Today I’m posting another interview in the fragrance friends interview series. This time I’m talking with someone who has worked in many segments of the fragrance industry: Miriam Vareldzis of 40 Notes Perfume. She has worked as a fragrance evaluator for major companies, has started her own indie perfume line, and currently also works for an outstanding natural ingredient supplier. Miriam has been interviewed by Cafleurebon and The Perfume Magazine about her indie line and career change, but I thought it would be fun to learn more about her work as a fragrance evaluator and to get a peek into her unique perspective of the fragrance industry given that she has experienced so many aspects of it. You might not know what a fragrance evaluator does, so here’s a great chance to learn about it while also enjoying and appreciating Miriam’s story.
Background: Miriam was born in Santa Barbara, California and has traveled extensively around the world. She studied architecture and interiors at the University of Oregon and then worked for design firms in New York City. Her life-long passion for scent led her to a major career change from architecture and design to the world of perfumery. She began her fragrance career in 1991 at Gryphon Development, where she was mentored by one of the industry’s leading fragrance designers, Ann Gottlieb, the consultant hired to develop all scents for Gryphon. Four years later, Miriam moved to International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF) where she worked for seven years both in New York City and in California. Her work involved fragrance development from concept to launch, collaborating with master perfumers to develop scents for major brands, as well as roles in sales and marketing. She launched her own indie line, 40 Notes Perfume, in 2010. In 2012 she was recruited to work with Robertet, Inc., a French company that is one of the leading suppliers of natural ingredients to the fragrance and flavor industries. She is active in both the global fragrance industry and the community of west coast indie perfumers. She currently lives with her husband (and cat!) in Portland, Oregon.
I had the pleasure of meeting Miriam last year when she brought some Robertet ingredient samples for me to sniff. She is knowledgeable and talented but is also a people person – warm, outgoing, perceptive and enthusiastic. I can imagine that it would be fun to work with her and have her on your team.
Laurie: What was it like working at Gryphon Development mentoring with Ann Gottlieb? That must have been an amazing opportunity!
Miriam: First of all Laurie, thank you for inviting me to speak with you. I’m happy to share my story! I was the product development manager at Gryphon, and I worked with Ann on all the fragrances. I was considered “on the client side,” giving direction to the fragrance houses, based on Ann’s direction. She was my mentor in every sense and trained me in the development of fragrances: how to focus my own innate sense of smell, evaluate on skin, smell for the brief, and give direction in the successful creation of a fragrance in all types of bases. It was from there after four years at Gryphon, through her guidance, that I transitioned my career to strictly the fragrance side of the industry and followed an opportunity to IFF. When I was hired at IFF, it was to handle all of Ann’s clients; we had developed a wonderful working relationship, and it evolved into the next phase for me.
Laurie: Can you explain the job of a fragrance evaluator in a little more detail? What was a typical day like at IFF?
Miriam: The role of the fragrance evaluator is really being the Liaison between Perfumer and Client. The evaluator has to know both the language of perfumery and the language of the market, and the temperament of everyone! Perfumers are often in their own world, not always aware of trends or recent launches. I had to be aware of the vision of the client as well as the creative vision of the perfumer in order to successfully guide the process. Ann really was the vision for the client, and we followed her lead. If she and I smelled, I would have to translate her direction perfectly to the perfumer!
The day to day is much more detailed, as you can imagine. In my experience, there were several layers to being an evaluator. As a team, the evaluators would participate in group evaluations of market products (fine fragrance, personal care, home fragrance) and classify each fragrance we smelled. We would come to a consensus on the olfactive family of each product and our personal interpretations. Sometimes we would agree with the product copy (as stated by the brand), and sometimes we wouldn’t. Smelling as a group is a powerful tool in honing your skill.
Each of us was responsible for many projects simultaneously. Since I was in the Fine Fragrance Division, my projects rotated around high-end prestige brands such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, or celebrities such as Christy Brinkley, and also included BBW, Unilever Axe & Impulse brands. During the day I would find myself smelling experiments with various perfumers one-on-one in their office, then later that day into evening smelling “on skin” in preparation for an upcoming client meeting. And it continued when I wore ideas home in the evenings for a longevity test, smelling my arms up until I went to bed. Everything rotated around smelling!
