One of Teri Johnson’s early childhood memories was traveling to St. Louis to see her glamorous aunt, who had once lived in Saudi Arabia.
“Whenever I would visit her, I would run into her boudoir and smell her perfumes from around the world,” Johnson says. Her aunt, who traveled throughout the Middle East and Europe, had amassed “a collection of hundreds of the most amazing fragrances.”
Johnson, who would later go on to visit 66 countries as a travel and lifestyle presenter, began to collect her own perfumes.
“Scent is our strongest sense and the one most tied to memory,” Johnson says. “It can enhance a beautiful moment and remind us of our travels, a person, or a moment.”
Those memories stuck with Johnson, who eventually fell in love with, and settled in, Harlem. One day, while listening to jazz and making homemade candles in her kitchen, she got the idea to create the Harlem Candle Company—inspired by the neighborhood’s rich cultural history. Her goal was to capture the essence of the Harlem Renaissance in the scent of a candle.
“When I first moved to Harlem, I didn’t know a lot about the period, how jazz was born and bred here, the art, the literature, the elegance and the nightlife,” she says. “I wanted to pay homage to what makes Harlem so special, people like Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday, and the infamous Savoy Ballroom.”
She spent a year making over 1,000 candles in her kitchen, all the while researching how to transform her passion into a sustainable business. It all came together in 2014, when an award-wining chemist and fragrance maker helped her position the company as a luxury brand.
“I work with a perfume house, where there are a team of chemists who make the scents for the candles,” says the member of WeWork 8 W 126th St in Harlem. “I am a fragrance designer, like a fashion designer who designs the clothes but does not sew them.”
What are her favorite candles? That changes by the day.
“Right now I’m pretty obsessed with ‘Josephine’ inspired by Josephine Baker,” she says. “Baker was one of the first famous African-American entertainers during that time to move to Paris. She had an opulent style. The scent—amber, jasmine, some rose, bergamot, and vanilla—is my interpretation of how I see her.”
And then there is what Johnson calls her “happy candle,” the Savoy.
“The Savoy Ballroom was the first integrated night club in New York City, where people would go to dance and have fun during the depression,” she explains. “It had a fun, carefree mood. When people light the candle, I want them to feel good and happy.”