For all the mystique surrounding the female orgasm, vibrators are a surefire way for lots (and lots) of ladies to get off. I recently took a tour of Crave, a sex toy company that prototypes and fabricates its products in San Francisco; here's a peek inside your new favorite mini pleasure machine.
Crave made its debut with the Duet last year. The USB-powered vibrator with 16GB of data storage seemed, on the surface, like a clever gimmick, something well-timed to align with the industry's growing, zeitgeisty surge into the mainstream. 50 Shades of Grey had morning commuters and soccer moms alike all hot and bothered; design darlings like Yves Behar were teaming up with brands like Jimmy Jane; and even your local Walgreens, of all places, was stocking vibrators in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes.
But Crave's founders—industrial designers Michael Topolovac and Ti Chang—were actually planning for a future of longevity over novelty, with products that promised to hang around for the long haul as opposed to just a quickie fling that fails to really satisfy.
The two teamed up back in 2011 and established a small but fully-loaded workshop in SoMa to develop their collection.
When I rang the bell at the nondescript, dark brown storefront with blacked out windows on Folsom Street last week, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I mean, I knew their stuff was sleek and discrete—even a quick look at the website will tell you that—but visiting a vibrator factory has a naughty implication that… well, I had visions that I'd be walking into something like that famous assembly line scene from I Love Lucy, except, instead of chocolates, gigantic dongs would being rumbling and tumbling down the conveyor belt.
Instead, the interior is like more like a teensy TechShop, the popular, public maker hub nearby.
A view of the ground floor of Crave HQ in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood.
They told me about their plan to create a new kind of vibrator, one that, before the buzzing even began, would streamline the sexy experience of self-love. "When we first started talking to women, the question we were asked most often was whether it was possible to eliminate the whole hassle of charging," Chang told me. They began to look at ways to knock out the need for batteries or chargers; the ubiquity of USB provided the perfect platform, as well as a relatively versatile base to design around.
Ultimately, the goal was to figure out how to make the most compact, pleasantly powerful device possible. "Some women orgasm through penetration, but most can't do it through penetration alone," she said. "Lots of vibrators are, like: 'We're going to have a big motor, and a lot of surface area, and then you're just gonna grind until you get off.' Which is fine! It works for a lot of women—and that's great. But we wanted something really precise that focused on clitoral stimulation."
The signature Duet with dual motors—one situated in each of the prongs. Though USB charging was always a main aspect of the design plan, per the testers' overwhelming desire that charging be streamlined, the idea for data storage wasn't added until after subsequent tests when women asked whether they could also use the device as a place to keep their porn safe.
The form they figured out for their signature—the Duet—looks a kind of erotic tuning fork (there are two other styles in the series so far: Solo and Wink, plus the Duet Lux with 8GB or 16GB of data storage). Both of the prongs house an individual motor, which puts all the action at the point of contact, as opposed to down in the base where the piece gets handled. An even closer look reveals that the two tips are actually very subtly asymmetrical: one is a V, and one is more parallel; the former "feels like it's surrounding the clit," while the latter "creates a more snug sensation," Chang explains.
One of the major advantages of having a headquarters equipped with heavy machinery is that all concepting can be done on-site—a huge boon for a small business dedicated to ensuring that the customer comes first (and last, and as many times as possible in between).
This CNC mill is used to machine parts and molds. Making all the custom components on-site means prototypes can be quickly tweaked and adapted to user feedback.
A Doc Ock-looking part of the CNC mill.
"We don't have to try to validate products we've already made," Chang says. "In the very earliest stage, things are a little bit Frankenstein-y and more crude, to test the specific types of vibration, the surface area, and the form."
From there, each stage of the process is marked by lots and lots of hands-on trials with a wide range of real life women. Chang follows-up with volunteers with online surveys or one-on-one interviews to figure out what worked and what didn't. Models get refined, and tested again. And again. And again.
Each time, tweaks are made in the studio. This eliminates the need to reach out to an overseas facility for the latest iteration. "Towards the end it will look and feel like the real thing," Chang explains.
This is a compression molder, nicknamed the "vibrator waffle maker." Silicone is added to a mold and the whole thing clamps down between two heated plates, where the material spreads around the mold. "You open up the waffle maker and there you go," Chang says.
In Crave's early days, giving prototypes a spin was a favor called in amongst friends, but it tuns out people loved it. It should probably come as no surprise that initial, informal list has swelled significantly, such that there's now a wait-list to be one of these early adapters. "We've got more testers than products," she says.
Final assembly and finished products are constructed upstairs from the workshop.
Motor assemblies that go into the Duet heads.
Everything is assembled by hand.
Each piece's motor is charged, depleted, and charged again, and vacuum-tested to ensure that they're waterproof.
Not quite ready for your delicate bits here.
When all of the vibes are switched on, it sounds like a massive hive of amorous bees.
After that, they get a coat of antibacterial spray, are wiped with an microfiber cloth, put in plastic, slipped into a nice little leather travel pouch, and packaged in a tidy little box printed with instructions. Every Crave that's ordered arrives totally revved and ready to go.
No need for a vibe? Chang has also designed a line of "foreplay jewelry," featuring a lariat necklace with vibrating nipple pendants, leather nipple tassels, and a leather bracelet that doubles as handcuffs.
So dedicated are Chang and Topolovac to introducing passion to the masses that they also host pop-up Build-A-Vibe events; everywhere from Babeland in New York to SF's California Academy of Sciences, willing participants can sit down with component parts and put together their very own fully-functional Duet. A small step for individuals that just might lead to a giant, horny leap for humankind. "Will the stigma ever go away? I think so," Topolovac says. "It's not that people won't necessarily feel awkward saying they own a sex toy or not—we'll just have more open conversations about sex."
It's a lot of thoughtful effort for a few moments of bliss, and for that, I salute them.
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