Butter-colored, honeycomb, radiant… is there anything better than the glow and scent of an all-natural beeswax candle? Charles van Valkenburg has become a name amongst French artisans for his wonderful Apis Cera candles and organic, honey skincare. Read about how Charles started this small project turned Instagram phenomenon. Even Brigitte Bardot is a fan!
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Please could you tell us a little bit about your background? What did you first start your career in?
After getting an education in Literature, Philosophy and Film Studies, I went into web design because I love to create with computers. I spent 8 years working for web agencies or clients (Louis Vuitton and Steve Wozniak – Apple co-founder alongside Steve Jobs) in Paris, Stockholm and Brussels. It’s safe to say that I learned a lot!
Charles van Valkenburg, Apis Cera founder, with Muscat the dog
What was your entry into candles?
It all started with a memory from childhood!
While I love working with computers, I felt the need to have another project in the “physical world,” and my hands wanted to create something. One day, I came across some beeswax candles at a market and bought them for a Christmas present. They instantly reminded me of the candles we had when I was a child.
I kept one candle from the ten that I’d bought and put it in my pencil pot on my desk for months. I thought to myself that with a little practice I could make something similar. However, I knew nothing about candles… nor bees!
The upside was that candles are small, one size (unlike clothes), not too fragile and have an infinite shelf life (unlike food). It was a great product to test.
I ordered a small amount of beeswax from the closest beekeeper I could find, typed “Bees Wax” into Google Translate to see the Latin translation – “Apis Cera,” and bought the domain name right away.
Apis Cera’s classic tall candle, “Lucienne”
What did you need to learn in order to create Apis Cera’s natural beeswax formula?
I knew I wanted two things: to make a simple product and be the only middleman between the beehive and the customer. That meant that I needed to do everything on my own, from photography and website management to packaging, shipping and accounting.
My research uncovered fascinating things about beeswax: it doesn’t smoke, it creates a brighter flame (the same spectrum as sunlight), and it releases negative ions that cleanse the air. Asthma sufferers often have beeswax candles in their bedrooms, and they are also used in Orthodox churches to purify the air before prayers and sacred chants.
Sometimes beeswax does not have the same color or perfume in each candle, it varies depending on the harvest season, the climate the year it was harvested and the type of flowers the bees have pollinated.
A lot of other candles on the market are made with paraffin, which is derived from petroleum. You wouldn’t want to have a car running in your living room! Paraffin is widely used because it is very cheap and easy to make, while beeswax is made in small quantities and has a complicated extraction process (separating the wax from the honey).
Read next: An Interview with Food Stylist & Photographer, Elise Dumas
Does the region in which you’re based influence Apis Cera?
I started Apis Cera in Paris, then moved to Brussels, and I’m now in Provence. Provence has always been an inspiration since the very beginning, and I’m very happy that I’m finally living here. My inspiration is nature, trees, flowers, art and the animal kingdom, so it’s the perfect place to be!
“Majestic” organic honey and beeswax soaps being stamped
Your packing is as beautiful as the products themselves. What was your inspiration behind the prints?
I love this quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
At first, I never planned on being sold anywhere else than my one-page website, so I needed packaging that was robust for shipping but elegant, too. That’s the reason why the boxes are a bit heavy-duty! For the design, I wanted simplicity and practicality. Gold and brown is great because it recalls the beeswax color, the sun, the honey, and the earth.
As for the print, I love toile de Jouy. It’s part of the French culture, and I have a lot of it at home.
One day I discovered color matching: you find your chosen color on the wheel and its diametrically opposite color is your best color match. It turns out blue is the best match for the yellow of my beeswax candles. I needed to create a toile de Jouy in blue – simple! I collect vintage beekeeping books (up to 300 years old) which contain beautiful technical beekeeping drawings, so I scanned my favorite ones, arranged them on a blank page and made them blue.
“Ambroise” candles being packed with Apis Cera wrapping paper
Has it been difficult to get the word out about the brand?
I got my first order three weeks after the launch. The website was just one page, with the brand logo, a photo of the Lucienne candles, a short description and a PayPal button. I don’t really like ads, so I prefer organic ways of communication, like word of mouth. I have had good exposure in the French media, but thanks to the internet and social media I can reach more people across different platforms.
How big is the Apis Cera team?
Just me! I make the candles, package them, take the orders and ship them. I also make content for social media, take care of the website and handle the books (my least favorite part). It’s tiring, of course, but by doing everything myself, I make sure the brand is really coherent.
I also get to geek around with computers and cameras but keep my hands busy with beeswax and cool packaging. Which child didn’t play shopkeepers at home?!
“Lucienne” candles © Elise Dumas
Projects or ambitions for the future?
There are two new products are coming out before the end of the year, which I’m really excited about! It takes me between one and two years to perfect a product before launching which is why my collection is small.
My ambition is to have a place where people can come and see the candle-making process and even host workshops. Ideally, the space would also have a small shop, a place to fulfill the website orders, a garden full of flowers and beehives! In Provence, of course. (If there are is anyone who is interested about collaborating on the project, I’m all ears!)
The beehive is a real treasure chest – we have to glorify the bees and their work!
It’s truly magical that I get to contribute to this.