23 Surreal Facts About Salvador Dalí

Reg Birkett, Keystone/Getty Images
Reg Birkett, Keystone/Getty Images

Salvador Dalí was one of the most famous painters of the 20th century. The Surrealist’s self-promotional antics and bizarre artwork made him an international celebrity early in his career, and there are still traces of him littered throughout pop culture. References to the melting clocks in his most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, have cropped up on everything from The Simpsons to news coverage of the 2015 New England Patriots scandal Deflategate. His distinctive personal style is now so iconic that he has become a Halloween costume—one instantly recognizable by mustache alone.

The artist’s long career was full of unexpected twists, and even if you've seen his work, you probably don’t know how far-reaching his influence remains today, long after his 1989 death. Here are 23 facts you should know about him.

1. HE STARTED PAINTING EARLY.

Dalí painted one of his earliest known works, Landscape of Figueres, in 1910, when was about 6 years old. The oil-on-postcard work depicts a scene in his Catalonia hometown, and now hangs in the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. He also found success relatively early—he created his most iconic work, The Persistence of Memory, when he was just 27.

2. HE WAS NOT A GOOD STUDENT.

Even from a young age, Dalí bristled at the confines of traditional schooling. He was bright but easily distracted, and more interested in doodling than studying. He began his education at age 4 at a local public school in his hometown of Figueres, but only two years later, his father transferred him to a French-speaking private school, “due to that first option having failed,” as the Dalí Foundation tactfully describes it. At his secondary school, he embraced his love of public attention by throwing himself down stairs in front of his classmates and teachers, as he wrote in his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.

When he graduated, his father insisted that he go to the School of Fine Arts in Madrid, on the grounds that if he had to be a painter, he should at least be qualified to teach. He would be expelled from the school not once, but twice. His first expulsion in 1923 was over his role in student protests involving painter Daniel Vázquez Díaz, who students felt had been unfairly denied a professorship in the painting department. However, Dalí returned to school the next year, only to face expulsion again in 1926. He explains in his autobiography that it was because he refused to submit to an oral exam, telling them, “I am infinitely more intelligent than these three professors, and I therefore refuse to be examined by them. I know this subject much too well.” This marked the final straw for his academic career.

3. HE MADE HIMSELF HALLUCINATE.

A portrait of Salvador Dalí in midair with chairs and cats
Dalí Atomicus, Philippe Halsman, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Dalí pioneered what he called the “Paranoiac-Critical” method, designed to help him access his subconscious. He described it as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge, based on the critical-interpretative association of the phenomena of delirium.” One of the ways he would access this delirious state without drugs or alcohol was to stare at a fixed object and try to see something different within it—much like you might see a shape in the clouds, as the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia explains it [PDF]. Or, he would try to keep himself between sleep and wakefulness, napping with a spoon in his hand and a mixing bowl in his lap. When he fell asleep, the spoon would fall into the bowl, and he would wake up. He would continue to do this in order to keep himself in a semi-conscious, dreamlike state, according to Dalí scholar Bernard Ewell.

4. HE WAS OBSESSED WITH FREUD.

The Surrealist movement was heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud, whose work was just beginning to be translated into French for the first time when the movement emerged in Paris in 1924. Dalí began reading Freud as a young man at art school in Madrid, and the psychoanalyst’s ideas about dreams and the subconscious had a profound impact on his work. “The book presented itself to me as one of the capital discoveries of my life,” he wrote about reading Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams.

The feeling wasn’t exactly mutual at first. Freud considered the Surrealists "complete fools” and had little interest in avant garde art. But Dalí was determined to meet Freud. “My three voyages to Vienna were exactly like three drops of water which lacked the reflections to make them glitter,” the artist wrote in his autobiography. “On each of these voyages I did exactly the same things: in the morning I went to see the Vermeer in the Czernin Collection, and in the afternoon I did not go to visit Freud because I invariably learned he was out of town for reasons of health.” (Emphasis in the original.) Finally, Dalí set up an appointment to meet with the 82-year-old Freud in London in the summer of 1938. Dalí recounts that “we spoke little, but we devoured each other with our eyes.” This may have been less romantic than Dalí frames it; Freud had mouth cancer, and an artificial palate made it difficult for him to speak.

Nevertheless, Dalí showed Freud his painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus, the first painting he made entirely using his paranoiac critical method, as well as an article he wrote on paranoia. The psychoanalyst later wrote to Stefan Zweig, who arranged the meeting, that Dalí was an “undoubtedly perfect technical master” who forced him to reconsider his opinion of Surrealists.

