Waxing lyrical makes scents for Max Benjamin's founding brothers
The brothers behind Max Benjamin tell Meadhbh McGrath how they built a home fragrance empire
The drive down the steep, winding road to Mark and David Van der Bergh's family home in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, is enough to make anyone feel uneasy. But it is here, nestled deep in the middle of a sloping valley in this rural idyll, that the brothers have set up the warm, welcoming studio where their beloved Max Benjamin scented candles are designed and poured by hand.
Their surname owes its origins to their Belgian father, who came to Ireland when he was eight. Their mother spent most of her life in Churchtown, Co Dublin, and together, they had five kids: as well as Mark and David, there are three daughters, Orla, Shirley and Emma. There are seven years between the brothers (Mark is 47, David 40), but they became close growing up as they shared a bedroom, first in Cabinteely, and then again when the family moved to this remote location in Enniskerry.
"It took a while for me to get used to it," says Mark. "I was 13 and all my friends were back in Cabinteely, so I didn't like it that much for the first couple of years - I used to look forward to going to school on a Monday!" David, on the other hand, was thrilled. "I loved the fields, the smells, everything. It was beautiful."
Mark grew to love the rural surroundings, and the sights and scents of the natural landscape continue to inspire the brothers when choosing new fragrances for their collection. Now a hugely popular brand, Max Benjamin was born from the ashes of Oberg candles, a range developed by their older sister, Orla. Back in the 1990s, Orla headed to Florida on a J1 visa, and ended up getting a job with a candle company.
"It was just a summer job, but she came back with that skill-set and started making them at home and selling them," Mark explains. She began by making unlabelled church candles, unscented but in a range of different colours. Soon she was appearing at trade shows and selling to Brown Thomas, Selfridges and the Conran Shop.
"The problem was that a lot of Chinese and Eastern European imports started coming in and competing, and there was a price war. The market just nose-dived and the business fell apart," says Mark.
That was the early 2000s. At the time, Mark was based in Germany as a sales representative for Beamish stout, and David was working in the software industry.
It wasn't until 2006 that they started thinking about resurrecting the candle business. "We had to shift focus, so we had the idea for a more luxurious, fragrance-oriented brand," says Mark. Once they had outlined their vision for the company, they decided to name it after Orla's twin sons, Max and Ben, opting for 'Benjamin' instead. "It just sounded more designer!" says David with a laugh. "At trade shows, we always get people saying 'Max! How are you?' Usually, we just go along with it."
They also decided to replace the paraffin wax they had been using with a blend of soya, coconut and beeswax. "We wanted a cleaner-burning candle," David explains. "If you have paraffin in a candle and you burn it, there'll be a whole lot of black smoke around it, whereas with natural waxes, there's less soot coming from it. As well as that, you can smell the paraffin burning in the background, so it interferes with the fragrance. With the soya wax, coconut wax and beeswax, you get a truer sense of the fragrance."
They launched Max Benjamin with the Classic Collection, consisting of just three fragrances: Lemongrass and Ginger, French Linen Water and Grapefruit and Pomelo, which continue to be the top-sellers in their range. Mark winces as he recalls: "We started in 2008, which was probably the worst time to start a business. Things were really bad. We were broke, and we were a tiny business." However, the firm slowly began to build.
They began doing a few trade shows in Dublin, London, Germany and France, before gradually getting their products back on to the shelves in Brown Thomas, Arnotts, Avoca and many other stores around the country.
One thing that really helped the brand was the reasonably low price point, Mark observes. Starting at €22 per candle, the price remains a big draw for people, particularly around gift-giving occasions such as Christmas and Mother's Day.
"Our candles became a very popular gifting item for people," says Mark. "At that time in the economy, things like crystal were starting to take a hit - people hadn't got the money to spend €99 on two champagne flutes, and they were looking for gifts that were more affordable. I think that's where we came in.
"There weren't really any other Irish brands making scented candles, so we really took that market on and went for it. A huge part of our success was down to the fact that it was made in Ireland, especially in 2008 when everything was crashing and people wanted to support Irish companies and Irish jobs."
