I remember seeing Circle 21 modern handmade Candles a few years ago and thinking to myself: “I love everything about this company. The branding, the concept, the scents, everything!” I’m happy to bring you an interview with Janet Coffman, the creative tour de force behind the brand. Enjoy the interview and then head over to the shop and pick up a candle or two.
What inspired you to begin your modern handmade candle collection?
I spent many years operating my own bookkeeping business. Spending my days staring at a computer and crunching numbers was not satisfying my need to create. (I was an art major in college.) I love candles, and I was having a hard time finding one I liked. They seemed to all be too strong, too sweet, or too overwhelming when burning. Finding one that filled a room with out consuming it was a real challenge, so I taught myself how to make them! I started out part time in my kitchen. It has since grown to a full time job with sales in 15+ countries, coast to coast in the USA and now I have a detached building on our property for manufacturing.
Describe your creative process. Where do you start?
It is said that smell is the strongest of the 5 senses: “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.” By Diane Ackerman in The Natural History of the Senses. Sometimes my inspiration comes from visiting a new place. I try to replicate that feeling or a specific smell I experience in that place. Sometimes I get a whiff of something and I imagine a place to go with the smell. I’m constantly looking for new scents for the line. There are endless possibilities for blending fragrances. And of course, there are a million places to visit and explore for new inspiration.
What materials do you love to use?
I use the finest grade soy wax available, only high end fragrance oils, a few essential oils and an all cotton wick. Paraffin waxes are made from petroleum. Black smoke and soot is a common side effect of burning paraffin. My goal is to produce long lasting, great smelling, and clean burning candles. And of course, all of our candles are produced in recycled wine bottles, making them some of the most sustainable candles on the market.
Sometimes my inspiration comes from visiting a new place. I try to replicate that feeling or a specific smell I experience in that place. Sometimes I get a whiff of something and I imagine a place to go with the smell.
Every product has a story. Is there a story behind one of your pieces that stands out to you?
My personal favorite, in the line, is Zen Garden. It was the first fragrance I developed. There is nothing sweet in this candle; just a pure green tea with a hint of citrus, it’s very clean and light. It is not everyone’s cup of tea (no pun intended), but I love it. It makes me think of the Orient; a place I can only imagine and hope to visit someday.
Do you have a dream collaborator?
Anytime I develop a new scent, I hunt down every nose I can find! I explain that they do not have to like it and I want honest opinions. Everyone’s nose is different and everyone likes different things, so not liking it is OK, but I try to get as many different opinions as I can before going into production. My designers (my daughter and her husband) love candles too and they are very helpful and honest in their opinions and they help a lot with coming up with names for the scents.
What are some of the challenges that you face as a maker?
I have been blessed since starting this business in 2012. Because of the creativity behind the design of everything from the logo to the labels to the website we have received a great deal of recognition. (My daughters design firm gets credit for that.) Early on, we were picked up by a couple of big design blogs. These posts resulted in sales and shipping by the pallets to Australia and Japan before we were 1 year old!
There have been many challenges in the past 5 years. We started out driving around town and begging for empty wine bottles from restaurants and bars. I spent many hours cleaning, cutting, sanding and cleaning them again. In late 2015 we found a supplier that specializes in recycling wine bottles. They put a nice fire polished edge on the rim, making them much safer than the cut an sanded edge. Finding a source for finished bottles frees up my time to focus solely on making candles and developing new scents.
When we first started, we only sold to retailers; now we offer candles though our on line shop. Picking a scented candle from a description is a challenge, so we offer scent samples (cards dipped in our signature scented wax, and individually wrapped) for $5.00. When you come back and make a purchase, we give you a coupon good for $5.00 off your first purchase. A way to “try before you buy”, if you will. As far as I know, we are the only candle makers to offer this service.
How do you use social media and blogging to promote your work?
Because of early success and some major retailers (Anthropology and Madewell) we have not had to do a great deal of advertising or marketing until this year. I have always worked with bloggers (with decent results) and we have done a little adverting on Instagram and Facebook off and on over the years. I have expanded use of both IG & FB this year in an effort to attract new customers.
Where do you see your shop/project going?
I hope to continue to grow and add to the line. We attended our first market in Dallas this year and are looking to attend Atlanta market next year. We had a custom booth built and hope to reach more retailers though these sources. “Going to market” is effective, but it’s expensive!
What are you working on right now?
We are looking to expand into reed diffusers next year. There are so many places that do not allow open flames like offices and dorm rooms. We are looking for the right vessel to offer our existing scents in a non flammable form. I’m also working on the introduction of 2 new scents this year: The Library (a great unisex leathery scent) and an uplifting essential oil candle that is not yet named.