Pleasing the Masses
Jimmyjane took vibrators from sleazy to chic — now, can it take them mainstream?
By Lux Alptraum
On Christmas Eve, 2013, Beyoncé and Jay Z hit a small SoHo boutique for a $6,000 shopping spree. Normally, this might not have been newsworthy. But the boutique in question was Babeland, an upscale sex toy shop known more for its collection of butt plugs than Balenciaga.
Within days, the story was all over the tabloids; appearing first on Radar, then making the rounds to virtually every news outlet with an interest in Bey, Jay, or Babeland. For most reporters, the story seemed to be less that the Carters had bought sex toys – their sexual adventurousness having already been well documented in "Drunk in Love" – and more that they’d spent so much. How, exactly, was it possible to spend thousands of dollars on marital aids?
Though the couple’s shopping list was never publicly revealed, one source noted that the purchased items included something gold-plated, which set a number of reporters off on a tear. Refinery29 offered up a list of possible contenders, with the Jimmyjane Eternity – a sleek, diamond-studded, gold vibrator retailing for $3,500 – leading the list. (The clerk who waited on the Carters told me that the gold-plated item in question was, in fact, the Lelo Olga, but that the couple had also acquired the Jimmyjane Hello Touch, a finger vibrator popular with couples.)
To those who hadn’t paid attention to pleasure products since Carrie Bradshaw met the Rabbit Habit on Sex and the City, the story was something of a revelation. Gone were the days of cheaply made, and occasionally toxic, vibrators. A new class of items had taken over the market, and they were fashionable, aspirational, and high-end.
How did we get from the Rabbit Habit to the Little Eternity? Much of the credit goes to Jimmyjane, a small, San Francisco-based sex toy company. Over the past decade plus, it has aggressively worked to create a high-end, luxury category within the pleasure product industry.
But now the company that defined the luxury sex toy market is poised to release an entirely new line, LiveSexy. A mid-priced homage to the company’s celebrated premium products, LiveSexy promises to bring "affordable luxury" to the market, finally making the aspirational Jimmyjane a much more accessible brand.
Can the brand that brought sex toys from sleazy to chic lead the charge to finally make them completely mainstream?
After over a decade in San Francisco’s Potrero Hills, Jimmyjane moved offices to Larkspur, CA in the summer of 2015. The company’s two-story office sits in a cute little office park nestled between the water of San Francisco Bay and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Inside, the decor is chic and white, with display cases showing off some of the company’s signature products (as well as the awards they’ve won), and framed posters from past ad campaigns adorning the office walls.
Since October 2014, Jimmyjane has been under the management of Robert Rheaume, a self-described category and brand builder whose resume includes stints at Odwalla, PepsiCo, LifeFactory, and Sigg USA. An outgoing, affable man with tan skin and a broad smile, Rheaume speaks at length when he gets excited — which he often does when the conversation turns to the future of his company.
Rheaume isn’t the only new face at the Jimmyjane office. Apart from Jimmyjane’s vice president of communications, Molly Murphy, who’s been with the company since 2008, everyone I spoke to joined the company within the last year. That includes industrial designer Carolina Formoso, a stylish, dark-haired woman who speaks in lightly accented English. Hired in 2015, she won Rheaume over by including a vibrator she’d designed as a school project in her portfolio.
Though Jimmyjane’s mission to make vibrators everyday objects feels radical, in actuality it’s a kind of a return to the past. Vibrators were introduced to the American public as medical devices, a "treatment" for the vaguely defined female trouble known as hysteria, whose symptoms only seemed to subside after the inducement of orgasm (then known as a "paroxysm"). Initially invented as a way to provide relief to doctors and their overworked wrists, by the 1900s, vibrators had become common household items, a wellness device deemed so innocuous they were even advertised in the Sears catalog. But sometime in the early 20th century, vibrators began to appear in stag films, and suddenly the jig was up. Soon the products became the domain of sleazy, sex-crazed perverts; a reputation they retained until at least the 1970s. That’s when pioneers like Dell Williams and Joani Blank opened female-friendly sex toy shops that began to reposition the vibrator as an essential tool for female pleasure. But the available products still lagged behind their boosters’ ambitions.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that a higher quality product emerged on the market: toxic jelly rubber was abandoned for body-safe silicone, dry cell batteries were replaced with rechargeable lithium ion ones, and some manufacturers even began to offer warranties. In the most stunning turn of all, a few companies began to position their erotic products as luxury devices: an aspirational fashion accessory sported by enviable icons like Kate Moss and Beyoncé. Suddenly, vibrators weren’t just the sexually liberated woman’s dirty little secret; they were a sign of sophistication and chic.
