Welcome to a new edition of Fragrant Femmes where we have perfumed conversations with women in the world of fragrance. For this edition I’m thrilled to introduce Maria McElroy founder and perfumer from aroma M who has agreed to take part in this conversation. Recently I had the pleasure of trying a selection of Maria’s perfume oils from her aroma M range and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. You can read more about a selection of her work here and can follow her travels and see her inspiration on Instagram. I was particularly enamoured with Geisha Noire, a dark oriental Queen that is languidly sensual and sexy.
So without further ado let’s get discover more about Maria’s inspiration and creative work for aroma M.
Could you tell us a little more about your background as from what I’ve read and the photos I’ve seen on social media I’m rather intrigued. What prompted you to start aroma M?
After receiving an MFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute I continued my studies in Australia and became a Certified Aromatherapist. During that time I was living in Japan, where I studied Kodo, the ancient art of fragrance, Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement Koto, Japanese harp, Shiatsu massage and Zen Buddhism. This seven-year journey, rich in Japanese history, romance and mystery, became the genesis of aroma M and the inspiration for my signature Geisha fragrance line.
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 of them. 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. Aroma M started without much thought, it was organic and fun, and I really did not have any fears.
How have your Japanese experiences helped to shape and form aroma M?
Photo of Maria in 1996 in Japan at Hot Spring Ryokan.
For me, the greatest inspiration for aroma M was and still is Japan. I am very influenced by Japanese culture and the wonderful years I lived there. To truly honour this culture, I create perfumes. The scents embody the nature of this magnificent country. They are both 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 traveller and will always find elements of other cultures that inspire my work.
The tradition of Geisha is all about beauty, elegance, glamour, 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 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.
You make your own perfumed creations. Are you self-taught or have you studied? Has that influenced the choices you make with your work in any way?
I have an Aromatherapy background, and am actually a licensed aromatherapist. I would say that 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 have recently noticed that a handful of women perfumers that I admire have had experience or training in aromatherapy. What do you think a knowledge and practice of aromatherapy adds to the equation?
There is a difference from being a classically trained perfumer and an aromatherapist. The similarities lie in the creative inspiration, as they are both ultimately an art form. Starting a perfume as an aromatherapist, 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.
You make perfumes and oils. What do you tell your clients about the differences between the two?
I think that people are often are drawn to either oils or sprays, so aroma M offers both. Even though they are created in the same original proportions, the added presence of alcohol serves to lighten the fragrance up and give it some breathing space. In its diffused form, the fragrance, blooms if you will. I like to recommend layering the two. Our Geisha Perfumes come in sets, so our customers can get the full voluptuous experience of both Geisha perfume offerings.
When you create a new perfume / oil what is the process you go through? Is it always the same, or does it vary?
First I imagine the fragrance, often in colors and then begin to put the notes together. Some perfumes can come very easily, others can take longer, the longest being Geisha Rouge. It took five years to finalize that scent. I do not like to create fragrance on a schedule. Like painting a painting, there is a process that takes hold and you have to see it through. Some fragrances are easier and quicker than others. Each of my fragrances has had a different a gestation period. I always have a very definite idea of how my perfumes should smell, so it makes it a bit harder, as I do not rest until it is exactly as I have imagined.
Your perfumes are often named with colours. I like this because it gives some indication of how they will smell. In what way does your painting background influence this?
Yes I often imagine colors when creating a new perfume. Much like when imagining a painting and putting colors together. Aroma M perfumes are named after colors, so this plays a big part in my creative inspiration. I try to capture the essence of the color in each fragrance.
What sort of feeling do you seek to create with your perfumes for your customers?
The feeling like the first time I went to Kyoto and was stunned and staggered by what an amazing city it was. And the first time I walked into Gion in Kyoto, which are the geisha quarters. I felt like I had been there before but also like I was stepping back in time. All of the wooden buildings that are hundreds of years old, where you can go to have the company of a geisha, the beautiful diffused light, and the incense wafting through the small streets. You hear the clap of the geisha’s shoes on the cobblestones, and catch a glimpse of one of these exotic creatures around a corner while they’re rushing to an appointment in all their regalia. It’s the most mysteriously glamorous, magical place, and I fell in love with the geishas. They’re beautiful, super-smart, really funny, and very, very talented. So when I create a perfume, the name Geisha is part of each fragrance because I really want it to embody that mystery and glamour.
Do you aim to create a certain number of perfumed creations each year, or is it less structured than this?
I don’t work within any structure; this is the benefit of having an Indie line. I create a perfume when I feel inspired and when it is completed to my full satisfaction, I will launch it into the world. Some years I have launched two perfumes and other times there have been several years with no new perfumes. It is an organic process, quite different from how big perfume houses launch fragrances.
You have been in business for 22 years (according to your website). Have the preferences of your customers changed over the years? If so in what way?
I think the most noticeable change has been that when aroma M first started, woman were more inclined to have a signature fragrance and now it seems that perfume has become something to collect, more like a wardrobe. I think this is a positive change, it allows for many more perfumes to have a place in the market.
How do you balance the creativity along with the business side of Aroma M?
It is a delicate balancing act. Being an entrepreneur you wear many hats, so there are days that entail more creative energy and others that are more mundane. I of course prefer the creative days. I enjoy having a small business because it allows me to have flexibility with my time. In that way, I can choose the days that I want to devote to fragrance formulation and others for my on going book project and collage work. I am writing about my experiences while living in Japan and how that time became the genesis for aroma M. I have never had difficulty allocating my time. I always seem to manage to fit everything in I need to do and still have time for some fun. I couldn’t do it otherwise!
