A Scent in Time [The Ghost of a Geisha]
How one woman's affinity for the Far East launched a passion for fragrance and a line of perfumes evocative of a mysterious world.
by Ranya Barrett
In a Brooklyn warehouse across from the Manhattan Bridge lies Maria McElroy's perfume studio. Upon entering, one is hit with a waft of oriental notes—warm ambers, smoky clove and star anise—as well as her collection of Geisha posters and the rumbling of the nearby F train. The space is intimate and cozy, much like McElroy herself. At 5'1" with fiery red hair, the half-Irish, half-Greek perfumer is full of spirit and intrigue. After pouring a cup of jasmine tea, she recounts the details that led her to the creation of Aroma M Fragrances.
Upon graduating art school, McElroy went to Japan on a whim. Although she didn't speak the language, she bought a one-way ticket and soon found herself in Tokyo's Shibuya Station. For seven years, she immersed herself in the culture, studying traditional arts like the incense ceremony, where she first fell in love with the mysterious and transformative quality of scents.
"I love the glamour of fragrance," says McElroy. "My line is a mixture of traditional Japanese elements and my American background. The first time I went to the Geisha quarters in Kyoto, I felt like I was stepping back in time. The narrow streets are lit by lanterns, and at night, you can hear the scuttle of the Geishas across cobblestones. They're very mysterious and private, and I wanted to explain who they were to western audiences."
She then studied aromatherapy in Australia, only to return to the States, where her fragrance line was, unintentionally, born out of her desire to find the perfect scent for herself. A store-owning neighbor noticed McElroy bottling oils in her kitchen and bought some for her store. Before long, the budding perfumer's apartment was full of orders and boxes.
"It began very organically," says McElroy. "My oils are mixed media—part natural oils and part aroma-chemicals. The scents last forever, which the line is known for. I love that you can still smell the Geisha Noir on someone the morning after a glorious night out."
Each of her fragrances is based off of—and named after—a color, which is no surprise, considering McElroy's painting background. Each scent corresponds with a delicate Japanese paper from a tiny shop in Kyoto, which is then wrapped around a Chanel-style bottle from a small French store called Brosse, and later topped with a brushed-silver cap. Although gorgeously crafted, the line's simple packaging ensures affordability, allowing everyone the opportunity to experience them.
"There aren't a lot of things that can transport you out of your every day life, but fragrance does. People think it is a luxury, but I think it's a necessity. Perfume should smell fantastic and make you feel good," says McElroy.
Recently, she's been focusing her energies on Aroma M's website, and fans, take note: Geisha Beauty, an all-oil beauty and hair-care line derived from old Japanese recipes, will soon be available exclusively online. Future products include a camellian hair oil, cleansing rice and red bean powders that can be used as scrubs and masks, and a honey-based toner. There are also two new scents coming, a bold, opulent floral and a sultry vanilla. And her latest concoction, the FiFi-nominated Geisha Amber Rouge, will satisfy your fragrance craving. A twist on her traditional Geisha Rouge, Amber Rouge is layered with gorgeous Moroccan resins that add a sultry sweetness.
"When I was creating this, I was down in the medina every day, in the middle of the Kazbah. I was struck by the beautiful florals and ambers, particularly at night when the orange blossom and jasmine scents hung in the air. Someday, I'd like to do something that incorporates all of Asia, as well as facets of the Byzantine empire, Morocco, and the Middle East," she adds.
McElroy continues to find inspiration everywhere, including her chef husband's Asian culinary style. "I was never into gourmand fragrances, but now I find them very interesting," she says. Perhaps a rosemary-infused amber scent is next? Regardless, one thing's for certain: the Aroma M client is someone who embraces life with unbridled joy, seeking beauty and adventure. "I'm a dreamer," says McElroy, "but I do know that fragrances can bring fantasies to life."
founder of Aroma M perfumes
Roll-on perfume oils, $55 for .8ml
Eau de Parfum, $80 for 1.7 ounces