And Jimmyjane is largely responsible for that shift. The company was founded in 2003, when industrial designer Ethan Imboden saw an opportunity to inject innovation and high-end design into an industry better known for cheap products made from shabby materials. Imboden, a stylish, attractive man who combines high-design chic with Bay Area startup savvy and energy, wanted to create the kind of sex toy line a designer could be proud to have in their own bedroom: one with beautiful branding, body-safe materials, and thoughtful, ergonomic engineering and design. His first product was The Little Something, a slim, metal rod with a single speed and a replaceable motor that ran near silently – an especially impressive bit of engineering when you consider the close relationship between vibration and sound.
Initially eschewing sex shops, Imboden’s team targeted mainstream retailers, positioning their products as accessories to a luxury lifestyle rather than a cheap, seedy thrill. By 2005, the company had developed relationships with mainstream retailers like Fred Segal, C.O. Bigelow, and Harvey Nichols; a year later, Jimmyjane products were being stocked at the Wynn in Las Vegas. As the aughts drew to a close, it started to seem as though the brand was everywhere: in Parisian Sephora; in Bed Bath & Beyond; in Brookstone; even in the minibar of W Hotels.
And it wasn’t just retailers who were under the Jimmyjane spell. The company won numerous design awards, receiving recognition not just from the adult industry but also mainstream publications including I.D. Magazine, BusinessWeek, and Fast Company. Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett and Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics came on board to collaborate on limited edition lines. Yves Béhar, the founder of Fuseproject and chief creative officer of Jawbone, lent his talents to the company, designing a series of three different vibrators – Forms 2, 3, and 4 – that challenged the idea of what a vibrator could, or should, be.
Investors took notice. In 2007, the company was featured in a New York Times article that noted Jimmyjane had six venture capitalists among its investors and was gearing up to raise a second round in the neighborhood of $3 million to $5 million. The company claimed the round would also include marquee funds. To many, it seemed clear that Jimmyjane was on track to change the consumer experience of sex toys, but also the entire nature of how adult products were created, funded, and enjoyed.
But despite their numerous successes, Jimmyjane still managed to fall short of their lofty goals. Early partnerships with mainstream retailers didn’t live up to their potential: Jimmyjane may have gotten their products in the door, but in many cases, customers just wound up confused both by their presence and their price. Pricey vibrators were already an unusual item; pricey vibrators at Bed Bath & Beyond left customers baffled.
While investment helped kick the company into hyperdrive, it also created expectations that were hard to live up to. As accomplished as the company was, it was still fighting an uphill battle against anti-sex stigma, while also tackling the expensive proposition of developing high quality, beautifully designed hardware.
Vibrators can be expensive to bring to market: in a 2015 piece, Imboden explained how designing the Form 6, Jimmyjane's first multispeed vibrator, nearly tanked the company. The product — which featured cordless charging and was fully submersible — was incredibly complex. Imboden wrote that the product ended up "eight months behind, 400% over budget, and… selling at almost zero margins," a phrase few VCs are eager to hear.
In February 2014, it was announced that Diamond Products — a holding company with a focus on the sex toy industry — had acquired Jimmyjane. Jimmyjane now found itself partnered with Pipedream Products, another Diamond Products subsidiary that, in many ways, represented everything Jimmyjane had been founded to upend. Pipedream’s extensive offerings include the sort of cheap, crass products more readily associated with darkly-lit porn stores than high-end sex boutiques: blow-up dolls and huge, hyper-realistic dildos.
Though Jimmyjane’s product development, creative, online, sales, and day-to-day operations teams would remain in San Francisco, fans of the brand feared that this was the beginning of the end — especially when Imboden left the company to join design firm frog. Across the industry, many wondered whether this new Jimmyjane would sustain the innovation, enthusiasm, and creativity that had defined the company in its first decade.
How is Rheaume different than his predecessor? "I can tell time. Ethan can build a clock and tell time," Rheaume says modestly. We’re sitting at the conference table in his office — the only private room in Jimmyjane’s largely open work space. The full LiveSexy line, arranged by color, sits laid out across the table in front of us. A print of lips on the wall behind Rheaume’s table coordinates nicely with the the pink and dark purple hues of the LiveSexy line.
Rheaume sees himself as simply the custodian of Imboden’s vision, but his tenure has already resulted in a dramatically different business strategy. In the two years since acquisition, Jimmyjane’s methods have changed: where product roll outs used to be a rare, heavily hyped affair, new products are now added to the Jimmyjane catalogue at a rapid clip. It took three years to debut Forms 2, 3, and 4; in contrast, Forms 1, 5, and 8 appeared in quick succession over the course of 2015.
"The product cycle has been much faster," Murphy says. "We needed to introduce more products," she continues, noting that "it’s something you need for your retailers, and just to keep the company relevant, keep it growing."