5. THE SURREALISTS DIDN’T WANT HIM.

While Dalí is considered a Surrealist, his fellow Surrealists, many of them communists, tried to expel him from their movement early in his career over his fascist sympathies. In 1934, the “father of Surrealism,” the writer André Breton, called members of the movement to his apartment in Paris. His order against the painter read: “Dalí having been found guilty on several occasions of counterrevolutionary actions involving the glorification of Hitlerian fascism, the undersigned propose that he be excluded from surrealism as a fascist element and combated by all available means.”

Breton and his supporters were offended by Dalí’s depiction of Lenin in his 1933 work The Enigma of William Tell, as well as by the fascination he expressed for Hitler, who he later said “turned him on.” Furthermore, he had painted a swastika on the armband of the nurse in his painting The Weaning of Furniture-Nutrition, a detail his fellow Surrealists forced him to paint over.

The incident didn’t mark the end of Dalí’s dalliances with fascism. He later became a supporter of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, meeting with the general twice at his palace in Madrid, including to personally deliver a portrait of Franco’s niece.

6. GEORGE ORWELL WAS NOT A FAN, EITHER.

When the English critic and novelist reviewed Dalí’s autobiography in 1944, he did not hold back in his assessment of this painter’s character. Dalí admits to a number of amoral acts in the book without any show of remorse, including kicking his toddler sister in the head and pushing a boy off a 15-foot-tall bridge as a child. (The book is described by the Dalí Foundation as “an account full of truths, half-truths, and ‘falsehoods,’” so these events may never have happened.) Allowing that the painter was an incredibly skilled artist, Orwell was still horrified, and wasn’t afraid to call him out. “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being,” he wrote in the essay. Orwell, who traveled to Spain to fight with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, was also repulsed by the painter’s politics (or lack thereof). “When the European War approaches he has one preoccupation only: how to find a place which has good cookery and from which he can make a quick bolt if danger comes too near,” he mocked.

7. HE WORKED WITH ALFRED HITCHCOCK …

In the 1940s, Hitchcock commissioned Dalí to help him create a dream sequence for Spellbound, his 1945 thriller starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. “I wanted Dalí because of the architectural sharpness of his work,” Hitchcock explained in one of the extensive interviews he gave to fellow filmmaker François Truffaut in 1962. Hitchcock hoped that Dalí could bring some of the vivid imagery of his work to the dream sequence the movie called for, but the director got a bit more Surrealism than he bargained for. As Hitchcock told Truffaut, “Dalí had some strange ideas; he wanted a statue to crack like a shell falling apart, with ants crawling all over it, and underneath, there would be Ingrid Bergman, covered by the ants! It just wasn’t possible.”

8. … AND WALT DISNEY.

In the wake of his work with Hitchcock, Walt Disney approached Dalí in 1945 about joining Disney Studio to work on an animated film called Destino, featuring a score by Mexican composter Armando Dominguez. Dalí had drawn up 22 oil paintings and stacks of drawings, and he and legendary Disney designer John Hench created storyboards for the film. But only eight months after they started, the project was shelved for financial reasons, with only 15 seconds of demo reel completed. (Disney and Dalí remained friends despite the hiccup.) In 1999, Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, decided to restart the production. Animators at Walt Disney Studios Paris painstakingly translated Dalí’s original storyboards to create a film faithful to his vision. The 6-minute short was released in 2003.

9. HE LOVED CAULIFLOWER.

In 1955, Dalí arrived at the Sorbonne in Paris for a lecture in a Rolls-Royce filled to the brim with what Time magazine called “a quaint profusion of fresh cauliflower”—around 1100 pounds worth, packed to the roof. He proceeded to explain to an audience of 2000 people that “Everything ends up in the cauliflower!” The painter told journalist Mike Wallace in a nearly nonsensical interview in 1958 that the point of the stunt was that he had discovered “the logarithmic curve of cauliflower.”

10. HE HAD AN INTENSE MARRIAGE.

Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala look up at one of his paintings.
Dalí and Gala look up at his painting The Madonna of Port Llegat, which the artist painted using Gala as the model for the Madonna.
Allan, Express/Getty Images

Dalí met his future wife, Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, who went by Gala, in 1929, while she was married to Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. (Theirs was something of an open marriage, and they both regularly had affairs.) Dalí met Eluard in Paris and invited him and several other artists to visit him at his home in Cadaqués over the summer. Eluard brought Gala and their daughter Cecile there, and Gala and Dalí fell in love and became inseparable. Gala eventually divorced Eluard, and she and Dalí married in a civil ceremony in 1934, with the approval of Eluard, who remained on good terms with Gala.

