When an accountant left her native French Canada for the lure of the tropics, she discovered, in the treasure of Bermuda, a perfumery with decades of cherished history.
Drawn to perfume from an early age, Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone’s career as an accountant with a prominent firm in her native Montréal afforded her the opportunity to familiarize herself with the business operations of fragrance brands. But it wasn’t until 2003, when she moved to Bermuda, that she discovered The Bermuda Perfumery.
Lili Bermuda, the now 85-year-old perfumery’s signature brand, still creates some of the same fragrances that have been handcrafted since before 1940. Because fragrance is often so thoroughly entangled with memory, evocative of a certain time and place, clientele of The Bermuda Perfumery will sometimes return to the island decades later, many on their anniversaries, to rediscover the same fragrances they originally found on their honeymoons so many years ago. Other times, the empty bottles clients send back with their stories end up in the History Room. Their stories have become such a part of the perfumery’s history that staff member Sabrina Richardson writes a column, called Moments at the Perfumery, celebrating those memories.
When Isabelle, newly landed in Bermuda, visited the perfumery fourteen years ago, she was drawn by curiosity and her fondness for fragrance. In the gift shop after the tour, she mentioned to the sales clerk, “It must be the most amazing job in the world; but to be a perfumer in Bermuda!” To her delight, the clerk responded that the business was for sale, and encouraged Isabelle to give the owner, who was ready to retire, a call. When she did, it was a conversation that would change her life.
Isabelle credits her early success to key staff members who were in place upon her purchase of the perfumery: Pam Wilkinson, in charge of business operations, and David Bothello, head of perfume production, an employee since 1962. “They taught me everything I know today,” Isabelle says. David, she describes as creative, meticulous, and a tireless worker who consistently encouraged her to take the helm and create her own fragrance signature. As she worked with him over the span of five years prior to his passing, deconstructing and reconstructing scents, she further developed her innate love for fragrance, refining it into an ability to create something both artistic and marketable. “Everything I smell now,” she says, “I try to imagine how I could put it in a bottle. When it comes to fine fragrances, you want to create scents that are of solid artistic value and that you think your clients will want to wear.”
Regarding her inspirations for fragrance creation, Isabelle credits Bermuda itself, but also the influence of her father’s garden in Montréal. And, as the seasons change in Bermuda, so do the scents and atmosphere. Spring, she says, is a bouquet of wild freesia and rose with frequent wet and windy spells. Summer is warm with strong whiffs of white flowers: jasmine, frangipani, honeysuckle, and gardenia. Then fall is when all the greens are very mature, so the island reveals great scents of spice, bay rum, and fig leaves. Finally, in the winter the air is cooler, many trees are bare, and the smell of cedar is present in our nature reserves and in our homes. It is time to harvest our citruses, guava, and loquat trees, and it is just perfect.
Textures, sights, and scents carried on the breeze are also sources of inspiration: salt air near the beach or on a trail, coral reefs, rocky cliffs, and the sky in any mood: bright or dark or cloudy. For Isabelle, perfume-making is multi-sensorial; ideas can spark from “the way the sun glitters on the ocean at different times of the day,” she says, “by the sound of the wind, and the songs of birds that grace our shores.” The island is also home to world-class chefs, and that cuisine offers its own source of inspiration. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that for Isabelle, Bermuda is simply the most amazing place on earth.
The creation of scent, especially when reproducing something born in the mind, can be a challenge to render tangibly. Other times though, Isabelle describes it as “an accord,” sometimes one that is discovered by chance, and when those random occurrences align to yield just the right harmony of elements, she says, “That accord will then inspire me to write a symphony around it.”
After the ingredients of a new perfume are decided upon, then comes the process of naming. How does a perfumer choose one word or phrase to suit such a creation? The process, she describes, is something like naming a child, the choice inspiring its personality and, by extension, its story. Sometimes, however, she will go to her book of names, where she inscribes the products of her brainstorming. Other times, she develops the scent with the name already in mind. She has made many fragrances in this manner, including her first. This, she named Coral.
Coral was born in a springtime Bermuda, a time when wild freesia cover the earth and convey their own perfume to the wind. The scent, Isabelle says, “was simply magical.” And just beyond her office window were roses in full bloom. The medley sprang to life for her, and as her first scent, it meant more than just something lovely in a bottle; it was to be symbolic of her own new beginnings. After a year in development and a good deal of hard work, her new, inaugural perfume was ready. Coral was a smashing success, and remains her most popular fragrance to date.
The significance of fragrance is as different as the wearer, but at heart, it is something personal, Isabelle explains, “an expression of the soul. It is a very intimate part of who you are, one that you share with other people who come into your space. You could almost say: ‘Tell me the fragrance you wear and I will tell you who you are.’”
Upcoming at The Bermuda Perfumery:
- Tuesdays and Thursdays during winter, the perfumery offers 4-hour Perfume Studio Workshops. Maximum of 5 clients per workshop.
- Wednesdays and Saturdays, wedding cake artist Paula Hayward serves tea in the garden at the perfumery. Guests may bring their own champagne for special event toasts.
- Lili Bermuda will welcome a new member to the fragrance family in spring 2017. The new addition, something that Isabelle describes as unisex and intended for younger clientele, will be part of the Water Collection.
Text Cynthia Reeser Constantino
Photography Jim Bathie
Read more about Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone, in our January/February 2017 issue.