Private Collection is an American classic. Extremely distinctive, there is nothing else quite like it. Green, lush, austere but yearningly romantic, melancholic yet somehow perennially optimistic, this powdery, vetiver-based, ravishingly and sharply green floral is a perfume that pierces the senses and remains lodged in the memory forever.
I should know. Not only did my mother go through a period of wearing this in the eighties, when I was about seventeen (she was never averse to trying new pastures when it came to fragrance, although with many selections, this was limited, like Private Collection, to only one bottle or two), but my high school French teacher would also wear this anomalous perfume in too high profusion in the lessons, creating an odd dichotomy between her dimininutive, dumpy presence, appalling French accent, and the plushly orchestrated delight of fresh flowers and grasses that would fill up the room like a crushed, vernal symphony.
I have talked before of what I see as the ‘rich divorcée’ accord in most Estee Lauder perfumes, a phrase that to me sums up virtually the entire early catalogue, from Youth Dew to Aromatics Elixir, through Cinnabar, Knowing and Spellbound: that familiarly dense, compressedly aldehydic, ‘respectably perfumed’ aspect that forms the base of all this house’s creations (even the green dewiness of a perfume such as Pleasures, that nineties phenomenon, somehow withholds and extends this very ‘acceptable, take her to meet her future mother-in-law’ aspect that is at the heart of most American perfumery). No, it is undeniable. Madame Lauder’s perfumes have never been dirty, or daring (with the exception of Alliage), nor coquettish, licentious, nor filthy – that would be the prerogative, surely, of the French, stereotypical though that last sentence surely is.
I know, though, that real perfume connoisseurs reading this at this moment know exactly what I mean. Lauder’s perfumes always kept you at arms’ length, even while inviting you to inhale their peculiar artistry, to sit admiringly in their undeniably impressive aura, and to feel that the person in question, is, undeniably, ‘all woman’.
Private Collection, like Gabrielle Chanel’s own Nº19, was apparently created originally for Estee Lauder’s private use, and only later released to the public (“every woman should have this in her own private collection”), a canny marketing strategy that would feel glib and empty to me were it not for the fact that Private Collection really does smell, and quite intensely, private.
Perhaps this is what made me feel so….not uncomfortable, exactly, but dislodged and quietly – at the back of my brain as I tried to learn the finer points of French grammar – mesmerized, offput, during the period leading up to the university entrance exams. Where I would have been there in my Chanel Pour Monsieur or Armani Pour Homme or Givenchy Gentleman, and the girls were all wearing Loulou, Poison, Anais Anais, or Lauder’s own new fluffy pink sweater-in-bosoms release, Beautiful, the elevated olfactory countenance of my French teacher’s perfume, which lawnmowered down all others in the room and filled it to every corner, was like watching a funeral casket from behind a privet hedge, your senses heightened, as you smelled the lilies, green roses, but most importantly, the most mournful flowers of them all, piled high on the gleen of the coffin, a glut of white chrysanthemum.
It felt, almost, like intruding. And it is this bitter, doleful and more perspicacious aspect of Private Collection that raises the perfume above all possible banality and, by association, its more slatternly, easy-going peers. It is a classically American grand parfum that was created by Vincent Marcello (who I had never heard of before doing some research for this piece), but who apparently was a perfumer who is credited with only two other creations – Halston Z14 and Caron’s legendary spiced leather, Yatagan.
This is revealing. Where a perfumer’s perfumography is often very extensive, their concoctions and signature style of scent creation lent out to all and sundry who want to use them (think Alberto Morillas or Bertrand Duchaufour), I often think that when a perfumer has only created a handful of perfumes (but classic and enduring ones), this shows us just how much time and effort, inspiration and execution must have gone into the process before the perfume was finally revealed to its eager public; I imagine him or her toiling fervidly behind confidential closed doors in their laboratory, adding and subtracting, sighing and elating, until the exact composition they had had in mind all along reveals itself to them like a slave in a piece of marble by Michaelangelo. The perfume was there, waiting to be exist; it just had to find the right moment to be released.
Like Yatagan and Halston Z14, Private Collection is incredibly complex. Beginning with citric, and very incitingly chlorophylled top notes of leaves and grasses, bergamot and coriander, the mordant sting of chrysanthemum and reseda (a fragrant, herbaceous plant), along with Bulgarian rose, aldehydes, honeysuckle and linden, the perfume – immediately poetic, heart beating firmly beneath its worldly veneer – is on-point and extroverted, ready to show off the beautiful home and quintessential gardens; yet simultaneously, just under the surface, obviously, still, quite defensive and withdrawn. Mr. Marcello quite brilliantly counterpoints the pointed and imperious green notes of the grande facade entrance with a more wistful and emotive heart of powdery rose-kissed heliotrope, and a subtle, but lingering, endgame of vetiver, musk, sandalwood, and amber. With these deep psychological complexities, in the tensions between the dark green of the botanical shadows and the more urbane pleasures of the daylight, Private Collection is, thus, for me, one of the most paradoxical and contradictory perfumes that I know: and therein lies its brilliance.
