In 1923, Bermuda's Easter lily fields lay nearly decimated. After seventy years, the island's cherished signature crop of Lilium longiflorum -- so prized by exporters they were known as "White Gold" -- had been laid to waste by a mysterious disease. Few dared to hope that the lily trade would ever recover. But as a 25-year-old Scotsman stepped off the boat to begin his tenure as the island's newly-appointed "plant doctor", a new fate had already begun to be written for Bermuda's lilies.
Five years later, you'd never know there had been an eco-crisis. The Easter lily crop was stronger than ever-- increased sevenfold, thanks to Lawrence Ogilvie. Through painstaking research, the young botanical pathologist had determined that a virus -- and not aphids, as had been believed -- was to blame for the systemic lily crop failure. By establishing a rigorous system of quarantines, packing standards, and field testing, he succeeded in launching a renaissance age for the Bermudan Easter lily.
As if to celebrate the island's great good fortune, William Blackburn Smith and his daughter Madeline Scott founded the Bermuda Perfumery in 1928-- and their first perfume was jubilantly centered on the island's precious lily. Madeline's husband Herbert Scott, a career chemist, had determined to capture the scent of the full-blown flowers routinely discarded in favor of the more valuable bulbs. Via enfleurage, he succeeded in producing a lily absolute which he then entrusted to a team of experienced French perfumers. The resulting fragrance, Easter Lily Perfume, came bottled in flacons with a distinct pointed-petal motif.
As its star ascended, the Perfumery continued to produce Easter lilies on its self-owned acreage in Bailey's Bay. Traditions grew along with the blossoms: an annual floral tribute was sent overseas to the Queen Mother, and Perfumery lilies adorned the Holy Trinity Anglican Church every year on Good Friday. Throughout the Depression and war years, new perfumes made their debut, usually designed around soliflore themes... but always with those glorious lilies nodding assent in the background.
In 2004, the Brackstone family acquired the Perfumery. Their first perfume (released in 2006) was a tribute to the original Easter Lily Perfume, newly trimmed and tailored for modern sensibilities. Bermuda's lily had come full circle.
Lilies provide a most unusual model for both visual artists and perfumers. For a flower of such weighted religious symbolism, lilies possess a decidedly carnivorous appearance, the bizarre architecture of their petals broadcasting sex and savagery in equal amounts. And the fragrance wafting from within their depths can be positively unsettling. Luca Turin has likened their scent to meat -- "fleshy, salty, hammy" -- and he's right. Even at their sweetest, lilies produce an aroma as perversely appetizing as the contents of a salumeria. (This made Sunday Mass a torment in my youth, since the church invariably overflowed with lilies -- Madonna, tiger, stargazer, calla -- and we were forbidden to eat before receiving communion. But subliminally lilies did the trick, for breakfast afterwards always included mad amounts of bacon, consumed with unChristian avarice.)
How do you tame this beast? Wisely, perfumer Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone didn't even try-- recognizing, no doubt, that the weird-and-wild lily accord has its own fan club in perfumedom. Instead, she chose to soothe its savagery with a little bit of sleight-of-hand, merely by using the "other" Easter lily-- AKA the calla lily, a member of the arum family. Callas have a lighter fragrance than that of a true lily (which many find overwhelming) but still possess that smoky-salty touch indispensable to the genre. Lily's callas have been placed in the center of a silvery, sugar-tinged accord built of guava, pear, and muguet notes. On its own, this fruity floral might be perceived as commonplace, even a mite thin-- but with the saline, meaty magic of lily in its midst, it is transformed into something with real body and presence.
On a fearsomely hot day, I found myself cheered, cooled, and fortified by Lily-- and swayed once more by Lili Bermuda from my usual prejudice against fruity florals. A girl could develop a taste for this!
Looking back over the last week, I'm extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to discover two sweet worlds-- Bermuda and its historic Perfumery. I would like once again to thank Carole Sasich for first making me aware of Lili Bermuda, Jennifer Cathers for carrying the Lili mythos home to these shores from her vacation trip, and especially Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone for her incredible generosity and warm heart in sending me these samples free of obligation. It makes me happy to think that less than a thousand miles of ocean away, this talented perfumer is hard at work authoring so fine a fragrance line-- what a lucky hemisphere we are! If only Sniffapalooza could be moved to a different island than Manhattan!
Scent Elements: Tamarind, clementine, guava, cactus, hibiscus, calla lily, wild muguet, purple orchid, pear flower, nectarine, blonde woods, white musk