Elise Pioch Balzac is the mind and the energy behind Maison Balzac, a company that can only be described as indulgence for the senses. With a history in fashion buying, Elise now makes candles, beautiful candles, each evocative of her childhood in the South of France. So imbued with personal memories are her soy wax creations, that to place one of these exquisitely crafted candles in your home is to welcome Maison Balzac into the family, and to embark on your own recollections and narratives.
Storytelling seems to come naturally to Elise. The great French novelist, Honore de Balzac was a distant ancestor on her mother’s side, a tradition she hopes to keep alive through the powerful storytelling properties of scent. Nature remains her greatest influence, and out of yearning to witness the seasons and to be immersed in nature’s mysteries, Elise, along with partner Pablo Chappell and their daughter, Loulou, relocated to the idyllic Hawkesbury area in rural New South Wales into a converted weatherboard church where they live for the majority of each week.
The Maison Balzac team is quite close knit, and Elise only works with the most accomplished and passionate artisans, using the most refined ingredients. Recently, she collaborated with Doctor Lisa Cooper to develop a new candle entitled ‘1642’, inspired by 17th century ‘vanitas’ still-life paintings. Earlier this year, Elise taught a course at Megan Morton’s The School, in which she shared her charismatic expertise, and she will be doing so again with the announcement of a second course in late November in Sydney.
Smell is one of the most emotive and nostalgic of our senses and can evoke any time or any memory in our lives. It is this very notion that Elise keeps in mind each day when creating for Maison Balzac. Memories of little personal rituals and family moments lie within each of her products and she invites you to take them into your home and your life. This is her delicate kind of magic.
Sophie Flecknoe: Firstly, can you tell me a little about yourself? Your childhood in the South of France sounds idyllic. Can you describe your time here?
Elise Pioch Balzac: Yes I had a magical childhood in the ‘Midi’, in the south of France near the Spanish border. Close to nature, the woods & the sea and close to my Balzac side of the family.
What are the origins of Maison Balzac? What was your initial idea behind the label?
I truly wanted to bring to life some of the most striking perfumes of my childhood. I am missing France so much; it was a way for me to recreate that world.
What is your idea of beauty?
My idea of beauty is linked to the nature. By being as close to the nature as possible I think we can see beauty.
Your mother ran a perfumery boutique, which must have been quite special at times. What is your first memory of smell and scent?
I was too small to remember anything. My grandmother and mother opened the perfumery when I was born and it stopped when I was 4. I was told that customers thought I was a doll in a basket when I was sleeping behind the cash register! One of my first memories of smell though was in the garden, picking tiny strawberries in my tiny hand.
You recently taught a class at Megan Morton’s The School, and you’re set to teach another class in late November here in Sydney, which is very exciting. Can you tell us about this experience? What can we expect from your upcoming class?
I never thought I would ever share my self-taught candle making skills but Megan approached me and I was seduced by the idea to have a small group of people ready to learn and DO things with their hands. I rarely give classes but every time I walk away I feel like I have been energised and motivated for a lifetime. I receive so much enthusiasm from the students!
You live in a converted weatherboard church with your (equally creative and talented) husband and daughter. Do your rural surroundings in the Hawkesbury area have any influence on your creations?
Yes we have chosen to live in the country (3 days a week) to be surrounded by trees, see the change of seasons and listen to frogs in pitch-black darkness at night because this is where Pablo and I feel at home. This is how we grew up and [we] want to offer the same adventures to Loulou. It definitely inspires what we do and the way we interact with people.
What does an average day look like for you?
I hate routine so every day is different! Except the 6am wake up call from Loulou and the 7pm bedtime story. In between, it’s pretty chaotic, busy and relentless. But we wouldn’t want it any other way.
What are your all-time favourite scents?
All time favourites are the smell of burnt feathers, fresh porcini mushrooms in a forest and Joy by Patou (my grand mother’s perfume).
You only use the finest materials like soy and beeswax and essential oils. Can you explain the importance of these materials?
