How One Woman Built a $60+ Million Candle Business

Mei-Xu-with-candle-2On Rockville Pike near White Flint Mall, lunch-hour traffic generates a constant hum occasionally amplified by horn blasts from impatient drivers and the roar of nearby construction equipment. But up on the 11th floor of a sandstone-colored high-rise, tranquility reigns. Burning candles scent the Rockville office space with pumpkin, sandalwood and vanilla. Pillows and soft cashmere throws reminiscent of exotic destinations invite staff and visitors to relax.

In a window-lined office, a petite, dark-haired Chinese woman stands in front of a 5-foot-tall board, blissfully contemplating the array of photos, fabric swatches and materials from her latest travel adventure. From these fragments, Mei Xu, founder of the multimillion-dollar global enterprise Chesapeake Bay Candle, will create a new line for her latest venture, Blissliving Home.

At 43, Mei Xu has traveled a vast distance, not only geographically, but metaphorically, from where she began. She lives in Bethesda’s Edgemoor neighborhood with her husband, David Wang, 48, and their two sons, Alex, 10, and Michael, 9. But she grew up in Hangzhou, China, where she initially thought her life course was set. The daughter of a school principal and steel plant environmental engineer, she earned a coveted spot at a boarding school that trained diplomats, and afterward attended Beijing Foreign Studies University, working part-time as a project manager for The World Bank.

When she graduated, however, the Chinese government assigned her and other members of the Class of 1989 to menial jobs at farms and factories in response to the Tiananmen Square student protests. She spent a month tracking mineral deliveries in China’s port city of Dalian before quitting in frustration and extinguishing her hopes of ever joining the Chinese diplomatic community.

After marrying, she and Wang began the complicated process of immigrating to the United States, which Xu describes as “arduous to the point of hardship.” Her college education made her an asset to the country, she says, and leaving required a tremendous amount of patience and money and the circumvention of red tape.

Finally, in 1991, the couple moved to Annapolis, and Xu enrolled in the University of Maryland’s Master of Arts in Journalism program. She hoped to work for The World Bank in Washington, D.C., after graduation, but the global recession of the early 1990s resulted in a hiring freeze there. In a tight job market, she accepted a position with a medical company in New York City, and on weekends commuted to Maryland, where her husband worked in Greenbelt as a computer engineer for a Navy contractor.

In New York, Xu often strolled around Bloomingdale’s. She noticed the fashion floors were filled with chic designs by Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, but the floors selling housewares and linens were “very grandma and ornate.”

“I wondered why people who wanted to dress a certain way didn’t also want to live that way in their homes,” Xu says.

Figuring there must be a market for upscale home goods, she and Wang resigned their jobs in 1994 and started their own company. With neither a mortgage nor a child yet, “it was the perfect time to take a risk,” Xu says.

Armed with samples of silk flowers and candles sent by business contacts in China, the couple attended the September Charlotte Gift & Jewelry Show in Charlotte, N.C. When they walked away with more than $90,000 in retail orders—mainly for candles—they knew they’d hit upon something.

The unscented, decorative white candles they sold were popular holiday gifts that year. But Xu wanted a product with broader appeal. She consulted Peter French, president of French Color & Fragrance Company in Englewood, N.J., and learned to add dyes and scented oils to candle wax. At home, she experimented with pouring brightly colored, fragrant wax into Campbell’s soup cans. During the process, she neglected to add a chemical that creates a smooth satin finish.

“The candles had mottled colors and an amazing snowflake texture,” Xu says. That finish became the signature style of the couple’s company, Chesapeake Bay Candle.

By 1996, high-end retailers, including Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, were selling Chesapeake Bay Candle products. The following year, Xu created a candle collection for Target. The chain’s buyer forecast $3 million in sales that first year, but after two weeks she called Xu and said, “Mei, we’re in trouble.” It turned out that sales were outpacing the supply. Xu stepped up production and, by year’s end, sales at Target had surpassed $8 million.

Since then, Chesapeake Bay Candle has become a global leader in the industry, with $90 million in sales in 2009. The company currently owns two manufacturing operations in China and one in Vietnam, with more than 2,000 employees in all. A production and distribution facility is slated to open in Glen Burnie this year. “That operation will help us provide our customers [in the United States] with what they want, when they want it,” says Xu, who moved to Bethesda in 2009.

Currently available through national retailers, including Kohl’s and Bed Bath & Beyond, Chesapeake Bay Candle products have appeared on the pages ofBetter Homes and Gardens, Modern Bride and People magazine.

