Before the Perfumery...

The idyllic Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water attracts visitors from around the world, who come to appreciate the charm of the honey-coloured, stone-built properties and the crystal-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, which has been blending perfumes for over 50 years. To call it a factory is misleading. No steel structures or lorries here, and the only chimney to be seen is from a gently crackling log fire in the shop.

Cotswold Perfumery is based in a magnificent 300-year-old Grade II Listed building, where oak beams and crooked floors are the norm. But behind this facade is a thriving company that has grown steadily since the 1960s, and now manufactures fragrances for some of the most famous perfume houses in the world. So, how did it all begin?

From a hobby to a thriving business

John Stephen is chief perfumer and owner of the Cotswold Perfumery. In 1965, John’s father decided to turn his hobby into a family business. “We started with just one perfume,” John recalls. “It was a dreadful perfume in terrible packaging and we opened a shop in the wrong place. Needless to say, it failed!”

Years later, the family split up. John’s mother needed an income, so decided to give perfumery another shot – this time in the village of Bourton-on-the-Water, near the family home.

They bought a small shop on the riverfront for £6,000, and began creating a new range – this time using better quality raw materials. Being a family of animal lovers, they decided not to use any animal ingredients, or to test on animals – a decision well ahead of its time, and one that remains core to the business to this day.

In the mid 1970s, the death of John’s mother left him in sole control of the business. While he introduced new products – such as talcum powder, soap, bath salts, and fragrances for men – other perfumeries began to want fragrances made that they could sell under their own name.

Because the products were only available from the shop in Bourton-on-the-Water, the perfumery’s mail order service became hugely popular. With no computers to deal with customer lists, the task of handling the names, addresses and orders required dedicated attention, with stacks of paper record cards, and wax stencils for printing envelopes!

Growth leads to expansion

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. To John’s relief, a fine old traditional Cotswold stone building on a one-third acre site came up for sale, just 25 yards from the original shop.

Large enough to bring together everything onto one site, the property also provided enough room for a new factory and perfume garden, which opened in the early 1980s. In 1990, John purchased the property next door, which allowed for further expansion.

He soon realised the Cotswold Perfumery could compete with the world’s largest in the area of fine fragrances. In 1992, having already worked with several renowned London perfume houses, John was proud to announce that Buckingham Palace had selected ‘Pallas’ – a beautiful jasmine perfume – over the competition.

In 1998, wins were achieved with a French perfume house (Fragonard) against competition from French fragrance manufacturers, and in 1999 John was commissioned by Her Majesty The Queen to produce two perfumes, as well as other fragrances for the Royal Family.

As John’s interest in creative perfumery grew, he decided to share his knowledge and teach others how to create their own perfume. In 2003, he launched the Cotswold Perfumery’s now popular one-day perfume courses, which give delegates a fascinating insight into the creative art of fragrance.

50 years of fragrance

John still believes in using only the highest quality raw materials, and goes to great lengths to ensure that the 600 essential oils, absolutes, gums and resins are the best available. Today, the Cotswold Perfumery produces 116 products, which are bought by customers around the world.