Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Guerlain Shore's Caprice (1873): Perfume History & an Enigma

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.

Octave Mirbeau
The information about Shore's Caprice deliciously contradicts itself, creating an intricate puzzle of theories and little corroborated data. Four years after the release of L'écuyère, Shore's Caprice is mentioned in a complimentary manner in a proto-lifestyle-manual, Louise Gagneur's Pour Etre Aimée: Conseils d'une Coquette. There it is referenced as a perfume inspired by the sea and its complex aroma, but is deemed especially fit for neutralizing the catty aroma of certain furs. This tidbit of perfume etiquette use (common in "parfums fourrure") would have passed unnoticed had I not recalled having read an interview of Jean Kerléo, back when he was head of L'Osmothèque, where he commented at length on the feel and memories of "marine" fragrances (i.e. fragrances that try to approximate the scentscape of the ocean) and saying that they oppose the ideal of the bourgeoisie "who do not want the scent of the sea emanating off their furs". Was the countess Potocka revolutionizing fragrance mores by opting for an intellectualized scent that would clash with what the society of her times would think of as "proper"?

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.

Leo Tolstoy

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


  1. What an interesting curio! I wonder what a sea-like perfume could have been back then - in a basically pre-synthetic era, and certainly pre-calone. I wonder if my dislike for marine perfumes would still have applied.

    Perhaps a very salty variety of ambergris plus aromatic fresh-green substances like mint or the like? I have a cheapo from the 1950s called sea-breeze, and the main note is a sort of spearmint.

    But then, I recently had the misfortune to buy a hair oil from Aesop, which is supposed to be natural and smells exactly like a bilge....


  2. how intriguing! i'd not heard of "shore's caprice"...it's a funny name, in a way; one thinks of the waves as capricious, rather than the shore. could it have been named for a person, perhaps even with a punning allusion to both the surname shore and the marine character of the scent itself? utter speculation, of course...

    i also thought of ambergris as a possible sea-linked ingredient.

    and a bottle of it found at leo tolstoy's bedside. i wonder of whom it reminded him, that he kept it there. or did he like it for himself?

    thank you for provoking some pointless but romantic, even poetic, imaginings...

  3. M,

    as you say,a fascinating curio. Mind you, it'd be more fascinating still if we could locate some vintage dregs in an old bottle, but it's so old that it is not possible anyway, even if we did.

    My guess would have been ambergris plus vetiver as the base structure on which to build upon.

    I suppose "natural" is no guarantee for heavenly smelling, same as "synthetic" is no guarantee for bad for you, necessarily. I like Aesop as a brand, but not always the smell.

  4. NFS,

    you absolutely capture the spirit of what I'm saying: pointless, yes, because it serves no practical purpose, but it does lend itself to romanticism and yes, poetry. I find poetry is so neglected in our times. Poetry in living, not in actual written words on a book/ebook.

  5. Fiordiligi14:38

    Hello my dearest E! How could I resist this piece about one of the Guerlain legends? Thank you for such a beautiful article. Wouldn't it be a wonder to actually sniff it? I am sure it would be quite remarkable.

  6. Well, this is a tantalizing comment you make;

    Guerlain holds the key to a precious mystery in its archives

    Humm, makes you wish someone would go into those archives and, ...well, you know!

  7. Miss Heliotrope07:44

    Tolstoy? Who by the time of his death had decided to all but live as a asetic?

    & more importantly, who didnt die in his own bed with his own night table next to, but in the apartment of a station master? Maybe it was the railroad official who had a scented secret...

  8. Miss Heliotrope07:45

    AN asetic.


  9. Fiori (((D))),

    hello my dearest!

    Sorry I am so late in replying.

    Yeah, Guerlain unites us again. I hope you're well. We have been having a bumpy and busy summer, but will write in private.

    Thanks for coming on board again :-)

  10. Stelma,

    part of the reason I'm writing these articles is exactly providing the nudge to Guerlain to do so!
    It worked in them re-establishing copyright in names at least in the past (after I posted about them), so with persistence, who knows...? :D

    Thanks for commenting!

  11. MH,

    great observation and I have to say I too wondered about a recluse, up there in hi datcha etc. but with time I came to the conclusion that either he had it dragged with him by someone caring, or it involved a bit of biographical embellishment on the part of the book author. Like Herodotus, when the story is too good to be withheld, I tell it with caveat emptor that the author is not identified and the book is as of yet unrecalled.;-) If she does recall, I will let you know and we will both dive in in greater detail.

    It's a charming story, even for an ascetic. We tend to see perfume with our modern eyes (adornment, seduction) whereas people in the past saw it with the eyes of the pagan (prophylactic, disinfectant). It's all very interesting, to say the least!


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