This story originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.
17.4. That’s roughly how many square miles are occupied by the town of Grasse in southeastern France. But for hundreds of years, going back to the 17th century, that tiny area was where many perfumers — or les nez (noses), as they call themselves — were born. The art form was passed from father to son, meaning most noses were descendants of other noses. To say the industry lacked diversity would be a gross understatement.
Change has come slowly — really, really slowly. “Fifteen years ago a ‘diverse’ perfumer meant a white man from Paris,” says Arielle Weinberg, the founder of Arielle Shoshana, a fragrance boutique located outside of Washington, D.C. (She recently reached out to perfume schools to establish scholarships for Black students, but says they were not responsive and hopes that speaking with Allure will help change things.) In other words: It took four centuries for the industry to embrace a perfumer who was born a train ride away from Grasse.
Today, perfumers are more likely to come from other parts of the world, like South America and Asia, and there’s been a marked increase in the number of female perfumers. However, Black perfumers and Black-owned fragrance brands are incredibly few and far between.
In fact, when we reached out to the world’s leading fragrance houses for this story, one of them — with thousands of employees across the globe — didn’t have a single Black perfumer on staff. “The traditions of perfumery are so tightly bound to Old World ideas of what a perfumer is that sometimes this breeds unconscious bias,” says Gwen Gonzalez, a junior perfumer at Givaudan, who is one of few Black perfumers at major fragrance houses. “People who look like me are hardly ever a part of that world,” Gonzalez adds. Christina Christie, a senior perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances, has met only two other perfumers who are Black women during her decades-long career.
The disparity becomes even more confounding when you compare the demographics of fragrance consumers with that of perfumers. Approximately 14 percent of the United States population identifies as Black, yet 22.37 percent of women’s fragrance sales in 2017 — about $152 million —were attributed to Black consumers, according to Nielsen data. “Black fragrance consumers exist, and we definitely outnumber the Black creators behind the brands,” says Kimberly Waters, who was an avid perfume collector before opening MUSE, the first and so far only niche fragrance retailer in New York City’s Harlem. “What’s been missing is the ability [for a diverse range of consumers] to really relate to a brand or creator,” says Gonzalez.