“Write this down,” Franck Léger II said, “Seventy-five percent of all men’s colognes use vetiver.” This is promising news for Haiti, given its status as one of the world’s largest commercial producers of vetiver oil. Léger’s family-owned company, Frager Essential Oils, is based in Les Cayes and specialises in the production and export of vetiver essential oil. The largest city in southwestern Haiti, Les Cayes is the center of the world’s commercial vetiver trade and a crucial link in the fragrance industry’s global supply chain.
Léger’s claim that three quarters of men’s fragrances contain vetiver seems high, but pinpointing an exact, independently verifiable figure on this front is tricky—fragrance recipes remain jealously guarded trade secrets. Broadly speaking, however, Léger’s point stands. It is difficult to identify a luxury fashion label which does not incorporate vetiver in at least some of its fragrances. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Armani, Chanel—all sell products containing vetiver.
Les Cayes resembles many smaller Indian cities. Families on motorbikes compete with chauffeured businesspeople for space on roads in need of repair. Market stalls offer clothing, vegetables, and roadside snacks at major intersections. Uniformed schoolchildren run home in groups. The similarities to India may be more than a coincidence. Vetiver has Indian roots. The plant’s English-language name is an approximate transliteration of vettivẽru, meaning “root that is dug up” in Tamil, and its presence reaches far back into Indian history. According to Jyoti Marwah, a historian specialising in the history of aromatic cultures, taxes on vetiver were first introduced during the reign of emperor Harshavardhana in the seventh century CE, in present-day Uttar Pradesh.