Who is Betony Vernon? What is she? For one thing, she is tall. Juno-esque. “Titian-tressed,” as the movie magazines used to say back when they were promoting Technicolor.
More importantly she has, for 30 years, been a tireless advocate for sexual well-being and, whisper it, pleasure. Her Sado-Chic jewelry (made in Italy using gold and sterling silver), collaborations with Missoni and Jean Paul Gaultier, exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Musée d’Art Moderne—have blazed her on a boundary-defying trail as a 21st-century love goddess. Her life and work form a dizzying Venn diagram of art and fashion, design and desire.
I met Betony several years ago at La Belle Époque, the Parisian restaurant favored by haute bohemians. The following day, navigating the crush at a Valentino couture show, she ran her hand down my back while wearing her massage ring, reducing me to mush. “I don’t know what you just did, but I loved it,” I said. “And I’m not paying.” It was the beginning of our friendship.
Soon after that, we arranged a portrait sitting at Eden, her atelier (since sold) in the Marais. Hidden behind wooden doors in a building that once belonged to nuns, Betony’s salon couldn’t have been more aptly named. A shadowy jewel box lined in green velvet with her signature ostrich-feather ticklers, silk “tuxedo” cuffs and horsehair whips, displayed, votively lit, in vitrines. Down a spiral staircase to “Heaven,” a fourth-century cavern painted shell pink.
Hanging from the (soundproof) ceiling was the “Theta Rig,” in which braver clients are suspended for 25 minutes, undergoing a form of hypnosis that leads to a feeling of abandonment that is akin to orgasm. (Betony is a certified hypnotherapist.)
Her life and work create a dizzying Venn diagram of art and fashion, design and desire.
Center stage was the Boudoir Box, a two-and-a-quarter-foot-high black leather trunk housing an eye-watering array of silver “jewel tools.” According to Betony, it transforms the energy of a room as soon as it is unlocked. Don’t doubt it. It also causes shrieking alarms and no little consternation at airports on the rare occasions she travels with it.
Though she seems quintessentially and irresistibly European, Betony was born in small-town Virginia in 1968. Her mother, a British civil-rights activist, lost custody of her four children in the early 70s and she was brought up by her father, who was a helicopter pilot, and an older sister.
By the time Betony bought a one-way ticket to Florence in 1990, she had degrees in art history, religious studies, and goldsmithing. In Italy, her odyssey began in earnest. She started working on her jewelry collection in 1992, earned a master’s degree in industrial design, and became a design director for Fornasetti. (She was married to Barnaba Fornasetti, son of the founder Piero Fornasetti, from 2004 to 2014.)
Sex and its central place in our well-being and equilibrium are never far from her mind. She has taught seminars in London, New York, and Los Angeles, and ever keen to reach a wider audience, in 2013 she wrote The Boudoir Bible, an uninhibited instructional guide, published by Rizzoli, that has been translated into nine languages.
If pleasure has been her religion, there has been no shortage of nonbelievers and naysayers keen to censor and shadow-ban her. When she first showed her jewelry collection in New York, nearly 30 years ago, the buyer from Barneys New York was shocked, and there have been frequent run-ins with social-media platforms whose algorithms can turn a blind eye to quasi pornography but attempt to censor eroticism.
This saddens her and strengthens her resolve. Now relocated to rural Italy, where her home is an hour’s drive from Rome, she is contemplating the past and the future. Paradise Found, her new book from Rizzoli, is a lush visual celebration of her three decades as a jewelry designer; her first collection for the Italian brand Pianegonda, where she is the new creative director, will be released later this month.
In the meantime, her cri de coeur for love and liberty rings out. She is the Boudoir Boudicca, ready for battle. Welcome to the Betaverse.
David Downton is an Editor at Large for Air Mail