In conversation with CATE BURTON
CATE BURTON loves everything to do with bees. She is a candle maker with a passion for sustainability and ethical business. She walks her talk and has created a small business based on crafted handmade products of quality, elegance and natural simplicity.
Q: You started your career in the corporate world. What led you towards bees?
CB: I had panic attacks and my GP told me that I needed to get a life and some hobbies. So I took up oil painting, carpentry, pottery, painting ceramics, and rolling beeswax candles. I would often get home from work at 8 or 9 at night and roll a lot of candles to calm my mind in the evenings.
I started giving them to friends, and then had a stall at the local markets. One day I was driving across the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House was lit up with pink lights for breast cancer awareness. I suddenly thought, “Why are we not having a conversation about mental illness?” It was 2002, and mental health issues were still swept under the carpet, but thankfully my parents didn’t do that. Mum and dad told everyone, “Cate’s having panic attacks.” And people came out of the woodwork, sharing their own experiences of panic attacks or depression. None of them had ever spoken about it.
At the time, I was working in PR and corporate strategy, reading three newspapers a day. I had an idea called ‘Light Up a Life’: school kids would roll beeswax candles, while mental health professionals would talk to them about depression and stress. The candles would raise money for mental health. I made packaging and a beautiful logo, but the organization said no to the proposal – something I hadn’t entertained. All of a sudden I was left with a logo and business cards and a letterhead, so I decided to sell beeswax candles. It was a back door way to start a business.
Normally you build a business and then give your wealth away when you have some. In fact Queen B has never been about that. I still like to make money, but there are other more important priorities.
Q: What are those priorities?
CB: One of the most important is supporting bees, as there is a global problem. Beekeeping is a hard profession. Beekeepers lift 30 to 40 kilos each time they lift a box of honey. They are quite nomadic because they drive the bees around to find a source of nectar. They are fulltime carers: there may be 700 hives of girls to be fed. They take them to warmer climates in winter, up to Queensland or Central Australia, so that they are calm and relaxed.
This business is also part of creating the world I want to live in. I want to live in a world where we have products that are crafted. I feel that we have dumbed down society in our developed countries, because crafts have become too expensive. We don’t want to pay wages for cobblers or beeswax candle makers or tailors and seamstresses making handmade clothes, so we are losing those skills. I am passionate about reviving these handcrafts.
Humans have been making beeswax candles for seven centuries, and when I started reading all the books available on the subject I discovered that much of the craft has not been written down and the books were not always accurate. For example, the temperature at which the books tell you to pour wax is way too high – it would burn the wax.
In the olden days, a child would have been apprenticed at 15 to a chandler, a master candle maker, and learnt their skills over a career of forty years. I have been making candles now for fifteen years and I am still learning new things every day. Working with beeswax is an art. Paraffin or soy candles are chemically made – the same product every single time – but beeswax from ironbark is very different to beeswax from wattle or yellowbox or stringybark. There are no two days the same in our business.
I have to teach my workers to observe and understand the wax, to look at a candle and know when it is ready to come out of its mold. You won’t find a timer in our production space.
Q: So tell us more about how beeswax, paraffin, soy and palm wax candles are different – the four main types of candles on the market. Also all your candles are unscented. Why?
CB: Going back centuries, beeswax candles were affordable to royalty and the aristocracy, so common people had no light after dark. When oil exploration started in the 1850s, during the refinement process a waxy layer called paraffin was produced after separating the products from the crude oil. On one hand paraffin was amazing because it democratized light. All of a sudden candlelight was affordable for everyone. On the other hand it means burning a petrochemical. There are seven known carcinogens emitted from a burning paraffin candle and the toxic fumes are said to be akin to reversing your car into your living room.
There are also palm wax and soy wax candles. Palm wax is out of favor in Australia, because of the environmental issue of plantations destroying natural rainforest. And something like 55 million hectares of the Amazon rainforest have been clear-felled to make way for soy plantations.
