Maria McElroy AROMA M
EXOTIC IS NOT THE WORD YOU'D CHOOSE TO DESCRIBE MARIA McElroy's traditional, quiet childhood in Salt Lake City. But her first stop after high school was the decidedly funkier environment of the San Francisco Art Institute, where she developed a taste for Asian abstract painting and a plan to move to Japan after graduation. "My family was surprised but supportive," says McElroy, who, at 24, not knowing a syllable of the language and never having set foot out of this country, got her own apartment in Tokyo and immersed herself in Japanese life. "I was fascinated with the ancient culture and specifically by the traditional arts - the way people would evaluate everyday activities like flower arranging, conversing, dancing, and serving tea to something artistic and almost mystical." Her life was a series of self-guided "field trips" - to temples, hot springs and small villages. It was one such excursion that triggered her personal epiphany: "An acquaintance invited me to an incense ceremony, which is similar to the tea ceremony but more secretive. The incense master introduces various incenses, and participants describe the scents through poetry. I was mesmerized. That's when I knew I wanted to do something with fragrance."
After studying incense ceremonies for several years, she moved to Australia to study aromatherapy at the Queensland Institute of Natural Science. She returned to Tokyo briefly, married her Japanese fiancé in a Shinto ceremony, and then came home to the States (Seattle, not Salt Lake) to put her knowledge of Japanese fragrance and aromatherapy to use, although she wasn't yet sure how. "It took about a year to realize that creating my own fragrance would combine all the things I loved - from the ingredients to the aromatherapy to the design." Her first attempt, a room spray laced with incense, sold well in friend's boutiques and slowly developed a national following in independent retailers. She was encouraged enough to create her first perfume, O-cha, " a mix of green tea and sweet orange concocted and bottled on my kitchen table," and to exhibit it a the New York Ex-Tracts trade show, where she landed an account at Bergdorf Goodman.
Now her Aroma M products (including the recently launched Geisha Rouge) sell at that department store, and McElroy and her husband live in New York City and let someone else do the bottling - although they hand-finish the packaging themselves, wrapping the bottles in silk. These exquisite little flourishes, along with the highly concentrated, 100 percent pure perfume oils McElroy uses in her fragrances, are a flashback to the art of old-world perfumery. "I make perfumes that you put on with a stopper," she says. "They are luxurious, feminine, the kind of delicious scents you can still smell just a trace of when you wake in the morning."
Article in (C) THE OPRAH MAGAZINE "Scents Of A Woman" April 2002