Before the Perfumery...
Set in the heart of the Cotswolds is a small village called Bourton on the Water. In the summer particularly, Bourton attracts many visitors who come to see the charm of the stone built properties and the beautifully clear water of the river Windrush as it meanders through the village under low stone footbridges.
But Bourton is also well known for its Perfumery - The Cotswold Perfumery - that has been blending perfumes now for over forty years. To call it a factory is probably misleading. No steel structures or lorries here, and the only chimney to be seen is from a gently crackling log fire in the shop.
The Company is based in a magnificent 300-year old Grade II Listed building where oak beams and crooked floors are the norm. But behind this idyllic facade is in fact a thriving company that that has grown steadily over since the 1960's and now manufactures fragrances for some of the most famous perfume houses in the world. So how did it all begin?
It started as a hobby
John Stephen is the perfumer and owner of the Cotswold Perfumery. It was John’s father who in 1965 decided to turn what was up until then just a hobby into a family business. John remembers those early years with mixed feelings. “We started with just one perfume – it was dreadful. It was a poor perfume in terrible packaging and we opened a shop in the wrong place. Needless to say it failed!” Later the family split up, but John’s mother needed an income. With the benefit of their first failure they decided to give perfumery another try - this time in the village of Bourton on the Water, near to where the family lived.
A small shop was purchased on the riverfront for £6,000. Using better quality raw materials was a crucial step in the new range. It made them “liveable with” over a long period of time, which meant repeat orders. Being a family of animal lovers, a decision was made right at the beginning not to use any animal ingredients, or to test on animals – and this was at a time well before animal welfare became the issue it is today.
In the mid 70's John’s mother died leaving him in sole control of the business. Soon other products came - Talcum Powder, Soap, Bath Salts etc. - and fragrances for men too. Then other perfumeries wanted fragrances made that they could sell under their own name, and this led to fragrances being produced for a wide range of applications.
Because the products were only available from the one shop in Bourton on the Water, mail order became a popular choice for those unable to visit regularly, and also for the growing number of overseas customers. With no computers to deal with customer lists, the task of handling the names, addresses and orders required dedicated attention, with stacks of drawers of paper record cards, and wax stencils for printing envelopes!
Purchase of "Woodman's Yard"
Soon the business was straining at the seams with the retail shop, perfume laboratory and mail order department in three separate premises around the village. It was with some relief that a couple of years later a fine old traditional Costwold stone building on a 1/3 acre site came up for sale - not 25 yards from the original shop.
Large enough to bring together everything onto one site, it also provided enough room for a new factory and the Perfume Garden that opened in 1983/4 where all the plants have been selected for their aroma as opposed to their appearance. In 1990 the adjoining property was purchased allowing further expansion.
It was clear that fine fragrances was where a small business could compete with the world’s largest. Work had already been done with a London perfume house (Czech & Speake) and in 1992 the Cotswold Perfumery was proud to announce that Buckingham Palace had selected “Pallas” over all the competition - a beautiful Jasmin perfume.
In 1998 wins were achieved with a French perfume house (Fragonard) against competition from French perfume manufacturers. And in 1999 John was commissioned by The Queen to produce two perfumes for Her Majesty as well as other fragrances for the Royal family.
As interest in creative perfumery grew, it was decided in 2003 to start teaching others how to create their own perfume and One Day Perfumery Courses were started. Now held monthly these courses allow participants the chance to see into the fascinating wonderful world of perfumery and understand a little more about the creative process.
45 years on
Today John still passionately believes that maintaining the highest quality raw materials is the only path and goes to great lengths to ensure that all of the 600 essential oils, absolutes, gums and resins are the best available. The product range has increased to 116 products which are now sold throughout the world.