Enter the LiveSexy line, a marked departure from the original vision of Jimmyjane as an aspirational, exclusive brand. The LiveSexy line is pitched as "affordable luxury," a way that more budget-minded customers can still get in on the Jimmyjane experience. Where the original Jimmyjane products all retailed for well above $100, the LiveSexy products are available for as low as $29 – and no more than $59.
This isn’t the first time that the company has made a play for budget-minded consumers. Jimmyjane introduced The Usual Suspects line in 2008, which selected popular vibrators like the Rabbit vibe, Pocket Rocket, and Slimline, remade them in white, and provided them with classy Jimmyjane-branded packaging.
The Usual Suspects weren’t original, but the Jimmyjane touch had a magic effect: "Our customers love them because they had a warranty and they had beautiful, giftable packaging," Coyote Amrich, purchasing manager for San Francisco-based sex toy shop Good Vibrations, told me. For some consumers, the packaging and branding were enough to elevate otherwise unexceptional products.
But with the LiveSexy line, Jimmyjane is doing something different, crafting a mid-market homage to the company’s existing Jimmyjane products. The Intro 2 mimics the shape of the two-pronged Form 2; the Intro 6 shares the Form 6’s body hugging curves.
The LiveSexy products aren’t merely the Form toys with cheaper parts: they’ve been thoughtfully redesigned for a mid-tier budget and a beginner mindset. As I surveyed the toys by her desk, Formoso walked me through the work that went into creating a line that’s both stylish and accessible. The LiveSexy line uses less expensive dry cell batteries instead of rechargeable lithium ones. Because the casing for the former is so much larger, it necessarily requires a larger toy; but Formoso feared that merely scaling up the size would render the products clunky and cheap feeling.
"When you’re designing something, you don’t want it to look like you just scaled it up or stretched it in Illustrator," Formoso says. "You have to really go back and redesign how the components are going to fit in."
The Intro 1, a thin, rectangular panty vibe that looks more like a remote control than a vibrator, may have been her biggest challenge. If the product had merely been scaled up, it would have been huge — perhaps twice the size of the original — a potential deal-breaker for a vibrator intended to be discreetly tucked inside a user’s underwear. Formoso’s solution was a product that’s longer than the original, but comparable in width and thickness. For a product that retails at $130 less than the luxury version, that’s a tremendous achievement.
The toys aren’t merely bigger and cheaper, they’re also simpler to use. Unlike the Forms, the Intro toys offer a single button, with three speeds and three modes. (The Forms have 3 buttons.) It’s a simpler, more user-friendly interface — one that’s less intimidating for beginners.
"I took my own experience from the first time I ever thought about buying a vibrator," Formoso says. "When my friend showed me a vibrator for the first time… it was beautiful, and it had all these functions. All these modes, all these speeds. And it was great, but it was a little too overwhelming for me, because I hadn’t used a vibrator before." Formoso hopes that the LiveSexy’s simplified offerings will ease new users into the world of pleasure products, encouraging them to explore and educate themselves.
Ultimately, says Rheaume, the goal is to lock in loyal customers long before they’re able to afford one of Jimmyjane’s pricier products. In the same way that Cadillac might sell a young buyer an ATS in the hopes that they’ll eventually upgrade to a CT6, Jimmyjane sees the LiveSexy line as a way to familiarize younger, or budget-minded, buyers with the designs of high-end offerings. If you’ve fallen for the Intro 2’s two-pronged body and dual motors, you’ll be eager to switch to the more compact Form 2, which offers a rechargeable battery, more modes, and a more nuanced interface.
Set back from the bustling Santa Monica Boulevard, the West Hollywood Pleasure Chest is partially obscured by lush greenery. Though its neon signs don’t scream upscale boutique, inside the store — the West Coast sibling of the shop where Carrie Bradshaw discovered the Rabbit vibe — a friendly, educated staff helps customers pick from a wide selection of toys, lingerie, and other adult products.
Products at The Pleasure Chest are organized both by price and type, and Jimmyjane products can be found throughout. The Form line occupies a coveted display along the back wall, where the store showcases its premium products. Nearby sat a tower showcasing toys from competitor Lelo and other similarly-priced offerings from companies like Fun Factory also receive dedicated shelf space.
The Pleasure Chest offers an almost overwhelming selection of toys, highlighting another of Jimmyjane’s challenges. In 2003 Imboden entered a space suffering from a dearth of decent products; Rheaume’s company faces a field crowded with competitors.
"Twelve years ago, it was like, ‘Thank god, there’s a new product we can add,’" Good Vibrations’ Amrich told me. "And now we pick and choose by necessity." Thanks in part to Jimmyjane’s work, starting a sex toy company carries a lot less stigma than it used to. And that means an incredibly crowded market. According to Amrich, sex toy trade shows are now full of brand new companies, offering full lines with thousands of products.
