I often wonder what he would have made of scented ones, for through them what he helped create (we call it chemistry and physics) is now softly revealed to us by smell as well as light.

What makes a scented candle work is that the fragrance enjoys only the briefest moment of freedom between its solid prison of wax and its gaseous annihilation in the flame. Only the small pool of molten wax is fluid enough for fragrance molecules to swim to the surface, where heat helps them take flight. Aside from a gradual crescendo when the candle is lit, which cleverly keeps us unaware of what is taking place, the release of perfume is, like the flame, gracile but steady. The fragrant pool is constantly renewed, so the fragrance is unchanging, without topnotes or drydown. Candle fragrances are not melodies, but sostenuto organ chords.

Candles are, of course, terribly passé: “Air care” (the very term stinks) is now a huge and trashy market. Tasteful (i.e. hideous) plastic devices, some electrically powered, daily release tons of garish smells into the troposphere. Most smell “good” only in comparison with whatever pestilence they are meant to hide. There is also the innumerable progeny of the late and unlamented hippy joss-sticks, and they smell like gift shops in US malls: nauseating. A few perfumers, however, take candles as seriously as Michael Faraday did. One is Ormonde Jayne, situated 100 metres from the magnificent Royal Institution where he lived and worked, close enough for his ghost which (his successor assures me) still walks the corridors to pay a visit. Try her unforgettably sultry Ormonde (get the perfume too while you’re at it) and the laughing Sampaquita. The other is Patricia de Nicolai: her Maharadjah festoons the house with invisible glitter, while her Vetiver de Java was once accurately described to me by a friend as “good enough to start a minor religion”. Both firms have Web sites.