Erotic fine jewelry designer and self-described sexual anthropologist Betony Vernon uses the word “tools,” never “toys,” when referring to her designs. She is a businesswoman, first and foremost, which means she has a clear vision of her brand. She attributes this to knowing exactly who she is and what she wants, and by refusing to stray from her mission: educating adults about sex and empowering them through pleasure.
I first met Betony during Paris Fashion Week in the space where she works one-on-one with her private clients. Eden, as she calls it, is a handsome room that’s just dark enough for your eyes to comfortably adjust and your voice to fall to a whisper. It seemed to hum with a frenetic, sexual energy. It was like a museum that encouraged its patrons to engage with the art hands-on. Fine jewelry was mixed in with the erotic pieces: rings and necklaces, earrings and cuffs, some meant to be worn as simple jewelry, others dual purpose, each inextricable from the brand’s sensual nature. It was a press appointment unlike any other. It’s one thing to meet someone who has good ideas. It’s quite another to hear how she executed them — especially when the initial response was, “You’re crazy.”
When she came to New York for a presentation at Dover Street Market, I had to interview her.
How did you get started?
I’m coming up on my 25th-year celebration of erotic jewelry, design and sexual being. I’ve been designing jewelry since 1986. At the age of 20, I moved to Florence. I began to teach jewelry making in a university-based program in Florence for UCLA and other colleges who do study abroad for American schools.
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I was young, I was naïve and I thought, “This will be my contribution to the jewelry world,” putting a sexual power or sexual possibility, or erotic possibility, into the many facets of jewelry. Jewelry is the most intimate thing we can put on our body, so why not get really intimate, in the literal sense of the word?
What was the catalyst that took you from having an interesting idea to acting on it?
I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend. I was wearing my Sado-Chic Kit, a bracelet attached to a ring with a chain. I passed the ring that was on my finger to my friend, who put it on his finger, and I felt something, like a charge. I felt very connected to this person — more so than ever before — and I had an epiphany. I said to him, “Can you feel it?” And he said yes. No one had more power than the other, [we] were just connected. So that was the realization.
I expanded my erotic jewelry collection and, by 1996, was selling to private clients. One of my top clients for fine jewelry had been Barneys New York. When I showed that bracelet with the attached ring to the buyer, I gave her the same experience, and [judging by her shocked response] I realized I had touched some interesting territory. I understood then that it was a bit early, and that what I was doing was ahead of its time, so I kept working for private clients. After September 2011, I began to focus exclusively on what I had come to call the Paradise Found Fine Erotic Collection.
I went to Paris for sales and didn’t bring any of the pieces I’d been designing for the past 10, 11, 12 years. I just took my erotic jewelry with me…and I lost all my high-end fashion retail clients. I had another epiphany. I realized that if I was going to continue to design my erotic collection, I had to become an educator.
Everybody said, “You’re crazy.” I plowed ahead. I started hosting sexual well-being salons and continued designing for private clients.
What made you keep going? What fueled that drive?
A big part was my own personal needs. My work in the ’90s — and my work today — is a response to the erotic market. The idea of putting plastic inside my body was disturbing. I discovered in my research that a lot of the soft plastics used in the industry aren’t body-safe. Durability was a huge issue. The objects I work with that go inside the body are all in silver. Silver is naturally anti-bacterial so it’s clean and it’s easy to clean. As much as these are objects of pleasure, these are also objects of well-being.
There’s the aesthetic element, too. At the turn of the century, there was a vibrator boom. I was looking at vibrators thinking, “They look like children’s toys, no?” I do believe that we should keep the spirit of play, but I don’t want a hot pink rabbit or an electric blue dolphin inside of me. Sex is something that only adults should be doing, so I proposed an aesthetic for adults who want to have more sophisticated and durable options.
I have never done anything but embrace my own pleasure, and I didn’t understand why everybody else wasn’t embracing their own pleasure, too. The whole body is a sexual organ if we use it that way. It’s a question of knowing that, understanding the body and understanding how to do it. My book, The Boudoir Bible, explains all of this. Men were told for 2,000 years that they were more sexually evolved. But today we know that’s not the truth. That’s exciting because there’s a movement happening. I mean, you’re sitting in front of me, tranquilly, having this conversation with me, which may not have always been the case.
