My first foray into fancy beauty products came in the form of a very generous gift from my good friend Kate: a duo of L’Occitane’s Verbena Shower Gel and Hand Soap, a single sprig of lavender on top. The set was worth more than anything else sitting in my shared 300-square-foot studio apartment, but it was that smell—an intoxicating grown-up, fresh, somewhat citrusy scent—that had me hooked. There was something simply magical about the green-hued liquids and textured label that I had never experienced before—a precursory jaunt into my future beauty-editor path.
They were special. I was in love.
The only logical thing to do: Enforce extreme rationing. The soap stayed under the sink until guests visited; my roommate had strict instructions not to use the gel without approval.
Fast-forward to a few months ago when I visited Corsica, a sun-kissed island off of the South of France. It might be a land of endless beauty, sunflowers, good food and wine, and the birthplace of Napoleon, but it’s also the place where L’Occitane, my beloved brand from years ago, grows many of their powerhouse botanicals: rows and rows of lavender, verbena and the star of the show, the immortelle flower, a bright-yellow potent antioxidant bloom. (April Franzino, beauty director at Good Housekeeping, says she has an immortelle bouquet that has stayed intact for a decade; I still don’t know how that’s biologically possible, but I trust her.)
This is the place of beauty-ingredient dreams.
Alas, it’s also the place where one could have experienced some life-altering heat this past summer. The particular day I meet mother-of-three Pascale Chérubin to see her organic farm, the temperatures hit an all-time high of 117 degrees—a temperature I had previously only been exposed to in the hottest of dry saunas.
You can see, and feel, the effects of global warming here: A fire in 2015 burned at least half of Pascale’s immortelle crops. After the fire, the brand helped her replant and rebuild everything, she says. “I don’t have an exclusivity clause with them, but I choose to sell the flower to only them.” She’s also the first woman the brand had contracted to grow the plant, a claim she’s particularly proud of, considering most of the farmers in the region are male.
And she needs to grow a lot: It takes no less than 800 immortelle flowers, picked on the summer solstice, to make one single jar of the brand’s Divine Cream. Verbena is equally as tricky to get right: The short and stocky leafy greens have to be replanted every year and they’re not indigenous to the region—although they’ve clearly become an integral part of the traditions. The success of both harvests also relies heavily on what the farmers refer to as a “patchwork,” where wildflowers surround the main crops to help the pollination process.
Although L’Occitane products can be found in 80 countries and 1,500-plus stores around the world, stories like Pascale’s show that the brand is still run with the soul of a small family business in so many ways. The hand creams and hockey puck–shaped shea butter lotions might be easily found in many malls and airports, but the heart—and the descendants of my sprig of lavender from that studio apartment many moons ago—are still alive and well, growing under the watchful eyes of very dedicated families some 4,000 miles away.
That night, back in my hotel room, the temperature is a bit cooler. And I break open a jar of the precious Divine Cream. I smile as I apply it; there’s a big part of Pascale’s backyard in this one jar. Although I no longer have a roommate, I’m still not sharing.
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