In 2010, the White House invited Xu to create a candle exclusively for Michelle Obama. The candle was included in a gift basket presented to foreign dignitaries at the first lady’s farm-to-table event that September. Xu designed a cream-colored soy candle with a pattern of oak leaves and roses inspired by a frieze above the North Portico at the White House. She packaged it in a slate-blue box with the first lady’s signature in silver.

Xu constantly thinks about improving and expanding her business, and often finds inspiration on the road. That’s how she came up with her newest company, Blissliving Home. During her frequent business trips, she remarked that “the bedding in hotel rooms was so ugly,” with rough linens and dirt-masking, multicolored bedspreads. Wanting to apply her sense of fashion and design to home textiles, she founded Blissliving Home in 2007. Her husband now handles strategic development, financial investments and business development for both Chesapeake Bay Candle and Blissliving Home. Xu works with two designers in the United States and eight in China on Blissliving Home products, which are manufactured at the company’s facility in Hangzhou, China.

Blissliving Home’s design style is “a global touch for the modern home,” Xu says. She estimates the company’s sales to be “in the millions of dollars.” A catalog of home textiles and accessories for the bedroom, bath and dining area is published twice yearly, and products have appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, Real Simple, Family Circle andTraditional Home. Last year, actor Chris O’Donnell perched on a bed outfitted with Blissliving Home linens and pillows on the popular CBS show NCIS: Los Angeles.

While visiting locales around the world, Xu investigates flea markets, art galleries, stores and restaurants, observing the way people dress and converse, and gathering examples of architecture, colors, textures and images important to their culture. Back at her Rockville office, she and two designers create a “trend board” with her samples—transforming the ideas into linens, rugs, pillows and other accessories.

Xu doesn’t choose her destinations, she says, “the destinations choose me.” A 2008 trip to Iceland resulted in the 2009 Icelandic Dream line of shimmery fabrics and accessories in ice blue, white and hemp yellow, described as “evocative of the midnight sun.”

Prompted by James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, Xu and 18 family members and friends traveled in 2009 to Zhongdian (known as Shangri-La) in China’s Yunnan province, which borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). Her adventure inspired the fall/winter 2010 Shangri-La collection, infused with the rich coral, mustard and turquoise hues of an enameled Tibetan prayer wheel and images of Buddha and Chinese characters.

Past inspirations include New York City, Tokyo, Miami, Morocco and London’s Kew Gardens. Blissliving Home’s 13th and current collection, London Calling, incorporates images of that city’s historic and modern architecture in charcoal and white, accented by vivid shades of coral and mint green. “People have been saying we were so smart to anticipate the royal wedding,” Xu says. “In truth, like everyone else, we didn’t know.”

In January, Xu traveled to Argentina to gather materials for the fall/winter 2011 collection, which will combine the classic beauty of Buenos Aires’ European architecture with the natural beauty of Patagonia and its glaciers. Her next trip will be to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Blissliving Home’s catalog is available online at, with select products sold in specialty stores, boutiques and high-end department stores. Interior designer Katie DeStefano sells Blissliving Home throws, blankets, pillows and candles at her Baltimore shop, Curiosity. “I have to keep reordering and reordering,” she says. “Their products are top quality and beautifully made. They sell themselves.”

In the next five years, Xu will concentrate on retail venues and on establishing Blissliving Home flagship stores in locations such as Bethesda or Georgetown, the SoHo section of New York City, and San Francisco. “People on the [East and West] coasts are more traveled and interested in other cultures,” she says of the company’s demographic. “They know buying from Blissliving Home is not just buying products, it’s buying a travel experience.”

Gabriele McCormick is a frequent contributor to Bethesda Magazine

What is Pthalates?



Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often called plasticizers. Some phthalates are used as solvents (dissolving agents) for other materials. They are used in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes).

Phthalates are used widely in polyvinyl chloride plastics, which are used to make products such as plastic packaging film and sheets, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing, and some children’s toys.

How People Are Exposed to Phthalates

People are exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates. To a lesser extentexposure can occur from breathing in air that contains phthalate vapors or dust contaminated with phthalate particles. Young children may have a greater risk of being exposed to phthalate particles in dust than adults because of their hand-to-mouth behaviors. Once phthalates enter a person’s body, they are converted into breakdown products (metabolites) that pass out quickly in urine.

How Phthalates Affect People’s Health

Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown. Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive system of laboratory animals. More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates.

Levels of Phthalate Metabolites in the U.S. Population

In the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (Fourth Report), CDC scientists measured 13 phthalate metabolites in the urine of 2,636 or more participants aged six years and older who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) during 2003–2004. For several phthalate metabolites, results from the prior survey periods of 1999–2000 and 2001–2002 are also included in the Fourth Report. By measuring phthalate metabolites in urine, scientists can estimate the amount of phthalates that have entered people’s bodies.