Gala became Dalí’s muse, portrait model, and business manager. He even signed his paintings with both of their names, explaining in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí that “It is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Dalí bought Gala a centuries-old Catalan castle in the small town of Púbol in 1969, creating a retreat for her that he would only visit if he got her written permission. "Everything celebrates the cult of Gala, even the round room, with its perfect echo that crowns the building as a whole and which is like a dome of this Galactic cathedral,” he wrote of the home in his book The Unspeakable Confessions. When Gala died in 1982, the distraught painter broke the Spanish law prohibiting the moving of corpses without official permission, putting her in the backseat of his car to drive her from their home in Port Lligat to Púbol, where she had wanted to be buried. Dalí moved there after her death to be close to her. It’s now the Gala-Dalí Castle House Museum.

11. HE APPEARED ON GAME SHOWS.

Dalí was a guest on several game shows during his lifetime. In 1957, he made an appearance on the show What’s My Line, serving as the unnamed guest whose career a panel of blindfolded guests had to identify. Despite host John Daly’s best efforts to rein in the artist, he proved to be a difficult nut to crack, since he tried to answer “yes” to every question, including “Do you have anything to do with sports, or any form of athletic endeavor?” He was ultimately identified by a final question about whether or not he had a “rather well-known” mustache.

12. HE AND MARCEL PROUST REPORTEDLY LIKED THE SAME HAIR PRODUCTS.

Dalí’s gravity-defying facial hair became a topic of conversation when the artist appeared on a 1954 episode of The Name’s the Same. Host Robert Q. Lewis called the mustache "quite beautiful” early in the show, and when panelist Gene Rayburn brought it up later—“Are you kidding with the thing?” he asked, gesturing as if twirling a mustache—Dalí answered exactly how you might expect him to. “This is the most serious part of my personality,” he said. He then went on to explain that his facial hair had some literary influence. “It’s a very simple Hungarian mustache. Mr. Marcel Proust used the same kind of pomade for his mustache.” As for the physics of the thing, it was all in the pomade, he said. He declined to discuss exactly how he got his facial hair to grow to such insane lengths.

13. HIS MUSTACHE HAS ITS OWN BOOK …

In 1954, Dalí published a book with photographer Philippe Halsman entirely devoted to his mustache, featuring 28 images of the iconic facial hair. Halsman and Dalí met in 1941 and collaborated for decades, creating what are still some of the most recognizable portraits of the artist, including Dalí Atomicus, featuring the artist suspended in midair along with several cats, an easel, a bucket of water, and a chair. Each page of Dali’s Mustache: A Photographic Interview presents a short question from Halsman, with answers from Dalí printed on the next page, below the photograph. The results are, as one would expect, often absurd. “Dali, what makes you tick?” one page asks, for instance. “My hairspring, of course,” Dalí answers. The photographs showed Dalí with a mustache twisted into an infinity symbol, dressed as the Mona Lisa, and using his facial hair as a paintbrush, to name a few examples.

14. … AND REMAINS INTACT TO THIS DAY.

In July 2017, Dalí’s body was exhumed as part of a paternity suit brought by a woman who claimed to be his daughter. The exhumation proved the woman wrong, but it did yield one unexpected discovery: His mustache lives on. According to the forensic experts who saw the body, his trademark waxed 'stache has remained intact since his 1989 death. “The mustache preserved its classic 10-past-10 position," Lluís Peñuelas of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation told the Spanish paper El País (as translated by NPR). The doctor who embalmed Dalí in 1989 called it “a miracle.”

15. HE DID A PAINTING FOR RIKERS ISLAND.

In 1965, Dalí was scheduled to make a visit to the prison at Rikers Island to give an art lesson to inmates. But on the day the lesson was supposed to take place, sickness confined him to his New York hotel room, and he canceled. Instead, he made the prisoners a painting, a Surrealist take on the crucifixion of Jesus. The painting, unknown to the outside world, hung near a cafeteria trash can in the prison until the 1980s, when it was put away, then rehung near the prison’s entrance where the inmates couldn’t access it. That spot proved more dangerous than the ketchup-splattered wall by the trash cans—in 2003, a group of prison officers stole it, replacing it with a cheap imitation. The officers were prosecuted, but the painting was never recovered. One of the thieves pointed fingers at his conspirator, an assistant deputy warden named Benny Nuzzo, saying that Nuzzo panicked and destroyed the painting after they committed the crime.