There are many issues with soy. 96% of soy crops grown worldwide are GM Roundup ready, and a lot of people think that these GM crops are contributing significantly to the bee crisis, as they have been shown to disrupt the navigation systems of bees.
Another issue is that the raw product is liquid soybean oil, which has a strong aroma and is bright yellow. It has to be chemically bleached to remove the aroma and the color. After this, the oil is hydrogenated with nickel, a heavy metal, so it becomes a solid wax. Even after all this, the soy wax still has some aroma, so fragrance is added to mask the smell. Soy candles have a low melting point, which is why you will never see a pillar candle made of soy wax. It is poured into a vessel so that it doesn’t drip everywhere.
And then there is beeswax, produced from the wax glands of bees. In a hive of 50,000 bees, there is one queen, 49,900 female worker bees, and 100 male drones. After a female worker bee is born, she immediately becomes a housekeeper, cleaning the hive. At other stages of her life she is a nurse bee feeding the larvae, a foraging bee collecting nectar and pollen, a scout bee looking for sources of nectar and pollen, an attendant to the queen, and for three days of her life she makes wax. She has 6 wax glands on her abdomen, and they exude a white liquid that hardens as soon as it hits the air.
Beeswax is white. Any other color comes from impurities like pollen and propolis. We clean the wax and try to have a very light wax at Queen B, as the impurities affect how well a candle burn. For example, if the wax is yellow because it contains a lot of pollen, it will smoke and burn 30% faster than a pure wax candle. If the wax has propolis in it, it will be a mustard color. Propolis is a resin, which doesn’t burn. It may be good for a sore throat but you don’t want it in candle wax.
There was a parliamentary enquiry into the beekeeping industry in Australia a few years ago, and it was estimated that feral bees do roughly two billion dollars worth of free pollination every year. All the colored fruits and vegetables that we eat are pollinated by bees. We need bees. By creating demand for a product, we make that product more attractive and more viable.
Q: Tell us about how you make candles – the processes, the equipment you use and how they are designed.
CB: We use three different processes. We hand roll, we hand pour, which we do for tea lights, tapers and pillar candles, and we hand dip, which we do for taper lights and twisted candles. They all produce different effects, different finishes, different flexibilities.
Nature makes beeswax beautifully and perfectly. We don’t add fragrances because they make it toxic to burn; that research already exists. Natural dyes may or may not be toxic, but the research has not been done yet, so I err on the side of caution. So in order to compete in a marketplace full of fragrant and colored candles, our candles are distinguished by their design and their purity. The bees have actually done a lot of the hard work for us by creating a wax that gives a beautiful big flame relative to the width of the candle. This is because the wax has such a high melting point, and we are able to use big wicks. Beeswax also has a lovely light honey aroma when it’s burning, so we don’t need other fragrances. Nature has given us those natural beauties, and we have to come up with designs that inspire.
Q: You say it gives off a lovely light honey aroma, is there anything toxic in the wax being burned?
Q: Does beeswax do anything positive to the air when it’s burning?
CB: It is said to emit negative ions and be a natural ionizer when burning. When you burn larger pillar candles, you actually see dirt from the atmosphere accumulating in the pool of melted wax around the wick. Moving water is a natural ionizer as is being in a rainforest. You can feel how clean the air is. Most of us can’t have a rainforest in our living room or a waterfall, but we can have a beeswax candle. If it is winter and people around you in the room have the ’flu or a cold, you can light beeswax candles to purify the air.
Q: Can you tell us about your designs?
CB: We started with hand rolled, and then we collaborated with Dinosaur Designs a few years back and they really made me think about design and aesthetics. Humans are often very visual beings, consuming things with our eyes first.
I try to create designs that are contemporary, but not literal. A few years back, when I started thinking deeply about the values I wanted for Queen B, I chose to have designs for the candles that evoked softness, gentleness, a heartfelt mindful way of being, radiating the essence of ‘fly with my own wings’. Even though we have a product that may be unrivalled anywhere in the world, I didn’t want the designs to evoke success in an egotistical sense.
