Tiffany Griffin and Dariel Heron turned a hobby into a thriving business, using scents to share stories about Blackness.
by Finn Cohen| photography by Taylor McDonald
June of 2020 was a seismic month for the United States: pandemic, protests, economic recession, lockdown. And for Tiffany Griffin and Dariel Heron, the married founders of the Durham-based candle company Bright Black, that tumult was translating into an overload of work: a nearly 1,200% jump in orders from one month to the next.
That spike was the result of a Twitter (now X) thread of Black-owned candle companies; Bright Black’s “Ida” candle — named for Ida B. Wells and representing the work of Black women advancing women’s right to vote — was at the top of the thread.
The deluge of orders was a shock to a small company that had only been operating for a year. “Dariel was like, we don’t even have jars,” Griffin says. “No one did! Nothing was going anywhere in the world.”Bright Black had to stop taking orders on full-size candles because they couldn’t fill them. Then, a couple weeks later, Beyoncé listed Bright Black on her website as part of a directory of Black-owned businesses.
That set off another wave of demand, and by August they had to stop taking orders for miniature candles. “We didn’t even feel joy; we couldn’t feel happy about it because it was so much stress,” says Griffin. “We didn’t have staff, we didn’t have childcare.”
They resumed orders by November of that year, and since then, Bright Black has been busy. They’ve hired staff and found a storefront. They’ve been commissioned to make custom candles by the NBA and WNBA, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the filmmaker Jordan Peele and the former first lady Michelle Obama (their “Ida” scent was repurposed in a limited series for the 2020 election by her organization, When We All Vote).
They developed two different thematic collections: “Diaspora” features scents inspired by “cities of Black greatness” — like Kingston, Jamaica (rum, grapefruit, sugar cane); Salvador, Brazil (acai palm, sea salt); and Durham, North Carolina (tobacco and whiskey) — while the “Genres” set celebrates musical genres created by the Black diaspora, like Gospel (chamomile, myrrh, lilac), Bachata (tropical essences) and Hip-Hop (shea butter, evergreen).
Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the 1990s, Griffin was captivated by the ways that Hollywood films directed by Black filmmakers were centering Black urban life, like Boyz n the Hood and Poetic Justice. She was struck by what they were getting wrong.
“In my experience of the 1980s and the aftermath of the ‘80s, my experience of poverty and the crack epidemic and HIV, this notion of ‘villain and hero’ was missing the mark,” Griffin says. “You could have a mom steal from her sister and then be at a PTA meeting because she cared about her kids’ education; you have to hold both of those things in ways that the films were not doing.”
Griffin entered Boston College in 1998 intending to make documentaries that could handle the nuances she wanted to highlight. But she ended up studying psychology and communications, receiving a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan.
After two years of postdoctoral work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she entered a fellowship to Washington, D.C., working for a senator from New Mexico. But that experience was “more politics than policy,” she says, so she joined USAID (the United States Agency for International Development) at a time when the State Department was trying to coordinate development around the concept of “resilience.”
“I was basically brought in to define ‘resilience,’ to figure out how to measure it, to help people design programs to incorporate it, and to take data and weave that into better programs,” says Griffin.
Over the course of seven years, Griffin traveled back and forth to countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Senegal, looking at ways to create policies to prepare communities for things like conflict, famine, flood or inflation.
But over time, she and Heron (whom she met on the first day of college but didn’t start dating until later) wanted to get out of D.C., especially after having a child. Durham, which she was familiar with from her time at UNC, hit all the right notes: small, diverse and growing.
Candles may seem like a stark pivot, but the idea had been in the works for a while. Griffin and Heron made their own candles out of curiosity and frugality while still in D.C., gifting them to their families one Christmas to great acclaim. But it wasn’t until they struck on the idea of making a scent based on the creativity of hip-hop that a larger vision emerged, and Griffin drew up a business plan.
“There is this thread of using whatever sphere I’m in to share stories about Blackness,” Griffin says. “Particularly to highlight accurate stories, as opposed to falling back on stereotypical narratives.”
Bright Black’s location in Durham’s Lakewood shopping center serves as a retail outlet for the candles and scents as well as the development and production center. Large jars of oils sit on shelves in the back, where their small team works on filling orders. Griffin can spend between three months to a year developing and testing a scent, using oils from fragrance houses in Durham and in Georgia. “A moment or a persona can be hard to nail,” she explains.
The scents are incredibly distinctive, with tones that can fill a room. The Salvador candle in the Diaspora collection is elegant, almost like a cologne, while the flagship Hip Hop candle is a deep, rich combination of shea butter and oud. The Gospel candle was inspired by one of Griffin’s aunts: “She was like, you can’t make a music collection without gospel!” she laughs. All the candles come in black matte vessels, with wooden wicks that can burn up to 80 hours. Bright Black also sells body oils, as well as a charcoal soap made in collaboration with Durham-based no-waste company Fillaree, in a blend of myrrh, cassia and citrus.
It’s still the candles that provide the biggest canvas for Griffin and Heron to express themselves, and those expressions aren’t going unnoticed. In 2022, to celebrate Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, they developed a candle called “Justice” with Desiree Davis, an artist in Cary.
The image on the vessel depicted Lady Justice as a Black woman with dreadlocks. “Dariel was like, That’s gonna be blasphemous, people are gonna lose it,” says Griffin. “I’m like, Why? The Greeks interpreted it through their image, why can’t we interpret it through our image?”
The candle is no longer available, but Bright Black keeps making them for one particular customer: Justice Jackson herself. “She places orders all the time,” says Griffin.
This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.