16. HE WASN’T ABOVE COMMERCIAL WORK.

Dalí’s art doesn’t only appear in galleries and museums. He also did plenty of commercial work. (Fellow Surrealist André Breton nicknamed him “Avida Dollars,” or “eager for dollars.”) He created ads for De Beers Diamonds, S.C. Johnson & Company, Gap, and Datsun station wagons. (The Gap ad featured the tagline “Salvador Dalí wore khakis.”) Between 1938 and 1971, he created four covers for Vogue, and in 1945, one for Town & Country. In one example of his relentless self-promotion, he was even a celebrity spokesperson, shilling for brands like Alka-Seltzer and the French chocolate company Lanvin. Some of his commercial art endures today—you can still see his work in the Chupa Chups lollipop logo.

17. HE DESIGNED SWIMSUITS.

Dalí poses next to a model wearing one of his bathing suits.
Reg Lancaster, Express/Getty Images

Dalí occasionally moonlighted as a fashion designer, bringing some of his signature motifs to womenswear. He collaborated with Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli to create clothing inspired by his paintings, like a dress with drawer-like pockets inspired by The Anthropomorphic Cabinet, a shoe hat inspired by a photo Dalí took of Gala, and a lobster-print dress worn by Wallis Simpson in a Vogue photoshoot in 1937. (Dalí regularly put lobsters in his paintings, often using them to represent his fear of castration.)

He also designed a line of swimsuits for a clothing manufacturer in Wisconsin named Jack A. Winter. The creepy bathing suits (on video here) included a top that looked like a sandwich board and featured a giant pair of eyes, and a bikini that inexplicably came with an inflatable baseball catcher. The suits didn’t make it to market, but Dalí reportedly took the inflatables back to his home to use in his pool.

18. HE ALMOST ASPHYXIATED AT AN ART OPENING.

In 1936, Dalí had himself fitted for a deep diving suit in advance of the International Exhibition of Surrealism, a major London art show where his work would be displayed along with other renowned modern artists like Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Joan Miró, Rene Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp. Dalí planned to give a lecture in the diving suit while holding a billiard cue and two wolfhounds on leashes.

No one could hear his lecture, called “Some Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms,” through the airtight suit—which a mechanic had bolted him into before the talk—and a few minutes in, he began to suffocate. He tried to gesture that he needed help removing the helmet, but the audience took it as part of his performance and laughed. As biographer Meryle Secrest recounts in her book Salvador Dali: The Surrealist Jester, “The more he gesticulated the more they laughed and it took some time, during which Dali thought he would faint dead away, before, as [Surrealist poet] David Gascoyne explained, ‘we realized he was in some distress,’” and Gascoyne rescued him from the bolted helmet with a wrench [PDF]. (As with much of the artist’s life, there's a bit of debate over the exact details of the incident—Dalí himself said Gala and the poet Edward James saved him with a hammer, neglecting to mention Gascoyne at all.)

The incident certainly fit with the outlandish public image Dalí had cultivated. “I believe the Dalinian mythology which was already so crystallized upon my return to New York owed a great deal to the violent eccentricity of this lecture in a diving suit,” the artist later wrote in The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. The event was fictionalized in Michael Chabon’s book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which one of the characters rescues the artist from a similar predicament at a New York City cocktail party.

Being an exhibition full of Surrealists, Dalí’s stunt was hardly the oddest behavior on display that day. Painter Sheila Legge arrived at the show’s opening carrying a pork chop that quickly went bad in the June heat, and poet Dylan Thomas went around offering visitors teacups of boiled string.

19. HE PUBLISHED A COOKBOOK …

Dalí and Gala were known for throwing elaborate, bizarre dinner parties. At one, a fundraiser in Monterey, California in 1941, guests like Bob Hope and Alfred Hitchcock were asked to dress up as their own dreams. (Gala wore a unicorn’s head.) Dalí borrowed monkeys from the San Francisco zoo for the evening, and guests were served fish in satin shoes, followed by live frogs. The event was so lavish that, rather than raising money for refugee artists, as it was designed to, it actually lost money.

In 1973, Dalí released his own cookbook, Les Diners de Gala, a how-to guide to Surrealist cooking that featured some of Dalí’s favorite motifs, like snails, lobsters, and eggs. In keeping with the often sexual themes of his paintings, he also included recipes for an “aphrodisiac” course. The book was illustrated with photos of Dalí himself in front of banquets of food, his drawings, and some of his paintings, like his work Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds (1936). The rare cookbook was re-released by TASCHEN in 2016. His 1977 book about wine, The Wines of Gala, was re-released by the same publisher the next year.

