Last week Betony Vernon, the Paris-based jewelry designer, relaunched her collection of jewelry that double as instruments of sexual pleasure, at Dover Street Market in New York.
Though Vernon makes fine jewelry as well, her reputation comes from those of her products that are the stuff of sexual fantasy. Or, in the world according to Vernon, sexual reality.
In 1992 when Vernon launched a jewelry collection called Sado-Chic, she knew she hit a nerve. The sexually charged collection was based on pieces that connect to each other. The emotional and physical connection of lovers was now manifested in silver rings and chains.
“The idea of actually wearing something together, that connects us together, fascinated me,” Vernon told me during our conversation before the DSM event. “Because when I shared it myself, the first time with someone I thought, ‘Wow, there’s something happening. It’s psycho-physical.’”
Vernon talks a lot about openness, and her demeanor reflects that. Tall, dressed in tight black clothing that complements her dark red hair she cuts a striking, even imposing, figure.
But her gaze, her smile, and her voice are inviting and honest. She is a refreshing presence in the world where most people hide behind their self-constructed tortoise shells.
We live in a look-but-don’t-touch culture where runaway narcissism fueled by Instagram is becoming an end in itself, an ersatz eroticism with no negative downside – you can only like something. This is a realm of emotional cowards, because real intimacy can hurt as much as it can elate.
“The fear is the biggest issue here,” said Vernon. “The fear of getting hurt, the fear of getting involved. But as Shakespeare once said, ‘If you don’t make a commitment, then you don’t know.’”
That we live in sexually liberating times is partly a myth (a recent survey published in the New York Times concluded that young people actually have less sex today). Meanwhile, our pop culture has become hyper-sexualized, but this is mere vicarious consumption. There is more porn and less sex.
“I think that sex is no longer the taboo. But intimacy, pleasure itself, and love are,” said Vernon. “We are afraid to become connected to people. I am teaching lovers to slow it down, and build more intimate relationships. If we have knowledge and understanding, then fear subsides. Fear is our biggest enemy. How many times have you heard someone say, ‘Ugh, I just want sex because I’m afraid of getting hurt or abandoned again’? Rather than saying, ‘Wow, I had a privilege to love.’”
The other thing that characterizes relationships today is that sex is increasingly becoming transactional, a currency to be used to get something in return instead of simply giving and receiving pleasure. Vernon captures the above tendencies nicely in a term “fast sex.” Like fast food, it is superficial, goal-oriented, and ultimately empty. “It’s consumer sex,” said she. “But this is also the way that people are operating because they have the impression that they don’t have time for intimacy; they don’t have time to make love to each other.”
“We can’t experience the capacity of the body to provide pleasure and create connections if we don’t take time to explore,” she continued. “I think that we as lovers have to understand that there’s a difference between sex and sex with an intimate pulse. I’m not interested in fast sex. The risk of feeling empty is really high. And the things that I invite lovers to do, you don’t do with strangers or with people you don’t have an intimate relationship with. It doesn’t mean that you have to be in love with them. But it should be a lover.”
In 2001 Vernon decided to push the envelope further through her jewelry and created a new collection, “Paradise Found.” The precious silver objects double as sexual ones. They are playful and just the right degree of scandalizing, but also elegant and chic.
“My goal is to get people to play, to do something that you couldn’t do with your hands alone.” She lifted her hand and showed me a ring she was wearing, an open sliver rim ending with two spheres.
She turned the ring, so the spheres pointed inwards. “I can give you a massage with that,” she said. “I could never give you the same sensation with my hands alone. And I don’t really have to have any technique, because it’s in the ring. The idea of giving you the power to please.”
The retailers, however, were not so keen. “I lost about 21 clients that season. They asked, ‘What are you doing? This is so kinky, we didn’t know you were into S&M.’ And I thought, ‘I never considered myself, or put myself in that box.’ And so I realized that I have a lot of work to do beyond my design studio and my jewelry creation.”
Vernon decided to put the philosophical insights she has gained through her sexual experience in some sort of order and she began writing a book.
“The Boudoir Bible” was published by Rizzoli in 2013. Just like the jewelry, the book is a bridge to Vernon’s own life. But a book is also a vehicle for sharing your thoughts, for explaining yourself to the world.
“There’s so much love infused in what I do,” said she. “Our sexuality has been so pushed aside, the relevance of it. Freud once said that ‘all illness or neurosis stems from sexual frustration.’ I don’t always agree with Freud, but I understand that sexual frustration is a super dangerous thing. It has repercussions on everything in our lives. While sexual release and satisfaction makes us more whole, and I think it’s really important.”
For Vernon, the essential thing is connection through intimacy. It’s a refreshing thought in the world where men and women are taught to be enemies. “Empowerment,” the word that has been spoiled with overuse and misuse by both the feminists and the myriad of flesh-baring starlets, feels fresh again when Vernon talks about empowering both women and men through her work.
Vernon views sex as a way of getting to know each other, perhaps the ultimate way, and that’s what her jewelry is about. “My objects are not something you would share with somebody you don’t have some kind of connection with,“ said she.
At the end of our conversation I could not resist and asked Vernon if men find her intimidating. “I guess, maybe sometimes they do,” she said. “I understand it, being a liberated woman today, on a mission. I still do have daily struggles. I find myself up against a lot of barriers, and I stand my ground. But I also emphasize the fact that we have to take this journey together. Without men, we are not women.”
All images courtesy of Betony Vernon.
Portrait by Michael James O’Brien.