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In the Tech Age, Candles Burning Brightly

Consumers Wax On About Votives, Tapers and More to the Tune of $5 Billion This Year


WASHINGTON — Flickering candlelight beckons the eye to the windows of a Capitol Hill brownstone on a chilly fall evening. Inside, there's a fire sale in progress.

The living room of Washington lawyer Cheryl Steplight is a shrine to the candle. Dozens of votives and tapers burn on the mantel, coffee table and stereo speakers. A chunky 8-pound, three-wick wax drum with a burn time of 400 hours brightens the hallway. Tiny tea lights float on water in the tub in the darkened bathroom. They look romantic, and the low light hides dust balls.

Suddenly, you're dizzy from an olfactory hit you've never experienced before. It's a mix of honeydew melon and vanilla, creme caramel and balsam pine. It's the smell of candles, one of the most universal home accessories of the 1990s.

Candles are part of the fabric of our lives, whether adding a little fire and spice to an ordinary day or lighting up a celebration, with or without a hot tub. Life looks better by candlelight, whether you are dining at the White House or at your table. Candles make us feel safe and cozy, sexy and spiritual. Why do we love candles? They soften the edges; they are relaxing; they don't cost much; they return us to a simpler time.

"They have this internal and external warming glow," says Vicki Abrahamson, a trend spotter for Iconoculture, a forecasting firm in Minneapolis. "It's a little tiny joy of life, an affordable indulgence. When people flick on that flame, it can take them to another place."

Americans are clearly in a money-to-burn mood. This year, we will spend a record $2 billion on candles and $3 billion on candle accessories, according to industry sources. This is not just about adding a few seasonal red and green tapers, firing up an Advent wreath or illuminating a menorah, although candle sales traditionally jump at the end of the year because of gift giving and entertaining. Just like the lettuce crispers of Tupperware and the mascaras of Mary Kay Cosmetics, other direct-sales giants, candles are at the top of "What Do Women Want?" lists.

All this has gathered 14 women at a candle party, a warm and fuzzy gathering that begins with candlelight and ends with women whipping out their credit cards.

"Did you know that the scent of cinnamon burning is an aphrodisiac?" a Candle Lady in a black miniskirt tells those gathered for her show-and-tell of waxy wares. This is Bunny DelGrosso of Owings Mills, Md., a candle consultant with PartyLite, a Plymouth, Mass.-based company that has been selling Colonial Candle of Cape Cod brand candles and accessories through home parties since 1973.

On this evening, she will sell $481 worth of PartyLite products and book six more candle parties. She is one of 20,000 distributors--99% female--peddling candles as fast as their customers can watch them go up in smoke.

What's giving candles new dazzle is their smell. Whether it's part of the aromatherapy craze, an alternative to potpourri, or just a way to mask the odor of a cigarette or a Labrador, scents have sparked fresh sales power in the common candle.

"They're low-tech," says New York trend maven Faith Popcorn. "People are looking for illumination, metaphysically and actually. I have candles all over my house. I use them to remind myself that technology is not the answer to everything."

Candles are now sold at every conceivable type of retail establishment: 7-Eleven, Neiman Marcus and Banana Republic. There are candles "designed" by Calvin Klein and Martha Stewart; there are bags of votive candles for $1 at outlet malls, and 10-wick drum candles that sell for hundreds of dollars and are almost as big as a piece of furniture.

Upscale California purveyors such as Illume and Illuminations have all-candle mail-order catalogs, retail stores and Web sites. There are feng shui candles to bring positive energy to the house, and ritual candles that promise courage, peace or passion. Even at Safeway, you can pick up a wax pillar that gives off the aroma of plum pudding, if that's what you really want.

Candles appeal to all types of people--college students lighting raspberry votives in their rooms, Gen-Xers dining on sushi by candlelight, ex-hippies recalling their youth, stressed-out working moms meditating to a flame in home sanctuaries, couples soaking in a hot tub lit only by candlelight. Families eat pizza by candlelight, and not just during a summer thunderstorm power meltdown. Dinner at the White House is always by candlelight, whether the imposing 24-inch cream tapers used in the candelabra or the chunky gold pillar candles in the holiday decorations.

Women go for candles. In the first half of this year, about two-thirds of all women in the United States bought at least one candle--about the same number that purchased a lipstick, according to research by Blyth Industries, the nation's largest manufacturer of candles for home and commercial use and the parent company of PartyLite.

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