Exclusive Interview with Miriam Vareldzis of 40notes
By Mark David Boberick
October 1, 2011

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TPM:  You were not originally trained as a Perfumer, but you and I both share similar training as Interior Architects. Do you think there is a connection to our interest in perfume and design?

MV: Absolutely! For me, I can sum it up in two words: Creativity and Beauty! I see perfume as beautiful design.  For some people, myself included, a beautifully designed space can have an immediate physical or emotional effect, through its light, proportion, use of materials, colors, and textures. I feel the creation of scent is exactly the same, only more personal, emotional, and visceral. Perfume is literally ‘inhaled’ and taken into our bodies; its effect is instantaneous and physiological.  Both architecture and perfume can have a profound effect on us, and with perfume, we literally take that creation into our being.  And the creative process for a fragrance or an interior space is not that dissimilar… quite the contrary. It is very similar.  But that’s another interview!

TPM: Can you describe the moment when you broke out of Interior Design and into the Fragrance Industry?

MV: Looking back, I see my path as actually a journey through the design industry leading directly to the fragrance industry.   I was not aware of the Fragrance Industry when I grew up here on the west coast, but my absolute love for perfume led me to summer retail jobs in the cosmetics/fragrance department at Meier & Frank (now Macy’s) while I was a student.    Along with that love, my parallel drive was to live in New York City.  Architecture School came almost as ‘divine intervention’.  That turned out to be very serendipitous, and I thrived in that design environment.  It was a long 5-year program, but I would never have traded that education and early career for anything. 

I did move to NYC, and started working for a very prestigious firm, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill.  This was the late 1980’s; most of our clients were financial institutions. I remember as a junior designer being put on the Chrysler Corporate Apartment for Lee Iacocca.  What a thrill!  After a time I eventually realized I didn’t see myself continuing in the career path in front of me.  I recall one very stark moment:  just after leaving an interview with a firm in Rockefeller Center, getting into the back seat of the cab with my portfolio, and just knowing that I could not accept that job.  It was then I knew I had to chart another path. That, actually, is the beginning of the ‘summer of transition 1991’, which looking back is quite funny. I researched and wrote 14 individual letters to 14 cosmetics companies, and received a rejection from each and every one! It wasn’t until a very dear friend suggested I connect with Gryphon Development (Limited, Bath and Body Works, etc.), where I was hired as an assistant, that my new journey began.

From there, serendipity intervened again.  I met my mentor Ann Gottlieb, without a doubt one of the most positively influential people to my Fragrance career.  A few years later I moved over to International Flavors & Fragrance (IFF), and the rest is history, as they say.

TPM: As a Designer trained in a visual art, what design principles have you been able to translate into the invisible art form of perfume?

MV: The design principal that I translate most while I create a fragrance is structure, but when I experience a fragrance, the design principal is spatial and emotional.  It’s funny, because I did miserably even in introductory Structures in school!  But I understand intuitively how a fragrance is made structurally and spatially and the ‘weight’ of the notes that will combine in the perfume.

TPM: At IFF, did you work closely with anyone that influenced or persuaded you into launching your own line?

MV: The conversation to launch one’s own line never came up, and honestly, it wasn’t in my mind yet. My teachers were the supremely talented perfumers and evaluators who honed my own smelling ability, and taught me the fine art of evaluating.  Each project showed me another way to develop a fragrance.  The gift of my industry experience is seeing the entire creative process from the inside, both from within a fragrance house and a branded company.

TPM: Creating your own fragrance line is a giant leap of faith, especially in this economy. What has this leap of faith been like for you so far?

MV: [Laughs] Like a roller coaster ride, but one that I have been nurturing for 8 years.  The 40notes name came to me in 2002.  I’d left NYC and moved to Santa Barbara at the time, where I was born.  I’ve documented concepts in my sketchbooks and created my personal perfumery lab.  I knew then that it would lead to a line, but it’s really been solidly since 2009 that the line has come into form.  It was precisely due to this economy that I decided to dedicate the energy to create and launch, but it was also due to my location. If I were still in NYC I most certainly would still be working from within the Industry.  Portland, Oregon, for all its goodness, is quite frankly not the center of the perfume universe! However, the creative culture here nurtures one to create anything; it’s very supportive of creative ventures. But my biggest support system is definitely my wonderful husband. My love for perfumery as an art basically wasn’t going to leave me alone regardless of where I lived, and here we are.

