We all love a true, inspiring story. And even more so when it’s for a good cause. You might have heard of penniless artists dedicating their life to their passion and vanishing without the slightest recognition. Take Vincent Van Gogh, for instance. Although brilliant and prolific, the Dutch painter spent the last years of his life in misery between Arles and Saint-Rémi-de-Provence, before disappearing tragically—and earning the acknowledgment that he deserved. Fortunately, not all artists share the same fate.
Meet Charles van Valkenburg, founder of Apis Cera. Despite his company’s intriguing name, Charles is no Latin teacher. Half-French, half-Dutch (maybe a far relative of Van Gogh?), Charles is an artisan cirier, that is, a beeswax candle maker (a “chandler”). He is one of a handful (about a dozen) left in France. If you love successful and exciting, real-life stories… read on!
From Humble Beginnings…
Over the past few years, a growing number of French young adults have been moving out of large cities and urbanized areas to go back to a simpler, more natural life. As we say here in France, a life closer to “le terroir” (the soil). Some grow fresh produce and sell it in local markets, others open a boulangerie artisanale (“artisan bakery”) in a small village and work with local farmers and wheat producers to make organic breads from scratch. As for Charles, he went into… the ‘bees business.’
He might not be American (although his great-grandfather was), but Charles is what you would call a real “self-made man.” A true entrepreneur passionate about decoration and craftsmanship. And it didn’t take much to ignite his creative spark. He recalls: "A few years ago, I purchased beeswax candles from a local beekeeper as a gift to some friends. The candles were really neat, so I kept one from the ten that I had bought, and put it in my pencil box on my desk for months. I thought to myself: ‘With a little practice, I bet I could make something like that.’”
After ten years working as a webdesigner in Paris, Stockholm and Brussels, Charles traded his keyboard and his desk for an apron and a studio-workshop in beautiful Provence. His sole motivation was passion: “I knew nothing about bees or candles. But with 300 euros in my pocket, I bought a slab of beeswax, a few wicks, some packing paper, and a nice, tailor-made box. I wanted it to be elegant.” Apis Cera was born.
Bougies & Savons (Soaps & Candles)
A perfectionist at heart, Charles agrees with Malebranche: although absolute perfection is out of reach, one should try and tend toward it. When he founded Apis Cera, Charles’ purpose was clear: “Restore candles to their former glory.” And he’s done so in the most eloquent way.
If you took Spanish in High School, “Cera” might sound familiar. It’s Latin for “wax” (cire in French). As for “Apis,” it means “honeybee” (abeille in French). As you would expect from a former computer brainiac, Charles admits: “I typed ‘bee wax’ into Google Translate, and found the Latin translation ‘Apis Cera.’ I bought the domain name right away.”
As stated in its logo, Apis Cera’s signature offerings are bougies (candles) and savons (soaps), all made from pure beeswax. After buying the raw material from local beekeepers, Charles either hand rolls embossed wax sheets around a natural, cotton wick to create candles handcrafted à l’ancienne (respecting ancient techniques), or melts wax slabs into custom molds to fashion them into tapers, pillars, or soaps.
Everything Charles van Valkenburg produces exudes elegance. Through an intimate collection of unique creations, he has built a picturesque universe that revolves around bees. “It takes 10 kilograms [22 pounds] of honey to make just 1 kilogram [2.2 pounds] of beeswax,” Charles reminds us. Needless to say, the scarcer the material, the more precious it becomes. Although he’s not a beekeeper himself, once the wax reaches his skillful hands, Charles does everything himself. And he does it well.
Soothing, Startling, and Plain ‘Beeautiful’
Each one of Charles’ creations has a distinct personality. Refined “Lucienne” (from Latin Lux, or “light”), its flagship candle, is a traditional beeswax candle—with the trademark honeycomb pattern—delicately hand rolled around a wax-dipped cotton wick. Cheery “Félicité” (“happiness”) is a slender taper made the old-fashioned way by dipping a cotton wick inside a hot pool of beeswax. Shorter and thicker than Lucienne, sturdy “Ambroise” (from “Saint Ambrose,” patron of beekeepers) is an elegant honeycomb candle pillar shaped in a custom mold. “Hortense” (“garden”) is a petite beeswax candle poured in a simple reusable glass, while its big sister “Faustine” (“fire light”) is a natural Amber scented organic candle displayed in a luxurious mottled golden glass.
