As the page from summer to fall turns and we inevitably begin reminiscing about the fun times of the foregone season, one of the highlights for me was my meeting Maria McElroy, other wise known as Aroma M. She and I first become acquaintances on twitter. I glanced at her profile a few times and recognized she’s a perfumer. I always thought her perfume point-of-view was interesting, it’s heavily influenced by Asian culture. But with the demands of life, I never took it any further. Happily that came to an end a few weeks ago when she reached out and suggested we meet for coffee at New York’s Ace Hotel.
While chatting the afternoon away, it became clear I was discovering a brand I should’ve known about. Maria got her start in 1995. I was shocked when she told me that, especially after smelling her creations. I couldn’t help but feel I was asleep at the wheel all these years. Her story was inspiring, nonetheless. She’s been doing what she loves on her terms and it all happened organically. How can you not appreciate that?
What follows is an excerpt from our chat. Since then I’ve fallen hard for Aroma M’s Geisha Green. I fell so hard one particular day, that even a 5pm appointment didn’t stop me from scrambling to get my fix. I hustled over to L’Aristote and literally made it to my meeting minutes before. I love when a fragrance makes me crazy like that.
What’s your earliest recollection of fragrance? My earliest recollection of fragrance is that of the tantalizing aroma of Greek pastries that would cover the linen tablecloths in my childhood home. They were treats from my mother doused in honey, syrup and nuts delicately spiced with cinnamon. nutmeg, clove and crushed almonds. I also have fond memories of sunny afternoons and the scent of my mother wearing Opium as it clinged to her leopard silk blouses.
How did Aroma M get its start? After spending seven years in Japan, I returned to the US where my newly found adoration of fragrance led me to experimentation in my own home. Imagine bottles lining every surface and essential oils wafting through the rooms cluttered with hand-printed Japanese papers and cherry blossoms (my flower of inspiration)! I started creating perfume; bottling them in delicate glass adorned with silks and velvet and friends started asking for more and more them. It became clear this was my calling.
Where did you train to become a perfumer? I have an Aroma Therapy background, and am actually a licensed aroma therapist. I would say my olfactory training came from this as well as from Kodo, the Japanese Incense Ceremony. Kodo is like a very elegant game from the esteemed Heian era. One smells the burning incense in a small brassier and must describe the perfumed elements in poetic language, creating art from olfactory art.
I think most people will come to your site, see perfumes, read you’re an aroma therapist but still think of you as a perfumer. In your opinion, is there a difference? If so, what is it? Yes, there is a difference from being a classically trained perfumer and an aroma therapist. The similarities lie in the creative inspiration, as they are both ultimately an art form. Starting a perfume as aroma therapist is based not only in the combination of fragrances in an olfactory sense but focusing on the medicinal qualities and the synergy of the oils to enhance the blends healing properties. I enjoy creating my perfumes with both of these components, finding essential oils that will promote the healing elements of my blend along with the most luscious perfume oils, creating a perfume that not only smells wonderful but is also working on a health level.
On your website, you say Aroma M is known as a direction-setter and state the brand initiated the contemporary location-oriented approach to perfumery. Can you elaborate? For me, the greatest inspiration was and still is Japan. I am very influenced by Japanese culture and the wonderful years I lived there. To truly honor this culture, I create perfumes. The scents embody the nature of this magnificent country. They are modern and ancient, delicate and bold…a true dichotomy of olfactory exploration.
The location-oriented approach to perfumery is very appealing to me. I am a traveler and will always find elements of other cultures that inspire my work. A fragrance I am presently working on is inspired by my Greek ancestry and travels to my family home in the Greek Isles.
Each of the names of the fragrances in your collection begins with the name Geisha. Explain the significance? The tradition of Geisha is all about beauty, elegance, glamour, and mystery – this is the allure for me. This is what perfume is all about. We want to wear a perfume, and feel beautiful, powerful, and sensual. I want women to try on a scent, as they would slip on a silk kimono. One may be white, and pure and delicately embroidered with gold, while another is black, and adorned with bold designs, brocaded and resplendent with a sort of mystery. My fragrances are like this. Noire or Marron is that black Kimono; it envelops you in sensuality, and makes you feel rather daring. Blanche and Pink is like the white Kimono, one worn by a young girl (Maiko) or a bride. It is flirty and a bit shy. We all have a bit of the Geisha inside of us. My line allows us to explore that mystic.
Where most brands wear its French/European influence on its sleeve, Aroma M is clearly influenced by Asian culture. Elaborate. Asian culture changed my life. I am married to a Japanese chef and find the aesthetic of Japanese food to be very influential in my perfume. I have explored Buddhism, Japanese flower arrangement, Japanese harp (Koto), Japanese tea ceremony as well as eastern medicine and Asian literature, film and art. All of these elements are like the single notes within my perfumes, each one so very important to the balance of the final creation.
What was the hardest scent to create in your collection? Why? Rouge was the hardest scent for me. It took many years to perfect the concept of the scent. Geisha Rouge has no florals, yet contains the most notes I have used to date. It is one of my more complex blends and I find it to be one of the most sexy, erotic scents in my line. I think it has cult following, and it was one of the original three in the Geisha perfume oil line.
Where in New York, can anyone find authentic Japanese incense? I am very lucky in that I can stock up on my favorite incense when I am in Kyoto at my favorite Kodo store, but Kiteya in Soho has some nice Japanese incense.
Where would you recommend New Yorkers go for Japanese tea? Cha-An in the east village is a wonderful tea room. The ambiance is so fun. They have even recreated a “cha –shitsu”, a traditional Japanese tea ceremony room where you can enjoy a cup of matcha. They have an extensive tea list and also delicious sweets to indulge in.
Your favorite Japanese restaurants in New York are? My favorite Japanese Restaurant is a new Kyoto Kaiseki restaurant in Tribeca, Brushstroke. It is collaboration with the chef David Bouley and the Japanese culinary school, Tsuji. The experience really transports you to Japan. It is something very special. Also, my husband is one of the chefs. Be sure to sit at the counter and ask for chef Yagi!
How would you finish this statement? “My most memorable fragrant moment would be…? My most fragrant moment would be walking amidst the freshly blooming plum blossoms in an ancient Kyoto garden. It is intoxicating. It is sweet, pink freshness. There is a chill in the air from a long winter and the deep pink blossoms are a glimmer of the spring to come.