Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone keeps one of Bermuda’s oldest enterprises thriving with her thoroughly modern fragrances.
“I start with a tune in my head,” says Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone. It’s a tune she plays with for weeks, sometimes for years, by adding notes, taking them away, adding others until she gets the symphony right. But it’s not music she’s making; it’s perfume, perfume for Lili Bermuda at the Bermuda Perfumery, which she owns and operates in the heart of St. George’s.
She has always been in love with perfume, even as a child when she breathed in the scents of her father’s garden—lilies of the valley, magnolia and lilac—and the snowy, pine scents of Canada, but she never dreamed she would one day own her own perfume house, let alone live in Bermuda so far from her native Montreal. After she married her Bermudian husband, Kirby Brackstone, they decided to live in Bermuda for a few years where she would work as a chartered accountant. Then, in 2004, a unique opportunity arose: the Bermuda Perfume Factory, a long-time tourist attraction in Hamilton Parish, was put up for sale. Why not buy it?
“Perfume speaks to me,” she says. “I understand it, I understand the emotion behind it. I knew I could do great things with it.” Besides, she had a background in business. “I understood the business part of the puzzle. I crunched the numbers and I felt comfortable with them.” She also welcomed the chance to express the artistic side of her personality. “Product development is so satisfying—it uses all your talents.”
However, as a chartered accountant she had no background in science. She was fortunate that David Bothello, formerly of the Bermuda Perfume Factory, followed her and worked as her production manager until his death in 2009, advising her all the while. “I feel very emotional when I think of him,” she says. “He was like a father to me. When I started the Perfumery, we always worked together and he would show me his little tricks. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t still ask for his advice, and I can hear him talk back to me. It was a steep learning curve for me, but at the end of the day, it’s all about a vision and making it work.”
From the start, she knew she wanted to take the business to a new level. “We don’t like in 2011 what we liked in 1979,” she explains. “I wanted to perfect the quality of the line.” Whereas the Perfume Factory offered a range of fairly inexpensive toiletries, she knew she wanted her business to be a fine fragrance house and her perfumes—inspired by and unique to Bermuda—to be world class. With that goal in mind, four years ago she became a member of the American Fragrance Foundation, a professional body that oversees the fragrance industry and helps promote it. The only member from outside the U.S., she values the networking opportunities the organisation offers and members’ assistance and advice.
Moving to Stewart Hall in 2004 gave her the perfect setting for her enterprise. One of St. George’s oldest residences and owned by the Bermuda National Trust, it exudes eighteenth-century elegance, while the walled garden, which Isabelle has lovingly restored, is a constant source of inspiration. “One customer asked me, ‘Do you go to Provence to inspire you?’ I said, ‘Oh, no! I take a walk around the block and I come back with ideas for 20 different fragrances.’ Bermuda is such a muse for fragrances I’m surprised more people don’t make them in Bermuda. The natural beauty is fantastic.”
And so she developed her first fragrance for Lili Bermuda, Coral, a modern blend of freesia, clementine, rose and ginger. “That was my first baby,” she smiles. “I wear it on a bad day because I know it’s a winner.” Then came Pink, with delicate notes of mimosa, peonies and grapefruit, a perfume representing the soft romance of Bermuda. Her latest creation is also inspired by the island; in addition, it’s a tribute to David Bothello and to the Portuguese community in Bermuda. Named Alegria, the Portuguese word for joy, she says, “It’s for a woman who’s not afraid of wearing a bold fragrance. It’s sexy, sassy if you like. It’s for a woman who’s assertive and beautiful. She has opinions. Life for her is something she enjoys every day. What I really like about Alegria,” she continues, “is how it finishes—it has a note of incense, like ash. There’s another texture added to it and it’s just a bit rough.” The main notes (or drops of oils) in Alegria are cedar and frangipani. The cedar is particularly meaningful to her as Bothello passed on to her the recipe for making cedar oil from cedar dust. In fact, that’s the only oil she creates from scratch. Perfumers don’t usually make their own oils, she says. The creativity comes in blending them, and she spends many hours with her library of oils, her smell box.
She has also created fragrances for men, two of which were inspired by the longitude and latitude of Bermuda: 64º W and 32º N. “The nautical aspect to Bermuda always works well for me,” she says. Unisex fragrances have also been a great success. In 2009, she had the brilliant idea of creating a refreshing cologne for women and men alike that would be exclusive to Tucker’s Point Hotel and Spa and the Bermuda Perfumery. Named Fresh Water, it’s perfect to wear for a golf game, a tennis match or a casual night out. Another unisex cologne, South Water, is “huge with younger people.” A blend of coconut milk, guava and sea salt, she says it evokes the feeling of having the sun on you. Both fragrances come in body lotions as well.