When you think of Japan, what smells do you associate with the country and your experiences there?
The whisper of incense mingled with the scent of cooking soy sauce that drifts through the streets. The scent of blooming plum blossoms, ushering in the spring. I adore the smells at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, seaweed, fresh fish and the scent of the sea. There is an ancient smell that you can experience in the old temples and shines that I love, it’s the indescribable combination of old wood, candles and incense that has permeated the walls for thousands of years.
How about New York?
So many things inspire me by living in New York City. I am able to see amazing art exhibitions and fabulous theatre and dance. I love flowers and relish my weekend visits to the farmers market where I get our weekly bouquets. My husband is a chef, so food and the art of Japanese cuisine is a big influence and inspiration to me. I adore fashion, and NYC is the centre of style. I still find the electric energy of the city it’s most potent “flavour”, the sense of creativity and individuality, people following their dreams. The scent of the seasons, spring in Central Park, Autumn leaves in the West Village, and the bright fresh, white, clean scent of Winter snow. If this were to be a perfume it would most definitely be complex and luminous.
Which perfume of yours do you feel closest to or like the most and why?
All thirteen of my perfumes are like my children; I really don’t have a favourite. I do though tend to wear some of them seasonally. For example, it is very hot in New York this summer season and I find myself, drawn to my latest perfume, Geisha Vanilla Hinoki. This perfume has in interesting way of being cooling and warming at the same time. Inspired by the Japanese Hot Springs, Geisha Vanilla Hinoki has a spa quality to it, woodsy Hinoki mingling with Bergamot and Lavender. The addition of the intoxicating Moroccan Vanilla gives it a layer of dreamy warmth. So for the moment, Geisha Vanilla Hinoki is the perfume that I wear to bed at night!
How do you see your range evolving?
I am working some very exciting project that I’m thrilled to share with you. With my partner Slow Luxury; we will be launching a Bespoke Perfume trip to Marrakech. I will lead us on an exploration through the ancient Medina market, where there are mesmerizing perfume shops. As we wind our way through the souk we will gather the perfume oils to create your own perfume and select a unique perfume bottle to express your fragrance. It is going to be an extraordinary one of a kind experience. I am also launching a perfume inspired by Marrakech and this journey named, Illumination. Stay tuned!
I have heard rumours that your perfume Voluptuous Nostalgia is very good. What is the story behind this perfume?
Thank you, I think it is a very special perfume. Voluptuous Nostalgia was originally created as an ambient scent that was diffused in an art installation in Rome. In response to numerous requests, I decided to launch it as a personal fragrance. Imagine an American girl with a full skirt and Hollywood sunglasses riding on the back of a Vespa. Swerving through the ancient, teaming streets of Rome with her Italian lover, flashing his brilliant smile around every curve. Secret meetings at the Piazza Navona, gelato at the Trevi Fountain, draped in Fortuny velvet at the Teatro dell’ Opera. A Roman holiday captured in a bottle.
Voluptuous Nostalgia gives a nod to 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.
Aroma M’s Voluptuous Nostalgia Fragrance, a postcard from Rome guided by a butterfly fluttering through time. There is also a wonderful little video that we created for Voluptuous Nostalgia.
A big thank you to Maria McElroy for having this Fragrant Femmes conversation. We’ll be watching with interest as your new adventures in Marrakech with Slow Luxury unfold.
Notes : Images : All from Aroma M’s Instagram account.
Thanks for this interview, Megan. Maria is such an amazing woman with a fascinating background. She has such style and sass. Vanilla Hinoki is fab and Voluptuous Nostalgia sounds intriguing. I love a bit of vintage glamour!
Hi Tara. I totally agree. She has followed her passion and makes some wonderful creations. Vanilla Hinoki sounds as though it’s the one to try and Voluptuous Nostalgia sounds wonderful too. Apparently she has something new coming out this year, so that will be one to look forward to. x
Voluptuous Nostalgia sounds wonderful, with my favorite muguet as part of the fragrance! Also, based on Maria’s description, I immediately envisioned Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, with their marvelous period outfits amid the gorgeous Italian scenery. Must try this! And what a great interview.
Hello Old Herbaceous. You say The Talented Mr Ripley! I really love that film and yes I definitely get that vibe too and thank you. Maria is really fascinating and I’m happy that some more people can be alerted to her work. x
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What a wonderful interview with Maria, Megan! Thank you both for sharing it with us!
Hello there! Love her work and her aesthetic. One talented woman. x
What a fascinating story! I will have to seek out these perfumes. Thank you for bringing this indie perfumer to my attention.
Hello Lavender. It’s always good to spread the word and to finally try new perfumes (and oils). I heard about Maria when I read some great reviews of Vanilla Hinoki and then started following her on Instagram. x
Thank you Megan so much for this wonderful article about Maria, a truly inspired Perfumer. I adore Voluptuous Nostalgia, it’s actually one of my top 10 of all time. I love to wear it when I need to feel grounded and supported and inspired by the past.
Hello there! I feel I’m late to the party but I’m so glad I have tried her work now. Love it. Love her aesthetic – the whole package. Had you seen the video for Voluptuous Nostalgia? It makes me want to travel to Rome and sniff this. OK if it’s in your top 10 and I know you know your stuff that’s pretty incredible. Now I really need to try it. xx
An insightful and intriguing interview, Megan. I love that Maria is not bound to any commercial schedule. Voluptuous Nostalgia – what an evocative name! R
Hey Rich. The name is great and someone mentioned The Talented Mr Ripley and that visual is rather tempting.
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