If luxury were to be traced back to antiquity, one (extra interesting) interval on the timeline would almost certainly be Louis XVI’s court at the palace of Versailles. It was easily one of the most decadent époques in France’s history thanks to HRH’s excess-adoring wife, Marie Antoinette of Austria, a monarch with appetites so lavish she was rumored to have plastered her Petit Trianon estate in gold and diamonds, wear only couture, and maintain a minimum hair height of three feet. It’s no wonder then, that the
free-spending queen preferred to make her way through darkness with the aid of Maison Trudon, the world’s oldest candle manufacturer and the most renowned of all the chandlers in the land. She was clearly a woman of uncommonly high taste, who demanded the finest in each facet of her life. But what set these wax lights apart from others of similar ilk, and why the push to the current, forward–thinking iteration? Does the craftsmanship behind such a seemingly simple product really matter? Isn’t a candle, just a candle? Hardly.
Interview & Text by Sasha Ferkul-Jenkins
Photography by Dan McMahon
Maison Trudon is privileged to hold a tiny, but fascinating place in the past, with a divine client list that reads like a who’s who of French history. According to brand lore, the Emperor Napoleon gifted a single present to his just-born son, an inlaid Trudon candle. Under Louis XVI, they hid his crested favorites under a layer of mortar during his incarceration. For the courtesan or high priest who desired light of the highest, most pristine order, the Maison was choice one. Founded in 1643 with a shop on the now-famously posh rue Saint-Honoré, Trudon is steeped in a tradition of handmade excellence. From 1714, the artisan manufacturer used only beeswax that was painstakingly filtered, cleansed, and then exposed to the sun to create immaculately white candles that could burn for a long time without crackling. The candles did not smoke and had a light, pleasant scent, unlike the previously fashionable tallow (made from animal fats), which burned poorly and smelled acrid. The purity of the final product gained enormous respect and popularity among the upper classes, culminating in a revered position as apothecary and distiller to Louis XIV and his wife, Queen Marie-Thérèse. The producer’s reputation and status were further cemented in 1737 when the Trudon family purchased La Manufacture Royale de Cire (the Royal Wax Manufacturer) and continued to supply the church of France and Versailles through the complete chaos and upheaval of the French Revolution and into Napoleonic times.
Candles hold the unique distinction (aside from, perhaps, fur) of being an item that transitioned from being an absolute life necessity—burn them or exist in constant darkness—to something of an extravagance, used by the wealthy and the clergy for ceremony, decoration, or ambience. The Industrial Revolution led to the increased popularity of kerosene and lanterns, and the advent of the incandescent lightbulb in 1879 contributed to the decline of candles for lighting. Maison Trudon adapted to these advances by continuous modernization and a commitment to quality, winning a gold medal at the 1889 Paris Expo for innovation and expertise in the art of candle-making. “Candles were no longer considered the only source of light, but continued to be of use in churches and in homes for décor or to set a specific mood and enlighten an environment in an intimate way.” The way light was delivered and considered had changed drastically. Now, more than a century after the 1889 Paris Expo, the house endeavored to recast its vision with the introduction of scent and the creation of a contemporary luxury brand.
The 2007-established Trudon (rechristened Cire Trudon) could comfortably rest on its historical laurels based on name-dropping alone. Illuminating the lives of famed monarchs, and high priests is impossibly impressive even to today’s most discerning consumers. It’s an oft-travelled route, but the literal opposite of the path chosen by this particular Maison. The family-run chandler, led by executive director Julien Pruvost, forges ahead, tirelessly working to unite two ostensibly adverse sides: the past and the future. Monsieur Pruvost came to the brand as commercial director in 2009 and grew to appreciate (and have a hand in) all aspects of the business. As chief defender of the Maison, he is eager to discuss everything from the exceptional talents of the employees (the artisans in the Normandy atelier, the perfumers, and the marketing and PR team are all mentioned) to quality control, product development, and modernization. Interestingly, his respect for the old-world artistry actually informs his commitment to ceaseless innovation and improvement across every part of the house. “Cire Trudon is at the crossroads of history and know-how. The products we propose are not mimicking anything modern in appearance or technicality; they have evolved, filled by the stories they tell, by each fragrance. We are proud of the heritage, but we are also proud of the current incarnation.” Pruvost is vocal on how seriously the house takes scent, noting the complexity of the process and ensuring that each respects the soul of the brand.
As smells have the uncanny ability to evoke memories of times, places, and people, members of the court at Versailles would have associated the beeswax perfume of the candles with some very high times. Affairs, the Revolution, and goings-on too extravagant to imagine were illuminated by the long-lasting flames of Maison Trudon. The revived brand offers the favored scents of the queen herself, Marie Antoinette (her tribute, Trianon, has notes of rose and hyacinth), or the preferred pine and sage palpable in Napoleon’s homage, Empire, to Manon, smelling of freshly laundered linens, and Carmélite, which evokes damp, mossy monastery or convent walls with snippets of geranium, orange, and violet. Wouldn’t it be nice to channel Madame Déficit’s lavish existence while in the bath, or lend a space (and oneself) a bit of Monsieur Bonaparte’s strength and prowess?
