Saturday, April 23, 2016

Photo Essay: A House of Wax and Fragrance

As a kid, most mornings I'd wake up to the smell of a cigarette being lit, and most nights I'd fall asleep to a scented votive burning down to the bottom of its wick.

Our father had converted the bedroom next to ours into a den, forcing me and my sister to sleep side-by-side, inhaling the fumes of whatever was going on in there as they wafted through the grate in our shared wall and the door we weren't allowed to close as we slept.

Back then, my dad's candles always seemed a bit liturgical as they flickered in their red glass cups, illuminating the faces of saints that my father had collected on his shelves. But the scent was less frankincense and more frangipani...or vanilla...or some citrus fruit or another.

Still, for a long time, candles comforted me. I only stopped lighting them in my own apartments after having had enough of the carbon smudges on my walls and the whole idea of formaldehyde being released into the air as they burned.

But they still hold some fascination for me, which is why, I suppose, I jumped at the chance to take a tour of an artisanal candle factory.

Either that, or it's because I just really like factory tours.



Just east of the LA River and south of the interchange between the 5 and 10 freeways, around the corner from the landmark Sears building...



...the streets of Boyle Heights grow industrial, lined with factories and warehouses built on top of and next to train tracks both active and decommissioned.



This isn't exactly where you'd expect a hipster, handmade candle company...



...but since most of the artists and artisans are now getting priced out of the Downtown LA Arts District, I suppose this is exactly where you'd expect them to be.



Kristen Pumphrey founded her P.F. Candle Company in 2008, with her husband Tom Neuberger officially coming on board in 2013. And even though they've hit a certain stride with impressive retail distribution in West Elm, CB2, Urban Outfitters, YogaWorks, and Target, they're still a shockingly small operation.



These candles aren't just handmade—they're hand-crafted.



From the wax made from domestically-grown soybeans and the cotton core wicks...



...to the amber-colored apothecary jars...



...touring their "factory" feels more like touring a craft brewery.



And that's exactly how the company has intended it.



As the production crew pours melted wax into their glass holders...



...it seems more like you're in a kitchen than a factory...



...each freshly-poured candle lined up on a baking sheet...



...left on a rack to cool.



While they "bottle" by hand, they have automated their labeling...



...with a machine that can apply the stickers within a millimeter or two of accuracy.



The brass lids are then screwed on by hand, and the completed candles are ready to be shipped out to their wholesale accounts and direct to the customers who purchase on their website.



Meanwhile, the painstaking process of readying the reed diffusers for retail is entirely manual...



...from the bottling to the labeling and even the assembling of their boxes.



Amazingly, one person can churn out about 200 complete reed diffuser packages a day.



With six production crew members, three shipping crew members, and three e-commerce and office staff each, it's pretty amazing that they're able to both make these products with such care...



...and distribute them en masse.



There are 10 varieties total (though they're numbered up to 25), from single scents like grapefruit and lavender...



...to more elaborate blends like Amber & Moss, Golden Coast (their tribute to California), Mojave (to evoke the desert), and Frankincense & Oud (the latter ingredient coming from the wood of a Southeast Asian tree).

It smelled good in there—that's for sure—but I didn't buy any while I was there.

Even though burning soy candles is basically carbon-neutral (unlike the paraffin candles you find at Yankee Candle or Bath and Body Works), the fragrance oils they use are natural, and both are considered vegan (with none of it being tested on animals), I thought maybe I'd leave my candle-burning days in the past.

Maybe it's better to stop covering up rather than actually neutralizing whatever it is that doesn't smell good in the first place.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hollywood in Wax
Photo Essay: The Surprising Secret Life of the Zipper
Photo Essay: Bottle Tree Ranch