What’s in a smell? Essence of 1970s Oxford bottled in new perfume

Jack May 15 August 2015

It’s often said that smell can be the most powerful stimulant of memory. Freshly cut grass, chlorine, or cigarette smoke often evokes older, and perhaps happier times. An Oxford graduate has taken this truism to new lengths.

Perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek has created a brand new scent based on her student days as an undergraduate of Lady Margaret Hall in the 1970s. ‘Oxford’, an Eau de Parfum, is described as “assertive, daring and tender” on her website.

The Chemistry graduate has harnessed nostalgia for her time at university to make a unisex scent that supposedly evokes, among other things, Gitanes cigarettes. Mastenbroek, who was the first of her family to attend Oxbridge, told Oxford Today: “When I came up to Oxford, Gitanes came to signify what was chic and sophisticated about this world that I knew nothing about, coming from a fairly ordinary background.”

However, ‘Oxford’ recalls more than a brand of cigarette. “Making the perfume,” she continued, “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.”

She describes the resultant perfume, her third creation, as “chic, rough, exotic”. Mastenbroek has previously created scents for Jigsaw and Jo Malone, and she was elected President of the British Society of Perfumers in 2010.

This attempt by Mastenbroek to literally distill her past has attracted some press attention, with The Times reporting on the product this week.

However, the product has also provoked disagreement on what is the ‘essence’ of such a smell. Alan Hertz, a Cambridge graduate of 1978, instead concisely recalls his own olfactory recollection: “Testosterone, pot and bicycle tires – oh and winter drizzle.”

The perfume has caused some students to speculate what the Cambridge of today would smell like. A third-year English student suggested: “Disappointment, deliberate and politicised body odour, and books that used to be interesting.”

For consumers smelling a bargain, a 100ml bottle will cost £80.