Why, as I was frantically sorting through my perfume collection to select which bottles I would bring to Canada, did I pull out Private Collection? Perhaps I thought it would trigger the much-vaunted Proustian effect anybody who writes anything about scent always ends up banging on about.
I’ve known Private Collection since I was a kid growing up in Montreal’s West Island, nosing around the Estée Lauder counter at the local department store -- the promise of a forbidden, just-for-grownups world. Estée Lauder fragrances being powerhouses, you could smell them in the mall all the way back to the fountain with a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David in front of Canadian Tire, pungent rubber fumes blending for a while with potent wafts of Youth Dew, long before crossing the threshold of Eaton’s. No French perfume stood a chance (that was before the take-no-prisoners Opium came along and gobbled up every other scent in sight).
But more than Youth Dew, the 1973 Private Collection is one of the first fragrances that left a lasting olfactory imprint on my memory. My mother may have gotten a mini as a gift with purchase (there were no full perfume bottles in our house since the stuff gave my father a headache).
I vividly remember Private Collection even as I write this: that sharpish, fresh-mown grass opening, with the darker resinous green of galbanum and spicier floral verdancy of hyacinth whooshing in straight behind it. Not a complex olfactory picture, and one I formed a posteriori, since it would be a could of decades or more until I’d smelled galbanum and hyacinths in France. Until then, I’d have had no names for what I experienced.
The actual fragrance, I didn’t smell that much since childhood: I’m not even sure it’s sold in France, and when I purchased a bottle for memory’s sake in Montreal about ten years ago, the beauty advisor pulled it out from under the counter: there were no testers.
That’s the bottle that made the trip to Canada. I hadn’t smelled it since buying it, I’m embarrassed to say. I didn’t smell it before packing it. I suppose I thought that because I hadn’t experienced it often, thus overlaying my initial childhood memories with later, more scent-literate references, my olfactory flashback would be all the more vivid.
So ? Zilch. Nada. Rien du tout. Private Collection has given up the ghost. Not only does it not trigger some magical Proustian effect, but it doesn’t even smell like my adult memory of it. Though I preserved it in optimal conditions (in its box, away from light and heat), it’s gone off, pure and simple. And since the stuff doesn’t seem to be sold in Canada anymore, there’s not much chance I’ll get that flashback to my suburban childhood after all.
Loving perfume is an exercise in letting go. Like people and memories, it changes, fades, and eventually, dies.
I’d ask the question if I thought anyone would comment: have you ever “lost” a fragrance you were certain would bring back vivid memories?
Illustration: White Hyacinth 18.04.-27.04.2022 by Paul Maria Schneggenburger