The ‘Oxford’ scent: a chemist in perfumery

Ruth Mastenbrœk, entrepreneur, scientist, and former president of the British Society of Perfumers, talks to Annie Yu about her international career in cosmetic science, her inspirations, and having a “good nose”


Did your chemistry degree lead you to the world of perfumery?

When I left Oxford, I wanted to find a job that involved working with people. At the time I thought that working in a lab was not going to be ideal for me, so I applied and was accepted for a graduate trainee scheme to become the assistant manager of the perfumery department at Selfridges. I went on a perfumery evening class and discovered this wonderful new world. I got a job to train as a perfumer. But Oxford left a big impression on me, so much so that I have now dedicated a fragrance to it.

What was the training process to become a perfumer like?

It was very rigorous. I remember having to memorise around two thousand different smells. You have to be really tenacious, curious about the ingredients, and dedicated to learning how to differentiate between the smells. Having done a chemistry degree definitely helped. For example, when I was developing scents for washing powder—a rough medium that does not retain scents readily—it was useful to know what type of aldehyde something is as it tells me how reactive the compound will be.

What are your favourite projects to work on?

I love working on projects that have a big impact on lots of people. My most current project is for Mr Colman, of Colman’s mustard. He grows a most wonderful Black Mitcham peppermint that he distils into oil himself and he wanted a fragrance to celebrate this very English product. I’ve created a fragrance for him that has a very green, fresh, countryside kind-of smell. It is these kinds of projects that I love, where I create a bespoke product that epitomise something intrinsic to a brand, which is then passed on to lots of other people to enjoy.

How have you found starting your own company in such a competitive market?

On one side of my business, I have developed my own brand of perfumes, Ruth Mastenbrœk. I am in the niche fragrance area as I am not part of a big company so there are competitors coming at me from all over the place. It is a fight to stay in the market but now that I have my daughter working with me we can work together to try and make the most of the brand. For the other side of the business, my customers tend to be small-to-medium-sized companies with big ideas. As I am an independent perfumer, I am able to contact the customer directly to know that we are eye-to-eye—or shall I say nose-to-nose—with what they are looking for in the fragrance. One of my customers is Dr Organic, a brand sold in Holland & Barrett which focuses on natural products and is hoping to become a global brand. The potential that the fragrance I am working on for them could end up on the other side of the world definitely adds an extra edge.

What is a typical working day?

Normally I would be in the lab from 8.30am till about 12 o’clock, blending fragrances for my customers. My lab at home is the simplest you can imagine: I have a balance, a hot-plate stirrer, and all of my ingredients that I keep cool in my garage. I would write out a formula, enter it into my laptop, then go and collect the ingredients to try out the resulting combination with the medium that it will end up in. This is where it gets interesting, as the demands are different each time. Say you have a candle, you would do a cold throw to test if you are aware of it in the room without burning it, and then when you do burn it you want to get a very even pool of melted wax and no smoke. For a skin fragrance, it must not only smell nice in the air, but stay nice once it touches the skin too.

What does a ‘good nose’ mean to a perfumer?

Well, say you have ten or 15 ingredients on smelling blotters in front of you, you have to be able to differentiate between, for example, different types of lavender oil or musk ingredients which tend to smell very similar. When you have a combination of, say, five ingredients, you have to be able to pick out what type of ingredients they are and to know if anything has been added to it. You can tell that you have a good nose in ordinary life if you can differentiate and recognise what different scented shampoos smell like or if you can easily pick out a spice note whilst cooking.

Where do you find your inspiration for your fragrances?

I could relate my signature fragrance, Ruth Mastenbrœk, completely to experiences in my life. I knew that I wanted to make a particular type of fragrance called a chypre, which is an accord of bergamot, rose, patchouli, and oak moss. But it could not be the same as every other chypre and so I delved into my childhood. Amorosa, my second fragrance was inspired by Italy where we used to holiday, and where we now we have a home. I have been really fortunate to have had some wonderful experiences that can fuel my imagination to inspire these fragrances.

What are the challenges?

For me, it would have to be bringing my first brand of perfume to market, because it involved learning so much about other aspects of the whole industry that I had absolutely no idea about like packaging, distribution, sales, marketing… But I think that is one of the great things about being a chemist. If you are a chemist, you are curious. You want to know why something is the way it is, how it got to be like that, and which equations and formulae will explain it. I think that we bring that curiosity to other aspects of our lives and for me, that is one of the great things in perfumery too. It is fun to keep learning every single day.