Harlem-Based Entrepreneur Arica Smith's La Reina de Las Velas Candles Embody the Essence of Renewal

Smith spoke about the vision behind her business, her love for Harlem, and the power of setting intentions.

Brandee Sanders
January 17, 2024

The aromatic fragrances that fill candlemaker Arica Smith’s Harlem home during her creative sensory sessions bridge nostalgic memories from the past and intentional hopes for the future. When putting a flame to the wick of a candle from her bespoke La Reina de Las Velas collection, the notes take you on an immersive trip through different chapters of her journey. The symphony of scents is reminiscent of her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, smells inspired by global travels, and undertones that embody the vibrant energy of Harlem where her candle company was birthed.

Through La Reina de Las Velas—a regal moniker which translates to “Candle Queen” in Spanish and was coined by her Cuban husband after reveling in one of her creations—she invites those who indulge in her luminous candles to curate their own sensory experiences.

“Everyone experiences the candles a little bit differently,” Smith told Columbia Neighbors. “The aromas will remind them of something in their life or their past. I always find it to be really interesting when people share that with me.”

The foundation for La Reina de Las Velas was built on the concept of self-care: a value she watched her grandmother, whom she affectionately called “Dear,” infuse into her hair business. Dear—an Arkansas native who had roots in the deep South and settled in the city of Chicago during the Great Migration in hopes of laying the foundation for a fruitful future—owned a hair salon and used her business as an avenue to serve her community; caring for customers and making them feel a sense of renewal after they graced her chair.

“My grandmother was known for doing hair in our community,” said Smith, who credits Dear for being a shining example of entrepreneurship and teaching her about financial literacy. “I remember seeing women come in and out of her home salon beaming with confidence.”

Unbeknownst to Smith, evoking that same spirit of revitalization would later be a key part of her candle business.

Mirroring parts of her grandmother’s journey, Smith and her husband moved to Harlem in 2019 in hopes of starting a new chapter. They’d briefly called the neighborhood home in 2017 and it was their love of the community that brought them back. It was in the midst of a major career transition when candle-making became a creative outlet.

The entrepreneur’s path has been defined by her resilience and ability to adapt in the face of major shifts—two elements that would be integral as she ventured into entrepreneurship. During her childhood her family bounced back and forth between Chicago and Canada, her parents divorced, and her family struggled financially in the aftermath of the separation.

In 2019, after losing her job in the tech industry during the holiday season she initially panicked, but then decided to pivot and use the pause in her career to explore other facets of her creativity. Smith ordered a candle-making kit intending to gift loved ones with custom-made soy wax lights that they could use to unwind and relax.

After experiencing how cathartic the innovative process of mixing and matching scents was, Smith decided to explore avenues of entrepreneurship within the industry and enrolled in an MBA program to learn the ins and outs of running a sustainable business.

“I’ve always been interested in candles and after making candles for my friends, I wondered how I could do it professionally,” Smith said. “How could I break into the industry? How can I make something people would actually enjoy? What are some of the things that local businesses are lacking and how can I fill that void? After all of that research and seeing how others were successful in the industry, I just jumped into creating La Reina de Las Velas.”

Launched in 2020, the collection features an array of masterfully crafted, hand-poured soy wax candles and fruity fragrance sprays. The most popular product is the Loco Coco candle, an aromatic blend of ripe pineapples, majestic mangos, and creamy coconuts that transports fragrance enthusiasts to the tropics.

“I must have created magic or something because anytime anybody smells that candle, they fall in love with it,” Smith told Neighbors. “It’s really balanced and strong. You can literally just put the candle on your desk without even lighting it and you can smell that fragrance. That is the most popular one that people gravitate to.”

Other staples in her signature collection include the Very Vanilla candle which fuses floral vanilla and sweet musk scents, and the Exotic Lemon & Lilac Fragrance Spray which is inspired by the sun-kissed citrus groves in Calabria, Italy.

The Loco Coco Candle from the La Reina de Las Velas. Photo credit: La Reina de Las Velas

Beyond being immersed in the fragrances, Smith, who has introduced the Uptown community to her brand through participating in local farmer’s markets throughout Harlem, believes the practice of candle lighting is a therapeutic way to set the tone for restoration and renewal.

“I don’t think people really understand or are aware of how much scent plays into your brain to change your mood and mindset,” Smith shared. “When lighting candles, you’re able to set intentions, put them into the air, and focus on bringing them into existence. They’re also a powerful way to ease your mind through aromatherapy. I light candles throughout my work day to get me invigorated and energized through nice bright scents.”

“I don’t think people really understand or are aware of how much scent plays into your brain to change your mood and mindset.”

For Smith, it’s the spirit of creativity and community throughout Harlem that serves as fuel for her business. It’s the Upper Manhattan sidewalks paved with rich history, the hustle and ambition of the street vendors who sell products reflective of the global diaspora, and the casual conversations she has with neighbors that have ignited inspiration for her La Reina de Las Velas.

“Harlem reminds me of my roots in the South Side of Chicago,” Smith said. “There’s so much love here. There’s a lot of history and energy here that people may not be aware of that makes Harlem a special place. It’s hard to find communities nowadays where you can talk to elders who have lived in a neighborhood their entire life and can tell you about the history you only read about in books.”

When it comes to the future of La Reina de Las Velas, Smith says she will let the fluidity of her creative process and her passion for bringing people joy and light through her brand guide her.

“Creating something literally from scratch that people enjoy, keep coming back to, and keep purchasing over and over again, is really fulfilling."

Visit La Reina de Las Velas' website and follow the shop on Instagram.

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