Given Bermuda’s reliance on other countries for just about everything, it is extraordinary that her fragrances are not made in bulk and packaged abroad. They are actually created, bottled and packaged in different areas of the Stewart Hall property, so she is able to oversee every stage of the process. “I am fortunate,” she says. “I have surrounded myself with fabulous people.” The staff includes Pam Wilkinson, who followed her from the Perfume Factory and is her “right arm.” She takes care of production, inventory and mail ordering. Jeanine Siese, who joined her shortly after the Perfumery opened bringing with her years of experience at Peniston Brown, takes care of sales. “I really needed to have a fantastic sales force, and she built up that side of my business in a brilliant way.”
Justin Marion, Christyn Blanchette, Faye Waters and Cara Carter are also members of the sales team. Gene Bothello, David’s brother, fills the bottles, while Douglas Simmons looks after production, polishing bottles and packing. Katie Watson is Isabelle’s administrative assistant while Vernon Foggo does deliveries and maintenance. During the summer, she hires an intern from the Institut Supérieur International du Parfum (ISIP), a perfume school just outside Paris in Versailles, which Isabelle tries to visit every year to continue her perfume education. “Our perfumes are referenced there, which brings us another level of international collaboration.” In the past, interns have come to work at the Bermuda Perfumery from different parts of the world; one of them now has her own perfumery in India.
The making of perfumes happens in a smaller, separate building in the garden. There visitors on a Perfumery tour may see maturing eaux de toilette in huge flagons and perfumes in smaller, brown bottles. Coming from the Perfume Factory, the bottles date to 1928 and have always been dedicated to fragrance. “The only modern thing in here is a scale,” Isabelle laughs.
e Lili Bermuda line of fragrances is displayed beautifully in the gracefully furnished Lili and Oleander rooms downstairs in Stewart Hall. On the same floor is her history or discovery room, where interactive displays allow visitors to see how perfumes are created. Upstairs is a hive of activity, since it is here the bottling and packaging takes place.
Isabelle has paid painstaking attention to her packaging. “It’s about giving the respect to your product, the attention it deserves. It’s about making it beautiful and impeccable every step of the way.” Though she wanted her fragrances to be “dressed in their best,” she did not want her customers to be distracted by the bottles. Simple, elegant and made in France, they are all the same, so customers choose the scent rather than the price of the bottle. Every Tuesday Gene Bothello fills them, producing as many as 640 by the end of his day. Then others polish them while Isabelle provides the finishing touch. She ribbons all the bottles herself. It’s the personal touch, she says, that makes a product luxurious. The larger bottles of eau de toilette come with medals that make a satisfying clink against the glass and contribute to the multisensory experience that she believes perfume is all about. The boxes receive just as much attention. Pink for female fragrances, navy for male and aqua for both, they, too, are individually assembled, labelled and ribboned.
Despite Bermuda’s worst recession since the 1930s, business has been very good. “Perfume,” she says, “is a small indulgence. It cheers you up.” Of course, people need to be cheered up during hard economic times. Besides, she argues, perfume is a very soft sale. “It penetrates you and gives you emotions. There’s something very intimate about the pleasure perfume can give you. That’s why I make sure the line is beautiful—it has to have soul.”
Over the years, she has developed a clientele who follow her. “They know what kind of fragrances I do, and they like my style.” Twenty-five percent of her business is generated over the Internet, with orders coming in thick and fast from mid-October to just before Christmas. She also sees her unique perfumes as the perfect gift for visitors to the island. “Perfume is extremely important to memory. It can put our visitors right back to the time they spent in Bermuda. It’s very powerful.”
Her biggest challenge is attracting more visitors to St. George’s, since most cruise ships now dock at Dockyard. A member of the Bermuda Tourism Board, she is passionate about the need to communicate Bermuda’s uniqueness. “Bermuda needs to express itself, to tell everyone what we have to offer. And St. George’s is a phenomenal environment. It needs to vibrate again. We need to market ourselves to the right customers.”
In the meantime, she has plans for the future. Within the next two or three years, she would like to open a small branch in the City of Hamilton, although she is adamant that the Bermuda Perfumery will always be headquartered in St. George’s. One dream is to compete in the American Fragrance Foundation’s FiFi Awards, the fragrance industry’s equivalent to the Academy Awards. To take part, she has to retail in the U.S., a possibility she doesn’t rule out. “It would be fun.”
New fragrances will always be in her future. Right now she has another song in her head, a scent with notes of tomato leaf and basil. “It’s just an idea,” she says. A tune waiting for alchemy.
A Brief History
The Bermuda Perfumery was founded in 1928 by William Blackburn (W.B.) Smith and his daughter Madeline Scott. With the assistance of Eminent French Perfumers, Easter Lily Perfume was first produced experimentally in a small wooden building in Bailey’s Bay. The family gradually acquired the surrounding properties to a total of six acres. New fragrances were added, such as Sweet Pea, Eve, Gardenia and Jonquil. Most were successful but not all. Jonquil was judged to be too sweet and heavy by the public and was dropped.