After living in Japan for 7 years and studying aromatherapy, kōdō – the ancient Japanese art of fragrance, ikebana flower arrangement, the Japansese koto harp, and shiatsu massage, Maria Mcelroy returned to New York City to merge all of these rich cultural experiences into her experiments with fragrance in the 90s. One of the original indie perfumers, she launched her geisha inspired line, Aroma M, in 1995 with high percentages of natural oils in her creations. Portives had the pleasure connecting with her and learning more about the enchanting world she creates:
Can you explain more about your transition from aromatherapy into fragrance? How difficult was it to create the first perfume you launched?
After living in Japan for seven years where I studied Aromatherapy in Australia for a summer, 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 essential oil blends and friends started asking for more and more of them. It became clear this was my calling. I had always dreamed of creating a perfume collection, but in the early 90’s there were only a hand of Indie perfume companies, which is what we called them back then. The market was dominated by all the big cosmetic brands. My first perfumes were bottled in delicate French glass adorned with silks and velvet, which we launched at the very first juried Extract Show in NYC. It was a heady affair with glamorous booths from DKNY and Nippon Kodo, not your run of the mill trade show. This was pre internet so everyone attended, magazine editors and international buyers from exclusive shops and department stores. The next thing I knew we were launching the first three Geisha Perfumes o-cha, hana-cha and nobara-cha in New York City at Bergdorf Goodman and in London at Harrods.
What was it about the Japanese incense ritual, Kodo, that it had such a strong impact on you?
I would say my olfactory training came from Aromatherapy and the refined art of Kodo, the Japanese Incense Ceremony. Kodo is like a very elegant parlor game, dating back over a thousand years to the esteemed Heian era, when the Japanese court was located in Kyoto. There is a form of incense ceremony still practiced today based on one’s ability to hold the olfactory memory of several different scents and tell them apart. Twenty or so participants sit around the edges of an elegant tatami-matted room, while the host prepares sets of treasured woods in a tiny, ash-filled censer, to be passed around in succession. One drinks in the burning smoke of the rare woods, the challenge is to describe the essences in poetic language, creating art from olfactory art. My experience with Kodo, and the study of it while living in Japan, sparked my intrigue of fragrance and was the catalyst for the creation of Aroma M.
What is the story of your earliest memory strongly associated with a particular smell or fragrance?
My earliest recollection of fragrance is that of the tantalizing aroma of Greek pastries that would cover the linen tables cloths in my childhood home. These are delicacies doused in honey syrup and nuts delicately spiced with cinnamon nutmeg, clove and crushed almonds. These were the treats my mother, Opium clinging to her leopard silk blouses, would give my adoring, five year old self on sunny afternoons.
What was the most difficult fragrance for you to create?
Geisha Rouge was the hardest scent for me to achieve. It took many years to perfect the blend, maybe because the concept for the perfume is incense and these notes have deep associations for me. Geisha Rouge contains no florals, the addition of tobacco and vanilla add a layer of sweetness in the dry down. It is one of my more complex blends and I find it to be one of the most sexy, erotic perfumes in my line. It has a cult following of over 10 years and was one of the original three in the Geisha Pure Perfume oil line.
Tell us about a romantic experience that involves fragrance or scent.
One of my most romantic fragrant moments 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.
What new projects or products are you working on or looking forward to starting?
We are in the exciting process of a re-brand this year. Aroma M will be repackaging and adding several new fragrant categories. We also will be introducing Geisha Natsu, a Kyoto-based Geisha whose art and influence are an integral part of the Aroma M fragrance line. She encapsulates the rich heritage of Japan and will partner with me to inspire the Geisha collection and assist with the launch. We also have created a perfume film that is a peek into my creative world, Ghost of a Geisha. I am looking forward to this next chapter and sharing our new perfumes that are truly reflective of Japanese art and the geisha art form: elegant, mysterious and refined. Stay tuned!