Is it possible to open a scent bottle and be transported back to your heady undergraduate days? Perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek has spent three years capturing the scent of Oxford.
By Olivia Gordon
Perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek (LMH, 1970) is sitting by the window at Quod Brasserie on the High, reminiscing about her time as an undergraduate in the 1970s. For her, this is not idle chit-chat – her memories of her years at Lady Margaret Hall are so powerful that she has based a new perfume on them, called (of course) Oxford.
Ruth (pictured right) is one of the few female perfumers in the world to successfully establish her own independent brand – no easy feat in a competitive market. Having studied Chemistry at Oxford, and then perfumery around the world, she created scents for Jo Malone and Jigsaw. After becoming President of the British Society of Perfumers she set out on her own in 2010, mixing blends in her home laboratory in Beaconsfield. Oxford is her third perfume, borne of nostalgia for her student days.
For Proust, scent memory focused on madeleine cake; for Ruth, it all goes back to Gitanes cigarettes. Not that she smoked them herself; she says, but the other Oxford students did in 1970, wearing fur coats and driving Saabs — and this held an aura of glamour which has stayed with her ever since.
She sprays Oxford on paper for me — there is no hint of smokiness, but it is a sweet, sensuous scent, reminding me of Calvin Klein’s Obsession, which I adored as an adolescent. ‘When I came up to Oxford,’ Ruth explains, ‘Gitanes came to signify what was chic and sophisticated about this world that I knew nothing about, coming from a fairly ordinary background.’ She was the first from her school to go to Oxbridge. Oxford, she hopes, is a scent that captures the thrill of leaving home for university.
She describes the emotion as ‘that breakthrough moment of being able to express yourself: what’s out there, what am I capable of that I didn’t even know existed? You’ve got a lot of challenges and you’re on your own. Making the perfume, I was thinking of something raw and unrefined; that moment of discovery and bold steps forward – for me that was a feeling that I wanted to capture and translate. Then, when I added the sweet notes, I was thinking of the safety net of your family which you have when you’re young.’
We talk about how the Oxford system also acts as a safety net for an adventurous young undergraduate; how protective the colleges are, and the camaraderie of women’s colleges in the 70s. ‘It was something special,’ Ruth reflects. ‘The college felt stricter than parents. In my first year, 12 of us lived in a convent in Norham Gardens that was stricter than being in Hall and we had boys stuffed into the cupboards and under beds.’
Ruth did not want to go into the usual research or teaching that was expected of her as a chemistry graduate. Instead she did a training scheme at Selfridges, where she discovered perfumery, and since then she has ‘never wanted to do anything else.’ She feels that her perfumery, with its drop-by-drop formulas perfected in her own laboratory over years, is a natural follow-on from Chemistry, in fact.
Meeting Ruth, who is softly spoken and rather ethereal, draws me into a world where memories are important and can be painstakingly captured in combinations of different essential oils. Talking to her reminds me of how, when I was an undergraduate, I used to make my own perfumes and aromatherapy blends tailored to other students’ personalities, inspired by a book called The Fragrant Mind.
Oxford has taken Ruth three years to hone, and mixes heady oriental oils including bergamot, amber, oud and vanilla with fresh notes of basil and galbanum. Every essential oil has its own character, and the Oxford blend also, of course, features sensual and earthy patchouli - that classic among 1970s students and Ruth’s favourite oil of all.
She still visits Oxford regularly, and stays in touch with her ‘lifelong friends’ from LMH. Recently she introduced Oxford to the LMH alumni and says ‘many were really intrigued’. One might not expect, on first meeting this elegant woman, a new grandmother, how central her memories of undergraduate life are to her present. But, as Ruth puts it, ‘perfumes tell a story over time’.
Oxford is available in the Oxford University Shop.