Interview:up close and personal with the creator of 40notes, Miriam Vareldzis

How did you go from architecture to perfumery?

Serendipity: I actually started in perfumery. Growing up, I not only loved perfume but scent and smelling. As a teenager, working the department store gig, I walked-in and asked human resources if I could be in the fragrance department. Unknown to me at the time, the cosmetics department manager was standing outside the door.  She knew me as the tutor of her younger brother. She liked me, and for that I became a permanent ‘floater’ for the entire department.  It was there that I began to catalog in my memory each and every fragrance I smelled and sold. This went on for summers and holidays from school, before I began my architecture internships. The story picks up again several years later while I was living in New York City.  Once I decided to leave Interiors for a career in the fragrance industry, another set of serendipitous events brought me to an informational interview with a VP at Gryphon Development.  Owned by The Limited Inc., is was the company responsible for developing and launching all personal care products for Bath and Body Works and Victoria’s Secret Beauty in the ’90’s.  A particularly important moment was meeting the woman who would become my mentor, legendary industry nose Ann Gottlieb. Her guidance shaped my career and informed how I learned to evaluate fragrances. With her guidance and support, I moved into the fine fragrance division at IFF.  There, I met some of the perfumers who created the fragrances I memorized all those years earlier, bringing me full circle. From there, the rest really is history.

What inspires you?

Beauty. Music. Late-day light in the summer sky. The peachy scent of an heirloom rose. A eucalyptus leaf on a hike.  Vintage perfume, beautiful jewelry; anything that is aesthetically  pleasing. I recently found a whole, intact sand dollar on the Oregon coast. I brought it home, bleached it, and keep it on my desk. The perfection of the five pointed star on the round shell reminds me how perfect mother nature is. A girlfriend recently brought me an antique, hand carved, 100-year old Tibetan perfume bottle from a visit to India. I look at that and wonder who carried it, what story it holds.  It’s all beauty.

What is your fragrance philosophy?

My fragrance philosophy is quite simple: wear what makes you feel good. Wear what you feel like. It’s all about feeling.  Enjoy the beauty of those notes on your skin. Set yourself free from trends, fads, designers, labels. Experience the beauty of the notes and accords, the composition and how you relate to that particular scent. Create your own memories. Sometimes a fragrance can bring back an old memory; other times a fragrance will create a new memory. Notice how you feel when you wear a scent and let that be your barometer.

How does travel inspire your love of scent?

Travel memories are not always pretty! Although I have beautiful memories of the Frangipani flowers of Bali, the Sage and Chamomile of Crete, the Eucalyptus in Santa Barbara and the Meyer Lemon tree in my aunt’s back yard, I also recall the smell of Shanghai in 1984 as if it were yesterday. Wafting from a shadowy alley we passed, I recall a medley of fish, garbage, smog and concrete. Not lovely, but indelible and I wouldn’t trade that memory for the world.  From that same trip I also happen to recall the delicate smell of Jasmine Tea that was served, as well as little jasmine soaps in the bathrooms.  With these scents, I am instantly transported and get to relive a moment of my life’s history.

What is your oldest/best/fondest fragrance memory?

My mother would come in to kiss us goodnight after returning from a ‘grown-up’ party with my father. She would be surrounded by a halo of scent that I adored: perfume, usually Chanel No. 5, hairspray, and stale cigarette smoke from the party.  Since she did not smoke herself, it just added to the glamour of the image in my mind. Still one of my favorite concoctions to this day.

What perfume did your mother wear?

I was lucky to be surrounded by a cadre of perfume wearing aunts, grandmothers and mother. Among the arsenal that are now in my memory were Je Reviens by Worth, Shalimar by Guerlain, and of course, Chanel No. 5.  Also in the line-up were Estee Lauder’s Private Collection, Galanos, Hope by Francis Denny and an obscure French fragrance my mother purchased in Europe called Casaque, in a magnificent, opalescent white glass bottle.

Tell us something we don’t know about you?

Citrus notes run in our family! I only knew fresh-squeezed oranges, grapefruit and lemons until I was 8 years old, while growing up in Santa Barbara, California.  My grandfather was a Sunkist

Citrus distributor. He would drive from San Francisco to the lemon and orange groves, and stay with us where we lived in Santa Barbara. Every visit, he would leave a large box of oranges, grapefruits and lemons. It wasn’t until we moved north to Portland that I ever knew frozen juice existed. (and immediately disliked!). To this day I channel my grandfather while I select the perfect grapefruit and lemons at the grocery store.

What is the inspiration for the name of your cat?

Siri is named after the Star Sirius, which ironically, is referred to as The Dog Star. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, and at one point I heard that the ancient Egyptians believed they received information on how to build the pyramids from the star Sirius!  No proof, but a great story. By the way, I’m sure Siri believes this story since she walks around the perfumery like a royal cat.

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Photo:by LoriJo Daniels

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  • Carolyn Ellis June 11, 2010 at 10:26 am

    You are nothing short of a fabulous mixture of magic, chutzpah, intelligence, beauty and good ol’ elbow grease. Am so excited to hear more about the collection. PLEASE keep us posted about where we can find them in CA!
    Big hugs and love,

  • Marjory Berry June 11, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Gorgeous website, Miriam!
    I’m honored & delighted to be involved is just a small way with this beautiful enterprise.

  • Shelley Couch September 28, 2011 at 11:55 am

    As the season blends into yet another chapter of everlasting change. I hope to see your 40 Notes blooming on the horizon. Still believing in your sucess!