Think of boudoir? Think of Betony.
This is the unwritten rule in the world of erotic jewellery- a world which the Virginia Born, Paris-residing designer and author has at her ring encrusted fingertips.
It is, however, quite impossible to label Betony Vernon, as alongside heading her eponymously named jewellery brand while boasting a best-selling book, Vernon is the daughter of a civil rights activist, an art historian, an internationally recognised public speaker, and an empowered woman who is working to rewrite the conceptions of pleasure- one jewel at a time.
After exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert, the Paris Museum of Modern Art and Triennale Design Museum in Milan, Magazine sat down with Betony Vernon to catch a glimpse of the woman behind the boudoir.
Betony, you grew under the wing of a strong female figure, as your mother was a British civil rights activist. Do you keep your mothers legacy in mind while designing?
I was actually legally separated from my mother in 1972 at the age of four. She lost custody of me and my three sisters due, in part, to her involvement in America’s civil rights movement in 1960. I didn’t know anything about this until 2001 when the Woolworth’s in downtown North Carolina became a civil rights museum. It was there, at the Whites-Only lunch counter that mother joined the Greensboro Four in the first pacifist “sit-down” for civil rights.
When I asked my mother why she didn’t tell me about her involvement in the movement, she told me flat out “I didn’t tell you because it wasn’t about me.” This was probably the most important lesson I learned from Ann Dearsley-Vernon.
My desire to instigate change and help make the world a kinder, more loving and pleasurable place must be epigenetic. My mother was my biggest fan, and without her support in my adult life, I might not have had the courage to pursue my mission to dismantle the pleasure taboo – one jewel and one reader at a time.
So, how important is it for you to make sure women feel empowered while wearing your pieces?
I aim to empower and not only women! I believe that the sexually empowered empower others in return and any empowered individual, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, help make this world a better place for everyone.
Alongside the memories of your mother, do you ever see influences of your childhood in Virginia in your work?
I can only remember missing my mother. My father was from Martha’s vineyard. He was a helicopter pilot and was rarely home, but when he was, our time together was focused on learning and creating. When he was absent, my eldest sister did her best to keep us safe and out of trouble.
The lack of parental control was dangerous at times but not being parented also had an advantage – It left my sexual persona intact and permitted me to be unadulterated myself. This only became evident to me later on in life, but today I consider it one of the most amazing gifts ever bestowed me, alongside being raised in the bosom of mother nature.
Tazewell Virginia is a tiny Appalachian town. My father chose not to have a television in the house. I was, for the most part, home-schooled. I studied classical piano too. We played in the woods, and this led me to feel very connected to nature. My father taught me to love every living thing equally – I learned the names of the flowers, the trees and every wild thing living in the territory, from the most docile to the most dangerous. He taught me how to look and see, and when we learn to see, we automatically connect more deeply to each other – and to life.
Do I believe there is a big contrast between the erotic industry in America and France? The Erotic sector in America is pornographic and fast; it is consumerism at its worst. The US Sex industry propagates pleasure taboo. In contrast with the American idea that sex is “naughty” and “dirty”, the French view sex as natural, necessary and most of all, pleasurable. In France, the pleasure of the senses is celebrated, not denied. The French are gourmand from the cuisine to the boudoir and to deprive oneself of life’s simple pleasures – be it sex or food –would be the ultimate taboo.
How does the city of Paris influence your work?
What has this location taught you about erotic design? I fell in love with Paris when I was in my teens because it made me feel free. It was almost like falling in love with a person. “She” allowed me to be myself. Tout est permis in Paris, I chose to leave Milan for Paris at the turn of the century. I felt safe in Paris, and when you feel safe, you bloom! I bloomed in Paris also because it was wildly more connected and cosmopolitan than any city in Italy at the time.
Paris was amazing for my career on many levels but in terms of my creativity, and my craft, I continued to be dependent, as is still the case today, on my “other” life, my life in Italy.
The truth is, I live a double life, j’ai deux amours, Paris and Italy.
In a post #MeToo world, many women who act provocatively are aware of the thin line between feeling empowered and coming across as subservient. What would your label suggest women should do to ensure they get this balance right?
I aim to empower my collectors to be themselves, not to “act” in one way or another. To “be” your authentic, true self is never to need to “act” or try to be anyone else and this is empowering in itself. If you are in a sexually assertive mood, have fun with it. If you feel like topping your consenting lover all night long, celebrate in bliss. If you prefer to bottom the day away is nobody’s business but your own.
The Dalai Lama teaches us that “we are all born to be happy”. I agree that being happy is the most important thing of all. So my advice would be to do whatever it takes to feel satisfied, and don’t mind what others have to say about what makes you feel empowered, and thus happy.
Pleasure is my religion, not only when it comes to sex, but in every area of my life – au Plaisir!
You once shared how “Western culture no longer has many taboos around sex, but ‘rather a taboo against pleasure. Do you believe your label can change this mindset?
