Meet Dr Sarah McAleer
As we continue getting to know our fabulous customers, we travelled down under (via the internet unfortunately) to catch up with our super talented customer, Sarah McAleer!
Originally from Ireland, Sarah and her family moved to Aus just over a year ago now, where she runs her own jewellery business. She kindly took some time out of her day to tell us more about the move and all things shiny & sparkly...
Introduction from Sarah
Thanks to SH and her fabulous team for allowing me the opportunity to tell you a bit about myself, my business and my obsession with all things rainbows - including handbags and jewels! I hope you all enjoy reading my stories - I do love to chat, you may already know that! As usual in life there are ups and downs but I do hope my fun personality comes across in this interview and brings you some joy and laughter - and maybe a few sparkly bits!
Hey Sarah! First things first, tell us a bit about how you got into jewellery?
That's a great story - I was always ‘good at art’ ever since I was a little girl - always making stuff with my hands, always creating...plus always taking things apart lol! I’m fascinated by how things are constructed - when I was younger, I once took apart a tape player just to see what was inside - it never worked again, my father was delighted ha ha!
I grew up in a household where the women - my mother, grandmother and their friends - were always doing ‘making’ things. My granny taught me how to knit and crochet as a young child, my mum was an art teacher and so there were always arty crafty things around and by the time I was about 10, I could make my own clothes or fashion a Barbie outfit.
BUT I went to a really academic school who thought art was a waste of time and only something you did if you weren't good at anything else, lol! And because I was ‘also’ ‘good at science’ - I was told by a teacher that I could be ‘a doctor and still be an artist on the side but I could NEVER be an artist and be a doctor on the side’! She also told me that I ‘owed it to my sex to choose science’...And so I chose science for a-levels and got in to study pharmacy!
One week before my pharmacy degree was to start I thought to myself, 'geez I really don't want to do this', and so I applied for art school! I thought I’d go on to study fashion and textiles as I never knew being a jeweller was even a career choice until I did a work placement during my art foundation year with a local goldsmith. One day in his workshop learning how to make a silver ring band and I was totally hooked...and you could say the rest is history!
And by the way, I think I spent most of my younger years trying to prove that teacher wrong because I later went on to do a PhD in jewellery history in the late 1990’s and so now I am BOTH a doctor AND an artist...And I can choose to be whatever I want on the side!
Anthurium neckpiece and its design in silver, gold and sapphires from Glasgow School of Art in 1995 which won two major awards.
You turn old jewellery into new pieces so people can continue wearing items that are sentimental to them. What is the sentiment behind why people buy jewellery?
For a lot of my custom remodels, people come to me with items that have been left to them but they aren't really in their own style, or they have jewellery they don't wear anymore, or maybe they’ve collected a box of broken bits and bobs. And these pieces are either unloved or sit around in a box for years. What's the point in that!
So I take these unworn ‘things’ and I reuse the metals and I rework the stones and I make them into new pieces that go on to have new stories. And now all of a sudden these pieces have a new lease of life and they get to be enjoyed everyday!
Every single piece of jewellery I’ve made comes to me with a story to tell and a reason why the customer wants a new piece. Maybe they are honouring the memory of a loved one, maybe they are about to celebrate a ‘special’ birthday or anniversary, maybe they are retiring, maybe they are welcoming in new grand children or maybe they just want to treat themselves.
It’s all about moments in time, memories and feelings and about marking those big and little milestones with a treasured object!
I love that - I get to make treasures everyday!
Joan’s broken and unworn sapphire engagement ring and her mothers wedding band which we re-modelled into this new fabulous cocktail ring for her 40th wedding anniversary.
You must get told a lot of stories by people who ask you to make things. Any stand out tales?
I once had a gentleman ask if he could pay me in heifers - and he wasn't joking! Obviously he was a farmer and he wanted to ‘do a deal’ and he thought I would get a lot more for my money if he gave me a couple of cows instead of cash. Lol! I politely declined and told him I couldn't really pay my bills in cows! It’s interesting because each of the older male clients I’ve worked with have all wanted ‘to do a deal’ - I’m sure it's a generation thing!
