“Don’t worry, everyone thinks it smells like cat pee.”
These were not words I was expecting when I settled in to enjoy an afternoon with a classically trained perfumer, taking a look and a sniff at what goes into the scents we know and love. I was invited along to the home of Ruth Mastenbroek, a perfumer who explains her job this way: “I am a nose. I tell stories about life, using my perfumes as a voice.”
You may not have heard of Ruth, but you will definitely have smelled her. You know that Jo Malone Grapefruit candle that Jennifer Lopez famously loved so much she bought 300 of them? Ruth. She also created the fragrances in the all-natural Prismologie products, a collection of luxury skincare products that use colour therapy to help manage our daily stresses and enhance our mood.
As former President of The British Society of Perfumers, Ruth has lived and breathed perfume since graduating from Oxford University with a degree in chemistry and taking her first job as a sales manager in the perfume department in Selfridges.
Having worked successfully in the perfume industry for over forty years, creating fragrances for brands around the world, Ruth now has her own range, which she creates at her home in a leafy suburb in South East England. Walking up to her front door, there is nothing to suggest that inside, magic is happening. And there is something magical about listening to Ruth and her son Nick, who is learning to become a perfumer like his mother, talking about the alchemy involved in putting together a fragrance from scratch.
Ruth shows me her utility room, which looks pretty normal, other than the rows of tiny brown bottles, delicate pipettes, a piece of paper with a neat list of ingredients and their measurements, and finally the tiny sterilised magnets which will spin inside each concoction until it is thoroughly blended. Through another unassuming door, in a room painted the blue of a bright summer sky and adorned with posters of classic perfumes from past and present – Paris, Paloma Picasso, Eternity– is Ruth’s store room, with shelf after shelf of little bottles of pure scent, waiting patiently to be chosen, unscrewed and painstakingly added to her newest creation.
We return to the kitchen and settle down at her table, (if anything sums up a kitchen table, family-run business it’s this one) and I am handed the first of many thin strips of white card. They are like the ones that are thrust into your hands as you dash through perfume counters in department stores, only this time I want to take them, to learn about what goes into the fragrances that I love, and what draws me to them.
What’s fascinating to learn is our relationship with perfume starts before we are even aware of it. It begins with our mother. Ruth explains: “Perfume is so powerful, it connects you instantly to a memory, an emotion, a feeling. It inspires your imagination and shapes future memories”. Ruth had asked me previously what my first scent memory is, and instantly I had known what to say – the memory was so strong I could see it in front of me. It was an image of my mother kissing me goodnight before she went out for the evening with my dad. She was dressed in a beautiful long halter-neck dress in smooth, shiny material, and as she bent down I could smell the Yves Saint Laurent perfume Opium. It was heady and heavy, and settled onto my pillow, so I could smell her long after she’d gone. I was about seven years old at the time.
Our first scent memory plays a huge part in the kinds of smells we are drawn to. It makes sense; of all our senses, smell is one of the strongest triggers of memory – one whiff and you can be transported back in time to places both good and bad. So a smell that to one person might elicit instant joy and warmth, to another will make them feel unsettled, even if they are not sure why – their brain will have associated it with another time and place. Even if it’s not your mother, a scent can remind you of a teacher, a friend, a partner – someone in your life who unwittingly or otherwise has left an impression.
Perfumes, I discovered, are made up of three different layers – a base, middle and top. This is putting it in its simplest terms – each layer itself is made up of so many variations, each one blended to perfection, that it’s almost impossible to pick out an individual element. You might think you can smell a bit of a floral here, or citrus there, but even us perfume addicts would be hard pushed to pinpoint exactly what’s in there. The top layer is the lightest – that’s the one you immediately smell. The middle layer takes a while to settle in – that’s the layer that people notice on you about half an hour after you’ve put it on. The bottom layer is the deepest one, it has the base notes that hang around the longest, the smell you notice on your clothes as you take them off at the end of the day. Why do we need all these layers? Well, think of it like making a cake; if you only had the sponge base it would be a bit, well, heavy. You need the fruity filling and the sweet icing on top to pull the whole thing together.
While fragrances are being developed all the time and the ingredients themselves are evolving, the basic skills needed to create the perfect smell are the same – an encyclopaedic understanding of the alchemy of each blend, patience, love, and a good nose. Can a good nose be taught, or do you have to be born with it, I wondered. “It’s a mixture of the two,” says Ruth. “But yes, you do have to be born with a certain amount of skill.”
Ruth and Nick took me through the full range of top, middle and base notes – not all of them from ingredients they would necessarily use themselves (Nick is keen to use vegan products where possible) but to give me a greater understanding of the history of fragrance as a whole.
As strip after strip was sniffed, some instantly recognisable as rose or lemon, and others baffling and frankly disgusting like those from the anal glands of the civet cat, I wondered how on earth anyone could dream up of putting faeces and whale vomit into something that would be sprayed into the cleavage of well-dressed women as they headed out for the night? And yes, you did read that correctly; ambergrisis the correct term for the whale vomit which is washed up on a beach and has been used as a fixative in perfume for centuries – it makes the smell last longer. A lump of this stuff can sell for tens of thousands of pounds if you’re lucky enough to stumble across it, but because it’s notoriously hard to source, most perfumes nowadays rely on a synthetic version to give their fragrance the dark, heady smell it needs.
It sounds strange, but we do need these darker undertones when it comes to scent, even though we don’t realise it. At a subliminal, primal level, this is the base that draws us towards the smells we love. We may think that it’s the sweet, waxy rose or cheeky citrus that makes us feel good when we have a sniff of our wrist – and at a certain level it is – but at another, our basic instincts are attracted to the dark as much as to the light. According to the legendary perfumer Jacques Guerlain, he wanted his perfumes to smell like “the underside of his mistress” – not something most of us consider as we dab Shalimar behind our ears.
As the afternoon draws to an end, I’m full of admiration for the craftmanship, dedication and skill of the perfumers who have dedicated themselves to bringing us fragrances that will become part of our life’s story, and perhaps even the scent memories of those around us. We’re bombarded by millions of different smells every day, most of them ambiguous, some of them pleasant, a lot of them not so. A simple stroll through a perfume floor of any department store or departure lounge is an assault on our olfactory senses and it’s not often we stop to think about why. We rarely think about what draws or repels us to a fragrance at all, and despite the Hollywood star or starlet peering moodily out from the posters, there really is very little they can do to make us like or dislike a smell – no matter how much we or they want to. Our attraction to fragrance goes much deeper than that.
“Finding a fragrance that you can relate to and that expresses you is a challenge,” explains Ruth. It’s a challenge that I’ve realised we don’t choose. I have always thought that I choose the perfumes that I like… I’ve realised now that actually, it’s the perfume that chooses me.
For more information on finding the perfect perfume for Valentine’s Day, check out Ruth’s blog on: