Maria McElroy isn't just a niche perfumer. She's one of the original niche perfumers, having started Aroma M in 1995. In the 20 years since, she has created beautiful scents (see Geisha Noire, one of our favorites) inspired by Japanese culture. Her experience is first-hand; she went on a seven-year journey throughout the country to learn the language and some of the traditional arts, and that journey ultimately inspired her to make perfumery her life's work.
We spoke with Maria about her fascinating life and career from her studio in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood. She tells us what it was like to be an expat in Japan, what she's working on next, and what she saw that inspired her to create the sultry, mysterious Geisha Noire.
Olfactif: What does it smell like where you are right now?
Maria McElroy: It happens to be my chef hubby’s day off, so I'm treated to some wonderful gourmand scents. Simmering bonito and seaweed, fresh greens from the farmers market, and the bouquet of lilies that my husband gave me is adding just the right amount of flora notes to the moment.
O: Where did you grow up? What are your earliest scent memories?
MM: I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and we had a very, very close family. My mother was Greek, so my scent memories were heavily influenced by her culture: a lot of fabulous Greek food and Greek pastries and wonderful smells always in the house. She was a very glamorous, gorgeous woman. She loved perfume, and I think that molded how I perceived perfume. She wore several different ones over her lifetime, but I specifically remember that she wore Opium and Halston.
I had a very idyllic, lovely childhood, but I was ready to leave Salt Lake at a very young age. So when I was 19, I left and went to study art at the San Francisco Art Institute.
O: That must have been a big change.
MM: It was. I always wanted to go to San Francisco or New York—but what I really wanted to do was travel. I had traveled with my family to Paris, Rome, and Greece when I was younger, and that opened my eyes to how big of a world is out there. So although I was enjoying my time in art school, I left four days after my graduation and bought a one-way ticket to Japan. I was 24.
O: What was your plan?
MM: No plan! I thought I was going to check out Asia. I thought I would travel around, eventually take a boat to China, and maybe take the Trans-Siberian Express that leaves from Shanghai. But that never happened. I ended up staying in Japan.
I started teaching children English and art, so I had a little bit of money coming in. And I really did travel a lot throughout the country and took a few side trips through Asia—Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong. But the whole time I was traveling I was thinking, “You know, I think I need to go back to Japan.” I was enamored of everything about the country.
That's when I decided that I was going to study Japanese language. And I really wanted to study Japanese traditional arts in Japanese, not from an outside point of view. My goal with the language was that I would know enough to be able to take some flower arrangement classes and learn tea ceremony.
Photo credit: Japanese tea ceremony by Moyan Brenn from Flickr Creative Commons.
O: What was it like to be an outsider?
MM: I always felt like even though I obviously don't fit in—at that time I had blonde hair and very white skin—I felt there was a part of me that really understood and felt at home there. It was a real love affair. From the start, I loved everything about it: the food, the culture, the people, everything.
O: When did perfumery enter your life?
MM: In Japan, I started studying incense ceremony (KODO), which I think was really what led me to perfume. It's a lot like the tea ceremony, and it's very, very Japanese. It’s done in this old, honorific language, so I couldn't really understand a lot that was going on. It comes from a thousand years ago, and I have this vision of all the amazing kimonos that must have been floating through these rooms, and the poetry of it. It's so romantic and magical. The ceremony involves poems about fragrance, a lot of woods and resins. So I think that really impressed up on me how a scent can be so different, not just perfume in the typical way that we think about it.
I started getting more and more interested in scent, so I ended up studying aromatherapy in Australia for six months. And then, after being away for seven years, I came back to the States. I knew I wanted to do something with aromatherapy, but I felt like I wanted to put my twist on it and make it modern and cool and glamorous instead of this health-food-store, natural thing that was the standard.
So I started in my house, and I was making oils just for myself. But a friend of mine who had a store stopped by one day and said, "I would love to have these for my store. Can you bottle them for me?" So I printed some labels off of on the printer, and that was the beginning. The next thing I knew, I had created this business and needed an office space. I was even exporting the line to Japan.
O: How did you go from aromatherapy to perfume?
MM: I always wanted to do a perfume, but in those days there really weren't perfumers in the way there are now. So it took a bit of confidence to say, "I'm going to do a perfume." My first fragrance was O-Cha, which is green tea scent—green tea is one of my first loves from Japan. That led to a line of tea scents.