In the case of home fragrance or candle development, I would smell a burning candle in a specially designed odor booth for lift, character and tenacity.
A typical day could range from smelling alone, to smelling with a perfumer, smelling with a team on a project, smelling with Ann to further a project in preparation for a client presentation. I would also conduct fragrance training for clients (sales teams who would need to learn how to smell), and last but not least, write fragrance copy and descriptions for all the fragrances we created.
One of the most important qualities to being a successful evaluator at a fragrance house is the ability to separate your personal preference from the direction of the brief. The client has a vision for where they want the fragrance to be, and it is our job to take them there, at the highest level, for the brand.
Laurie: Wow, sounds like your nose got a workout! That must be hard sometimes to separate personal preference from the project. It sounds like a fascinating job though.
The experience you gained at those companies must have put you in a perfect position to develop your own line and must be partly why your line was so polished from the start. Did you encounter any aspects of being an indie brand that came as a surprise? Was it hard to narrow down your scent offerings for the initial launch?
Miriam: What came as a surprise: I am much more used to working in collaboration with people than I am being totally by myself. So although the creative development and blending was easy on my own, the day to day was much more challenging without a team of people to connect with on a daily basis. I love personal interaction!
It wasn’t difficult to narrow down my offerings because I started with the materials, the notes. My “muse” for each scent was a natural material or note that I was in love with and wanted to play with: Vetiver, Jasmine, Ylang, the notion of “Cashmere softness”… each of these was the singular inspiration for the scent. Initially I had developed six, and the seventh came at the very end. Then I knew the first Signature Collection was complete. Each fragrance is a “deep dive” into the Universe of that note and how I was feeling about it at the time.
Laurie: When I tried samples of your line, my favorites were Exotic Ylang Ylang and Sampaguita Jasmine (I must have been in a white floral mood!), both beautiful.
What personal qualities do you think are needed to launch a successful indie line? Do you think it has gotten easier or harder over the years? (Resources are better and online connections are more available, but the number of indie brands has exploded so there is more competition.)
Miriam: The personal qualities question has two levels: the level of “business owner” and the level of “creator.” As an entrepreneur, there are many ways to interpret the business model: from creating, blending and filling on your own all the way to partnering with a fragrance house to manufacture your fragrance idea. All approaches are valid.
On the level of creator, I feel integrity of personal vision is key. For some that may be living their dream as the “Alchemist-Wizard,” staying very behind the scenes. For others, that may be holding the platform as “Teacher,” promoting the Lost Art of Natural Perfumery. Or for others, delighting us by being “Court Jester,” showcasing provocative new ideas and blends.
For me personally, it’s crucial to follow inner vision on all levels simultaneously; the fragrance will be perceived from the juice, to the bottle, packaging, imagery, through to the website and ultimately to the package the client receives. Seems it always goes back to design for me!
And if by successful you mean financially, then the Indie Brand may want to experience marketplace success, which then begs the question if it is still Indie! LOL. I do believe in financial success for Indie brands, for sure.
Like you pointed out, the market place has exploded with Indie Brands. I feel it is easier to actually launch a brand, with all the resources available now. But I feel it is simultaneously more difficult for that brand to be successful, and even more complicated if that brand wants to be international. The regulatory environment for perfume, and natural perfumery specifically, is more stringent and exacting for everyone, creators, suppliers, and distributors alike.
It may take an initial spark of interest or curiosity to “fall in love with perfumery” and suddenly launch a line. But it takes a tremendous amount of personal passion, humility, and life-long learning to stay in this creative industry. Perfumery is an art that is not suddenly learned overnight, but honed over a lifetime.
Laurie: I completely agree, Miriam; it does seem much easier to start an indie business than to last for the long haul, and the regulatory environment is making things much more complicated, especially for those who want to take their brand international.