TPM: How did you come to name your company 40notes and what does it mean?

MV: Notes are the building blocks of perfumery, that create this beautiful art, as we all know. 40 is a very significant number for me personally, as my life took a dramatic change at that time.  It also happens to be a very symbolic number in many spiritual traditions around the world. I had already decided to create a company for myself, not knowing the exact form it would take, and it was then that the name came to me. For me, 40notes symbolizes the container I have to create whatever I want within it.  40notes Perfume is one of the creative adventures so far.

TPM: Can you describe your creative process?

MV: In a word:  Intuitive.  Of course, after the intuition, the other side of the brain goes “how are we going to do that?” But I feel my way through the process, even down to making an either/or decision after logic has run its course.  It’s difficult to put in words, but feelings, intuition, and gut instinct are the gateway to creativity for me. I just “know” what the next step is, but only when the time is right. Until then, I’m in as much angst as anyone else!

TPM: Where do you find your inspiration?

MV: My inspiration for perfumery almost always comes from a feeling; whether how a certain absolute or raw material makes me feel when I smell it, or a mood feeling, like a ‘vibe’ I’m in for a particular reason.   Sometimes I just get a pull towards a concept; for example, after seeing an exhibit in a museum from a time period or a different culture, or sometimes simply from a nostalgic curiosity to go back and really study an ingredient.  I’m often visually inspired to explore experience.

TPM: Your new fragrance line consists of perfume oils. This seems very different from the work that IFF usually produces. As an independent perfumer, why did you choose perfume oils instead of, say an Eau de Parfum spray?

MV: For me, oil is the most concentrated, elegant, and purest form to begin working with.  I also happen to simultaneously fall in love with my 10ml bottle, which fit into my vision for the Signature Collection.  I love the experience of perfume concentrate, and just felt 40notes would begin there.

As far as IFF, a fragrance house develops and produces the ‘fragrance creation’, the scent, regardless of the end form.  Any signature fragrance that I or anyone worked on could easily be translated into an oil base, alcohol base, body cream, or any myriad of line extensions.  Alcohol is an excellent carrier and the most volatile; quite handy when you need your fragrance to reach your nose, and culturally where we are with fragrance. But ancient cultures used a variety of oils as their parfum carriers.

TPM: What historical fragrance inspires you the most?

MV: Personally, I love the Classics.  Vol de Nuit by Guerlain;  the original Parfum d’Hermes by Hermes;  Arpege by Lanvin;  Chanel No.19 Parfum; Rive Gauche by YSL; even Aromatics Elixir by Clinique.  And although I don’t wear it personally, I get enraptured every time I catch a hint of Thierry Mugler Angel, it’s so memorable.  On the other end of the spectrum, Hermes Eau d’Orange Verte is probably the fragrance I have the most empty bottles of!

TPM: What has been the most valuable lesson that you’ve learned from your time in the fragrance industry prior to launching your new line?

MV: What a wonderful question.  I feel the most valuable gift for me was the first hand experience of participating in the creation of a fragrance line, from beginning to launch, from within the ‘hallowed halls’ that created it; and I mean that from both angles: from within the branded company as well as from within the fragrance house.  I used to say I worked in the “white hot center of the Universe!"   To have worked side by side with world class perfumers and clients has given me the confidence and validation to branch out as far as I have with my own personal venture.

TPM: Besides creating fragrances, how do you spend your time?

MV: My yoga practice is what keeps me grounded most days, which I do at a fantastic studio here in Portland.  Yoga and meditation are great ways to keep centered, and the side benefits include making space in my mind for new inspiration to come in.  It was during a yoga class in Santa Barbara where I had one of the first visions of 40notes come to me.

I am also a complete movie fan.  I can find something good in nearly every film: if the story is weak, I’ll love the costumes. Or if it’s slow, I’ll look at the scenery or sets.  I even check out the makeup! One fantastic indulgence is to see a movie with my husband on a rainy afternoon. Luxury!  I also love to read travel memoirs; you know, live vicariously!!  It’s all about the adventure!