In his seminal review of Private Collection, The Perfumed Dandy, who adores this perfume, it would seem, as he keeps returning to it, writes of it that is ‘a scent of solitary sorrow, a perfume of private grief and almost immeasurable melancholy, marrying nettles and lawn grass with oak moss and earth to achieve a cool, reserved opening of remarkable detached intensity.’
I think that this is a perfect way of describing the overall effect of Private Collection, although unlike the Dandy, I could never wear this perfume on myself. Although I do have a few miniature bottles of the vintage parfum picked up at Tokyo fleamarkets that I treasure for memory’s sake, and which I am in fact wearing while writing this on a grey rainy day in Kamakura, much as I love it, ultimately this most arch of American perfumes is a little too recherché, polite, reserved and conservative for a person like me. Its inherent strictures would bring on irritation. Moreover, it made such an enduring impact on my psyche as an adolescent, that it is definitely too firmly rooted, now, in my past.
Which brings us to Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia. Fast forward almost a quarter of a century, and Lauder’s grand daughter Aerin, now at the helm of the formidable U.S cosmetics behemoth, revives the Private Collection name in 2007 with a brand new ‘niche’ perfume set aside from the main commercial lineup, Tuberose Gardenia. The fragrance community go wild at the prospect of a linear, American white floral containing these luscious, white flowers, and once again the canny institution has another commercial hit ….
Although I had smelled it once briefly in Harrods as the concept had piqued my curiosity (and I must say I quite liked the bottle), it wasn’t until recently, when I picked up a small, boxed miniature of this perfume at a recycle shop here in Japan that I got the chance to study this perfume in thorough detail. I was surprised, and not unpleasantly. Readers of The Black Narcissus will know by now that I have quite schizoid tastes, favouring either the grave, dark and unmistakably elegant, or else sweet, wild, flagrant tropicalia, with not very much in between. I love white flower perfumes of the jasmine, frangipani, tuberose and gardenia variety and find that I am wearing them more and more. Current work perfumes, usually worn (for me at least) discreetly at the wrist under white shirt cuff and under a suit jacket, include Dolce and Gabbana’s exquisite Velvet Desire (the perfect jasmine /gardenia – really, you must try it), Reva De Tahiti’s Eau de Tiare, and, perhaps amusingly, Elizabeth Taylor’s peachy delicious, and very Southern American Belle, Gardenia. I don’t quite know how these perfumes smell to other people, but to me, on me, they smell unclichéd, sensuous, and delightful, a drenched and floral riposte to the limitations of gender, nationality and boring limitations on freedom in general. I do feel liberated in flowers.
Given this, it would seem then that Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia would slot perfectly into my scent list for a surreptious scenting on a daily work basis, almost guaranteed in advance to be quite non-threatening, ‘clean’, yet pleasingly alluring, as is the case with most of the perfumes that comes from the ascetic land of the pilgrims and its hysterically deep-seated fear of nudity, dirt, and the flesh. That it is also based on two of my absolute favourite floral notes in existence thus means, surely, that this recent Estee Lauder was destined to be mine.
And it is, in many senses. I like it. But although I had been dreaming of an ideal marriage of white petals; creamy and clean and sun-riven with a delicately aquatic touch of sea breeze – the ideal, soothingly light sillage I would like to give off when passing by the students who are sitting near the blackboard – in fact, Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia turns out to be much darker in essence and impact, more tenebrous and far reaching than I had presumed.
Yes, there are the aforementioned flowers at the fore: pristine and fresh, along with a rather overly insistent note of neroli; and in its crisp, state-of-the-art technology, developed by the fragrance giant Firmenich, this perfume also lasts far, far longer than I would have anticipated, whether on skin or on clothes (despite its being a tiny 4ml vaporisateur, I am thankful that it is one of those spray bottles that allow you to use the fragrance in miniature, infinitesimal spurts that are no more than what you need). Wearing this composition, even if the tiniest doses, I do, I must admit, feel very polished, pleasantly scented, and intriguingly, ‘professionally’ fragranced, throughout my working day.