When I started designing the erotic jewellery collection in 1992, I had no idea that I was dipping into dangerous domains or that I would ever have the opportunity to change people’s lives or heal through my work. I was 22 years old and as sexually liberated as I was naive. It didn’t take me long to understand that it was acceptable for fashion to be sexy but that anything that had to do with real sex or enhanced pleasure was considered unacceptable and shunned by the system. I decided to go on a mission to dismantle the pleasure taboo.
I quickly became accustomed to being misinterpreted, pigeon-holed and shamed for my pro-pleasure approach to design and life. Still, I never stopped believing that the nerve that I had touched must be probed and sooner or later desensitised by integrating pleasure into our lives to the point that it is no longer taboo. In 2022 it will be 30 years since I coined the term Sado-chic to name my first erotic jewellery collection. At the time, I had no idea that I was embarking on a life-long career in erotic design, art, and literature.
This conversation makes me think of the question: “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
In retrospect, I realise that if I had been dependent on the fashion system alone to be heard and evolve the work, I would never have been able to make enough noise to be heard. So I frequently crossed the boundaries between art, fashion and design and therapy to continue evolving my pro-pleasure concept across multiple fields, mediums and platforms. I can’t thank enough the forward-thinking journalists around the globe that bravely broke the barriers with me by pushing my work into the public light over the years. Without them, I would not have been able to help pioneer the 3rd sexual revolution, which is still on a rousing course today.
The relationship between art and fashion is a key theme at Runway Gallery. You also work across both industries as you craft artistic pieces alongside your jewellery. How do you feel your knowledge in art influences your designs?
I am an art historian in primus, and my love of the arts has always informed and penetrated everything that I do. Culture is to creativity what butter and cream are to pastries, the more you add, the better.
You also practice interior design, and your spaces are described as ‘Boudoirs’ and ‘Theatre Stages’. However, if you had to pick one theatrical performance that has left the biggest impression on you, what would it be, and why?
Pina Bausch’s dance-theatre performance – Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) performed at the Palais Garnier Paris Opera House; I think it was in 2010. It was probably the most moving theatre experience I have ever had: I remember the étoile ballerina Eleonora Abbagnata, who was the chosen one, the one to be “sacrificed,” dancing herself into an emotional frenzy that ended with a standing ovation. The Parisian audience is not quick to stand in ovation, but they could not stay seated this time.
When the exhausted star burst into tears, I joined her. I love the work of Pina Bausch. She was interested in relationships and the dynamics they generate between people. She was interested in what moves people, and her choreography never fails to move me, and this stellar performance is one that I will always remember.
How did your life change after the publication of The Boudoir Bible?
The Boudoir Bible permitted me to achieve my goal of reaching a wider public. From 2002 to 2006 I was teaching sexual wellness seminars for individuals and groups in London, New York and LA and while I managed to empower a handful of individuals, including the author of 50 Shades of grey who was wildly inspired by the Sado-Chic collection, The Boudoir Box and my philosophy of the boudoir in general.
My pro-pleasure teachings, like my erotic jewellery collections, were not democratic. They were limited to a tiny niche. I dreamt of making a bigger difference, and this meant that I had to reach a wider public. I was convinced that the best way to do this was to write a book. I started writing in 2006 and was published by Rizzoli in 2013. Today The Boudoir Bible is published in 8 languages, and it reached best-seller status in France in 2017. It is now in its 3rd reprint in English. It has been described as the “modern-day sequel to the Joy of Sex” and is considered an ever-green by Rizzoli. Not a day goes by that I am not thanked by my readers. I believe that it is just the beginning.
Did the focus of your work change while in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic? How did you evolve to build a brand focused on intimacy during a time of isolation and loneliness?
Covid made it pretty clear to all that we must build increasingly solid intimate relationships with ourselves and the ones we love. It also reinforced the importance of having an online presence. In preparation for the future, my team and I worked from a distance to organise the BV archives. Generated over 30 years of work – it is comprised of over 2,000 BV jewellery designs and approximately 13,000 images! We still have a lot of work to do before we can say the job is done, but we are off to a good start, and my jewellery is now available online at 1stDibs.
Covid-19 also pushed me to do things that I would typically have been too shy to do, and I’m not only talking about taking selfies. There are aspects of my work that I only share with those who work with me personally to manage, for example, the potentially devastating effects of sexual abuse or trauma or to salvage an intimate relationship gone awry. I have always been reticent about my work’s therapeutical aspects, but as a certified hypnotherapist, I suddenly felt obliged to join the COVID-19 side-lines. I got out of my sex-related comfort zone and helped my clients manage everything from anxiety to phobia, depression, and addiction with therapeutic sessions online.
Can you reveal details on any upcoming projects you are excited about in the near future?
The future looks bright with authenticity. Things will get real, so we must be prepared to be flexible and be genuinely willing to adapt. I took advantage of lockdown to prepare myself mentally, physically and spiritually for this brave new world, and now I am ready.
I also feel the need to be closer to my artisans in Italy and available to help my country rebound post- Covid-19 so I will set up my studio in Tuscany by the end of 2021. I am currently working on a series of objects for the home. One of these objects will be unveiled in an upcoming show at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris. I am also preparing to publish a coffee table book. In 2022 I will celebrate the 30th anniversary of my erotic collections, Paradise Found.
Lead photograph by Raul Higuera.