Before she ever poured her first candle or trimmed her first wick, Tamara Mayne of Brooklyn Candle Studio was steadily amassing the skills she’d need to start and build a successful business. There were the studio art and economics programs she completed in college, along with a two-year stint studying graphic design and typography; an internship with a web design company (hello, coding and interface design chops); and a period working as an art director at a fashion company in New York City. “I did a lot of photo art direction, web design, graphic design, branding, t-shirts — you name it, I did it. That was a really huge foundation for starting the business,” Tamara says.
As for learning candle making itself? Well, that was more of a DIY endeavor, which took shape over a period of nine months in the confines of Tamara’s Brooklyn kitchen. “I taught myself basically using the internet and a ton of trial and error,” Tamara says. All that experimentation paid off though, and today Tamara’s business occupies 1,000 square feet of studio space in Brooklyn’s Industry City complex and employs four people, who turn out hundreds of carefully crafted and pristinely packaged candles on a daily basis.
Read on to learn where Tamara finds inspiration for her fragrances, what’s next on the horizon for her shop, and how to make any candle burn better and last longer.
How have your products and your brand evolved since you put your first candles out into the world?
There’s definitely been a lot of evolution since I first launched the Etsy shop. My initial designs were very colorful — a completely different direction from where we are now. A few months into it, I decided to experiment with a more minimalistic approach, and the people I was meeting at markets at that time were very receptive to that. So the next year, after the craziness of the holiday season was over, I decided to rebrand and really zoom in that direction of very minimalist, very vintage-inspired, very beautiful and clean designs. The scents evolved over time, too: When I first started out, I was doing sugar cookie and pumpkin pie candles, and now we go with more spa-like and botanical scents and more natural scents.
How often do you develop new scents or collections of scents and what is that process like for you?
I like to look at releasing new lines the way it’s done in fashion, with a new collection coming out every season. It keeps things fresh. I’m working on spring right now, sampling a bunch of fragrances and essential oils and using a dropper and perfume strips to experiment with different combinations. Later I’ll have my team make sample candles and burn-test them to make sure that they burn okay. In the meantime I’ll be working on different design iterations for the line: sourcing different vessels, looking at different kinds of containers, and talking to different printers to see what their capabilities are.
What inspires you when you’re dreaming up new scents? Where do you get ideas for new fragrances that you want to try?
It’s very much about travel — in the past couple years I’ve been to a lot of cool places with really unique scents. One place I went to a year or so ago, that I still want to experiment with, was New Mexico. My husband and I visited Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and there’s a lot of interesting desert plant life there, like quince, which has kind of a sweeter, cactus-like scent; I’d love to do something with that and try to recreate that aroma. And I really love doing combinations of more relaxing scents. I love working with lavender essential oil, which is always a beautiful scent, and there are a bunch of different types so you could have something that’s a little bit more earthy versus a little bit sweeter. I’ve also been wanting to experiment more with those aromatherapy-type scents like lavender chamomile or palmarosa.
Are there any scents you’re especially excited about from one of your upcoming collections?
For holiday we are doing Mistletoe, which I’m obsessed with and I’ve been burning constantly. It’s a really nice, thyme-esque scent with some balsam or cedar wood notes; it’s very inviting and festive. And then for spring I’m looking forward to doing more citrus scents, working with some sweet orange and lemons. We’ve done a little bit of citrus but not a ton of it, and I’m excited to do more. I’ve discovered I’m not so much a floral person and I like working with those more energizing scents.
Will you tell us about a scent that was perhaps a little trickier than the others to develop — one that you’re really proud of figuring out?
Yes — our Fern + Moss scent, which has been a bestseller since I introduced it in the winter of last year. I wanted to create a scent to capture this hike that I did with my husband and my brother-in-law and sister-in-law in Northern California. I wanted something a little bit dewy, a little bit mossy, a little bit piney and smelling like the forest, but not dirty — I still wanted it to be a nice fragrance, something to make your house smell good. That took a while to come together and involved a lot of experimentation, but it’s been a huge success and I’m very happy with it. It’s one of those scents that people are like, What is that scent? I love it!, and then they get addicted to it.
What’s the process for making a batch of candles, and how long does it take?
Nowadays, we make hundreds of candles a day. The first step is to cut and melt the wax; I used to do it on the stove when I first started, but now we use an industrial-size stainless steel wax melter that melts about 100 pounds of wax at a time. The wax is heated to a certain temperature, usually around 180-185 degrees, depending on the flash point of the fragrance.
Next we take a pouring pitcher, mix in fragrance, and stir for two minutes to get it to bind to the soy. Then we let the wax cool until it’s about 135 degrees, although people have differing opinions on that; if you pour when the wax is a little bit warmer, the surface tends to be a little cleaner, but you don’t retain as much fragrance. At some point along the way, we attach wicks inside the containers with a really strong hot glue so they’re ready to go when it’s time to pour the wax.
Once the candles have been poured into the containers, we secure the wicks with clothespins and let them cool, which takes anywhere between an hour and overnight depending on the room temperature. When they’ve cooled and hardened, we cut the wicks and clean and label them. The whole process will normally take about 6 hours, not counting the curing time, when the fragrance continues to bind to the wax. Aesthetically it looks like it’s ready to go, but in order to really have a strong throw when you burn the candle, the candle needs to cure for anywhere from 48 hours to three weeks.
You use only soy wax, lead-free cotton core wicks, and phthalate-free fragrance and essential oils in your candles. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you chose these materials?
Paraffin wax — which is what a lot of candle manufacturers use, especially the cheaper candles — is a petroleum-based wax that’s made by bleaching the sludge at bottom of oil barrels. The reason a lot of manufacturers use paraffin or paraffin blends is because paraffin tends to hold fragrance a little better, so when you burn the candle it’s a lot stronger. But it’s also kind of like smoking a cigarette when you burn one, because there’s petro-carbon soot that comes out and it releases carcinogens; it’s not really the safest bet when it comes to candles.
We like using soy, both because it’s sustainable and because it doesn’t release toxins. It also has a longer burn time, which means the candle will last a lot longer. Because we use the maximum fragrance load, our candles are actually still very strong and they fill the room really well.
What are some things that people commonly get wrong about burning candles, or that they could be doing in a better way?
A lot of people don’t trim their wicks, which creates this weird mushroom if you burn your candle for too long — it’s like a concentration of soot and stuff at the top of the wick. When you relight that, it crackles, and the flame will get too big and your candles will not last as long. It also releases a lot of carbon. If you cut that off, the candle will last a longer, it will burn a lot more evenly, and you won’t have as much of a dangerously giant flame going. That goes for all candles, no matter what type of wax your candle maker is using.
Another tip is not to burn your candle all the way down to the bottom of the container, especially if it’s made of a thinner glass. If you have half an inch of wax left in a jar and you keep burning it, the wax can get too hot and the jar might crack.
What is coming up for Brooklyn Candle Studio in 2017?
I’m working on a new line that I’m calling the Wanderlust line; it’s going to be four or five fragrances, mostly inspired by places I’ve been in the last couple years. One of them is going to be a citrusy one, and that’s inspired by Santorini, where I went last year on a delayed honeymoon with my husband; I’m doing another one with a mix of cardamom, cinnamon, and sweet spices that’s inspired by the spice bazaar in Istanbul. For the packaging, I’m designing a really minimal, clean, typography-focused black and white box. I think it’s going to be really cool.
Photographs by Char Co.