Fragrance is the juicy accessory that many of us can’t seem to live without. I have to admit that I’m a bit of a perfume junkie myself. It’s the one embellishment that gives you total control and thousands of varieties to choose from. It’s the one enhancement that doesn’t require surgery or keeping up with how much you’ve eaten throughout the day. If truth be told, it’s an instant mood lifter that somehow gets planted in our memories — whether good or bad — like your wedding day or a bad break-up. There’s so much power behind these sensory-induced potions.
Unless you are the ultimate fragrance connoisseur or have attended Grasse Institute of Perfumery in yes, Grasse on the lush French Riviera, you may not ever have wondered how or by who your fragrances are created. You may only care that you smell like cotton candy at your 9-5 or have a spicy number to put on for your next Bumble date. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but let’s talk about it.
Grasse is the most elite perfumery school in the world. But to be honest, most people, especially minorities, do not attend this niche school to become a perfumer. From the outside looking in, it sort of has a “you can’t sit with us” vibe. What I’m saying is that you won’t find much diversity in this field. Sure, we all buy perfume, but the most notable thing about the industry is that there are very few people of color, let alone perfumers in it. Why? When I think of perfumers, I tend to think of White fashion designers or perhaps, French men. I mean, what other examples have we had?
I’m not saying that no minorities have been trained at Grasse, because there are a few that have. It’s just not common enough to hear about it. When was the last time you knew that a person of color created your perfume?
In order for change to happen within the industry, more minorities would need to learn the craft — whether it be by attending school or learning on their own. One example of someone who chose to learn fragrance artistry on their own is Chavalia Dunlap-M.
Chavalia Dunlap-M, perfumer and founder of Pink MahogHany, did not attend Grasse. Instead, she went against the grain and decided to teach herself how to make perfume right here in Longview, Texas by way of Dallas.
Chavalia is part of a growing group of self-taught perfumers. She joins perfumers like Maya Njie and Nick Yeast who are also self-taught. Chavalia’s motivation for becoming a perfumer was sparked by being unsatisfied with the perfumes she was using. She noticed that her favorite fragrances would often change without notice. Think of how McDonald’s french fries used to be so great when we were kids, but then they switched them up on us. The taste is different. Well, they do that with perfumes too. The smells often change or are reformulated. Crazy right? Chavalia was also concerned about the allergens in fragrances. She wanted to create fragrances that were easier to wear without sacrificing gratification.
Chavalia began her work in 2006 by sampling raw materials and aroma molecules. She then started learning about blending notes and materials with the Jean Carles method, named after a master perfumer that is still referenced in perfumery schools today. She treats her blending process like building a song.
“I am a musician by trade, classically trained, as well as played by ear,” she said. “I mean think about it. Songs have notes and chords and so do fragrances. It can be quite synonymous.”
“When I create, I try to think what do I want the beginning of the song to be or what do I want the initialization of the fragrance to be on the skin or in the air if I’m creating a room with a spray.”
Chavalia didn’t let not attending school stop her from accomplishing her dream. She still found a way to change the game, indirectly paving the way for other BIPOC. After learning about fragrance materials and blending, she founded Pink MahogHany in 2011.
“Pink stands for the feminine aspects of perfumery, the more soft florals, the musks, the citruses, things that speak womanhood in the field of fragrance. Mahogany is more representative of the masculine aspect, the woods, the deeper, richer resins, you know a darker feel hence the name. But the two combined simply mean I have fragrances for both him and her. That’s why there is an extra “H” in mahogany.”
Chavalia also likes subtlety. She believes that a good fragrance calls, and an exceptional fragrance whispers.
“I was a teacher previously. I taught in the elementary public school system since 2006 and last year, I chucked the deuces for good to pursue Pink MahogHany full time.”
This has all paid off for Chavalia, naming her Texas’s First Female African American Perfumer. This is huge and an official flex. Flex on sis!
Not only does Chavalia create scents for her fragrance line, but she is often commissioned to create personalized or bespoke fragrances for clients, as well as create scents for other businesses. This may come in the form of candles, room sprays or something else.
When Chavalia is not busy blending up masterpieces like her popular scent Tandem, a creamy mojito-like cocktail, or Pas Encore Nommé, a pineapple malted vanilla, she is encouraging other minorities to go into perfumery through podcasts, IG Live or more recently, as a panelist with Spelman College.
Stay tuned for a mini-doc where Chavalia shares her story of how she got into perfumery. To purchase her perfumes, visit pinkmahoghany.com or her shop on Etsy. And follow her Instagram, @pm_fragrances.