Make your own perfume: Lili Bermuda offers ‘Creating Scents’ seminar

  • Creating scents: Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone (left), owner of Lili Bermuda, oversees Marcy Purington (Photo by Mark Tatem)

    Creating scents: Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone (left), owner of Lili Bermuda, oversees Marcy Purington (Photo by Mark Tatem)

  • Marcy Purington (Photo by Mark Tatem)

    Marcy Purington (Photo by Mark Tatem)

  • Marcy Purington (Photo by Mark Tatem)

    Marcy Purington (Photo by Mark Tatem)

Evocative and primal — the power of our olfactory senses is critical to our survival — and also enhance and lift any experiences that we have.

Aromas, many of which are used to make up perfumes and fragrances, are likely important aspects of a person’s odour vocabulary, reviving memories and emotions with remarkable intensity.

For Lili Bermuda, it is their raison d’être, and the perfumery, which has long sold fragrances reflecting the scent of flowers that grow easily in Bermuda, under the auspices of proprietor Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone, has now added several fragrances to its library.

Learning more about perfume and then making one of your own is a new endeavour for the perfumery, which in addition to selling fragrances from its own premises as well as retailers throughout Bermuda, has a significant e-tail business, sending thousands of bottles of perfume to overseas purchasers.

Now Ms Ramsay-Brackstone is sharing her knowledge of creating a unique fragrance with people who’d like to learn about it a ‘Creating Scents’ seminar.

As the perfumer herself says: “Using your sense of smell and unique creative spirit is all that is needed when creating a great perfume.”

No more than five people take part in a workshop, and they last about four hours. She will be holding them only for a limited time. Here, participants learn about the families of scent and olfactory pyramids, and about natural essential oils and speciality aroma molecules.

The Bermuda Perfumery says it has never been opened to the public quite like this, and provide everything you need, from an apron to a scale. Each person can make five trial versions before preparing their 50ml finished fragrance.

“The only missing ingredient is your imagination,” they say.

Ms Ramsay-Brackstone says: “Perfumery involves finding a balanced mix of fragrance notes that brings you happiness. The art of perfumery is similar to the way a musician composes chords to make a beautiful sound and the work of a painter who creates images with colours and textures.”

And so, having been invited to take the seminar for a story for The Royal Gazette, I made my way to Lili Bermuda, which is found on Queen Street, one of the narrow winding streets of St George’s and in historic Stewart Hall, a house that on its exterior demonstrates all the finer points of Georgian architecture while inside, like its proprietor, is all French country elegance and warmth.

Within the house there’s a light airy room with large windows framed with floral curtains, a small dining room table and chairs. In the fireplace are glass shelves with dozens of aromas captured in small blue bottles, each one an elixar with the power to change ones mood and emotion, or to transport you to a time and place far removed from the present.

There were two of us taking the seminar — my companion, Marcy Purington, was a reading teacher from New Hampshire, here with her husband during their spring break from school.

Ms Ramsay-Brackstone described how evocative a perfume can be. “My mother was a heavy smoker, and I loved to smell the inside of her purse — the leather, tobacco, and her perfume,” she said, mimicing the action of holding an elegant evening bag open as she buried her nose in it, deeply inhaling the aromas it contained.

Today, she explained, aromas are carefully prepared in laboratories which adhere to the highest standards of production, so they are all completely safe.

She says: “Creating a perfume is an entirely individual process. As you learn which scents appeal to your emotions, you can tailor a perfume to your olfactory desires.”

The word perfume comes from the Latin, per fumum, and means “through smoke”.

She explained the earliest perfumes were created in the time of ancient Egypt in about 3000 BC and were used in religious ceremonies and in medicine.

In conquering the known world, Alexander the Great introduced musk and cedar, as well as ambergris to perfumery, which he accomplished by linking Greece with China.

The Black Death was another important period when perfumes containing herbs, lavender and rose were used to fight the plague. Eau de Cologne owes its name and its introduction to Fance as a result of the Seven Years War between the nation which is considered the spiritual home of perfume — and Germany, during which King Louis XV of France brought back Aqua Mirabilis, which became known as Eau de Cologne.

