Q&A: Tiffany Griffin shares the ‘Black experience’ through art in the form of candles

Tiffany Griffin talks about the candle-making process for her company, Bright Black.

Monday, March 4, 2024

By Emma Hall

Bright Black, co-owner and founder the candle shop Tiffany Griffin, began her store with her husband in 2019. She expresses the Black experience through her candles, like with her collection highlighting Black music. The company sells its candles through a showroom in Durham, an online shop and partnerships with other retailers.

The Durham VOICE’s Emma Hall sat down with Black to discuss the ins and outs of her business.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham VOICE: Where did you come up with the idea for Bright Black?

Tiffany Griffin: The idea for Bright Black came back in 2014 when my husband and I first started dating. As an activity on one of our dates, we decided to go down a YouTube rabbit hole and learn how to make candles. At that time, I was like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to do like hip hop loves on candles.” Hip hop is such a beautiful poetic genre, but it’s really misunderstood. You could really use candles to show just how awesome it is. And that was the first seed for Bright Black, but we didn’t start the business until five years later in 2019.

Why did you start the business?

I am a psychologist by training and was working in the federal government and had become a mom fairly recently. I knew I wanted to leave the government and wanted to do something that gave me a little bit more control over my time. I thought entrepreneurship could afford me that control over my time and went back to the idea that we had for Bright Black.

What do you think was the hardest thing about starting a business?

I think the hardest thing was the pandemic. Because we started right before, I had saved up a lot. My husband had a full-time job at the time but then once the pandemic hit, he got laid off. All of the assumptions that we had around starting business kind of flew up in our face, and so that was really difficult to navigate.

Did you ever think you were going to close?

Um, no.

What allowed you to be confident that, even though it was difficult, you were going to make it through?

You know, the premise behind the business of using scent to share positive stories about Blackness, it’s kind of a heady idea. People talk about how, in this day and age, people want easy and simple and don’t really want to think about stuff, but that hasn’t really been our experience. Once we started getting signals from the community that they understood what we were trying to do and it resonated and they thought it was beautiful and creative, that kind of gave me confidence to continue creating.

What kind of comments have people made about how it resonates with them?

A lot of people tell us that they had never thought about scent as an art form, or scent as a mechanism for sharing stories and that they thought it was really cool that scent could be used in a symbolic way to communicate different things. We’ve also gotten a lot of feedback from folks around not knowing the Black history or not knowing a lot about the different stories that we were trying to tell. The third kind of bucket of positive feedback I would say is a lot of people have told us that our presence has shed light on the fact that they didn’t even realize how little representation there was.

Back to the start of the business, you said that you saved up. How was starting the business? How did you fund it?

We’ve been self-funded. I saved up about nine months’ worth of income. In the beginning, before launching, we were very scrappy. We do a lot of the work ourselves, a lot of the graphics work. I design all the sets. We do all the production. We did all the fulfillment and the shipping for a really long time. We did all the photography. That’s very exhausting, but also allows you to save money. We didn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. We have a very high quality because we are honoring craftsmanship and artisanship, but also, we’re representing not just a product but our cultures. My husband’s Jamaican American, and I’m African American. We know that we’re representing our groups when people consume our products. At some point you have to work with what you have and evolve over time, and so that’s kind of the strategy that we’ve taken.

What was the opening of the store like?

We started in our basement for about a year. Then we moved to a production area in East Durham, and we were there for about a year. Then we moved to our current location, which is in Lakewood. We still do all the production and fulfillment in the rear of the space. In the front of the space, we have what we call a creator studio and scent showroom, and it’s really this hybrid space. We didn’t want a traditional standard retail brick and mortar.

How have you seen your business grow?

We started out, like I mentioned, in the basement. We started out just on our website, so direct-to-consumer. We’ve been able to get national, local, and regional stores. Our biggest account is with Crate and Barrel. They carry two of our collections in all 82 Crate and Barrel stores. We also have some of our candles with J. Crew. We’ve seen growth that way, and we’ve also seen growth with our strategic partnerships. We’ve done partnerships with Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote. We partner with a lot of nonprofits that work on different issues pertaining to the Black diaspora, like juvenile justice and education and retention in college and stuff like that. We have partnerships with the WNBA and NBA. We just launched a partnership this year with the San Antonio Spurs. A lot of initiatives or companies or brands will reach out to us, recognizing the power of scent. We’ll work with them in partnership to develop a custom set. But more than just the set, there’s always a story behind it, and people seem to really like that.

Did you reach out to other people to partner with or did it kind of come to you?

They almost all have come to us, which has been kind of crazy.

Where do you see your company in the next five years or so. I mean, it’s already grown so much from what you probably set out to do. What are you expecting in the future?

Yeah, it has surpassed the business plan and, also, my wildest dreams. I definitely feel like the business is in this state of evolution, like we’re in a state of pivot. I really want to lean into the physical space a little bit more. I want to delve more into the stories. Because I wear so many hats, I haven’t had an opportunity to go as deep as I would like on a lot of the storytelling. A lot of the experiences that we’ve created that are in person, it would be nice to figure out a way to do them virtually with folks who are not local to the Triangle. Those are some of the things I’m hoping to lean into in the years to come.