As a customer I choose what I eat, wear and buy very carefully so I apply the same ethos with my brand. It doesn’t have to be expensive; it just has to have traceability and a good reason to be.
What is the process of making a candle from scratch?
One is easy! It’s when you have to make 500 that things get complicated! As long as you have the best soy wax, the right size wick, a perfume you like, a scale and a stove, you can make a good candle.
Your origins are in fashion. You were in communications at Hermes and were a buyer for Belinda & The Corner Store. Does this time in your life, and the experience you had, have any resonance to your current work?
I’ve always known that I would work in a field involving creativity and quest for beauty and rareness. That is what I was/am attracted to. To me, being in communication, buying or design evolve around the same passion so it resonates with my current work and makes total sense.
How would you describe your personal style?
French (!) and androgynous.
Has becoming a mother changed your idea of memory? What are some of your fondest memories?
Being a mother definitely brings a new light to all the events of my life. It is fascinating to enter another level into your own existence. As if now I have a torch and I can see clearly in my past.
Your house is heralded as quite stylish and idyllic. And candles are a beautiful object as much as they are a perfume. What is your approach to interiors and decorating?
I don’t actually think too much and I don’t plan decoration at all. It happens organically, influenced by the things and places I have had around me since forever. This is why it looks so French and natural I guess.
How would you describe your team? Is it quite close-knit?
The artisans I work with are 100% part of my team; my graphic designer, perfumer, candle maker and packaging specialists are crucial to my business and I try to be as kind and patient as I can because without them we wouldn’t exist. Internally I am lucky to have the most clever and passionate assistant, Ellie, who saves my life/sanity every week.
It is written on your website that each of your candles is as enchanting as the stories of 19th century French novelist Honore de Balzac. Are you inspired by his work?
Well Honore de Balzac is a distant ancestor of my mother so yes, his work and aura is very important to me. His way of describing France in the 18th century was so sharp… At my level I am also trying to describe the world I am contemporary of, not with words but fragrance.
You’ve recently made the foray into skin care as well with your hugely successful La Creme de la Creme and plans for hand washes and hand creams. Can you explain this process?
Behind every business there is a ‘raison d’etre’, a reason for being. Mine is to recreate the comfort of my home when I was a child. My mum would sit down, light a candle, throw a woollen plaid to keep warm and pour some Nivea Cream on her hands. This ceremony describes the products I want to design to make people feel good at home too. The French way!
Can you tell me about your recent collaboration with Dr. Cooper?
My current favourite candle is our latest collaboration called ‘1642’. It represents Lisa Cooper’s creative world mixed with Maison Balzac’s passion for enchanting stories and synaesthesia. Lisa is an artist and florist based in Sydney who has chosen a painting from Adriaen Van Utrecht, Vanitas – Still Life with Skull and Bouquet, as the starting point of the fragrance. We have called it ‘1642’ because it was painted that year. This perfume brings back the 17th century, including the old fashioned dust and fading flowers. I truly love the fact [that] this candle makes you think, it inquires about modern and past trends for perfumes and provokes an emotional reaction as soon as you smell it, like the painting when you see it for the first time.
Who are some of your artistic heroes? Who or what influences you?
Jean Cocteau is my hero, the Russian Ballets are my everything and Coco Chanel is my master.
Being from France originally, and now being based in Sydney, is travel a major component of what you do? Where is one place you would love to visit?
Yes going back and forth between my two homes (the South of France and the Sydney countryside) is integral to my happiness and the way I want Loulou to grow up. I love going back to places I know very well, like the tiny mountain house my parents have owned for 20 years, 1 hour drive from our family home in Beziers. If one day I venture out of my usual pilgrimage, I would love to discover Morocco for the colours, food and craftsmanship.
What is next for Maison Balzac as a label and for yourself as an individual? Where do you see yourself and the brand in a few years time?
Knowing me it could go in any direction. I love jumping on opportunities and see ideas in everything. I see myself becoming wiser and focusing on one thing at a time, in a dream world.