What does 150-year-old perfume smell like?

A new fragrance replicates the molecular 'DNA' of a bottle of perfume found perfectly preserved in a 150-year-old shipwreck in Bermuda. Anna Hart gets a whiff of history
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Indy Lifestyle Online

In 1864, two small bottles of wax-sealed perfume, embossed with the name of the esteemed Bond Street perfumer Piesse & Lubin, were placed in the cargo hold in the bow of the North Carolina-bound paddle steamer Mary Celestia, along with cigars, bottles of fine wine and other illicit luxuries prohibited during the American Civil War – but available at a price.

Sadly these smuggled goods (alongside the legitimate cargo of ammunition for the Confederate forces) never reached their destination; the 225-ft steamer struck a treacherous reef on the south shore of Bermuda and took these secrets – and the ship's cook, the only passenger to perish – to a watery grave 55m under the sea.

The contraband in the ship's bow remained concealed by sand and silt until January 2011, when a ferocious winter storm exposed this section of the Mary Celestia, and marine archaeologist divers later surfaced with four still-corked bottles of wine, a hairbrush, leather shoes, and these two intact glass perfume bottles. And this month, a painstakingly reproduced limited edition run of this shipwrecked fragrance goes on sale, bringing the long-lost fragrance to modern nostrils.

"This perfume waited 150 years to be worn, and now, finally, it can be," says Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone of the Bermuda Perfumery, who petitioned the Bermuda government for special permission to recreate the perfume, by mapping the molecular structure. However, for Ramsay-Brackstone that first whiff, having carefully removed the wax seal, was far from pleasant. After 150 years of decomposition, she describes the original scent as "a dirty pirate's feet". The two clear 45ml bottles had been preserved in relatively favourable conditions – in the dark, under pressure, fully sealed and at a cool, constant temperature, but perfume inevitably degrades over time, particularly when it contains organic ingredients. "But it didn't matter how it smelled," says Ramsay-Brackstone. "What really mattered is what you were smelling: 150 years of history. You could smell a ghost."

The perfumer travelled to New York and worked alongside Jean-Claude Delville of Drom fragrances, using gas chromatography to determine the fragrance's "DNA", isolating notes of citrus, rosewood, rose and orange flower – along with animal derivatives ambergris and civet.

The now-defunct Piesse and Lubin was a popular perfumery in its day, co-owned by G.W. Septimus Piesse, whose 1857 volume The Art of Perfumery is highly regarded among artisan perfumers today for its historical and technical approach to the art of perfumery.

And when you get past the odour of fermented tincture and decomposed civet and ambergris, what does 1864 smell like? "I was shocked at how fresh and floral the formula was, and the amount of citrus in it," says Delville. "It doesn't smell old-fashioned," Ramsay-Brackstone agrees. "It's very pretty and refreshing because it has so much citrus. And the neroli and the rosewood give it a lot of depth."

Ramsay-Brackstone then carefully recreated the scent – minus the now-controversial civet and ambergris – to release it on the 150th anniversary of the Mary Celestia's sinking. Some 1,864 bottles, priced at $225, go on sale this month in the Bermuda Perfumery's Lili Bermuda Boutique, as well as online at lilibermuda.com. The bottle bears a medallion depicting the Mary Celestia in her full glory (an image that also adorns Bermuda's $3 gold coin), and each bottle comes in a black velvet bag within a Bermudan cedar box with a hand-tied blue ribbon and a red wax seal. Proceeds are going into a new foundation to conserve Bermuda's shipwreck heritage.

A gimmick? Perhaps. But as behind-the-bottle blurbs go, we'll take a tale of smuggling and shipwrecks over Britney's Fantasy perfumes any day of the week.

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