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, Judith McCann, set out to change that circumstance with a totally new jewelry design called Wingback earrings.
Who Was Judith McCann?
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 for her earring design. Working from 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.
What are Wingback Earrings?
Named the Wingback, this mechanism 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.
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 Shuvon Necklace
In addition to earrings, McCann created a necklace called Shuv-on. A set of two pearl or beaded necklaces, the Shuvon 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.
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.
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. Wingbacks were considered very 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.