O: What would you say was your big break?
MM: I decided that I wanted to put the tea collection in Bergdorf Goodman. So I made a call and got an appointment with the buyer, and I ended up launching the collection there.
O: Wow. That's a very big break!
MM: I think that's the beauty of being young when you start out. People said, "I can't believe you just called Bergdorf Goodman." And I said, "Well, what else was I supposed to do if I wanted to get into Bergdorf Goodman?" After that, the scents were in Henri Bendel and Harrods of London.
O: The perfume business was very different back then. You didn’t have a blueprint to follow.
MM: No, and I still don't. I just did my own thing. I’ve met a few professional perfumers in my career, and they're always like, "Wow, you're so lucky that you can do what you want to do," because they have to do what the client says. I've never had to do that. There will be a lot of years where I don't do anything, because I'm not ready to do anything. Then in other years there'll be two or three that come out that year. I do it when I feel inspired.
O: Tell us about Geisha Noire.
MM: Geisha Noire was part of the first three perfume oils, actually. It launched at Bergdorf Goodman, and it's an inspiration from an amber that I got in Morocco. I absolutely loved it. When I wore it, people would stop me on the street and say, "What is that scent? It’s beautiful." So I decided to make my own, and to do it better. I added tonka bean, more amber—and different ambers—and it became what it is now, Geisha Noire.
A lot of people have said that it's like a modern-day Shalimar, but I hadn’t even smelled Shalimar then. But I know that's a good compliment, so I'll take it.
O: Is Geisha Noire one of your personal favorites?
MM: Yes, I wear it all the time. I love amber scents and sultry, sexy, orientals. Geisha Noire is one of the scents that I always go to. I also like the fact that a lot of men have been wearing it. My husband is a chef, so he doesn’t often wear fragrance, but when we do go out, he wears Geisha Noire.
O: Talk to us about the geisha. Why did you decide to name your perfume after that role in Japanese culture? What does it symbolize for you?
Photo credit: By user Japanexperterna, Flickr Creative Commons.
MM: The first time I went to Kyoto I was stunned and staggered by what an amazing city it was. And the first time I walked into Gion in Kyoto, which is the geisha quarters, I felt like I had been there before but also like I was stepping back in time. It’s all of these wooden buildings that are hundreds of years old, where you would go to have the company of a geisha. It has this beautiful diffused light, and incense wafts through these small streets. You hear the clap of the geisha's shoes on the cobblestones, and you'll catch a glimpse of one of them around a corner while they're rushing to an appointment, all in their regalia. It's the most mysteriously glamorous, magical place, and I fell in love with the geishas. Even now, they’re still mysterious, even in Japan. You don't hear a lot of people who get to actually spend time with a geisha—only politicians or actors or very wealthy people can afford it. My husband happens to be from Kyoto, so I've been able to see many performances and meet geishas and actually sit in an ochaya for several hours and have a private dance. They’re beautiful, super-smart, really funny, and very, very talented. They all sing, they all dance, and they all play at least one instrument, if not two or three.
So when I created the perfume, I knew I wanted to name it Geisha because I really wanted it to embody that mystery and glamor.
O: Where are you based?
MM: I’m living in Manhattan. The aroma M Atelier was in the DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood for 15 year until last summer when I stumbled upon this really great studio in Bushwick, which is very bohemian. It's infused with life and creativity and art. It’s also very old-school New York, with every kind of person under the sun wandering around together.
O: This marks your 20th year in business. Congrats! How are you celebrating?
MM: With our move to Bushwick and the release of my new perfume Voluptuous Nostalgia, it’s been a very momentous year so far! Voluptuous Nostalgia is vintage glamorous Rome, with heady notes of muguet and gardenia. The ancient scent of ambergris is evocative of Rome’s antiquity, and tonka bean sets the tone for a more modern twist. Amber and violet combine to add just the right amount of romance. It’s a Roman holiday captured in a bottle. It’s limited edition and will debut November 1 on our website. Oh, and did I mention that I started writing a memoir?
O: That’s fantastic! You can assume we’ll be first in line when you publish it. Thanks so much, Maria.
MM: Thank you!