  • CDC researchers found measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in the general population. This finding indicates that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population.
  • Research has found that adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for those phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.

Finding a detectable amount of phthalate metabolites in urine does not imply that the levels of one or more will cause an adverse health effect. Biomonitoring studies on levels of phthalate metabolites provide physicians and public health officials with reference values so that they can determine whether people have been exposed to higher levels of these chemicals than are found in the general population. Biomonitoring data can also help scientists plan and conduct research on exposure and health effects.


Information Courtesy of: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention   1600 Clifton Road Atlanta, GA 30329-4027, USA
800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) TTY: (888) 232-6348 – Contact CDC–INFO


Always make sure to ask your candle or fragrance supplier if the fragrances they use are pthalates-free. 

Are Your Candles Toxic?

Are Your Candles Toxic?

We show you what’s wrong with conventional candles, and point your toward less-toxic alternatives.

Sometimes, one of the simplest pleasures in life is coming home from a stressful day of work, filling the bathtub with warm water, and lighting an aromatherapy candle with a special scent that—as the label claims—will make you feel calm and relaxed. Unfortunately, that seemingly harmless candle could be filling the air in your home with carcinogenic soot and lead emissions. 

“Oh, no,” you say, clutching your Calming, Sensual, and Invigorating candles to your chest, “you’ll take these away from me when you pry them from my stressed out, soot-stained hands.” Fortunately, the solution to the candle pollution problem doesn’t have to be that extreme. Alternatives to toxic aromatherapy candles abound—from natural beeswax and vegetable wax candles to candle-free aromatherapy techniques. With very little effort, you can fill your home with soothing scents without filling it with toxins.

What’s Wrong With My Candles? 
Once upon a time, many scented candles on the market contained lead-core wicks. Fragrance oils soften the wax, so the manufacturers used lead to make the wicks firmer.

A candle with a lead-core wick releases five times the amount of lead considered hazardous for children and exceeds EPA pollution standards for outdoor air, says the CPSC, which is why theybanned lead wicks in 2003. Exposure to high amounts of lead has been linked to hormone disruption, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and numerous health problems. 

If you think you may still have lead-wicked candles in your home, see below for a simple test.

In addition, you’ll want to look out for aromatherapy candles made of paraffin—a petroleum by product—which release carcinogenic soot when burned. The soot can also cause respiratory problems and will aggravate the conditions of those who already have asthma, lung, or heart problems.

“Burning an aromatherapy candle made of paraffin is similar to preparing a healthy drink of fresh squeezed juice and adding a shot of gasoline,” says Eric Johnson of Candleworks, an Iowa City, Iowa based company that specializes in wholesaling nontoxic aromatherapy candles.

Besides endangering your health and that of your family, soot from paraffin wax can cause significant damage to the inside of your house, plus your computers, electrical appliances, and ductwork.

“Some families have reported so much soot damage that they have filed insurance claims, only to find such damages aren’t covered in their policies,” says natural living expert Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Home.

And if that weren’t enough, aromatherapy candles that are scented with synthetic oils release microscopic particles that can cause cancer and other health problems when inhaled. 

Natural Candle Alternatives
There are no rules or bans in the works for paraffin candles and those scented with synthetic oils. In the meantime, you don’t have to give up candles altogether.

• Buy 100 percent beeswax candles with cotton wicks, which are free of toxins. Beeswax can cost as much as six times the price of paraffin, so many candle manufacturers blend paraffin with their beeswax to cut costs. Be sure your candles say 100 percent beeswax on the label.

• Buy candles made from 100 percent vegetable-based waxes, which are also nontoxic. For example, Way Out Wax in Morrisville, Vermont, makes their candles with a combination of vegetable wax and hemp oil wax.

• To reduce soot, no matter what kind of wicks are in your candles, trim wicks to 1¼4 inch, and do not burn candles near a draft.

Candle-Free Aromatherapy
If you can’t find just the right nontoxic aromatherapy candle to get rid of tension headaches or rejuvenate your tired body in the morning, you may want to try using pure essential oils. Pure, organic oils can give you the same aromatherapy benefits as scented candles, and you can choose and blend your own scents. 

Essential oils, while nontoxic, are very potent. Always know the best way to use the oils you’re working with, as well as any precautions that should be taken with them. Consult a qualified aromatherapist or a good reference book first.