My favourite story is about one of my first remodels - two 1930’s diamond brooches valued by Sothebys at over £20k (and that was 40 years ago) and left to my client by 2 aunts. My client had them lying in a drawer for over 20 years and they were never worn, so she wanted to know if I could reset them into a new piece. This was in my younger days and I’d never seen anything quite like them, there were 5 huge diamonds in one brooch and 16 pretty decent sized ones in another, and they were so sparkly.
When I came to make the first piece, it took me an entire week of getting these brooches out of the safe and looking at them before I was able to take a saw to them and break them up! I was petrified at working with such valuable jewels! Now, some 20 years later, handling and re-working such pieces is one of the pleasures of my job! And those brooches ended up being made into multiple family pieces for my client, my clients daughter and my clients daughter’s family - there were personal pieces made, pieces gifted for 2 family weddings and then more recently christening gifts to welcome in a new generation.
And so these 2 brooches re-live their lives on many members of the same family over 4 generations...and they no longer sit in a drawer unworn and unloved, and I know they are pieces that are worn every day! The ‘collection’ is also worth about 4 times the original value of the 2 brooches! Now wouldn't the aunts be thrilled to know that!
And I love that throughout history older pieces were remade into the fashions of the day and that is what I do, except I love the fact that my pieces move from one generation to the next and encapsulate the stories of females and their families (as well as the gentlemen who want to ‘do deals’ and pay me in cows!)
Jane Mary’s 1930’s diamond brooch and one of multiple pieces it got remade into - to start a pair of platinum and gold diamond earrings!
What gets your creative juices flowing?
Hmmmm…that's an excellent question. I actually can’t turn my brain off. I am always on the go, looking at things and being inspired by the world around me! I used to always have a camera in my bag and now it's my phone. I’ve said many times that I must have square eyes because I see everything in square frames. Blink and snap - I’ve taken a picture - captured a moment, a memory, a shape, a form or pattern in time.
I take pictures everywhere I go and it is these elements that feature in my work - colours, shapes, textures. I think I carry a 100k photo library around with me every day and everything I love is visually in there. I have always been fascinated by the colours of the sea and sky, by flower and leaf shapes, by the rigidity of wrought iron railings mixed with organic shapes and by the repeating forms found in architecture.
My design style has two opposing sides - on one side I like over the top highly decorative ornate shapes and on the other, the simple clean lines of geometric forms! Often I design something very organic and decorative but then I ‘contain’ that within a simple oval or circular frame. It's what I call ‘contained chaos’! And it's a bit like my own personality - one side is highly organised where everything has to be in its place and the other side lives in the clouds and somewhere over the rainbow always chasing a pot of gold! Ah ha ha ha ha!
On the left, a truly fabulous two-ring set made from diamonds Charmaine had been collecting for years but never did anything with - yes that's a big huge red diamond in the middle!
And on the right a grey south sea pearl necklace I made for Etta using sentimental gold and her mother’s stones which we reset into this reversible decorative clasp!
Is there anyone that really inspires you, either in your work or personal life?
This is a question I really had to think about whether I had a profound answer for you! Of course my family were highly influential growing up - especially as my parents and grandparents all lived together. As mentioned my mum was an art teacher, my father sold luxury cars and had a superb head for business and my grandparents in their younger days had run their own butchers business. The women in our household definitely wore the trousers. Mum always pushed me to aim high and do whatever I wanted - that maybe backfired on her in later years as we are both very head strong females, ha ha!
It wasn’t until I lost my father and both my grandparents that I really began to appreciate how much of them is part of who I am today, both personally and in business. My granny was always in the kitchen cooking, there was always ‘room at the table’ for whoever we brought home and she had a saying and superstition for everything. Most of her superstitions and stories are ingrained in my own family life! My grandfather was always laughing, he loved being outside in nature and was always colourfully dressed. Hmmm, wonder where I get my rainbow aesthetics from! And my father had so many business stories about how he dealt with different types of clients and kept the same loyal customer base for over 50 years! Mantras I find myself ‘preaching’ to all my students and practicing in my own business!
But on a lighter note, art and music have always followed me around. With my mum being an art teacher she introduced me to all the famous artists when I was younger and I fell in love with people like Monet, Van Gough and Klimt. Artists who used lots of amazing textures, colour and whose work wasn't necessarily representative but more pattern based. And this followed me into adulthood with modern artists and makers. I collected ‘picture’ books throughout my life and there's nothing I like more than getting one out and flicking through the pages. Now we have instagram for that and I follow so many other makers and my students and colleagues - and I just love looking at their work - this ‘visual inspiration’ always moves me forward!