Yet despite the listing of notes on Fragrantica (lilac, rosewood, carnation and Bourbon vanilla as well as the anticipated florals, none of which were featured in the original creation from 1973), and the sun-filled, white petalled overture, which really does smell of laboratory-approximated tuberose flowers and gardenias done in the California manner, soon, on my skin, this perfume turns into……………………………Private Collection.
There is no denying it. Really. It is unmistakeable. The old, original perfume haunts the new one. And looking, just now, more closely at the various descriptions of Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia, I see that the perfume was in fact created ‘to honor the memory of Aerin’s grandmother, by creating a new perfume which is based on the fragrance Private Collection created at the beginning of the 1970s especially for Estee Lauder’s use’.
We cannot escape her.
We are suddenly enlightened. Private Collection lies at the very heart of Tuberose Gardenia, subtle, and hidden; cleverly concealed within the essential structure: the newer perfume, being, I have thus realized, a form of palimpsest, a piece of paper on which the original writing has been erased, at least superficially, with brand new words inscribed on it anew.
And I think this is a touch of genius. It fascinates me. The full-circle, unintended linkage with my own memories of that first, unforgettable, perfume and the life I am living right now. That having worn Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia in my own classroom, now as the teacher, rather than the student ( I wonder if any of the Japanese teenagers in my class are having their own private cerebral reactions to my smell the way I did with my own language teacher), I can now see the ineffable connections reaching all the way back to my own past history as well that original perfume’s sombre grandiosity; its orthodox traditionalism and inheritance: the dense, dark green of its secret gardens; its strange, American beauty.
22 responses to “AMERICAN SILLAGE : : : ESTEE LAUDER PRIVATE COLLECTION (1973) + PRIVATE COLLECTION TUBEROSE GARDENIA ( 2007 )”
Vintage Black Narcissus. Really so cunning, sensuous, sensual, I’m running out of s-adjectives. You invent yourself all over again. A bonbon absolue after my breakfast coffee. And the pictures … From youth to antique age and back again. And they all have that 5th Avenue classic elegance. And yes you are right: kept at a distance and beckoning at the same time. I cannot wear it, but it is like a vintage stiletto 50ies pair of heels. I cherish them, caress them even, but my eyes and my feet go separate ways.
Thank you so much Nelleke (does your name mean ‘carnation’, by the way?’). I have actually been ill this weekend, spent two days in bed, and last night, the words started returning back to me. Today I have woken up and though still feeling a bit run down I knew that I could write again. It is a marvellous feeling, and a perfume as complex and difficult as this needs you to be really compos mentis!
How was your party?
Just wow. I have just read this with a cup of tea and a rather long lie-in on a gloomy Bank Holiday Monday and am utterly swept away. The perfect circle of the tale of student becomes teacher, the gorgeous, wistful turn of phrase here: ” like watching a funeral casket from behind a privet hedge”. I think you should send this to a magazine: you deserve to be paid for writing like this!
I wrote a reply earlier to this that disappeared but thank you, E. I spent the day listening to melancholy film soundtracks alone and submerged myself in past and present and just writing. Really enjoyed it, actually. I am glad you did as well. x
Which soundtracks, I wonder? I have made myself a little playlist of some of my favourite ones, mainly from French and Italian films. I played it last night, coincidentally. x
It was mainly Almodovar: Bad Education four times, then Broken Embraces, and the new one, Julieta (exquisite) in which the divine composer Alberto Iglesias riffs on Prelude A L’Apres D’Un Faune, Barber’s Adagio, and to my ears, Stravinsky’s indescribably beautiful Orpheus as well.
Then: when I was cooking downstairs on the record player, an old Visconti soundtrack which I was playing for the first time and which was perfect for the pleasurably sepulchral, slow mood: Conversation Piece. A strange and lovely day, actually. I am rarely so calm.
What were yours, incidentally?
What a lovely read on this holiday morning as I drink coffee, having slept late, with nothing I HAVE to do. Bliss. 🙂 I have never sampled Private Collection. Or if I have it was eons ago and I’ve forgotten. I must go to an Estee Lauder counter and ask them to dig out the PC wherever they’ve hidden it. I hated EL fragrances and cosmetics when I was young. They were too strange and odd to me, and “mature”. Except for Youth Dew which a lady I admired wore so well, spicy, brisk, scrubbed…yet intriguing. Now I find myself able to appreciate them (the classics). I have White Linen, which works beautifully in the stifling Mississippi summer. And Youth Dew, which I can’t wear but I need to have it around. And now I am determined to try Private Collection.
