How a Canadian helped recreate a 150-year-old perfume found in a Bermuda shipwreck
The bottle of perfume found in the Mary Celestia is seen in this image. (Supplied)
TORONTO -- For Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone, the Mary Celestia is among the most prized scents at her perfume boutique -- not just because of the scent itself, but also the story behind it.
Ramsay-Brackstone was born and raised in Montreal, but since 2004 she’s been the owner and perfumer at Lili Bermuda, which has two locations in the island country. Ramsay-Brackstone is also the honourary consul of Canada in Bermuda.
Among her most asked-about scents is the Mary Celestia, a modern recreation from a 150-year-old perfume that was found in a sunken ship that bears the same name.
“It's really, really fascinating and the fragrance to me is beautiful,” she told CTVNews.ca in a recent phone interview.
“It's a very simple fragrance. You think of back in 1864, we didn't have a fraction of the materials we have now to make perfume. So it's a very simple, easy, very, very simple composition.”
The ship operated as a blockade runner for Confederate soldiers during the U.S. Civil War. Before its sinking in 1864, the vessel was used to transport banned goods in and out of Confederate ports.
The vessel ultimately sunk after it struck a blind boiler while transporting food, guns and ammunition to Wilmington, S.C., according to the Bermuda 100 Challenge, which works to digitally document Bermuda’s sea floor. There remains speculation that the ship was sabotaged, but it has not been proven.
The ship is a popular spot for Bermudian divers and the wreckage is well-documented, but in 2011, a strong storm hit and shifted some of the sand and corral near the some 300 shipwrecks that surround the Caribbean Island.
When divers went to check out the Mary Celestia, they noticed the storm uncovered several artifacts that had not been previously documented, including several bottles of wine and a bottle of perfume.
“We were talking about how this is the perfume that probably Scarlett O'Hara was wearing -- it was going on its way to South Carolina and the Civil War. Somebody was clearly sending perfume to somebody that they love,” Ramsay-Brackstone said.
“We knew we were in the presence of something really, really cool.”
Ramsay-Brackstone wanted recreate the fragrance by determining the chemical compounds and where they came from, so she took the bottle to New Jersey, where researchers at Drom Fragrances, an international perfume company, would be able to examine its composition.
“The stench that came out of that bottle was unbelievable. When we opened it, it was like all these ghosts that had been trapped away for so many years all came out at the same time,” she said.
“It was unbelievably stinky. We all have this romantic idea of how things were better and smelled better and tasted better 100 years ago, but let me tell you that that's not true.”
Ramsay-Brackstone added that perfume 150 years ago was not meant to be applied directly to someone’s skin, but rather it would be applied to a cape or coat as a way of masking some of the awful smells on city streets.
After the examination, it was determined the bottle perfume contained citrus, likely grapefruit, orange flower and rosewood, to name a few of the ingredients. The solvents used in the perfume would irritate the skin, but they worked at the time as it wasn’t meant to be applied to the skin.
“Technology back in the days was very, very primitive and we don't use the same type of solvents that they used back then because we have technologies that allow us to make things that are much safer for us,” Ramsay-Brackstone said.
In 2014, Ramsay-Brackstone launched the perfume under a limited release of 1,864 bottles, an homage to the year the ship sank. A portion of the proceeds went to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, which helps young Bermudians learn to become diving teachers.
“This is, in fact, the property of the people of Bermuda,” said Ramsay-Brackstone. “It's not something that I own, so what I did is I decided to do something that would honour Bermuda’s heritage and not just have it be a commercial venture.”
The bottles sold out quickly and Ramsay-Brackstone began fielding questions about when it might be coming back to her boutique. Soon after, the Mary Celestia became a regular at her boutiques.
“It's not a cedar box anymore and of course, we reduced the price and now it's part of my collection,” she said.