I have two young nieces that have watched the line grow from the beginning, and I’ve introduced the art of smelling and memorizing notes to both of them.   I love to teach, and education is also part of the 40notes company philosophy.

TPM: Is there anything in particular that you do to set a mood when you are creating your fragrances? Special music or perhaps even meditation?

MV: This question has a wonderful story that accompanies it. The short answer is yes, I created the entire 40notes Signature Collection to music.

Several months before the blends were created, I spent some time at a retreat center in Northern California.  While I was there, I happened to meet a lovely English gentleman. We got to talking, and it turns out he had a love of perfumery as well, and had gone so far as to have one created for himself by Maurice Roucel. He proceeded to take it out of his bag, and sprayed my arm and my notebook, with the fragrance. Well, unbeknownst to me in that moment, I was speaking with Brian Eno, the famously private and prodigious musician, and the founder of Roxy Music. I gathered he was a creative artist, but wasn’t exactly sure who!  To have one’s own fragrance made by a famous perfumer… that just doesn’t happen every day.  (I only discovered who he was after the fact when the head of the center said to me “I didn’t know you knew Brian Eno”).  

He sprayed and signed my notebook, and that fragrance lasted over a year on the page.   I ended up creating the entire 40notes collection listening to his beautiful, haunting, emotional, and ambient music in my studio.  I am always reminded of the serendipity of that moment.

TPM: What are your future plans for 40 Notes?

MV: I am committed to growing the company organically, meaning step by step.  I have a big vision for the entire brand that includes beautiful products that I am interested in experiencing myself!  I’ll keep some surprises, but to be sure, there’s another fragrance in the works as we speak.  I’m inspired by some very special materials.  I also consult for both fragrance and product development with branded clients and formulation Labs as part of my business, and that element is taking off with several projects here on the west coast.

TPM: Do you dream in perfume?

MV: While I was with IFF several years ago, I once had a dream during a particularly stressful time in the middle of a project that turned out to be somewhat prophetic! I won’t say which or what, but I dreamt of the finished packaging, the bottle, and the look.  I drew it in a notebook, which is how, over a year later, I realized that it was so similar to the end result.  Talk about woo-woo!

TPM: What is your favorite quote and do you apply it to life, perfume, or both?

MV: I’ve always loved the quote “Actions speak louder than words”.  I honestly believe it is the foundation of life, because ultimately it’s what we actually do that matters.  As far as my creativity, I’m forever inspired by the Rumi quote “Let the beauty we love be what we do”;  it has been the inspiration for 40notes from the beginning.   Remember the saying “Beauty is as Beauty does”… I feel it’s a combination of both those other truths.  Usually one of these crosses my mind every day, and reminds me where to place my thoughts.  What better to think about than creating and feeling beautiful!

Thank you, Miriam. It is always a true pleasure to speak with you. We appreciate your time and look forward to even more great things to come from 40notes!


40notes Fragrances can be purchased online through Indie Scents.

40 Notes website

$135 / 10ml   Perfume Oil

GIVEAWAY! Special Thanks to Miriam Vareldzis for offering one full-size 10ml Bottle of OUDWOOD VEIL worth $135 for a prize draw. Please visit the Giveaway page for information on how to enter to win!

Pictures of Miriam Vareldzis and Promotional photography of 40notes provided by the Perfumer.

The market for Niche and Indie fragrances has never been bigger than it is right now. Every so often, an Independent perfumer comes along with an impeccably tailored line that delivers on all fronts - exquisite fragrance, exceptional packaging, and an overwhelming attention to detail.

This Fall, with the launch of her fragrance line, 40notes, Miriam Vareldzis proves to us that, indeed, "Love is in the details."

I recently sat down with my friend Miriam for this exclusive Interview, her first with The Perfume Magazine.

A Sample Pack of all seven 40notes fragrances can be purchased for $40 through Indie Scents.

The 40notes Range includes:

Oudwood Veil

Cashmere Musk

Exquisite Amber

White Winter Flower

Spring Vetiver

Sampaguita Jasmine

Exotic Ylang Ylang

"Both architecture and perfume can have  a profound effect on us, and with perfume, we literally take that creation into our being."
"Let the beauty we love, be what we do." - Rumi