The Little Something that Could

Feb 26, 2014 • Toys

Little Gold by Jimmyjane

At some point, sex toys came out of the darkness of sleazy sex shops and into all manner of well-lit places. You probably can’t put your finger on when this happened exactly, but even the least sex toy-savvy consumer has noticed that adult products have steadily been morphing from awkward devices made out of questionable materials to beautifully-designed luxury products.

It’s largely Ethan Imboden’s doing. In 2003, Imboden decided to do what people in the Bay Area do best: disrupt an industry. In this case, the industry was sex toys. The electrical engineer had wandered into the Adult Novelties Manufacturer’s Expo in Los Angeles and seen the gaping hole in the market. It’s not difficult to understand why manufacturers didn’t bother with state of the art products in adult: vibrators were no longer as taboo in the early aughts, but loans were (and largely remain) impossible to come by for pleasue business owners, distribution was difficult, and even if you had a great product, the likelihood that media would pick up on it was slim. There wasn’t a real return on investment for using better materials or changing the design of existing products. The famous rabbit vibrator has a million clones not because the industry has no imagination, but because people gravitate toward things they recognize and the ’90s HBO show Sex and the City made the rabbit a household name.

This wasn’t just a question of disrupting the industry. Imboden had to disrupt the culture. To do this, he tapped into something beyond sex: status symbols. We need only think about what happened when Instagram opened its doors to Android users in 2012 to understand the importance of these signifiers. A million tweets tagged “sent from my iPhone” took flight that day, with comments along the lines of “there goes the neighborhood.” Apple, to many users, is more than a company that makes products. It’s a signal about status. For decades now brands have been cultivating this need to express who we think we are via well-branded and recognizable products. Their success has been such that it’s hard to find a song these days without some sort of product placement — almost all referencing luxury items. Even the anti-brand anthem “Royals” by Lorde lists four separate brands.

Ask yourself this: would the runaway erotica best-seller Fifty Shades of Gray have reached the same level of attention if the story had unfolded against a landscape of foreclosures and poverty? Christian Grey sells Anastasia Steel on their affair with a first edition printing of her favorite book, not a mass market paperback. Even its best-selling forerunner 9½ Weeks knew boundary-pushing sex is best served with a side of excess — that book and subsequent film are infused with Wall Street.

Imdoben gets humans. He knew that no one would go public about a vibrator unless doing so signaled something about them the same way that luxury electronics do. So his company, Jimmyjane, plated its first vibe in 24-carat gold. And it worked. The Little Gold, as it’s called, made its debut not on shelves at obscure adult novelty shops, but in boutiques. But Imboden went beyond that, personally making sure that his luxury vibes got into the hands of the aristocracy of our time: celebrities. The media followed the celebrities. How many sex toys have been in Vogue?

It will surprise absolutely no one in design to learn that Yves Béhar had his hand in some of Jimmyjane’s products, though you wouldn’t know it reading that article about him in Vanity Fair earlier this this month, which ignored both his work with Jimmyjane and his condom campaign for New York City. The media may be more ready to use sex and pleasure devices to get quick eyeballs these days, but when these can’t be exploited, they’re still best swept under the rug.

Nevertheless, Jimmyjane was scoring wins on its own. One of its vibrators became the first ever sex toy to receive an International Design Excellence Award. In a sense, Imboden brought self-pleasure devices out of our closets and into the light. Every time you see a vibrator or dildo so beautiful that you wouldn’t have an issue leaving it out on a night stand or even setting it on your coffee table, thank Ethan Imboden. He helped open that door.

The landscape has changed a lot since toy companies first began to realize that there was a market for sleeker and better devices. The business world has taken note, which is why it wasn’t surprising to read about the acquisition of Jimmyjane last week by the “romance” products-holding company Diamond Products in conjunction with New York’s Brookstone Partners.

In September of last year, the private equity firm Brookstone invested in Pipedream Products, creating Diamond as an umbrella company for future acquisitions in what Brookstone calls the “sexual well-being market.” Pipedream’s chief executive officer Nick Orlandino, who got a nod from the Princeton Premier in 2008 for his skill in making Pipedream one of the fastest growing companies in the state, now heads Diamond.

Understandably, the notion of bringing the high-end and design-conscious Jimmyjane brand under the same roof as Pipedream’s gaudy and affordable wares seems disastrous, but before you tweet “there goes the neighborhood,” consider the range of consumer needs that Diamond has effectively positioned itself to satisfy. Further, in investing in the accessible Pipedream and the high-end Jimmyjane, Brookstone is sending a message about the growing importance and acceptance of the sex toy industry. That’s a big deal — and if you think about it from that perspective, what could be a better next step for Imboden’s baby?

Worries about brand dilution are premature: according to Orlandino, Jimmyjane will continue to operate separately, maintaining its product development, creative, online, sales and day-to-day operations teams at its corporate headquarters in San Francisco.

“Nick [Orlandino] and the Diamond team respect the customer- and design-centric values, approach and attention to detail that are the foundation of Jimmyjane,” said Imboden.

I asked Imboden what he was working on next, and he responded, “Something like this” and linked the following YouTube video.

I’m sure he will get his fair share of “but does it vibrate?” but Imboden isn’t really one to let himself be pegged.