Consider the Countess de Castiglione. Born in 1837 in Florence, Italy, she was blessed with legendary beauty and a seductive lure that won the ardor of heads of heads of state and artists alike. She was Napoleon’s mistress for a time, and she was the subject of countless paintings, sculptures and later photographs. In a sense, she was one of the first fashion models, dressing up for photographs as a princess, a nun, Shakespearean characters and even posing covered by nothing but a sheet — a scandalous move at the time. Such was her fame during the 19th century that she’s still known today.
She’s also one of the many wondrous, delightful individuals, objects and ideas that populate a new book by Sargentville journalist and author Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, “The Encyclopedia of the Exquisite.” Published last month by Nan A. Talese-Doubleday, the book presents in careful, loving detail more than 100 things that make life a little more fantastic.
Jenkins has worked as a magazine journalist for many years, for publications such as W and Women’s Wear Daily. While she attended Fashion Weeks all over Europe and the U.S. and interviewed celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, she kept an open file in which she’d put things that sounded interesting.
“I had this manila folder with me, and anytime I’d encounter something that was really beautiful or wondrous, I’d stick it in there,” Jenkins said. “They were things that I didn’t know what to do with. I wasn’t going to write about them for a magazine, but I knew I wanted to hang onto them.”
Jenkins left the world of fashion journalism in 2007, and traveled through India, Nepal and Europe for a year. In the summer of 2009, Jenkins and her new husband, Nico Jenkins, moved away from their home base of New York City to a 170-year-old house in Sargentville. They have family in Maine, and hectic city life was los-ing its appeal.
Though Jenkins still writes for Vogue, her move from urban to rural focused her attention less on the magazine world, and more on writing a book that used all those collected curiosities kept in that manila folder. An encyclopedia format seemed to suit it — but before that, she had to do research on hundreds of different items to decide what to include. She spent a great deal of time in libraries, from the New York Public Library to Fogler Library at the University of Maine in Orono, and at the Blue Hill and Belfast public libraries.
“I had a really, really long list of different things that I was considering including,” Jenkins said. “I did research on all of them, and if there wasn’t some story behind it that was compelling, or if it was overdone, I crossed it off the list. Chocolate is too obvious. Everybody loves chocolate. But red lipstick has a story.”
In the case of red lipstick, Jenkins traces its history from ancient Rome, women painted their lips with vermilion, to World War II, when lipstick was rationed in England but packed in cardboard in America — in order to save brass — while the Nazis outlawed it outright. For Allied women, however, it was a source of at least temporary relief from the stresses of wartime.
The charming, old-fashioned typesetting, cover art and illustrations for “The Encyclopedia of the Exquisite” add to the sensation that you’re peeking into a rare book that has been stowed away on a dusty shelf for decades. The list includes the glamorous and fabulous, such as the Japanese folding fan, the Ogi, wielded by members of the Imperial Court, and the Pouf, the extravagant, gravity-defying hairstyle made famous by Marie Antoinette. But it also focuses on things that exist in the natural world, such as cats, lightning and the color black.
“I didn’t want it to be just a list of the very glamorous, or of luxury items. I wanted there to be a level of accessibility,” and Jenkins. “But I wanted to give that kind of luxurious treatment to everyday things.”
Jenkins is in the early stages of another book, though she remains mum on the exact subject matter. The quiet existence of life in Sargentville among the trees, ocean and friendly neighbors seems to be an ideal atmosphere for writing, and for research — the latter of which is something that Jenkins relishes in particular.
“Research is my favorite thing to do. It sounds dull, but to me, it’s an indulgence,” she said. “Turning that love of research into a book was so totally satisfying.”
“The Encyclopedia of the Exquisite” is available at bookstores nationwide; it retails for $27.95.