My dad was always playing music at home and in his car - he came from an era of rock ‘n’ roll and all the great show bands and so I grew up surrounded by these sounds. I have to confess to being a HUGE 80’s hairspray/glam/cheese/heavy metal and pop freak! I’m an 80’s kid and I still love the music and the clothes from this era - maybe you can tell this already by my choice of bag colours ha ha! There's nothing I love better than some cheesy rock blasting in the workshop - I can tell you I can speed hammer and sing at the same time and it always puts a smile on my face, I also still have the hair - lol!
My mum with my dad on the left - don’t they look stylish! I think they really wore much more glamorous clothes in the rock n roll era! And myself with my dad on the right - 80’s style, ha ha!
What's the most rewarding thing about running your own company?
Not having people tell me what to do! Well apart from clients that is - they kinda tell me what to do! I love being in control of my own destiny. Running your own business isn't always easy but ultimately I get to decide what my career looks like and I have had the pleasure of making some absolutely ah-mazing pieces over the years.
For most of my career I’ve also been some sort of teacher, lecturer and mentor. I love being able to pass my knowledge on to the next generation. I find that so rewarding. Not just about passing on skills but helping others to run their businesses and to learn how to make money from their ‘art’ because over the years so many people told me it couldn't be done! Ha! I’m still making money out of my talents nearly 30 years down the line.
And I know business is hard work and it has its ups and downs - especially when dealing with a year like this one. But really I get to surround myself with gold and diamonds - and I can’t really ask for anything more exciting!
Like these pieces I made for Paula from her late husband James. The earrings on the left came first one Christmas, and then the next Christmas was a matching pearl necklace and clip-on pendant on the right. All made from yellow gold and set with diamonds!
Tell us a little bit about looking after our jewellery! What are the do's and don'ts?
Jewellery is for wearing - so don't keep it in a box. That's one of my mantras! If it's broken, doesn't fit or you don't like it, then have it repaired or remodeled. When I make a new piece and hand it over to the client for the first time, I always tell them that it’s a bit like buying a new car, you have to take it out, wear it and put the first ‘ding’ or scratch in it and then it's good to go! All these little marks on a piece give it its history and make it something that is worn, loved and admired!
For some practical tips, most of us never really clean our jewellery but it's easy and you can do this with a soft toothbrush and some hot soapy water. Customers tend to be scared to touch their jewellery - but you know before it left my workshop it was made with hammers and files and scrubbed within an inch of its life, lol! It likes to be washed every once in a while! With all the alcohol hand sanitizers we are using just now, some people will find that their jewellery is tarnishing quicker. So just clean it as you would do washing your hands and use a soft toothbrush for those hard to reach places. Like ourselves, a clean will bring back the sparkle. And if you aren’t sure what to do with a more delicate piece, then ask a professional!
To store your jewellery you could keep pieces in the boxes or pouches they come with, but it's a bit like my handbags, I want to be able to see them and I want them ‘out and about’. So treat yourself to a nice jewellery box and keep your everyday pieces in there. And my biggest tip - don't take your jewellery off or put it on over a sink - lol, you’d be surprised how many pieces fit down a plug hole! Keep a little dish on hand if you like to take your jewellery off at night and place them in there!
You run your business online from Australia, but have clients worldwide. How do you get around people not being able to see pieces in the flesh and try them on?
This is really interesting for me and how I have adapted my business. As I am from N.Ireland about 50% of my previous business was local - or people who would travel to come into my studio to see me. And this was always fun - meeting up face to face, having a look at pieces in the studio, catching up and having a chat! But I also have many clients in the UK, USA and Australia that I was working with ‘online’ as such. Once I moved to Australia, all my local clients could no longer visit my studio and then COVID hit, so now my business had to become 100% online!
It hasn't been plain sailing, especially as I have a large proportion of older clients who are not very good with technology, some of them don’t have email addresses. Like my mum - she can use her mobile phone but she thinks having an email address and being on Facebook is some sort of alien technology ha ha! However, with a bit of coaching I have transitioned my clients to ‘talking to me’ via text, email and calls - whatever they find easiest. I do zoom calls with clients to talk to them and show them pieces and I spend a lot of time on my phone taking pictures of pieces in progress, snapping model shots and emailing them or messaging them to clients.