Unlike some of its peers — Babeland in New York, or Good Vibrations in San Francisco — The Pleasure Chest displays many of its wares in their packaging, which could make a difference for the LiveSexy line. Out of the box, the Intro 2 might not seem radically different from something like the similarly priced California Exotics Body & Soul Connection; but compare the packaging side by side, and the Intro 2 clearly broadcasts a higher level of class.
If popularity of The Usual Suspects line is any indication, that branding could make all the difference. Though vibrators are ostensibly just about sensation — the prettiest toy is ultimately a failure if it doesn’t lead to an orgasm — they’re also signifiers of who we are and how we want to be seen.
The LiveSexy line also gives newcomers a way to explore many different types of stimulation for less than the price of a Form 6 — an appealing prospect given that, once used, a vibrator can’t be exchanged or returned. Taking a risk on a pricey vibrator only to discover its shape doesn’t work for your body is an unappealing proposition.
Not everyone is convinced that the LiveSexy line holds promise. "I wish they had come out with different shapes," Amrich told me. "As a concept, I really love [high-end] brands coming out with affordable lines," she continued, pointing to products like Fun Factory’s Jam, Joupie, and Jazzie as "entry level" vibrators that familiarize new, or more budget-minded, buyers with a brand’s offerings.
For Amrich, the replication of the Form line’s shapes, but at a lower price point, runs the risk of cannibalizing the Form line’s existing market. In a small boutique, where shelf space is at a premium, it can be difficult to justify stocking two aggressively similar product lines — particularly when there are so many other competing products at both price points.
Nonetheless Rheaume remains convinced that the LiveSexy line was the right move. "We absolutely explored if not dozens, hundreds of different shapes and designs," Rheaume told me. "But we always fell back on our classic designs." In a market where other brands were already knocking off Jimmyjane designs, offering inferior products and subpar experiences at lower cost, it made sense to reclaim the designs and create a budget-minded line in-house. "Why not take our classic Jimmyjane shapes [that] have already become ubiquitous in the marketplace and own them back again?" Rheaume asked.
According the Rheaume, the move is paying off: he told me that after making the rounds at trade shows, the first run of the LiveSexy line has already sold out.
As the company expands, boutiques like Good Vibrations may be less essential to Jimmyjane’s bottom line. Though the company remains loyal to the stores that have made it successful, Rheaume routinely mentions retailers like Target and Walgreens (both of whom have begun stocking vibrators in recent years and have already approached JimmyJane) and even healthy grocery chains like Whole Foods, Wegmans, or Sprouts as possible retail spaces.
It’s in this context that the LiveSexy line may make the most sense. While the Form line’s products might be too expensive for the average big box customer, the Intro toys could be very attractive to this audience – especially if they’re competing with low-end products from companies like Trojan and Durex, whose wares currently dominate the aisles of mainstream retailers. Compared to those toys, the LiveSexy line is a paragon of high design.
At their lower prices, the LiveSexy line makes the products feel more like a sexy splurge than a serious investment. Back in the early days of Jimmyjane, when the Form 6 was stocked by retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, sales associates — for whom the product was something of an anomaly — weren’t up to the challenge of educating the consumer about the value of a $175 pleasure product. Now they won’t have to.
"We want to make sure that the [retailers] we align with are people that believe in the category and more importantly believe in our brand," Rheaume says. "I believe if we do it right, with the right partner… it will bring incremental users into the space. And typically when you bring incremental users into a category or space, they will seek out those specialty stores for the broader, deeper, richer experience and possibilities that are available to them."
Rheaume, a comic book fan, likens it to manga and comic books being stocked by Barnes & Noble. Many feared the bookselling giant would lead to the end of specialty comic book stores like Forbidden Planet, but that wasn’t what happened. Instead, box stores attracted a whole new audience — an audience that then went on to support smaller stores that offered a broader selection and more knowledgeable staff.
"What made me so excited about coming over to this assignment was Ethan and the team back in 2004, 2005 – they transcended the category. The category today would not look anything like it does today if Jimmyjane did not give birth to it," Rheaume tells me back in his office. "I think there’s another opportunity here for Jimmyjane to democratize the sex toy experience by bringing the premium experience to the everyday user."
No one knows yet if Jimmyjane’s new strategy will be successful. Selling affordable, well-made vibrators to Whole Foods patrons may not have been Ethan Imboden’s original vision. But it could easily have a far greater impact on the sex toy landscape than everything else the company has accomplished thus far.
If the company is successful, they’ll have helped the vibrator restore its reputation, returning it to its status as a common household object. Only this time, the women buying their vibrators from the modern-day equivalent of the Sears catalog won’t need to be coy about what, exactly, they’re purchasing. And that, ultimately, is the most important cultural shift of all.
Portrait photography by Vjeran Pavic
Design and product photography by James Bareham