When I started thinking deeply about the values I wanted for Queen B,
I chose to have designs for the candles that evoked softness,
gentleness, a heartfelt mindful way of being,
radiating the essence of ‘fly with my own wings’.
Sometimes designs arise from mistakes, like the 15 cm Gothic columns we produce. The first one was a by-product of an experiment to try to patch up holes in an imperfect candle that had been taken out of its mold too early. I tried to plug the holes by spraying wax on the sides, and what happened? I got drips down the side. So I started having fun, pouring layer upon layer of wax down the sides of the candle. It gave an amazing Gothic-looking column candle with drips cascading down the side that don’t actually drip. I love the way the universe reminds me, “Don’t get too clever, Cate. Just remember there is a greater universal power or source at play here,” and there is some magic in that.
Then there are the Tosca candles that were originally made for Opera Australia, because the set in the opera Tosca is an exact replica of a church in Italy. We were the only ones who would make customized candles to replicate the original specifications. They also wanted very large flames so the audience could see them from far away, so we made the wicks large enough for that. Every design has a story, for example The Burning Love candle is based on a famous South American sculpture. I was in Buenos Aires for a beekeeping conference and came across it.
We also have a new range called Black Label, where the packaging is also very beautiful. They are great gifts, especially for corporates. Some companies send two bottles of wine to their clients at Christmas, but what does that say about their brand values? Giving gifts is also about standing for something, and being memorable. We do hampers for a local real estate agent: every time they sell a house, they give their vendor a ‘Sweetness and Light’ hamper with Australian honey and our beeswax candles.
Employers now recognize the need to give their employees gifts that acknowledge them as complete human beings. Sure they need to work hard, but they also need to rest and play. Candles are perfect. We have worked with Cartier, Dior, Bollinger and Dom Perignon, because our small business in the backblocks of a northern suburb of Sydney is making candles that can’t be found anywhere else. And that is in the details – in how we clean our wax for 72 hours, and test hundreds of different wicks to find the perfect wick.
Q: So you do a lot of research?
CB: Yes, all the time. I was a lawyer! I like research, I like data and I like testing. I am a perfectionist.
Q: Are you still working with the Danish designer, Joost Bakker, whose work is all about sustainability?
CB: Yes we collaborate with Joost. What’s important to me is that we still have a planet that’s worth living on in the next five years. For example, every single morning, I watch hundreds of people walk in to my local coffee shop and order takeaway coffee in disposable cups. It’s not okay any more: you either bring your own cup or you sit in.
I used to do the same until Joost said to me, “You do realize that’s not biodegradable, because the plastic coating on the cardboard can’t be separated from the paper.”
“I’m in a hurry,” I replied. “I’m here at 6 a.m. and I have to get to work.”
He said, “If you can’t sit for five minutes to have a coffee, there’s something seriously wrong with your life.”
I’ve never bought a takeaway coffee since. And what about soft plastics? I used to throw them in the bin like everyone else. Now the large supermarkets are collecting them and they are being made into council furniture. Baby steps. All our packaging at Queen B is cardboard. I had a choice recently between lining boxes with foam or cardboard inserts. The foam would have been easier and protected the candles well, but foam is not biodegradable so we chose cardboard.
The fact that Queen B epitomizes my values gets me up every morning. I don’t want to compromise on that.
Queen B is also kosher-certified. I sat down with a rabbi over lunch and asked, “Can you help me understand your Jewish holidays, and the role of candles and light in your ceremonies?”
They use a lot of candles, and I loved learning about their traditions. I loved the fact that anyone can go to Heaven – you don’t need to be Jewish to go to Heaven. I don’t like dogma and doctrine, but I do like spirituality. I like believing in something, and getting together to celebrate life.
A lot of candlelight is about ritual and tradition. It’s about centering, stripping away the peripheral, unimportant details of life, and having close illumination of what’s important.
Queen B is offering a 10% discount for all Heartfulness Magazine subscribers until 31 December 2017. Simply mention ‘Heartfulness’ with your order.
Interviewed by ELIZABETH DENLEY
November 01, 2017
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