Mantis shrimp are named for the way they kill. They are smashers and spearers; one crushes, while the other impales. If crustacean horror were a genre of film, this breed of predatory shellfish would most certainly be the villain.
In 2014, Orien Mcneill, who is either 35 or 36 (he'd need to do the math), spotted a bucket full of mantis shrimp in Chinatown. An artist trained in industrial design, Mcneill was so inspired by their form that he set out to replicate it, which required him to adapt his normal large-scale installation methods and to cast the shrimp out of metal. Casting, the process by which most jewelry is made, involves molding something out of wax, surrounding it with plaster, and injecting hot metal to melt the wax and leave behind the desired shape. This was the first time Mcneill had cast anything.
Fast forward a few months: Mcneill found himself in Vienna, with his girlfriend and an unfinished metal shrimp. Unsure of where to go with the project, Mcneill was at an impasse. Then his girlfriend showed him a 3D sonogram of a stimulated clitoris generated in 2008 by French researchers Dr. Odile Buisson and Dr. Pierre Foldés, whose work focuses on restoring function to victims of genital mutilation. Mcneill was struck by the how far the clitoris extends internally, particularly its set of wing-like antenna that reach upwards towards the ovaries. He'd found his real mantis shrimp.
It helped that Mcneill and his girlfriend had a vested interested in these images. Mcneill's girlfriend is hyper-orgasmic, an unofficial term that refers to women who are intensely sensitive to sexual stimulation, often experiencing orgasms so strong that they enter a trance-like state."My girlfriend has these amazing visions at the point of orgasm," Mcneill told me as we sat in his Bushwick studio. "We call them divergences, where she feels like and appears to be in some other dimension." Her orgasm-induced visions are similar to what one might experience while on LSD, though she is completely sober.
"This isn't generally in textbooks, but it's not a new discovery," Mcneill said, referring to the 3D image of the clitoris. "If you look at the CAT scan image—that is what's interesting to me. It's like, what the fuck is this thing? What the fuck does this do? There's a certain fun of imagining [there] being a conspiracy to cover up [the fact that] this antenna or device [on the clitoris is designed] for sending and receiving information about the resonant structure of the universe."
If you have an object you've empowered and decide, This is going to do this for me, then maybe it does.
Inspired by the mysticism of the clitoris and familiar with the casting process from his failed shrimp attempts, Mcneill set out to make a clitoris ring for his girlfriend as a gift. Early sketches revealed the shape lent itself to curling around a finger. After the couple returned to New York, Mcneill finished his prototype and decided to make more pieces, dubbing them "clitorings."
Mcneill created a website to sell the rings. (Now, prices start at $122 for the silver model and at $475 for gold.) But he found the jokey name inelegant, "sort of stupid and cutesy," so he called the business Penelopijones, a nod to his girlfriend's childhood alter ego, the name she'd give neighbors when she got in trouble. As interest grew, Mcneill began selling rings to friends and giving them to people who orbit the world of sexuality study, like educators and activists. He gave the artist Swoon, a longtime friend, a ring, and she gave one to Gloria Steinem, who was seen sporting the silver clitoris around Instagram. The orders Mcneill even sent rings to the French researchers who released the 3D sonogram. Actor Denis Leary bought one. The orders began rolling in.
Partially, probably, because of the company's name. Many assume the rings are made by a woman named Penelopi Jones; it comes as a bit of a surprise that the jeweler is in fact a straight guy named Orien. Mcneill admits that people probably feel more comfortable buying clitoris rings from what appears to be a woman. But he maintains that he is by no means cloaking his gender.
"I'm surprised that that confrontation [the fact that he is a man] hasn't come up, but I don't have a very public appearance with [the company]. It's a website; people buy from it. But I assume that's a possibility that may come up at some point," he said.
Thanks to Google Analytics, Mcneill knows that 54 percent of his site's page views come from men, though he acknowledges that could be in part due to the strange things men Google at night when lonely or horny or both. Still, he says, many men buy the ring as a gift for their significant others.
Read more: The History of Clit Piercing
The ring is also an inevitable conversation starter. "Every now and then, people look at it, and are like, Is that what I think it is?" said Sláinne Linnane, an Irish artist who says she wears her clitoring almost every day. A few weeks ago Mcneill was riding the subway when a woman noticed the clitoring and said her wife, Linnane, had one. Linnane, standing nearby, explained that an ex-boyfriend had given it to her on Valentine's Day. She loved the ring, but the negative emotions tied to it were too strong. Mcneill without hesitation offered to trade the ring he was wearing for Linnane's, which she carried in her purse despite not wearing it. "It was bought for me originally because I am a very sexual being," said Linnane. "I think it's really powerful—I love it. It's really liberating. I don't call it a clit ring; I call it my goddess ring."
"Sometimes I'll keep an extra one on my left hand in case I meet someone I want to give it to," said Mcneill. "I said, 'Here, I'll trade you, and this one will be free of association.' I wore that one for a while, so I think I had to bear the burden of that association myself. [But] I don't think it had any effect."
Though they were surprised to discover that Penelopijones is just a name, Linnane and her wife were touched when they heard Mcneill had designed the clitoring for his girlfriend.
"If anything, I think it's even better it was made by a man," said Linnane. "He's turned around and is celebrating the female body and form and sexuality; he's honoring it."
In addition to serving as a conversation starter, a symbol of empowerment, and an anatomical model, the clitoring also confers sexual power, Mcneill says; he calls it a "talisman for having extraordinary orgasms." Just to make sure, he asked a former roommate, a healer who specializes in empowering objects, to empower the form of the ring so that any future rings he produces would possess that strength.
"That was the intention—that there would be a kind of experience to owning it," said Mcneill. "At the very basic level, it's a placebo effect. If you have an object you've empowered and decide, This is going to do this for me, then maybe it does. I think that it really works; I think it does actually increase the strength of orgasms."
On a more fundamental level, Mcneill hopes that the jewelry will inspire people to engage with and learn about the clitoris.
"I think people talking about it and wearing it will spread awareness of the idea that the clitoris is this very interesting and mysterious anatomical object," he said. "We still don't know a lot about it. Even Gloria Steinem said the clitoris is the only human or animal organ that exists solely for pleasure, which I think is kind of a limiting perspective of it."
A self-described "pseudo-scientist" ("It's more fun than being a real scientist") Mcneill ultimately knows there is no proof behind his tuning-fork theories on the clitoris, but he believes there's a certain beauty to wondering. Despite Mcneill's increasing success, he has no desire or plan to grow the company beyond what it already is, though he has expanded to making clitoris pendants as well. The ring itself and the way it came in to being are so organic it seems wrong to industrialize, he says. When asked how he'd feel if the business "blows up," Mcneill responded, "Well, I'd just have to send out more rings."