If I’m making a bespoke piece, I typically make some sort of model of this piece first - either in silver or using CAD (computer aided design) on the computer - as it's important to see what a piece looks like and if it's going to fit. One of my most genius new ways of working has been to have my CAD models 3D-printed as a plastic prototype first. Sometimes I print this out and then do a zoom call so we can look at the piece, see what we think. Or, I can design a piece in Australia and have a 3D-printed model posted to you anywhere in the world for you to try on! How cool is that!
On the left a design I made for Charlotte so she could see and try on a 3d-printed model of her wedding rings. And on the right, the finished rainbow rings in red and yellow gold and set with a rainbow of sapphires, tanzanites, tsavorite garnets, emeralds and diamonds.
You're a strong minded woman running a successful business, but there have no doubt been challenges along the way. What challenges have you faced and how have you managed to overcome them?
Growing up in business I had many people over the years tell me ‘you can't do that’ or ‘that won't work’ - real naysayers! I always looked really young for my age and being a female plus running an ‘art’ business, I have to say that many male ‘advisers’ really had a negative attitude to this. I was once told I was a ‘silly little girl playing shop!’ - this was because at that time I had never heard of business ‘planning’ and I told this gentlemen to f-off out of my studio! But I must have a really strong natural fighting spirit because I never listened to any of them and I kept on with my own path - in fact the more someone told me not to do something, the more I was determined to succeed...and did!
But my most difficult challenge came about 4 years ago when I nearly died of pneumonia and sepsis. It came after a period of about 3 years when I lost my father and both my grandparents all one after the other, and then I was so ill! It was such a shock! Even more shocking, was I kept being told that as I was young I would ‘bounce back’ - and I didn't. I think I spent 3 months confined to bed and an entire year confined to the house. The after effects (called post sepsis syndrome) have been long term and literally affected my entire body. I really wasn't prepared for anything like this - either physically or mentally.
And so not only did I have to rebuild myself and my strength but I had to re-think how to run my business. For 3 years I lived around ‘energy tasks’ where I only had a couple of hours in the day that I could physically do stuff - and sometimes that ‘stuff’ was having a shower and washing my hair! And I had to work with a trauma counsellor to deal with the imagery in my head and to cope with what this ‘new me’ would be! I spent a year running my business from bed with an iPad, and a further year ‘retraining’ my body to be able to cope with being back in the studio making and talking to clients.
Now 4 years down the track and although I still have health issues, this has been one of my best years with more energy and my fighting spirit keeps me always moving forward - plus having a superb collection of bags fills me with joy!
I always try to keep my sense of humour and although I spend much of my time in ‘workshop’ clothes, I do ‘clean up nice’ as well!
The world is still suffering from the impact of Covid19. How did the pandemic affect your business, either positively or negatively? Has it made you change your way of doing things?
Actually there is a joke amongst artists that working during Covid is just the same as it always is for us as ‘we’ tend to be hermits! My family lovingly call me ‘the cave dweller’ cause I am happiest when I am in my jewellery cave! So my daily and working routine actually didn't change that much - once I got used to the situation! On top of that, thanks to my previous date with my sepsis-destiny I actually felt like I’d been training for lockdown and was used to being housebound!
However, when it all first happened I had a humongous freak out - knowing what it's like to be critically ill, knowing what this does to a family and then having just moved us from Ireland to Australia. Initially I had a hard time mentally coping with it all. We had just moved into a new apartment and we didn't have ‘supplies’ - our cupboards were empty, we didn't have a freezer or larder full of food and people were stockpiling toilet rolls and pasta. To be honest I had convinced myself that I was going to die - and of course this anxiety then affected my health!
So I had to ‘coach’ myself off the ledge - what would I tell my students to do, how can I work through this problem? I’m such a great problem solver for others - so how can I use this to get myself out of a funk? And so I did what I do best and I made lists and ‘a plan of action’! We put a ‘decamp’ zone into the hall, we washed all packages (maybe that was overkill but I wasn’t taking any chances) and we spent a few weeks buying extra groceries to stock our cupboards and making extra portions of food for the freezer!