Scented candles are usually seen as an indulgence for women, but with two men helming Ireland's leading candle company, that's starting to change. "It's still mostly women buying our products but it's becoming more popular for men. It's essentially two guys running the business, and a lot of people say our products look slightly masculine. It's much more acceptable for guys to buy them now," says David.
Mark takes care of the design end of the company, and David looks after the business side. The two clearly get along very well, often chiming in to finish the other's sentences or pick up on a trailing thought. There is plenty of easy, good-natured banter between them; Mark does most of the talking, and talks fast, while David is more measured in his responses and dry in his humour.
"We're very different. I'm very flaky and David is very organised, he runs the show here completely. I wouldn't be able to do it," Mark says, joking: "What do I do?!" David quickly jumps in: "Mark does things the wrong way, and I do things the right way. We work in different ways, but we both work on everything. We have a small team but it's very efficient."
They make up to 1,000 candles a day in the factory. The walls are lined with big blue barrels, filled with the fragrances they mix into the candles. At one end, huge tanks hold the three different waxes. Every night, the waxes are put in, and are slowly, gently melted down from 4am each morning.
When the wax reaches a certain temperature, the fragrance is added in, and mixed together to create an even blend. They bring the temperature down and use a petrol pump-style gun to do the first pour, which comprises the bulk of the candle. Once that has set, they'll bring the temperature down again and finish off with a top-up pour to give the candle a smooth surface.
"Each candle takes seven hours to make," says David. "It's a lot of waiting, and a very patient process." However, once complete, the candle has a minimum of 40 hours' burn time.
After achieving great success at home, Mark and David are hoping to expand their market abroad. Max Benjamin candles are now stocked around the world, in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. They are also exploring the possibility of a launch in the US.
For a small company, making an impression on a foreign market can be a challenge. "We bring out an awful lot of new (products) for a company our size. You have to have a point of difference to survive or to be noticed abroad," Mark explains.
"When it comes to fragrance, it's very much like fashion. There are new fragrances that come and go like trends all the time, so the fragrance houses that we buy from will update us with a trend pattern for what's coming in next year. For spring/summer it was all about freshness and energy and the ocean."
In keeping with this, they came up with the idea for their new 'blue' range: Blue Azure, inspired by Mediterranean coastal scents, and Blue Flowers, a blend of blue freesias, jasmine and rose. They acknowledge that their classic collection will always be their best-sellers, but point out that the success of that collection gives them the freedom to experiment with more unusual scents, such as their tea and coffee candle sets.
"Within a range, you need a balance of different fragrances. They can't be as popular to everyone, because people have personal favourites," David explains."It's always good to have something unusual, like our Dodici, or even Tahitian Vanilla," Mark adds. "They can be very polarising, but if it's something quite unique, people will go for it."
For the full range and stockists, see maxbenjamin.ie
Photos: Steve Humphreys
Mark and David's top Tips
How to care for your candle:
1) For the first burn, always allow the candle to burn for three hours, or until the pool of wax reaches the edge. Candles have a memory, so if you don't allow the melting wax to reach the edge, the candle may 'tunnel' - when it burns down the middle, leaving behind a ring of wasted wax.
2) After the first burn, make sure to trim the wick with a scissors (or break it off with your fingers) before you light it. Do this every time and you'll get a perfect burn.
How to scent your home:
Kitchens and bathrooms: Lemongrass and Ginger is Max Benjamin's best-selling fragrance, and lemongrass is a natural deodorant, so it's great for masking scents. Citrus scents like Grapefruit and Pomelo are another good option as they cleanse the air.
Bedrooms: Go for relaxing fragrances, like True Lavender or the jasmine scent of Blue Flowers.
Living spaces: It depends on your taste, but you can afford to go with a unique fragrance like Dodici, or something warming like White Pomegranate.
Hallway: Diffusers are a good option for hallways, because they provide a constant stream of fragrance when you're passing through. White Lilies would work well.