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The Story of Judith McCann and Wingback Earrings

 Madge just keeps on keeping on during National Blog Posting Month.

Judith McCann Wingback earrings

The Story of Judith McCann

and Wingback Earrings

Throughout the centuries earring design concentrated on fashion, not comfort.  From the primitive stick-through-the-ear beginnings to those pinching screw-backs of the 20th century, women were at the mercy of the painful earring clip.  In the 1940s, one woman, set out to change that circumstance with a totally new design called the Wingback.

The Story of Judith McCann and Wingback Earrings
Faux Pearl Wingbacks.  Note the innovative clips

Judith McCann, an artist and designer, first decided to reinvent the earring when a friend presented her with some loose stones.  She explained, in her own words, in an interview in 1946:

“All I wanted at the time was a pair of earring backs that would hold  – with no pain or nosedives under the table – two unset aquamarine stones as big as hickory nuts”

This wasn’t just a dream on her part.  McCann had the skills to succeed.  Born in Trenton, Tennessee, she earned a degree from the School of Fine Arts at George Washington University in St. Louis.  After college McCann became a fashion coordinator with the G. Fox & Co. department store in Hartford Connecticut. From there McCann moved to New York City and worked as fabrics editor for the Simplicity Pattern Company from 1941 to 1943.

After hours McCann was creating art using wire on canvas, and wire was just the thing she needed. Working at home and heating the wire over the kitchen stove, McCann made countless iterations until she had the perfect design.  McCann applied for her first patent in 1944, which was granted in 1947. Subsequent improvements were patented in 1950 and 1952.

The Story of Judith McCann and Wingback Earrings
Judith McCann’s Original Patent Application

Named the Wingback, this mechanisim boasted a pair of tiny “wings” that slipped over the curve of the ear.  This design was revolutionary due to its flexibility and ability to be adjusted to each individual ear.  By evenly distributing weight in the hollow curve of the ear and not at the edge of the ear lobe, the design was especially suited for earrings of considerable weight and size.  To wear a Wingback, one held the lobe of the ear between the thumb and forefinger and, with the other hand, slipped the earring upward; close to the cheek so that the wire curved behind the ear and the wings slid into place.

 

Striking Door Knocker Wingbacks, unmarked, photo courtesy of My Classic Jewelry
Striking Door Knocker Wingbacks, unmarked, photo
courtesy of My Classic Jewelry
The Story of Judith McCann and Wingback Earrings
Ad explaining how to wear the earrings

McCann took her invention to a jewelry findings company to create samples and had the help of her husband Charles, a reporter with United Press Association, as promoter-in-chief.  Soon major jewelry makers were using her design.  From fine jewelers such as DeBeers to major costume houses including Coro and Adele Simpson, wingbacks energized mid-century earring design.  In the 1960s McCann came out with her own earring line that also proved to be very popular.

The Story of Judith McCann and Wingback Earrings
Beautiful crystal bead Wingbacks

In addition to earrings, McCann created a necklace called Shuv-on.  This was set of two pearl necklaces that could be configured in over 20 different ways due to the clasp design.   She also introduced a hoop earring that nested in the ear in a similar way to her original Wingbacks.

The Story of Judith McCann and Wingback Earrings
A Shuvon ad from 1966
The Story of Judith McCann and Wingback Earrings
McCann Necklace & earrings set available at Pretty Snazzy

McCann resigned from her company, Judith McCann Designs, in 1964 due to health reasons and passed away at the young age of 62 in August 1965.  The company continued on until 1975 when it became a part of Elle Designs through a series of mergers.

The Story of Judith McCann and Wingback Earrings
Coro Wingback ad with what may be a photo of McCann

As we now know, the Wingback earring never replaced traditional clips, no doubt due to the incredible amount of consumer education necessary to achieve sales.  Today you can find beautiful vintage Wingback earrings both marked and unmarked at very reasonable prices.   Wingback were consider upscale so the ones you find today are usually very well made and quite beautiful.  If you love earrings but find them uncomfortable or if you are just looking for unusual pieces of vintage jewelry to collect, consider a pair of Judith McCann’s wingback earrings,  they are a lasting tribute to one woman’s ingenuity.

See you tomorrow.

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8 Comments

  1. My mother loved wingback earrings. I have 30 pair or so. How can I tell if they are Judy McCann. Are they stamped or marked in any way?

    1. Hi Janet,

      Unfortunately her earrings weren’t marked so your collection is probably McCann. Coro and Adele Simpson ones would have their marks. Would love to post some photos of your collection.

  2. Wonderful to get a solid description and use about wingbacks. I recently purchased a lot at an auction and it has several pair with matching necklaces. So glad to have this information and to know that Judith McCann worked at the G. Fox Company which is where I live.

    1. My Mother & I used to shop at G Fox when I was a little girl ( born in 1951) & it was glamorous! We would always also shop at the Planters Peanuts shop across the street. Yum! & the smell of roasting peanuts!

      1. I fixed the typo. :-). Department stores used to be such an adventure. It’s interesting that you remember the smell of roasted nuts. I remember the same thing at an enormous Sears we had in Wichita. Thanks for the memory.

  3. Wonderful. And yes, I’ve acquired a pair or two over the past 20 or so years and wondered “why” and “what”? Now I know. Thanks for sharing a great glimpse into past jewelry design..really enjoying this thread of posts…

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