I also had to make the decision to build a home studio as I had been going to my colleagues to make my work which I now could no longer do! All my tools and all our belongings were stuck in lockdown in our 40ft container in Ireland and weren’t going to be released anytime soon (in fact I would live without these things for over a year). So I had to make the decision to buy some new tools - money I really didn’t want to spend as I already had 28 years of tools packed away lol!
Then I set a routine - I am a girl that likes routines - a new routine of what this ‘new’ business was. Actually I realised that for a while ‘I’ had stopped my business by freaking out, not that my business had stopped! And that was a very valuable lesson I now talk to my students about! And business took off again and I’m back to being mega busy and wondering how to cope with all the orders! And feeling thankful to be in that luxury position!
My new ‘home’ studio that I set up and on the right my fabulous ‘work’ bags that go with me everyday when I travel to my colleagues' studio or go out to meet clients!
Originally from Ireland, you now live in Australia with your husband and 2 girls - lucky you! What took you down under, and how did you adapt to not only moving your family there, but your business too?
Actually this is our 2nd trip from the land of the fairies to the land down under. We originally came to W.Australia for a holiday in Jan 2008. I was running a contemporary jewellery gallery I’d built from the ground up and we had just had a really busy Christmas and needed a break. When we were on holiday, my husband - an architect - got offered a job. I can't move to Australia I said - what about my business, what about my staff? But the seed was planted and we didn't want to ever regret not taking these opportunities! And as luck would have it, shortly after this I found out I was pregnant with Ruby. So I guess you could say that this was pretty much my queue to have kids and stop being a workaholic!
However in 2012 we thought we were returning back to Ireland for the Christmas holidays as my father was very ill! Then sadly my grandmother died on New Years Day and although my father recovered, he dropped dead 6 months later of undetected heart disease. He never smoked or drank and was a thin man, it was such a shock! I think I cried for an entire year. And that left us to help my mum look after our 93 year old grandfather. And so we stayed in Ireland and just after my grandfather died, I got really ill and so another 8 years went by. Such a terrible time!
We had this big deadline date looming where we needed to return to Australia to keep our residency visas. And with both kids being born here, we felt it was important to keep this pathway open. It wasn't an easy decision for me to move. In fact 12 weeks beforehand I still couldn't talk about it - no joke! I physically couldn't speak about it and my trauma counsellor at the time had to help me deal with moving! I wasn’t even sure my health was up to the long journey! It was so emotional for me, leaving everyone behind again after everything that had happened. So many endings!
BUT, so many beginnings have come next! The emotional baggage literally left me the moment the plane touched down and I reached Aussie soil. It was like a huge weight lifted - such a bizarre experience. Now I am so glad we are here. Apart from the fact that currently W. Australia seems to be dealing with covid so much better (fingers crossed that continues), the girls are loving the weather here, I'm sure the sunshine has helped my health as my awful chronic fatigue is better and we are just about to move into a new house that has a pool! When is Oz live over the rainbow - right?
We are most certainly outside in the sun here in Australia and going for walks on the beach and always trying to get that ‘perfect’ family selfie!
When you aren't thinking about jewellery (or handbags!) what do you enjoy doing to switch off and relax?
Errm switch off? Relax? Those aren't words I know very well ha ha! Sure thinking about jewellery and handbags is about relaxing is it not?!
I find it very hard to sit still - even living with chronic fatigue - I’m really bad at doing nothing, I get bored! We say in Ireland that ‘a change is as a good as a rest’ so a nice walk on the beach and hearing the sound of the waves is one of my happy places! When I physically can’t move anymore I make myself knit - it's the only thing keeps me sitting down!
But I do love wine and cocktails and when my belongings eventually arrive from Ireland I have the makings of a fabulous cocktail cabinet in there somewhere, oh my! I also love a good laugh and a chat - you may have already gathered that, ha ha! And most people say I have a great sense of humour and I hope that comes across in my writing!
It's no secret that you are a Sarah Haran aficionado, and boast an incredible collection of our handbags and accessories. What is it about our bags that you love so much?
Ha! Well now isn't that a story in itself - it all started when I was introduced to Sarah and her handbags in another business group we both belong to. And I was instantly thrilled to communicate with someone else who ran a luxury accessories brand - it was so lovely to see ‘things’ that weren't jewellery - and to talk about business.
