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Sunken treasure: Civil War-era perfume resurrected for modern senses

The Bermuda Perfumery offers a perfume recreated from one found on the sunken Civil War ship Mary Celestica.

Bermuda Perfumery

A whiff of the 19th century will be trailing out of Bermuda on the pulse points of travellers later this month.

Bermuda Perfumery is releasing 1,864 specially packaged bottles of Mary Celestia Perfume, which has been recreated by mapping the molecular structure of fragrance found in the wreck of an American Civil War blockade runner.

The perfume will be sold at the Perfumery in St. George's, Bermuda, online and at its new Hamilton store, Lili Bermuda Boutique.

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In 1864, the Mary Celestia was bound for North Carolina, loaded with ammunition for the Confederate forces, when the paddle wheel steamer sank off Bermuda's south shore. In 2011, a winter storm exposed a layer of sediment within her bow. Among the artifacts explorers found were intact perfume bottles engraved with the name Piesse & Lubin London, a famous Bond Street perfumery of the period.

Presented with the bottles by Bermuda's Custodian of Historic Wrecks, perfumery owner and former Montrealer Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone detected citrus, decayed rosewood and neroli, which is extracted from bitter orange, amidst the odour of rancid tincture and decomposed animal byproducts like ambergris and civet.

Even though the 45 millilitre bottles had been held in almost ideal conditions (in the dark, under pressure, fully sealed with temperature steady at about

18 C) Ramsay-Brackstone admitted that, after 150 years, the perfume's pong was "horrible … like a dirty pirate's feet."

But, she added, "It didn't matter how it smelled. What really mattered is what you were smelling: 150 years ago. You could smell a ghost."

She took the perfume to Drom Fragrances in New York to determine its "DNA" using gas chromatography. It turned out that grapefruit-dominated citrus, rosewood, rose and orange flower were among the original ingredients.

The perfumer recreated the scent – minus the now-frowned-upon ambergris and civet – to great fanfare.

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She decided to sell it in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Mary Celestia's sinking, using some of the proceeds to help finance the preservation of the country's historic shipwrecks.

"It doesn't smell old-fashioned," Ramsay-Brackstone said. "It's very pretty and refreshing because it has so much citrus. The neroli and the rosewood give it a lot of depth."

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