I now see that my question was a bit vague in reference to “success,” but I had in mind selling enough to meet whatever goals the indie owner had set out for himself/herself. I agree that there are many scales at which you can run an indie business. Defining indie would get us into a big thorny topic, lol.
In addition to your own line, you’ve recently been working for the major fragrance house and natural ingredient supplier Robertet. It must be fun to introduce people to new essences! What is your favorite part of your work for Robertet? Have you visited any of their growing fields? Do you have some favorites of their ingredients?
Rose harvest (photo property of Robertet)
Miriam: Since joining Robertet, I have happily “fallen down the rabbit hole” into another universe in my exposure to natural fragrance ingredients and their sourcing around the world. It has deepened my knowledge of not only materials, but the various manufacturing processes needed to create essential oils, absolutes, isolates, hydrosols, etc. I’ve not been to a growing field yet, but I have been to Grasse in the South of France, the headquarters of Robertet, and seen the distillation of neroli, cocoa and other beautiful materials. I have never smelled more varieties and qualities of lavender or ylang in my life! This is a true gift that I am treasuring.
Ylang blossom (photo property of Robertet)
: That must have been wonderful to see the distillation operations in Grasse! Some companies like Robertet seem to be more open to the idea of working with smaller indie brands in recent years. Do you think that might be a trend? (I’m ever hopeful!)
Rose harvest (photo property of Robertet)
: Yes, I honestly do think this has become more of a real possibility for smaller brands. Especially in these last few years. First of all, the market has completely changed. The larger brands aren’t the only ones launching fragrances. The marketplace has expanded into home fragrance, personal care, private label, and Niche & Indie brands. Fragrance houses that once only worked with established cosmetic companies are now open to working with smaller, entrepreneurial companies. The minimums are still a factor, since we are still talking about manufacturing. But there is more flexibility now.
Laurie: I read in your Cafleurebon interview that you were another Jeffrey Pine sniffer as a kid! My brother and I used to love to sniff those tree trunks too because of their sweet, resinous vanilla scent. What are some of your favorite non-perfume smells today?
Miriam: I LOVED the smell of the pine trees at Yosemite and Mt. Lassen National Parks, every hot August, growing up. The heat of the sun would bring out the vanilla resin, and the park rangers would tell us to put our noses into the bark and sniff! HEAVEN! What a memory. Don’t laugh, but I have a very nostalgic memory around the smell of basement mildew! My grandmothers’ house in San Francisco, close enough to the water to get the dampness, had a cold concrete & mildew note. Her house was the center of life, so I naturally have a positive association. And I love the smell of the gas-stove before it lights: a very home-hearth feeling. I adore the smell of the pods that fall from Eucalyptus trees. These are all scents from my childhood, ironically.
Laurie: Oh, eucalyptus pods are another of my good childhood smells too! ☺ We have some common CA childhood scent memories. And isn’t it true how our associations with scents affect our feelings toward them, in this case elevating basement mustiness to something cozy.
Given all the things on your plate, do you still get some time to relax at home in beautiful Oregon, where you live now? What kinds of things do you like to do for fun and relaxation?
Miriam: I love to go on walks: hikes in the forest, walks on trails, and walking around town and neighborhoods. It keeps exercise interesting, and is great downtime. I love my yoga practice: right now it’s my savior, with so much travel in my life. My husband and I are both movie and music fans, and there is no shortage of either here in Portland. And naturally, we submit to the whims of our Cat!
Laurie: Thank you so much, Miriam, for generously sharing your time with us and for giving us a peek into the world of a fragrance evaluator. It’s inspiring to meet someone who had the courage to make a radical career change and then made so much out of it! Wishing you continued good luck in all your endeavors and with 40 Notes!
1. For a wonderful blog post tour of Robertet in Grasse, see Persolaise Perfume Blog.
2. Gryphon Development was the company created by The Limited to develop and launch all products for Bath & Body Works, Victoria Secret Beauty, A&F personal care, and Henri Bendel’s private label. Gryphon was bought-out less than 5 years after it formed.