A Condensed History of Candles
Early humans learning to control fire—and thus a source of light—arguably became one of the turning points in the evolution of our species two million years ago.
We didn’t discover the magic of candles until our ancestors much closer to our time—about the age of the Ancient Egyptians, 5000 years ago, when they soaked reed cores with animal fat.
Candles with wicks came a couple thousand years later, in Ancient Rome, where they dipped rolled papyrus in melted tallow or beeswax. Perhaps the most famous use of candles in pre-modern history is in religious contexts, including the first celebration of Hanukkah.
In pre- and early-modern history, Western cultures moved between a variety of animal-based fats (or tallow), which burned with an acrid odor, and cleaner-burning yet expensive waxes like beeswax that were reserved for the richest members of society.
Like with most things, industrialization revolutionized candle making. In the early nineteenth century, advances in engineering and energy industries led to wax-based byproducts that made candles affordable and ubiquitous. Petroleum yields in particular made paraffin wax popular, which was odorless and clean-burning. After a decline with the invention of the light bulb, candles became popular again as affordable decorative and therapeutic pieces for the home.
By the postwar period, innovations brought alternatives to oil- and animal-based waxes. Soy-based wax in particular once again changed the candle industry. Produced with the oils derived from soybeans, soy candles produce less soot and hold fragrance better, all while forgoing some carcinogenic chemicals like toluene and benzene found in paraffin wax. In addition to its individual health benefits, soy-based wax cuts out the negative externalities of fossil fuel industries and its associated carbon footprint.
Candles and Fragrances: How Smell Works
Today, the candle lover has much in common with fragrance lovers, as candles have moved on from a purely utilitarian function to objects that can delight, provoke, or inspire the human senses.
The sense of smell, in particular, is the primary driver in the explosion of candles today, and for good reason. Unique for its close link to memory, smell plays an important role in mood and emotion. When a molecule from a substance is released (such as the fragrance of cut grass), it stimulates specialized nerve cells called olfactory cells that are high up in the nose. Those nerve cells send information to the brain, which identifies the specific scent.
The parts of the brain that identify smells also happen to do other things, like storing memories or evoking emotions. Part of the larger limbic system, where structures in the brain are largely attributed with controlling mood, behavior, and emotion, this network in the body is considered primordial in function, one that connects us to core feelings that play an important role in memory.
It’s why smell triggers feelings and emotions in ways our other senses might not. That sweater from an old lover, whatever specific memory you create with salty beach air, and the emotion you might feel when smelling a favorite pastry from your childhood—these all are possible with the sense of smell.
From Function to Form
With candles no longer serving a utilitarian function (light), candle makers experimented with the ways wax can hold different fragrances. Today, there’s no shortage of scents for candle lovers to explore.
But what if you’re a novice? Or you tend to associate candles or body fragrances negatively (perhaps you have strong memories of a stranger who puts on too much cologne, or the aunt who lit dozens of scented candles at once). Thankfully, the work of fragrance experts over the past half-century has broken down fragrances in a way that might connect you to a scent that speaks to you.
Fragrances from Top to Bottom
At a perfume counter, you might hear of “top notes” or “bottom notes.” More simply, fragrances come in layers—a scent may come off differently depending on the category. Notes and their typical fragrance categories look like this:
Top (a.k.a. Head):
Lasts 5–15 minutes.
You smell these notes immediately, and scents with these notes have smaller molecules that evaporate quickly.
Examples: Citrus, Aromatics
Lasts 20–60 minutes.
As the top notes fade, the middle notes (or heart notes) become central. These are more full-bodied, tending to be the dominant aroma that is typically well-rounded and pleasant.
Examples: Herbal aromas, floral notes, including lavender, rose, neroli, and clary sage.
Bottom (a.k.a. Base):
Lasts up to 6 hours.
As the top and middle notes dissipate, you’re left with the base notes. Like the bottom of a pyramid, these give depth and solidity to the overall fragrance. These scents are richer, so their odor lasts the longest.
Examples: Woody, Balsamic
The Fragrance Wheel
Like the color wheel, a fragrance wheel reveals the relationships among different scent groups, where groups that border one another share common characteristics. And just as colors and the public’s perception of them change with the times, so too have the classifications of scents. You might see various versions, but most point back to the one created in 1983 by British fragrance expert Michael Edward, and most come down to four main families: floral, amber, woody, and fresh.
Probably the most intuitive category, these range from fruity peach, floral rose, jasmine, and gardenia.
Earthy, musky, and spicy rich tones illustrate this fragrance family. Examples include spices like musk, vanilla, and precious woods that give off a heady, warm, sensual scent.
These are derived from wood materials like trees, roots, and resins. Scents range from cedarwood, sandalwood, and vetiver.
Zesty and cooling, this family features a hodgepodge of ingredients, including lemon, bergamot, or mandarin.
The fragrance families are just the beginning of a wide array of aromas that draw off different scent combinations. Whatever candle you dive into, know that fragrance experts are constantly exploring new pairings that push the frontier of smell. As you embark on your own fragrance journey, which new memories are you prepared to make?
How Nomad Noé Does Candles Differently
Nomad Noé, founded in New York, marries the art of fragrance with today’s innovations in sustainable, ethical candle making. Started by committed vegans with perfume-making stints at Givenchy, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Penhaligon’s, and other fragrance houses, Nomad Noé hand pours in small batches in the United States using an exclusive blend of vegetable waxes.
Their candles burn cleaner and longer (55 hours) as a result, and their creamy white appearance gives each candle—packaged in a white porcelain container—a soft, diffuse glow.
Each fragrance is formulated in Grasse, France, considered the world’s perfume capital, without the use of parabens or mineral oils.
With each candle influenced by a different historical figure around the world, candle lovers get to explore a range of scent spaces that evoke feelings and emotions evoked by the stories that inspired them. Start exploring the full Nomad Noé collection today.