If the names are cheeky and inspired by persons and places in history (Odalisque, Byron, Prolétaire anyone?) and the olfactory pyramids distinctive, rare, and bold, there is a certain lack of commercialism to Cire Trudon. While the brand collaborates extensively with highly regarded perfumers, taking extreme care in fragrance development, they proffer to “believe in sensory exploration,” and pay little attention to maximizing sales or appealing to the wide market. Each scent has garnered a cult-like following, but some audiences are much smaller than others. This is fine with Trudon, whose respect for their products extends to the taste of their client and the expertise of the artisans. “Cire Trudon will always continue to create wax works of art. We collaborate with renowned perfumers who understand our DNA and our ambition to offer the beautiful, interesting, and provocative. The candle connoisseur comes to us for our exquisite and complex scents.” The bottom line is that the company is very aware that their choices will not appeal to everyone and disregard this with aplomb. They know exactly who their audience is.
It’s unlikely the average person spares the art of candle-making any thought. Limited attention spans and immediate gratification are the order of this time. By today’s lightning-fast standards, Cire Trudon’s products emphatically defy the supposed concerns of mass production. Made by hand in their Normandy workrooms by skilled craftspeople using the original molds, the vessels (whose glass is specially made in Vinci, Italy, to resemble a champagne bucket, no less) follow a lengthy process and are carefully cared for to ensure the apex of quality: rigid hot foil printed boxes, handmade tinted-in-the-core vessels, embossed gold labels, a uniquely developed wax formula, made-in-Germany cotton wicks (cut to a specific height for optimal first burn), and highly complex smells blended with natural ingredient perfumes. The burn time is approximately 85 hours and if cared for properly, the flames leave little residue on the glass. The result melds history and progress to perfection, something the brand aspires to endlessly. “It is the story of excellence, a constant desire to make the best possible product no matter the époque. The history and know-how of candle-making will continue to be the foundation for our future. This is a case where the past serves the brand well because Maison Trudon is faithful to its DNA.”
This is not to say that the house hasn’t been gaining new fans with its smart and strategic vision. A very successful collaboration with Giambattista Valli (Positano et Rose Poivrée) ensured the wider fashion audience sat up to take note. Unsurprisingly the works was met with great approval, and indeed, anyone who appreciates the beaux arts and the “beauty and quality of complex fragrances” would be completely enchanted. Even more desirable was Trudon’s evolving product lines, which include all manner of candles and feature stately wax busts of prominent historical figures, a growing accessories range, room sprays, and the very modern and chic La Promeneuse diffuser, serving as a decorative object and giving off light and fragrance. Cire Trudon doesn’t release new scents or pieces frequently, choosing instead to focus on a small, but well-rounded collection that secures their former and current status as the best in the business.
This fusion of past and present, form versus function, creates a delicate balance, working only when those behind the products forgo cheaper, less specialized manufacturing and stay sharply focused on maintaining exacting standards. According to Pruvost, “The brand believes and stands behind both tradition and innovation. There is not one company that can remainin the past. Maison Trudon continued to innovate throughout the centuries and has been growing since 1643. We have invested in a state-of-the-art laboratory to test our products and modern production facilities to help improve quality, and we looking at new product categories.” The house has maintained this harmony gracefully and with integrity, paying close attention to raw materials and suppliers. Currently, very little beeswax is used in the manufacture of scented candles (the brand now primarily uses vegetal wax), except in small quantities as a hardener—a relief considering the strange decline in bee populations and the industrial processes behind beeswax harvesting. The reduced percentage used in the Trudon formula is purchased from officially sustainable sources—a fitting appreciation for the creatures whose endless work allowed for the beginning of a heritagebrand and who are emblazoned on the Maison’s coat of arms (and every candle) with the inscription “Deo regique laborant” translating to “They work for God and King.”
It’s exactly this attitude that has allowed Cire Trudon to move forward into the 21st century, blazing a path interwoven with history while being focused on the future, surviving tumultuous years and emerging as the prestige manufacturer of candles in the 21st century. Evidence of the company’s artistry can be found in basilicas and churches, France’s presidential palace, and in retailers and the private homes of those with exceptional taste the world over. Best of all is the re-established brand’s refusal to take themselves too seriously, exemplified perfectly by the flowery (and very amusing) descriptions and caricatures that accompany the scents, including the popular Calabre: “On the Calabrian coasts of Italy, licorice scents gently perfume the shores as they sail towards Africa. Smoothly blended by the wind with gusts of myrrh and incense, they hum a Mediterranean hymn.” So, is a candle, just a candle? It depends. In this cas particulier, it seems not.
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