Bermuda Perfumery Mary Celestia – Historical Perfume Found Buried in the Mary Celeste Shipwreck

Pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup of tea, and let me tell you a story. Imagine closing your eyes, and seeing an old shipwreck in crystal clear Caribbean waters buried under pink sands covering forgotten treasures. Stretch back in time to a Civil War in a distant country and profiteering black-marketers running illegal contraband from distant shores. Now add in Mother Nature and her forces of change as she throws in a hurricane which changes everything. Allowing history to be pulled into the present as it weaves together lost threads of mystery, intrigue, fate, destiny, romance, and fragrance.


Fragrance? Yes, the scent of the past swirling its way into the future. A single bottle of perfume created over 150 years ago unwilling to remain completely forgotten by the world tucked away in its watery nesting place. Perhaps this fragrance even conjured up the storm which freed it and set in motion layer upon layer of stories weaving together and centering around one little bottle full of mystery.

This past September I had been invited to attend an intimate cocktail party hosted by the Bermuda Perfumery and the Bermuda Tourism Authority.  In all honesty, I had nearly forgotten about the invitation, but a few hours before it began, something whispered to me - perfume, what about that perfume event. I am so grateful for that whispering reminder.  With little time to spare I made my way into lower Manhattan and to the drom fine fragrance studio. When I arrived the cocktail party was in full swing and a most enchanting story began to emerge.

The drom fragrance studio was filled with sophisticated New Yorkers and guests from Bermuda. Among the guests were officials from various tourism and government offices, archaeologists, anthropologists, divers, perfumers, as well as actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and the Premiere of Bermuda Michael Dunkley. All were gathered to celebrate the historical discovery and recreation of a single fragrance, now titled the Mary Celestia


Over 150 years ago Piesse and Lubin a famous perfume house on Bond Street in Victorian London created a bottle of perfume. Somehow this bottle managed to make its way onto a Civil War blockade runner, a ship called the Mary Celeste. The ships official manifest stated that it contained tinned meat and general merchandise. In reality the ship most likely carried cargo to help the American South’s war efforts with supplies like uniforms, medicines, ammunition, and illegal black market luxury goods.  While on its clandestine journey from Bermuda to Wilmington North Carolina, the Mary Celeste sank off the south shore of Bermuda. It lays there today.  

Over the years the Mary Celeste shipwreck has been a favorite diving site for recreational, amateur and professional divers. It sits buried deep in pink Bermudian sand some 800 meters off the south shore in crystal clear 60 foot deep waters full of vibrant marine life. The Bermudian Government is very involved in conservation efforts and about ten years ago a new law was passed further extending the protection of their shipwrecks and ensuring that all work on shipwrecks be performed to a high archeological standard. They needed someone to manage that process and created a position called the Custodian of Historic Wrecks. This position is held by Dr. Phillipe Max Rouja, a native Bermudian and in addition to being “the shipwreck guy” he is an anthropologist and research scientist working on Marine heritage and Oceanic health issues. As a lifelong diver Dr. Rouja is very familiar with Bermuda’s shipwrecks and the Mary Celeste.


In 2011 Bermuda experienced a hurricane that moved massive amounts of sand exposing areas of the Mary Celeste which had not been seen or previously explored.

Upon inspection of the effects of the storms Dr. Rouja found that the bow of the ship had been uncovered. He discovered a bottle of wine and evidence that there were other items partially exposed. He sealed off the area and contacted Ted Waite of the Waite Institute who then contacted Jim Delgado of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and an international archaeological rescue team was established.

The team spent two weeks exploring that small bow area. What they found was completely unanticipated, luxury items which had been tucked very deeply inside a protected area of the bow of the ship and away from the general cargo. It seemed to Dr. Rouja, that space was a deliberate resting place, designed for the hidden safe keeping of these items which were clearly very precious things.  He has mused that these items did not end up there due to cargo movement from the sinking of the ship. He further speculates that because of the location it seems they were stored there for safety. The intention may have been to hide them from any confederate officials who might inspect the boat for contraband or they may have been there for safe keeping away from the crew. Whatever reason they were in that space it was done deliberately and with care. Among the items were a partial case of wine, a bottle of Florida water, ladies shoes, a chip log, pearl shell buttons from ladies clothing, hair brushes, and a sealed bottle of perfume. The partial case of wine was expected but the other items were not and the sealed bottle of perfume was a complete surprise.  Adding to that surprise Dr. Rouja noticed that not only was the perfume bottle sealed, it had an air bubble inside of the bottle. Which meant the liquid inside had not been contaminated by sea water and was exactly the same as when it went down 150 years ago.


