Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba talks about scent in multiple languages at once — the language of memories and healing; the language of music, which turns smells into the clear sounds of soloists and harmonizing notes; and of course, the technical language of compositions and ratios, her bread and butter as the founder and perfumer at Pink MahogHany. Listening to her speak about her creations, you start to feel them hovering in the air around you. The way in which Dunlap-Mwamba communicates about fragrance is a reminder of perfume’s potential to transcend space and time. But while the end product is something that can be appreciated by many, the industry that produces the majority of the iconic scents beauty consumers know and love is historically closed to all but a select few.
From ads to shelf space to the major houses that have a monopoly on the industry, fragrance lacks diversity, especially when it comes to Black talent. Many perfumers that create for mass and luxury brands descend from a handful of families that continue to pass down knowledge through direct lineage, and prioritize tradition above all. It’s a system that inherently locks out Black perfumers every step of the way. Dunlap-Mwamba knows this — and it’s why her initial foray into fragrance required her to work outside the system.
“I began working with natural essences initially due to my love for nature and the outdoors,” she tells TZR. “The most important contribution to my process [was] independent research: the dedication to finding information and studying the industry.” Dunlap-Mwamba utilized the Jean Carles method, an approach to blending named after the eponymous master perfumer that’s still utilized in fragrance schools today. This method requires the perfumer to first gain familiarity with every raw material and aroma molecule on its own before smelling them in a series of different combinations. From there, the perfumer gains the ability to better imagine an olfactory result before putting it into practice.
“[This method] helped me implement various ratios of top, heart, and base notes and experiment with uncommon ratios,” she says. “I would spend hours evaluating scent profiles over a 72-hour period to see which notes had the best longevity and would blend well together.”
Expanding Pink MahogHany from personal creations to a full blown business in 2011 still required years of work. To scale her brand, Dunlap-Mwamba placed her fragrances at gifting events and read up on as much packaging, supplier, and pricing material as she could get her hands on. As the line has grown, so has her plan for the future: to eventually go beyond selling product to offering accessible fragrance education as well.
This evolution is still in the making, but it’s clear that what Dunlap-Mwamba has done so far with the brand resonates with her loyal community of customers. Her understanding of the link between fragrance and feeling is present in every bottle. For her, it’s personal. After the passing of her third-born son, Kenji, she began struggling with insomnia. “One thing that helped me during my initial stages of grief was being able to connect through scent to Kenji [and] other loved ones,” she says. “The part of our brain that processes smell [also] affects emotions and memory. Having scents that reminded me of them allowed me to focus on the fact that they were once here and they were a beautiful part of my life.” To this day, her proudest moments revolve around customers sharing their stories, sparked by a memory her perfumes evoke.
A quick scroll through the reviews section unearths plenty of these personal scent associations, plus endless glowing praise. Newcomers to the brand will likely want to try everything after just a few minutes on the site. (Try the pack of sample sprays to feed your curiosity without emptying your bank account.) For Dunlap-Mwamba, a few memorable milestones stand out. There’s A Mother’s Love, blooming with warm-weather notes of rose, mint, peach, and musk. Originally intended as a one-off gift for her own mother in 2013, it ended up being a welcome part of the permanent collection. Best selling Pas Encore Nomme and Tandem are two more that prove popular across her entire demographic. The former wraps the skin in an alluring veil of ripe vanilla, malted sugar, and caramelized vanilla; the latter makes you crave a crisp, icy mojito. All three embody her philosophy: A good fragrance calls; an exceptional fragrance whispers. “I like for my wearer to have the experience...when they walk past someone, their scent trail whispers to the person who is around and encourages curiosity,” she explains.
Even as her business continues to thrive, there remains a lot of work to do. Aside from dreaming up new blends and running things behind the scenes, Dunlap-Mwamba constantly ideates ways to give back to aspiring Black perfumers as a member of The Fragrance Foundation. “I utilize my education background to provide insight to those interested in perfumery,” she says. “As a woman of color, I want to let them know it can definitely be done.” She outlines her vision for the future: to partner with TFF and similar major fragrance organizations to create more internships, as one way to begin opening up a traditionally closed-off industry. Or, even prior to that, to expose the profession to students as early as middle school, through chemistry classes and scent identification programs.
For others walking the same path, community is key for Dunlap-Mwamba. “The advice I would give to women of color that want to enter into the fragrance space is to definitely connect with other brands of color,” she says, emphasizing the importance of knowledge-sharing and inclusion over competition at any stage in this career. “It’s important to identify the spaces where this insight is being poured into people of color, particularly women of color.”
While she acknowledges that creating these spaces is a work in progress, she’s ready to make it a reality. With access to multiple levels of knowledge, she sees infinitely more possibilities for young Black perfumers to enter the field, whether they choose to go to a fragrance house, manufacturer, or launch their own brands — like she has.
Discussions about inclusion in the beauty industry usually revolve around things you can see or touch, like foundation shades and curl creams — you can technically do both with fragrance, and yet it exists outside those more tangible, measurable benchmarks. But as with any other category of beauty, it can only benefit from more diverse perspectives that are reflective of all consumers, and that create more equity for Black talent. “Scholarships should be made available to attend perfumery schools just as they are for colleges,” says the founder. “I would like [us] to be taken more seriously by luxury retailers. I want to see more than just 15% of shelf space. My hope is for us to have the same access to resources and opportunities as those who come from the lineages of perfumers.”