Once you’ve chosen your favorite oils or oil blends, there are several methods you can use to release the scents in your home: 

• Use a diffuser. These are simple containers—most often made of glass, marble, or ceramic—which release the scent from essential oils when heated either with electricity or a small tea light candle. Usually, six to ten drops of essential oil in a diffuser is all it takes to scent a room.

• Use a ring burner. These metal rings have a reservoir that holds a few drops of essential oil and will fit around a lightbulb, using the heat to disperse the oil’s scent.

• Take a bath. Add five to ten drops of essential oils to a warm bath. Close the bathroom door and soak for 15 minutes. Remember, essential oils can mark plastic bathtubs, so be sure to clean the tub when you’re finished.

• Make a room spray. Blend ten drops of essential oil in seven tablespoons of water. Shake well before filling the sprayer. 

Tracy Fernandez Rysavy

(revised & updated February 2014) 

Business at a Glance

We are often asked the question “how much does it cost to start a candle business?” And we tell people the costs can vary depending on how serious you desire to be when starting it. We have put together a brief overview of what you can expect to pay in starting your candle business on a part-time basis.



Start up Costs: $3,000

eCommerce Website: Ranges from $50 – $700

  • Stand alone website (bulk of money invested here)
  • Weebly
  • Etsy
  • eBay

Supplies: $1,000

  • Candle Wax of Choice
  • Candle Jars
  • Wicks & Wick Holders
  • Labels
  • Fragrance and/or Essential Oils
  • Melt Pots
  • Heat Source
  • Mixing Spoons

Marketing Collateral: $150

  • Business Cards
  • Postcards
  • Sell Sheets

Business Registration: $100

  • Register your business in your state
    • You may need Articles of Organization drafted
  • Register for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) – FREE

Craft Fairs: $15-$250

  • Registration fees to attend craft fairs will vary depending the popularity of the fair



Written by: Jameel D. Nolan of The Ultimate Guide to Soy Candle Making

How Big is the Candle Making Industry?

by Terry White, Demand Media

The candle industry generates sales of $2.3 billion a year.Votive, sticks or pillars — candles come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors and scents. Candle manufacturing is a multibillion dollar industry, so it’s fair to say it’s big. Compared to other industries, however, such as petroleum, automobiles or computers, candles rank as a rather puny sector. Whether an industry is big or small, there are several ways to measure its size.

Marketing Capitalization

Think of an entire industry’s fair market value if it were for sale. That’s known as market capitalization, a value reached by combining stock shares at current price and assets. Many of the companies involved in candle production are privately held, making a true snapshot of market capitalization of the industry impossible. Private corporations include two of the biggest players — SC Johnson & Sons and Yankee Candle. However, Procter & Gamble Co., a publicly traded company and manufacturer of many home-based products including candles, is valued at more than $200 billion.

Revenues and Earnings

Candle sales in the U.S. are estimated at roughly $2.3 billion a year, but this does not include accessories such as candlestick holders. For comparison, the U.S. computer industry has annual revenues of about $86 billion, again making the candle industry appear small in scale. Candles are a highly discretionary purchase and sales are greatly influenced by economic climate. Roughly one-third of all candle sales take place during the holiday season.

Manufacturers and Employees

There are more than 400 candle manufacturing companies in the United States, and scores of craft producers who make candles for local or noncommercial use. The candle industry employs more than 7,000 workers in manufacturing, distribution and sales. For comparison purposes, there are 43,000 clergy and 25,000 carpet installers in the United States. This again amplifies the small nature of candle manufacturing.

Candle Trends

Candle sales took off in the 1990s, when they became a part of home decor and peaked in 2000, growing at a rate of 10 percent or more each year. Consumer demand for home fragrance products helped feed this tremendous boom. Sales remained flat during the 2000s due in part to the recession, but there are signs that sales are about to reignite. The market for luxury candles is sparking overall growth of the home fragrances market. While candles come in all types of shapes and sizes, scent is the reason for new growth. Social media is helping drive the home fragrance candle market, creating a surge in Internet sales.

Fun Candle Facts

The retail price of a candle can range from 50 cents for a votive to $200 or more for a distinctive artisan candle. There are as many as 2,000 varieties of candles and 10,000 scents available. More than a billion pounds of wax are used to make the candles sold in American stores every year. Paraffin is the most commonly used candle wax today, along with beeswax, soy wax, palm wax and blended waxes.

About the Author

Terry White has more than 30 experience as a news writer, news producer, copy editor and supervising producer for CNN. Knowledgeable in subject matter including government, politics, immigration, business, the economy, education, energy, crime, law, IT, health, science and more, White holds a law degree from Georgia State University.

Photo Credits

  • Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images