Apis Cera also offers skin care products, such as soaps and lip balms, all made from organic ingredients—including honey and, of course, beeswax. Charles uses natural, high-quality materials primarily found in the Provence region (lavender, extra virgin olive oil, sunflower oil, essential oils of lavandin), but also around the Mediterranean and further out (argan oil, shea butter, ylang-ylang, etc.).
From creation and production to marketing and packaging, Charles wears many hats. He hosts a one-man show and insists on keeping it small: “It takes me one to two years to add a new beeswax product to my collection. That’s how long I need to get it right.” But besides his hand-picked choice of natural products, what makes Apis Cera stand out is the care given to each step of fabrication—including wrapping and packaging.
Remember that first time, when Charles bought beeswax candles to his friends? He points out: “The candles were great, but the packaging was horrible. They were wrapped in a wine cardboard box filled with crumpled newspaper. It was just a turn-off.” Lesson learned. Today, Charles wraps his soaps and candles in a blue, exquisite bee-printed silk paper, a nod to France’s classic toile de Jouy. The paper is sealed with a bee sticker (the company’s trademark) and the candles are gently placed in a sturdy, graceful box stamped with gold foil. “Possibly the best candles and packaging I’ve seen so far,” shared recently one of Apis Cera’s customers.
Why Choose Apis Cera?
The truth is, Apis Cera is much more than just fancy candles. It’s about protecting nature, perpetuating an ancestral skill, and helping out local communities. Here are five good reasons to trust the French brand:
- It’s 100% natural. Like their chubby cousin (the savon de Marseille), Apis Cera’s soaps and candles are entirely organic. They have no chemicals, no additives, and no coloring. The candles’ wicks are made from 100% pure cotton. And their body is just wax, honey (pun intended).
- It smells yummy. “I didn’t know honey smelled so good!” That’s… because we don’t usually burn it. But traditional beeswax candles give off a delicious, too often forgotten, perfume. In fact, so delicious it might whet your appetite. No worries, even if you were to savagely bite Lucienne or Félicité (not that I’d recommend it), you’d be fine, as beeswax is commonly used as a food additive.
- It’s good for your health. Charles’ creations carry no pollutants. Also, unlike synthetic candles, Apis Cera beeswax candles don’t smoke! The artist explains: “When it burns, beeswax releases ions that purify the air. These ‘negative’ ions grasp positive ions (like the ones found in dust and allergens) and tackle them to the ground.” By the way, it’s not uncommon to find beeswax candles in the bedrooms of people who suffer from asthma.
- It’s good for the bees and for our planet. Most candles sold nowadays are mainly made of paraffin (a derivative from coal, petroleum or oil shale) or stearin extracted from animal and vegetable fat. When acquiring a beeswax candle, you are resorting to a sustainable, all-natural fuel used for millennia while helping protect the bees that produce it. Since beeswax has a higher melting point than other waxes, it lasts longer, hence becoming a smart alternative to electricity.
- It helps support local communities. Charles smiles: “As long as bees won’t know how to make candles, I will be the middleman between them, their hives and the people.” We can all chip in to support the traditional trades that we love and admire. The chandler adds: “By making beeswax candles, we help support local beekeepers and bring life to small family businesses.”
A few years ago, Charles was still sitting in front of his computer, dreaming about making something with his bare hands. He now ships his original creations “fait main” (handcrafted) as far as Australia and Dubai. The praise and admiration that he receives today bear witness to the success of his secret recipe: Passion & Patience.
So, whether you want to commune with nature, cuddle up to read a good book, decorate your living room, surprise a loved one or spice up a romantic evening, remember that every time that you light up Charles’ candles, you’re not just making yourself a favor. You are also preserving Apis Cera, our very own ‘little shop around the corner.’
Beautifully written and inspiring article about a true craftsman! I look forward to enjoying my own Apis Cera candle very soon!