Tuberose Gardenia is beautiful. I had a sample some years ago and loved it. I’ve always coveted one of the bejeweled parfum bottles. Gardenias have been in bloom here everywhere. I have to restrain myself from stealing them from the neighbors. I don’t have any of my own, but I’m going to plant a couple in the fall. Why live without gardenias if you don’t have to? Well, just rambling now. I’ll stop. ♡♡♡
Because you enjoy writing as much as we enjoy reading your writing, it doesn’t feel quite as much like taking blatant advantage of your generosity. I agree that it would be justice to see you paid for these brilliant labours of love. Having a cup of tea, too, this morning, and feeling better for having read you. Always a kick-start to the day, properly angled toward beauty. I love, among others, this bit: “. . . on-point and extroverted, ready to show off the beautiful home and quintessential gardens; yet simultaneously, just under the surface, obviously, still, quite defensive and withdrawn.” Very nice.
Sitting here enjoying my morning cup, and having read your marvellous description of these two classic and essential Estee Lauder perfumes, I’m off to put one drop of each on either wrist, so I can huff back and forth all day. Thank you for this glorious essay! Honestly, I really get my dander up when I hear people deride Estee Lauder for being an “American” perfume company not worth exploring..” But they’re not FRENCH/ITALIAN/ARABIAN my dear! How could they possibly….blahblahblah….” Annoying as hell, but there you are. Again thanks, your writing has lifted my morning up.
I am loving the fact that we are all reading you while sipping our caffeinated beverages, as our days begin x
A little bit of preprandial poetry x
Dear m G Thank you for enquiring after my party. It was one of the most unexspected and totally uncontrived events in my life. I wantd to cancel it 6 times, including the day of. It was totally like a wedding with the bride not alltogether there. But in the end I enjoyed it and cried on my best friends shoulder. Arina was there all the time, and I did not have to look to see if she was enjoying herself; it was like we used to when we met 20 years ago. I was a dramatic pirate, black onyx, , with hat, red feather and dramatic scarves, doused in l’Arte by Gucci, vintage formula. It was a scent so loud, you could hear me around the corner ( stolen from Johnny Weismuller’ shirt). And in the taxi the driver put my bag with leftover eatables upside down, so that the chocolate melted all down and I woke up with it in my hair. Don’t ask how it got there. I still smell it when I walk on my balcony, where the bag resides among the debris of my spring cleaning and the pigeons, who seem to have chosen other niches, much to my comfort and delight. I simply can’t stand their cooing.
This is very beautiful and it sounds quite delightful. I know L’Arte: it would have been perfect!
And yes you are right about the carnation. I really like the small wild ones in all kinds of colours. The bred variety, especially the white one, reminds me too much of weddings or funerals. And do they smell?
My full name is Petronella; that name is somewhat of a joke in Italy. I am named after my grandmother, who gazes down at me in pastel in a golden frame with all the sweet unworldniness of her 19th century 7 years.
Petronella is pretty unusual, it has to be said, kind of amazing, actually. I only asked about the carnations because I remember buying a Nelke perfume once in Germany and suddenly wondered if they were related….
As for me, we are both strange in not wanting any photographs in the house of us or of anybody else. I don’t know….for me I have always found it odd that people would want to surround themselves with these images.
The original Private Collection is, as you put it, “undeniable all woman”….Ironically I wore it in my pre-teen years (ages 10-13) always in the winter….I associate the scent with the holidays and Christmas (always receiving a bottle at Christmas…later this was replaced with Clinique Wrappings which has a similar feel to my nose)…..
This is my last week of employment and access to a computer so I just want to say that I hope you and Duncan have a wonderful summer and continue to enjoy life as you always do !!!!
Your last week of a computer……ever? I hope not! Where are you going? What is happening?
Nothing bad…all good stuff…taking a summer hiatus and spending time with family…I will return to work in Autumn and have access to a computer again in my office….(which is where I do all of my readings and commenting)…..I am computer-less in the summer and must say that it can be refreshing!
I totally agree. I haven’t had an iPhone for a year now and don’t miss it at all even if it is sometimes inconvenient and very selfish of me. I think it is very mentally healthy to distance oneself from the internet for a while, actually. Hopefully see you again in September, then! Enjoy the summer, Brie. xx
I very much enjoyed your descriptions, and histories, of Estee Lauder’s Private Collection, Private Collection and Tuberose and Gardenia.
I love both, although not backed up by any memories of schooldays!
I was recently comparing Private Collection to Nicolai’s Vie de Chateau, I do think the Lauder wins with suggestions of depths of both floral and green vegetation. Flowers, ferns, grasses, trees.
The grounds of the Chateau seem to be grow essentially only grasses and herbs.
I am not sure I remember the Nicolai well, though I do like that house.
It sounds intriguing.