And once Pierre-Francois Pascale Guerlain created Eau de Cologne Imperiale for the Empress of France in 1853, it was established.

Jicky by the house of Guerlain, which dates to the turn of the 1900s, is considered the first modern fragrance. It is still a haunting and mysterious scent, yet startlingly modern with its notes of coumarin and vanillin.

Gabrielle Coco Chanel made women elegant and beautiful in meticulously tailored dresses, wools woven into elegant houndstooth patterns along with lots and lots of pearls — and it was she who introduced the idea of perfume as the ‘scent of a woman’ with Chanel No 5, which included the use of aroma molecules called aldehydes, a substance which give a fragrance a soapy-waxy-lemony-floral effect.

‘Where should a woman wear perfume?’ a young woman asked the great Chanel, who advised: “Wherever one wants to be kissed.”

Ms Ramsay-Brackstone explained today, many wonderful fragrances are abundant and inexpensive, found in everything from laundry detergent to air fresheners and liquid soap.

Others are rare and expensive, set aside for exclusive perfumes and toiletries.

Thankfully, it is no longer necessary to hunt musk deer and civet cats for their musks, thanks to chemical synthetic molecules and the discovery of many replacement musks. There are natural oils as well; however, many grow in politically unstable nations or under the control of corrupted nations such as patchouli in Indonesia and vetiver in Haiti. The use of synthetics greatly reduced the chances of funding organised crime through the production of perfume, she explains in her course notes.

Raw materials like flowers, leaves, bark and trees are processed to obtain the magic of their aromas. The Bermuda perfumery extracts tincture of cedar by submerging cedar shavings in alcohol and will extract the odorant molecules from the shavings into the alcohol over time. The solution is filtered and the Bermuda cedarwood tincture is obtained.

Odorant molecules can also be extracted through distillation, Ms Ramsay explained. For a rose distillation, for example, this separation lead to rose oil and rose water.

We learned that in perfumery, everything that smells can be used, and every part of a plant can give an interesting odour.

A bitter orange, for example, can be used to obtain bergamot oil, while its leaves and stems are processed to obtain petitgrain bigarade oil and the flowers are distilled to obtain neroli oil.

Petitgrain was one of the notes included in my perfume, along with grapefruit.

I began the process believing the perfume that I wanted would be based around the dusty, old book sweetness of geranium, but I quickly moved away from that idea and towards roses — the old roses that grow in my garden and have surrounded me all my life. Their dry, tally penetrating warmth is the most comforting and happy aroma there is — to me, anyway.

My companion Marcy wanted a fragrance that reminded her of her hikes through the pine forests of New England. Like me, she moved away from her initial idea, the heady, overwhelming smell of pine, and towards a floral entwined with moss and woods.

Creating this perfume did involve smelling a lot of fragrance notes — the trick is to put a drop on a testing strip and see how that works with the other notes that you have. You do this by waving the testing strips in the air in front of your nose to blend the molecules as they fly off the strips, and then breathe in deeply through your nose.

I looked for a sense of absolute harmony in my olfactory marriages, and, gratifyingly, felt I achieved that as one note built on another.

Initially we were looking for a heart to give our perfume, and mine, guided carefully though not in any way intrusively, by Ms Ramsay-Brackstone, was rose and rose absolute, with top notes of petitgrain, distilled from that multifaceted bitter orange, grapefruit along with a few drops of hedione, a dense and fatty aroma that seems to combine jasmine and citrus. Cedar and tobacco flowers provided a base, a combination of amber and spice that remains with me long after the rose and citrus has evaporated.

Ancient and modern, my fragrance, in which I have been drenching myself ever since, is my Bermuda, all the notes dearly familiar and loved — perhaps I should call it — Dearly beloved?

Workshops are from 1pm to 5pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays and cost $275.

For more information, visit

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Published May 9, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated May 8, 2014 at 9:04 pm)

Make your own perfume: Lili Bermuda offers ‘Creating Scents’ seminar

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