Inside the candle workshop and creative process of Saan Saan

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Mark Zavalla wanted to travel for a living if it didn't cost so much. Instead, candles became the vessels for his voyages. Through his store along Brixton, he invites us along with him. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

Light streams in through the candle store and workshop, as owner and chandler Mark Zavalla anticipates our arrival. It’s not a hug, nor a wave, but something fine and attentive in his posture that makes us feel welcome to Saan Saan, a brand of thoughtfully handcrafted candles, sure, but also an invitation to go anywhere through scent.

Coconut neroli green tea lime rose tobacco talcum cantaloupe, read the raw materials inside the workshop, which is warm and cramped compared to the front-of-house.

On a piece of paper tacked to a shelf:



“I like to think of them as a library of scents,” Zavalla says.

“I like to think of them as a library of scents,” Zavalla says of the shelf in his workshop. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

He lives five minutes away, so the lifestyle was ideal. Zavalla himself still blends all the oils and pours every candle himself. On this day, about 50 are waiting to be finished in their amber jars, left overnight to harden, some with small steel wings to center the wick.

He removes them swiftly, cleanly, with practiced hands — a solitary black band inked onto the right wrist, and a sleeve of 10 different tattoos on the left. Then it’s off to heating them again with a heat gun (the better for a smooth top), then labeling, then boxing, which he can delegate.

For peak seasons or special occasions, he can make up to 200 a day. But if he’s also manning the shop, 100. “I can't focus on production if I'm worried that someone might come in and the wax is about to get hard in the pitcher. So what I do [is] I just schedule it towards the end of the day when I close the shop, that’s when I produce.”

Input, Output

Zavalla was in tech for 12 years when he decided to retire to explore something more creative. “It’s something that’s been burning under my butt for a long time… I didn’t think about setting up a business. I just wanted to explore some options and one of them would be… documenting travel. [Vlogging] was not as much of a big deal, as we know it now, but then it's something along that line. I wanted to write, and explore a writing career and a photography career. But shortly after I left my job, the bubble quickly burst that it’s not going to be as easy. So I thought instead of setting up a business.”

He already knew how to bootstrap, without asking other people for money, so he started on his own. “Small lang. And then my intention of intersecting that with photography and writing, I thought, I could tell stories in a different way… I wanted to travel a lot before but it costs a lot of money. So I said maybe use my experience already of travel. And then take people, or tell stories through scents. The candle part isn't something that was there initially, but I was just interested in candles very casually.”

He learned through YouTube, and picked up the science of candle making pretty easily. “How much time we spend on blending the wax with the oil. The temperature checks in between the whole process… I wait to get to about 140 [F] before I start pouring.”

Prior to being a chandler, Zavalla was in tech. “When I jumped from a very secure well-paying job that I had for 12 years — it allowed me to travel, it allowed me many things — I totally didn't know what's going to happen. At the time, it was something that I got really excited about. I don't know where I was going. But there was ease in that.” Photo by ARABELLA PANER

Zavalla pours every candle himself. Plus, you can return the jars to the shop to be filled again. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

Then he thought that if he wanted to tell a story, he should crack fragrances — which he had no idea about. At the time there weren’t a lot of local candle options, at least none that were complex. “They’re all very singular, you’d smell peach or lemon…” On the other hand, Saan Saan makes blends that tell a story, reflected in the names neatly affixed to their amber jars.

“What would be fragrances that I could put together that were either intriguing, or nostalgic, or take you somewhere?” He remembers thinking. “That’s where the brand name Saan Saan came from — my love for travel and my love for storytelling channeled through the scents.”

He launched with five: No. 02 Baker Street of Poblacion, No. 03 Patchouli at the Temple, No. 07 Campfire, No. 10 Kung Tag-Araw, and No. 15 Farm’s Cabin. He had his first pop-up in Alabang in April of 2018. But prior to that, during Christmas, he gifted Baker Street of Poblacion to friends. “It came to me very quickly. I liked it right away. That’s my gauge for deciding whether this will make it into a candle. I don’t think I'm an expert in fragrances. I just follow my nose.”

No. 10 Kung Tag-Araw, one of the five blends that Zaballa launched Saan Saan with. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

To wit, he started with a personal memory of visiting poblacions or town centers around the country, and picking up bread from panaderias for merienda or breakfast. “The blend being cinnamon and creamy vanilla, when I blend them together, I thought, that kind of opened the door in my mind and my memory of that place. So I would start with that, the inspiration of just saying I want to take people to places and this is something that I have a specific memory of. I was in this random town, I sort of got lost in Bohol, there was this very sleepy town, Spanish inspired, but it’s a poblacion, they call it. And then it’s the middle of the day and I smell the smell of, I don’t know, pan de coco in the nearby panaderia. So sometimes it's like that.”

Other times, it’s not a specific memory but something in a movie: “This archeologist’s house in a movie called ‘Call Me by Your Name.’” Working with the visuals in the film, he started blending oils. “Maybe there are artifacts, the smell of clove, the smell of earth, maybe. but then it's also like Italy, so maybe there’s the smell of food, the smell of the kitchen, you know how they always like eating together and so I added grapefruit there, I added some orange, some sage.”

He admits that most of the time, what he adds doesn't work, so he has to dial back. But there are times, too, when every single thing he adds does work, and he just has to decide when to stop, and let the blend cure overnight. “You can saturate your sense of smell… because you've been smelling so many things all at once. So just let it sit for a little while and come back with a fresh nose.”

Saan Saan makes blends that tell a story, reflected in the names neatly affixed to their amber jars. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

"Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you," reads the spiral tattoo on Zavalla's left arm. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

Mini Worlds

Zavalla’s latest is "The Workshop Series," inspired by artisans and technicians working at their craft. One day while getting the paperwork ready for the store, he drove through a mechanic’s street in Pasig full of car workshops. And that started the No. 45 Talyer candle, with notes of leather, oud, santal, tobacco flower and bergamot. “It's not accurate, but an idealized smell.”

This is accompanied by No. 49 Roastery, in which we detect a sweet undertone. “It comes from passionfruit.” He continues. “Botanika is a gardener’s workshop. Anluwagian is a carpenter’s workshop — smells a bit like, after raining, wet wood smell.”

“My interest is creating a world, a mini world of what they can smell like,” Zavalla says.

World building is something he’s been doing since his first workspace — his room in Santa Rosa, Laguna — followed by the kitchen (so he could be near the stove), and then a 10 square meter (sq.m.) small studio that he had built outside the house. “It was really cute… I just bought a lot of used and kind of old wood planks, and nailed it to the front of a structure, cafe-looking, with glass.” It’s also evident in this current shop, which shows products from other makers around the main line of candles. On a table from Lamana are the Workshop candles in their rustic tin vessels, bean shaped ceramic plates by Aly Kangleon, and from Romblon, raw marble scraps that are incense holders.

"I wanted to travel a lot before but it costs a lot of money. So I said maybe use my experience already of travel. And then take people, or tell stories through scents."

The idea, Zavalla says, is to expand all the fragrances into other mediums. “We have reed diffusers, incense, potentially even wearable fragrance.” He also makes sure to include the aspect of mindfulness.

He reads out the text of a spiral tattoo on his left arm: Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you.

“On good days, it's easy to believe… to feel the meaning of those words that you don’t have to know everything…And I guess that kind of helped me to slowly build Saan Saan into what it is now. Because there was no expectation. It could go anywhere. And there was freedom in that.”


Saan Saan is located at G/F, Ace Hotel and Suites United, cor Brixton St, Pasig.