Betony Vernon is a multifaceted designer whose work sits at the intersection of art, fashion and sexuality. Born in Virginia, she moved to Milan after high school and began to teach metal smithing. After exploring traditional jewelry design—and collaborating with Missoni, Gianfranco Ferré and design firm Fornasetti—she created her signature Paradise Found collection, which features fine jewelry that also has a discreet sexual function. A series of salons in the U.K. beginning in 2001 accelerated her journey into sexual anthropology, and this year, she compiled her accumulated wisdom into The Boudoir Bible, a modern guide to expanding the horizons of pleasure. As she prepares to celebrate the tome in New York City this evening, we spoke to her about style and sexuality.
You wear a lot of hats—jewelry designer, sex educator, now author. How would you describe the common thread through all of your interests?
In 1992 I did the first erotic collection. As the collection grew, I did it quite secretly. When the September 11th disaster occurred in 2001, I felt empowered to come out with what I was doing, and I lost all of my clients in the fashion system. Maybe part of it was because of September 11th, but I’m quite sure that it was also due to the nature of the jewels. A lot of the objects have this double life. You can wear them out and no one would know unless they’re “in the know.” I realized that people pigeonholed certain tools, certain pleasures, as S/M [sadomasochism]. I don’t consider myself S/M; I consider myself curious. So I went on this mission to dismantle categories and open sexual horizons through knowledge. In the book I break down misinterpretations with understanding. It’s not really a how-to—I believe that if we have a skill set, we have a box of tools, we have knowledge, and then we can be more creative.
You’re very interested in ceremony and ritual. What about that speaks to you?
I think that in today’s fast-paced world, we’ve lost our sense of ceremony. And the same goes for our sex lives. We’ve come to this point of consumer sex. Fast sex is the standard. Statistics show that people make love in anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes, and that is not time enough for either a man or a woman to actually experience the real extent of their body’s capacity to attain and provide pleasure. Our sexual lives are the glue in a relationship. Sexual knowledge is fundamental, and we’ve lived in mystery for so long.
How do you use fashion to express your personal style and your sexuality?
Fashion is a powerful tool. You know what it feels like as a woman to be in your daily gear, maybe with a ballerina flat on, and decide that you’re going to go out in the evening and wear a high heel. Your attitude is completely shifted, just as it is if you wear beautiful lingerie underneath that nobody sees. It’s a mirror of the way that you feel. There’s a lot of what would normally be classified as S/M language happening in the fashion system at the moment. Look what Louis Vuitton did with all of the bizarre-inspired shoes and materials—shiny, shiny leather and latex. You can’t wear those things unless you’re feeling empowered. I’m very interested, in my work as a designer, with objects that actually change the way that we move through the world somehow. For example, [I have a] ring that dresses the thumb and forefinger. When you wear that ring, you are more centered, you are more in the moment. But it is also a ring that was designed to please a man. I also have the power to get rid of a headache. I can relieve back pain. I can give you a fabulous massage. I know what the power is behind that object, and you as the wearer know that there is that possibility to please.
Where do you hope to take the Paradise Found jewelry collection and your other design work in the future?
I’m working in marble at the moment. I did a show in Milan at the Triennale Design Museum. It is a celebration of sex, of woman, man and the sexual union, and it’s called the “Origin.” Even though the body is my point of departure with these works, it’s the first time I’ve worked on a monumental scale. I have a project that includes several other pieces in marble. My jewelry collection is a signature collection. It evolves at its own rate. I don’t adhere to the seasons of the fashion system. I think that this is in part the nature of fine jewelry. One of my big goals has been to create objects that actually resist the turning of the times. I always say—sort of tongue-in-cheek—a whip is a whip is a whip. God forbid that sex becomes fashionable, because if it’s fashionable that means it will go out of style! [My jewels] are pieces that my collectors will keep with them for a lifetime.
If someone was coming to your work as a complete newbie and they pick up The Boudoir Bible, what would be the first thing you’d advise them to do?
I’d say, put your judgment aside, and open up your mind and your heart and let pleasure in. The book gives permission to explore. Understand that you’re not obliged to do all of it. Read it, even if you don’t use it—it’s good to understand why some people do. And the occasion might arise. Who doesn’t want to have a more satisfying sex life? I don’t know anybody. It’s one of the few moments when adults can let loose and have fun and enjoy each other, and exchange on a level with another person that is otherwise impossible.
What would be your ideal Valentine’s Day?
My ideal Valentine’s Day would be to share this day, like any other day, with my lover, and definitely have a sexual ceremony. Definitely [laughing]! But I consider every day potentially a Valentine’s Day. Try something new. Love each other. Enjoy it. The only way to maintain the fires burning is to have a skill set that allows you to evolve as a sexually mature adult.