Mary Ann Scherr's Medical Jewelry Does More Than Just Look Good—It Can Save Lives

updated 11/02/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1981 01:00AM

A dozen years ago Mary Ann Scherr was visiting North Carolina's Penland School of Crafts as a metal-arts instructor when a scarf worn by one of her students fell away—exposing the unflattering results of a tracheotomy. "I had a hunch she could avoid further embarrassment by camouflaging the scar with a strategically crafted necklace," recalls Scherr, whose bold jewelry designs in gold, silver, brass and stainless steel have been worn by the diverse likes of Erma Bombeck and the Duke of Windsor. "So I twisted the metal into shape, it looked great and she loved it."

Once back home in Akron, Ohio, Scherr, who was an assistant professor of art at nearby Kent State University, set out to create a futuristic costume for the reigning Miss Ohio. Man had just landed on the moon, so Scherr consulted several doctors and technicians before concocting a metalized plastic fabric outfit replete with a stainless steel belt that simulated electronic monitoring of Miss Ohio's heart functions—"just like the astronauts were being monitored in space." Scherr's space-age belt for Miss Ohio was such a smash that she later patented a bracelet that actually measures the heart rate and sounds a buzzer if the pulse becomes erratic.

In a quantum leap beyond the simple Medic Alert bracelet, Scherr's line of "medical jewelry" now includes some six devices—from a pendant that warns people with respiratory problems of even minute traces of smoke (the music box alarm plays—what else?—Smoke Gets in Your Eyes) to a breath monitor concealed in a silver choker whose six lights flash on when the wearer has overimbibed. Nearly all the items are custom-made, though Scherr may mass-market a few simpler ones.

Born 60 years ago in Akron to a rubber-products inventor for Goodrich and a dress designer, Mary Ann Weckman was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art when she met industrial designer Sam Scherr in 1944. Married four years later, Mary Ann "backed into" jewelry design while awaiting the birth of their first child. "I was pregnant and bored," she recalls. Mary Ann's work caught the eye of a Kent State professor, and in 1954 she was offered a spot on the faculty. The Scherrs moved to New York when Sam was named president of the Manhattan-based American Crafts Council in 1977. (Their two sons and one daughter are all grown and live away from home.) This year Mary Ann, employing five artisans at her studio in the couple's 5,000-square-foot SoHo loft, is selling her decorative jewelry to stores like Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Although she spends a dozen hours a day heading the crafts department at the prestigious Parsons School of Design, Scherr heads straight to her worktable once she gets home. "I sleep only five hours a night," she says, "because five years from now I want jewelry to monitor every body function." On the drawing board: necklaces to warn epileptics of an oncoming seizure and pendants that light up with the approach of a migraine.

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