Dr. Rouja took the bottle of perfume to the Bermuda Perfumery and Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone, the head perfumer and owner of Lili Bermuda. She was extremely excited and passionate about the discovery of a sealed bottle of perfume. While the paper label was gone, the bottle was inscribed with the name of its perfume house: Piesse and Lubin. Her excitement went beyond the age of the bottle of perfume; she knew its historical significance was even greater. The perfumer G. W. Septius Piesse wrote the first modern book on perfume called The Art of Perfumery which is still available on Amazon today. Piesse was also the inventor of perfume notation, recording perfume as notes on a musical scale, i.e. top notes, middle notes, bottom notes. While his perfume house is no longer in existence his notation system is still being used by perfumers today. Unfortunately Piesse left no records of his perfumes. No one knows what this master chemists fragrances were like. Until now.


Knowing that she would need more sensitive scientific equipment to analyze the perfume Ramsay-Brackstone took the perfume to the United States to drom fragrances and their perfumer Jean-Claude Delville.  Using mass spectrum analysis drom fragrance was able to analyze the exact DNA molecules in the bottle.  This enabled them to make as exact a recreation of Piesse’s fragrance as time and modern law allows. In Piesse’s day perfumers used some ingredients that are either unavailable today, due to specific species of plants no longer being grown, or are illegal such as the use of animal products like musks.  Delville described the re-creation by saying “In perfumery, opportunities like this don’t come along too often. Opening the bottle was like going back in time 150 years. I was shocked at how fresh and floral it was and the amount of citrus in it. We analyzed and captured the unique spirit of the original fragrance and thus re-created a lost treasure.”


This lost treasure has been named Mary Celestia after the shipwreck. The fragrance opens with the smell of sparkling grapefruit and zesty citrus. The scent of rosewood is complimented by warm amber tones. Finally soft notes of rose and orange flower impart the timeless elegance of the original fragrance.  It will be sold as a limited edition and is packaged in a genuine Bermuda Cedar box, with the bottle nestled in a black velvet bag. The box is closed with a hand tied blue ribbon and a red wax seal.  The bottle is dressed with a unique medal depicting the Mary Celeste. The artwork of the medal is used with the direct permission of the Bermuda Monetary authority, which created the image to imprint on its rare three-dollar gold coin issued in 2006.


At the cocktail reception in New York the perfumer Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone stated “This perfume was embargoed during the Civil War but there was such a passion to own it, there was an attempt to smuggle it past Lincoln’s Navy and into the American South. This story is about international intrigue and romance, timeless luxury and heritage. 150 years ago to this month the perfume was on its way to America and it has finally made it to its destination. This perfume waited 150 years to be worn. And now, finally it can be. “

The story of the shipwrecked Mary Celeste and its bottle of perfume has captured the attention and imagination of all who hear it. There is a PBS film being made documenting the journey of this bottle from its discovery, recreation and reaching its final destination. 

As I spoke with Dr. Rouja about the shipwreck and the items discovered and retrieved from the archaeological mission. He said that three years ago he had no idea how far they would have come in the telling of this story.  His amazement was at how a bottle of perfume could be a catalyst for all of this, and most importantly how none it could have happened; without the conservation efforts made by the Bermudian government. “The underline point is we create these laws to protect things. Not just to have them hide or disappear away from the public view but to enhance our ability to extract stories. Our ability to control how and when things were taken off of the Mary Celeste has enabled us to tell these great stories.” Dr. Rouja also hinted at more stories to come as they explore the bottles of wine taken from the shipwreck.


I was and remain utterly enchanted with this story and how the many threads of fate and destiny are being woven in and out of time. How a force of nature propelled together lost and forgotten; people, passions, and a small bottle in a shipwreck buried deep in the sand. How that spawned the new life of a 150 year old fragrance. All of these elements had another fate, to be remembered and fulfilled. All the mystery and the stories are now ours because a single bottle of perfume wouldn’t stay buried but instead continues to fulfill its destiny of being delivered to the shores of America. Perhaps this is because it was once meant to adorn the pulse of someone who was loved. A love so true that even time could not stand in the way.


The Mary Celestia perfume is a limited edition fragrance and there will be only 1,864 bottles offered to honor the year of the shipwreck of the Mary Celeste. The original bottle will be on display at the Bermuda Perfumery’s Lili Bermuda boutique, where you can also purchase your bottle. Purchasing is also available online at for mail order shipping. The retail price is $225 and part of the sales proceeds will go to a new foundation to preserve and promote Bermuda’s shipwreck heritage.


Dive photos courtesy of LookBermuda by Chris Burville

Party photos by Chiwun Smith 

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