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How A 150-Year-Old Perfume Was Revived After Living At The Bottom Of An Ocean

by rrollins, September 14, 2021

Photo 202350 © Norma Cornes |

A bottle of perfume aboard the shipwrecked Mary Celestia never made it to the recipient it was meant for in 1864, but this luxury has been passed onto new generations over 150 years later. Through thorough analysis, perfumers were able to recreate the long-lost scent as closely as possible.

In 2011, a team of divers and marine archaeologists recovered a set of items at the site. The artifacts—consisting of a pair of shoes, a bottle of wine, and two small bottles of perfume—were packed together, indicating that the whole set was intended as gifts.

Both perfume bottles were pretty much intact, and one of them even had an air bubble that could have been burst by seawater over the past century. The names “Piesse and Lubin London” were embossed onto the glass.

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A post shared by Lili Bermuda Perfumery (@lilibermuda)

Curious about the scents, Dr Philippe Max Rouja—custodian of historic wrecks in Bermuda—brought them to Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone, owner of local perfume boutique Lili Bermuda, who immediately recognized the brand name and noted that the fragrance was a high-end product “that Queen Victoria would have worn,” quotes Atlas Obscura.

For molecular dissection, Ramsay-Brackstone passed the bottles to her friend and fellow perfumer Jean Claude Delville of Drom Fragrances, which owns high-tech machinery that’s able to reverse-engineer scents.

Unfortunately, one of the two perfumes succumbed underwater, and gave off a rotten smell after being contaminated by seawater during all those years.

Through a technique called gas chromatography and plentiful sniffing, however, they gathered that the other was a concoction of orange, bergamot, grapefruit, orris, rose, sandalwood, and musky animal notes of civet (a nocturnal mammal) and ambergris (an intestinal substance from sperm whales).

It contained both “masculine” (woody notes) and “feminine” (floral or fruity notes) scents, which wasn’t that unique, seeing as how gender distinctions weren’t made in perfumes then.

It was also filled with skin irritants, which wasn’t so much of an issue, since people didn’t apply fragrances on their skin. Rather, the liquids were splashed onto outerwear as a protective layer against the putrid odors of London’s streets.

In their replication, the perfumers made sure to replace the skin irritants, as well as swapped the animal excretions for synthetic musk molecules.

The final product, christened the Mary Celestia after the ship, is even packaged as a present to honor the old perfume’s original state and the love that spurred its ill-fated journey.

“Perfume, even 150 years ago, was meant to be an intimate gift between two people who had profound feelings for each other,” said Ramsay-Brackstone.

Image via Lili Bermuda

[via Atlas Obscura and The Cut, images via various sources]

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