Portland company finds a racy niche for lifelike resin
Colorless. Odorless. Nontoxic. Dicyclohexylmethane may not sound like the most exciting compound, but a Portland company has found a way to harness its distinctive properties in an unlikely area - the adult-novelty business.
Local startup Empire Labs Inc. sells the rubbery chemical in kits that allow customers to create lifelike replicas of their nether members.
Last year, Empire sold approximately 200,000 of the 'Make Your Own Dildo' kits, according to Chief Executive Officer Joe Hanson, ringing up sales of $2.5 million.
'That's just the tip of the iceberg,' Hanson says, showing a couple of visitors around the company's new 10,000-square-foot factory in Southeast Portland, where blue-gloved workers known as 'dildosmiths' assemble kits from upturned drums of resin and packets of powdered molding gel, amid stacks of cardboard boxes and the gleam of exposed ductwork.
Workers test batches of resin by plunging their fingers - just their fingers - into beakers on a lab bench.
In addition to its flagship product, the factory produces kits to duplicate the female anatomy, and manufactures soap, candles, and chocolate, all designed to be molded into forms that would make Dr. Freud loosen his necktie.
Empire Labs stirred to life in 1995, when a California chemist named David Claus was looking for a way to create better orthotics - devices worn inside the shoe by patients with orthopedic problems.
Claus, who received a doctorate in chemistry from UCLA, was exploring a class of compounds known as cycloaliphatic resins, when he hit upon a technique to make the resin conform to the contours of the foot.
The technique worked so well, in fact, that Claus was able to reproduce lifelike replicas of any part of the body.
While he continued to pursue the orthotics business, Claus found a profitable sideline providing realistic chopped fingers and severed arms for horror movies, shipping batches of resin to Hollywood so propmasters could replicate the actors' limbs.
One day, a producer called to ask for a fresh batch - it turned out that members of his mostly male crew had purloined the resin to make replicas of a more intimate sort.
'That was the eureka moment,' Claus says.
Empire's kit consists of a packet of powdered molding gel, similar to that used by dentists, which is mixed with water to produce a thick, gooey paste.
The kits sell for between $24.95 and $44.95. The customer pours the paste into a tube and inserts the relevant part of his anatomy until the mold sets. Pour a cup of patented resin into the resultant cavity, toss in a small electric motor, and voilà - you have a replica that looks and feels alarmingly like the real thing. It even vibrates.
Despite the product's strong appeal to a certain market segment, breaking into the adult-novelty business was harder than it looked. Claus teamed up with Hanson, an advertising executive he met at a adult-products trade show in Las Vegas, and set up shop in Portland in 2003.
In the early days, they handled every aspect of the business themselves, driving to California in rented trucks to pick up drums of chemicals and assembling their own kits.
Banks were reluctant to lend them money; printers balked at producing their racy packaging labels.
'There's a stigma to being in the adult business,' Hanson says. 'Even though we have nothing to do with porn stars, it was hard to be taken seriously.'
Nonetheless, Empire's headquarters is clean, well-organized, and doesn't look particularly like a pornographer's den. The walls are adorned with reproductions of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, and a Rhodesian ridgeback named Diesel lounges in the reception area.
Exactly why would a man want to make a replica of something that presumably is seldom out of reach? The answer is a combination of feminine guile and male vanity.
'Guys are in love with their penises,' Hanson shrugs. 'That's what it comes down to.'
Many of Empire's customers, he says, are women who want to spice things up in the bedroom but who don't want their partners to feel outgunned.
'Some guys might feel a little intimidated with a replica of John Holmes in the bedroom,' Hanson says. 'But to have your partner play with a replica of yourself, that's the ultimate compliment.'
Whatever the reason, Empire's business shows no sign of flagging. The company currently employs 15 workers at its factory, and hopes to double sales by the end of the year with a new line of performance-enhancing herbal supplements that taste like chocolate.
Meanwhile, Claus and Hanson vow to research new product ideas and boost customer satisfaction. They receive many inquiries from men seeking not only to duplicate their appendages, but also to make them bigger.
'We're scientists,' Hanson says, 'not magicians.'