A few of John Erikson's handmade soy wax candles, with their reindeer friends
John Erikson of Richmond, Virginia, has been burning the candle at both ends lately. As the one-man operation behind Pure Light Candles, that’s understandable; December is his busy season. But if burning the candle at both ends could be construed as exhibiting a flagrant disregard for the environment, then we have to find him another metaphor. Erikson strives to leave behind the smallest carbon footprint imaginable in the production of his soy wax candles—he is as concerned with the environmental impact of his work—and the “butterfly economics” of his cottage industry—as he is with the candles’ visual and olfactory aesthetics. His philosophy, he says, is “naturally elegant.”
My husband John and I met him this fall at the South of the James Farmers’ Market, where candlemaker John’s display—and the fragrance emanating therefrom—immediately caught my attention.
Pure Light Candles, on display at the South of the James Farmers' Market in Richmond
Some months later, I visited Erikson’s kitchen “workshop” to observe his process and examine his products. The former is exemplary; the latter, exquisite.
What makes Erikson’s candles unique is their green aspect, despite the fact that white is the only color they come in. (“There is no such thing as a natural candle dye,” says Erikson, which is why he lets the natural color of the wax shine through.)
As he explained it to me, most commercially purchased candles are made from petroleum-based paraffin. “You’ll never find an environmentally-friendly product with the word petroleum in it.” Erikson told me that the first time he ever made a candle, he used paraffin. A cloud of sooty dust emerged, staining the wall of his kitchen. That experience, along with his daughter’s environmental activism (she’s an actress living in California), was a critical turning point in the development of his philosophy. He established Pure Light Candles in 2005.
Erikson crafts his candles from 100-percent natural soy wax, a product that is biodegradable, non-toxic, and burns at a lower temperature than paraffin, thus providing longer burn times and therefore greater value to the consumer. Soy wax also burns cleanly, leaving minimal wax residue on the sides of the jars, and none of the black sooty residue, known as “ghosting,” that John experienced during his fledgling attempt. Nor do soy wax candles release noxious petroleum wax pollutants. And, since the soy wax he uses comes from homegrown soybeans, the enterprise supports American farmers while minimizing transport offsets; he obtains his soy wax from a distributor in Durham, North Carolina, which ships via UPS and offers carbon credits.
I asked him if nationally-known candle companies use soy wax. Erikson says that soy doesn’t lend itself well to mass-production; it’s “a small-batch wax,” and his production line is minimal; he makes only four to six candles at a time. So if you see a national brand marketing a soy candle, be aware, says Erikson, that a candle can be marketed as soy if it contains 30-percent of the product; the remainder is paraffin, which is a byproduct of refined diesel fuel.
I then asked him why he doesn’t make his candles out of beeswax, another environmentally friendly material.
“There are problems with beeswax,” says Erikson. “We have a huge shortage of candle beeswax here in the U.S., so a lot of it is imported from Asia,” a practice that runs counter to his “think globally, buy locally philosophy.” Everything that goes into a Pure Light candle is made in America.
“Beeswax also does not accept fragrance well,” he adds. “It’s good to be natural, but people buy a candle for the fragrance. When you burn a beeswax candle, you can smell the beeswax. It’s also expensive, and I have to keep my eye on the bottom line.”
About those fragrances: Erikson makes candles in as many as 50 different scents; several are designed with the season in mind. The week before Christmas, when I stopped by, he was preparing a batch of candles for a holiday shipment. I watched him create several “Pomegranate” candles, and the scent was exquisite. The Internet can do many things, but I’ve yet to see a software program that can recreate the sensory experience of fragrances. Too bad. I would love to share that with you here. The closest I can come is to list a few of his fragrances:
Blue Ridge Rain
Chesapeake Bay Breeze
Holidays by the Hearth
James River Storm Watch
White Tea and Ginger (I’m burning this now as I write…ahhhh….)
A candle’s fragrance is its essence. Here too, Erikson adheres to his environmentally friendly philosophy by using only botanical oils, which he obtains from a U.S. distributor in Kentucky.
Erikson tells me that there are two types of botanical oils: essential oils, which derive from a singular substance (lavender, for example, is cold-pressed to yield lavender oil), and fragrance oils, which do have some chemical additives. “No fragrance oil is 100-percent natural,” says Erikson. “But that’s not all bad. I avoid the ones that are—phthalates, for example, are known carcinogenics and banned in California. Manufacturers are not required to disclose that a fragrance oil contains phthalates, but they are if you ask them. You have to know to ask. I’m trying to create as natural a product as possible, so I ask.”
As for the rest of his materials, he uses only 100-percent cotton wicks. Some manufacturers add other substances, such as zinc, to stiffen a wick. Erikson doesn’t do business with them. Moreover, all wicks, he tells me, have to be primed with wax; most are primed with—you guessed it—paraffin. Erikson has his wicks specially made by a soy-wick manufacturer.
His glass apothecary jars are made in the U.S. by the Libbey Glass Company. He chose their glass for several reasons, with safety being at the forefront. “An enclosed candle is the safest you can buy,” he says, “but all glassware is not the same. Most of the imported glassware, if you look at thickness, is half as thick as what I use. I also found that this had a substantial base, which is where glassware usually fails. I’m buying a local product that I feel is safe, and that looks good, too.”
He keeps labeling to a minimum, for aesthetic as well as environmental reasons, and employs an ingenious recycling incentive program: when your candle has given you all it’s got to give, wash it out with soap and water and return the empty container to him. He’ll pay you a dollar, and he’ll re-use it in a future production cycle.
Now that, my friends, is a lovely light.
If you would like to purchase something beautiful for your home and do something beautiful for the environment at the same time, Pure Light Candles are available for order by phone or e-mail, and will ship outside the Commonwealth of Virginia. You may contact John Erikson at 804-934-9171 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Pure Light Candles doesn’t have a website, but can be found on Facebook.