20. … AND A NOVEL.

Published in 1944, Hidden Faces follows a group of aristocrats living in France before and during World War II. Dalí announced it with signature flair, saying that the “new times of intellectual responsibility” had prompted him to write “a long and boring ‘true novel.” The New York Times reviewed it under the headline “It's Boring, but Is It Art?” (A paywalled version is here.) “His sofa in the shape of lips showed more ‘intellectual responsibility’ than this,” reviewer Mark Schorer wrote in his scathing column.

Upon its re-release in 1974, other readers were more impressed. A Publishers Weekly review trumpeted that it “deals brilliantly with love and lovers, war and death, passions and perversions,” while the Observer's John Melly wrote that it is “so full of visual invention, so witty, so charged with an almost Dickensian energy that it's difficult not to accept its author's own arrogant valuation of himself as a genius.”

21. SESAME STREET SPOOFED HIM.

Instantly recognizable by his trademark mustache, Dalí inspired a mustachioed Sesame Street puppet known as Salvador Dada. The Muppets have worked in a number of Dalí spoofs over the years, including in a 2015 special called The Cookie Thief, in which a few of the Muppets see a painting called The Persistence of Cookies at the Museum of Modern Cookie.

22. HE BUILT HIS OWN MUSEUM.

In the 1960s, the mayor of Figueres, Spain—Dalí’s hometown—asked the artist to donate a piece to the city’s art museum, Museu de l'Empordà. Instead, he declared he would donate an entire museum. He began refurbishing the Figueres Municipal Theatre, which was almost entirely destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, and turned it into the Salvador Dalí Theatre-Museum. The museum, with its Dalí-designed facade decorated with sculptures of giant eggs and bread rolls, officially opened in 1974, but Dalí continued to expand it up until his death.

He also lived there during the last years of his life. After his castle in Púbol was damaged by an electrical fire, he moved into an annex of the museum, the Galatea Tower (named after Gala) in 1984, largely withdrawing from public life until his death in 1989. After he died, he was buried under the theater stage.

23. HIS WORK IS INCREDIBLY VALUABLE NOW.

In February 2018, Sotheby’s put up for auction two largely unknown Salvador Dalí paintings, rediscovered within the personal collection of an Argentinean family. The artist had originally painted them for Countess de Cuevas de Vera, an aristocrat who split her time between France—where she hob-nobbed with artists like Dalí and Picasso—and Buenos Aires. They were painted in 1931 and 1932 and were passed down through the countess’s family. “These are the kind of painting that I do my job for,” Thomas Bompard of Sotheby’s told The Guardian before the works went up for auction, saying he felt “absolutely privileged to be the one to bring these gems to the market for the first time.” The two paintings sold for a combined $8 million.

The Mona Lisa Does Not Actually Cause the ‘Mona Lisa Effect’

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? By a certain Leonardo da Vinci painting, perhaps? Scientists call it the Mona Lisa effect: the sense that the eyes of a figure in a painting or photograph are following you as you move around the room. But according to a new study in the journal i-Perception, the eyes in the Mona Lisa painting don’t actually fit the criteria.

The Mona Lisa effect is real—scholars have documented the phenomenon for nearly 2000 years. The effect doesn’t just depend on the direction of the painted figure’s gaze. The figure’s head position in the painting and the slant of the picture itself create specific geometric conditions in space, distorting the viewer’s perception of the painted person’s stare. The sensation can occur no matter where the viewer is in relation to the portrait.

Until now, according to researchers at Bielefeld University in Germany, no one had tested the effect on the Mona Lisa itself. Gernot Horstmann and Sebastian Loth, members of the university’s Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology, designed a study in which 24 participants viewed 15 different sections of the Mona Lisa painting on a monitor. A simple ruler was placed in front of the monitor, and each viewer marked the spot where they thought the gaze landed on the ruler, which indicated its angle.

An angle of zero meant a straight-at-the-viewer look. A slightly sideward gaze toward the viewer’s ear, corresponding to a 5-degree angle, would still prompt the sense of being watched. "But as the angle increases, you would not have the impression of being looked at,” Horstmann said in a statement.

After analyzing about 2000 assessments from participants, the researchers found that viewers felt the gaze of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece to be at an angle of 15.4 degrees—looking off to their right-hand side, rather than directly at them.

“It is clear that the term Mona Lisa effect is nothing but a misnomer,” Horstmann said. But even though this particular phenomenon has been demystified, people's obsession with the painting will surely continue.

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

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