When Aimé Guerlain created an extrait de parfum for use on the silk and linen handkerchiefs of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie in 1873 little did he know that he would be creating a modern day enigma. The scent has of course disappeared from the face of the earth and any remnant purported as authentic would raise serious questions in the minds of the sane collector, but the intricacies of its historical trail capture the imagination all the same.
The perfume Shore's Caprice began its journey as patronage for la Comtesse Emanuella Pignatelli Potocka, something not unheard of for the venerable French house in the 19th century. The countess Potocka, born Emanuela Pignatelli and a descendant of pope Innocent XII, appears as a personality full of contradictions, Italian grace and Parisian flair, who was keeping a salon to awe the society of her times. De Maupassant was a daily visitor. Barrès, Bourget, Robert de Montesquiou, Reynaldo Hahn, Widor as well. In her position as the lover of a well known philosopher, Emanuella derived intellectual enjoyment from humiliating the philosopher in him, even though her personal conduct with the man was above board.
|Emanuella Pignatelli, countess Potocka|
But it is the use of Shore's Caprice a short 9 years later, in 1882, in a case of reverse engineering (just think of the literary inspiration behind the legendary Guerlain Mitsouko) that it becomes food for fantasy. It happened when it became the perfume worn by Julia Forsell, the heroine of art critic's and journalist's Octave Mirbeau's L'écuyère (the title translates as "the horsewoman", "the amazon"). The specific quote goes like this: "Une mondaine, qui l'avait vue chez Guerlain, achetant un flacon de Shore's caprice, s'en était fait une renommée". This comes smack in the middle of a full page describing Julia's habits and skills, which are many and eye catching.
It was not the first time that a novel would benefit from a reference of perfumes worn by its characters and certainly not the last. It's mighty interesting how the imagination of authors and artists has been captured by the free-spirited character of the horsewoman, featuring such proto-feminist types in their work. But it's also fascinating to compare and contrast Shore's Caprice with the iconography of another Guerlain fragrance, the classic Jicky (1889), which as a prototype fougère, has always had a touch of the androgynous. Jicky is advertised with fetching, independent women behind the "volant" instead of the horse, stirring their lives with the determination of a true amazon.
Whatever the scent smelled of in reality (and how realistically the smell of the sea could be captured in a composition dating from the 19th century with all the technical limitations of the times) the very existence of the fragrance is undisputed. Just a few years back, in 2009, a lot of Guerlain bottles were auctioned to perfume bottle collectors, amongst them Shore's Caprice alongside Guerlain's Cuir de Russie perfume. The square bottle measuring 17cm tall dated from 1880, a gold-gilded encrusted flacon that was a special commission, labelled «15 rue de la paix Paris» after the older address of the French family business. On it there was a gravure of a woman with a flag, providing another cryptic clue to its character.
But perhaps the most fascinating tidbit of all comes from a fellow "perfumista" who had read in an -as yet unidentified, unrevealed- book that Shore's Caprice was supposedly the perfume bottle found on the night table at the deathbed of famous novelist Leo Tolstoy. Is "shore" not a name but the evocation of the sea, the eternal blue that the steppe-born Russian soul only dreamed of and never attained? What was its caprice and why did it appeal to Tolstoy in the first place? Guerlain holds the key to a precious mystery in its archives.
Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Guerlain perfumes, known and unknown, Fragrance history.