That was going to be my next question. When did you start to see a shift in attitude, and what do you think shifted it?
I decided to become an educator. I didn’t really have a choice. Either I educated my future clients, or I didn’t, and I wouldn’t be where I am today, on this lifelong path, if I hadn’t. I know this path is going to be mine until the day I drop, which is great.
It was also thanks to some very special and bright people in media. If it hadn’t been for the support I received from fearless women who went forth and said, “Hey, I want to talk about this in top-tier magazines around the world…” They found their angle, you know? That started happening around 1995.
How has the internet played a role in the success of your business?
It’s so important for my world. When I started, there were zero retail opportunities for me. That’s why I created my erotic luxury travel case, the Boudoir Box. I became a traveling saleslady. Then Coco de Mer opened in Covent Garden, which was the first erotic retail space “safe” to go to. I was going to sex stores in the ’80s and ’90s, but they were always on the wrong side of town. You wouldn’t even dream of going to those places unless you were on a mission, like I was. When Coco de Mer opened, women could [more easily] go shopping for their sex lives. It was also a luxury environment.
The internet has provided greater access. I have a lot of people coming to me through the internet now who have very specific desires. Sometimes they want to have a bespoke object made or a talk therapy session, and sometimes they want to experience the body-work therapies I have developed over the years. This takes place in my private salon, Eden, in Paris. The internet is amazing because it provides a private space in which to explore my work and it also allows me to explain what a salesperson in a classic retail venue may feel inhibited to talk about.
Can you tell me more about what your work as an educator looks like?
I work privately with a lot of women who seek me out because they’re not finding their pleasure. We have to understand the body and learn to celebrate it.
There’s still a lot of fear around sex. There really is no “safe way” to have sex, but we can have safer sex, more intelligent sex and not shut down. In terms of orgasm and female orgasm, I believe the only way to open those doors is to feel free to do so. I give a lot of permission. A lot of my work hinges on giving permission to people and shedding the detrimental effects of shame.
People feel guilty because they had sex, because they hooked up, because they had anal sex. Guilty, guilty, guilty. The incredible thing about shame is it’s something that you carry inside. It’s a pleasure inhibitor. My breakthrough work here deals with motion. I don’t just sit there and talk to you, I work with the body, I work with hip releasing, with all sorts of things that allow the body to actually speak to us. I want you to find your pleasure, whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s not just a female problem.
What do your business conversations look like now that the attitude around sex is changing, the attitude around what you do is changing, now that there’s more education surrounding your industry?
This year I’m completely standing in the light. I’ve shed all fear. I’ve got nothing to hide. I’m able to actually communicate about what I do today, which is exciting, not just to those within the fashion industry, but also the design industry, the art world. I’m exhibiting my Boudoir Box at the MEDUSA exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
The business aspect is interesting because as much as we’ve moved forward in this sexual arena, there still aren’t many stores that can handle my work. There are brave entities, of course, like Dover Street Market, but catering to retailers is not my focus. My focus is my online business. I know that people who are looking at my work want to do it with intimacy. I’m working on a section of the website that’s for collectors only, so I’m able to represent some of the things that I prefer not to put on the front of the website. I want also to be able to span age groups. There are a lot of young women who follow me and who are interested in my work but maybe can’t afford it today, so we’re talking about what an entry-level price point product might look like, and where it would live.
What sort of advice would you give to someone who wants to start her own business?
Respect what happened before you, know your history and do something fresh. You have to trust yourself. And that’s what I’m helping people to do: to discover who they are at the root, being okay with that, stepping out of the social demands. The fact that I’m a woman who wanted a divorce, who didn’t want kids so I had my fallopian tubes tied — people think I’m crazy when I tell them this. As a young designer, it’s important to look around you for the things that need to be changed. Ask, “How can I make the world a better place?”
I invite people to think outside of the box. Look and see what needs to be fixed. That’s what I did. I believe our sexuality is an integral part of who we are, and if we can find a way to make that part of us balanced and well and resolved, everything else will follow suit.