I decided first that I wanted to upgrade an old beat-up leather backpack I’d had since I was a student and that brought me to looking at Poppy. Actually I almost started my collection with a grey Poppy as I had just bought a pair of grey boots. If you know my colourful handbag collection now you’ll laugh at that - I own ALL the most colourful bags and I don’t have any grey ones (yet!)!
I am such a colourful person - my students all know me for organising and colour coding everything in rainbow colours - and I’ve never had such colourful bags that are leather and beautifully made. They are fantastic! Plus I surround myself all day with ‘accessories’ and my bags are just another form of accessory for the hand and body. They just compliment me and how I work as a designer.
So much of my jewellery and the pieces I’ve made for people are about everyday wear and being multi-functional. How do you take a piece of jewellery you wear everyday and then jazz it up for a night out or a special occasion. How do you ‘collect’ pieces that all work together or mix n match? My clients might start with a pendant and then ‘collect’ the matching earrings, bangle and ring. Or perhaps they are constantly adding a charm onto my necklaces or building a set of stacking rings! It's the same concept with Sarah’s bags. They just slotted into my life - and the colours are truly amazing - I do now own an entire rainbow of SH bags!
I’m sure the ladies all think I’m nuts having so many bags, and yes I am totally bonkers (not for having so many bags but just in general)! Actually I don't really see that I have ‘heaps’ of bags - more that I have a couple of styles in different colours - ha ha do you see what I did there - this justifies me to collect ALL the colours ha ha!?
...and there have been many times in my life where I have been called a bag lady due to all the stuff I carry around for work. Plus life is short and I enjoy every single one of my bags and matching them each day to what I’m wearing...just like I do with jewels!
On the left my ‘first’ collection of bags - I think I’ve at least tripled it since then ha ha! And on the right, attempting to take more jewellery bag selfies!
You have been an integral part of our Bags of Joy community and regularly interact with the ladies in the group. What do you enjoy about being part of the Joy Squad?
The group really is such a ‘joy’ and highly entertaining! Just the joint obsession and hilarity with the other ladies buying bags, hiding bags, seeing what we get, what combinations others have, what adventures they've gone on. What am I going to get next, seeing how we have all personalised our collections. And really getting to know a lovely bunch of women. I’m actually jealous of the comradery in the group and have been trying to encourage my own clients to come online and join in - but they are all scared, lol! I think we really ‘egg each other on’ and are terrible influences on our bank accounts! But hey, hasn't it been fun?
What should we expect to see from your business in 2021?
I think we’ll all be happy to leave 2020 behind as one for the history books! But I have to say it’s had a really positive effect on my own business - especially in thinking ahead to what I want to achieve and how to do this in a different way!
Coming up I am introducing several new ready-to-wear collections! I am sooooooo excited about this. I’ve probably spent the past 17 years working predominantly to custom order and although I’ve always had collections I haven't really taken the time to introduce anything new for quite a while. I’m re-tweak my existing charm and mix n match jewellery range which will go back online in the new year. I have a new wedding and engagement ring collection featuring all the best sellers I’ve made over the years. Plus I have a brand spanking new 50-ring stacking ring collection - yes I’ve designed 50 new rings that can all be worn together and ordered in a variety of golds and coloured stones! This has been a labour of love for over a year now and is finally starting to be produced and I can’t wait for my clients to see what I’ve designed!
I’m also going to be 30 years in business soon and I have this crazy idea of trying to get in touch with clients and get an adventure story from every single piece I’ve made over the years! Wow! I’m not quite sure how to pull that one off just yet but wouldn’t it make a superb social media and blog feed for a whole year! I need a Martina for that, ha ha! And I wonder how many pieces I’ve made - actually I keep spreadsheets on that so I can probably work it out ha ha! So watch out for that coming up!
A selection of my new gold stacking rings that I am launching over the coming months! Aren’t they fab? Pick your style and stones and build your own rainbow!
And to end on a more personal note, for me as a business owner, it's so important and a joy to feel I am able to support SH - another small brand who makes a beautiful product like myself, and to support other females in business...and to support another Sarah!
It was obviously meant to be - both Sarah and I want to use our talents to help other women live their everyday lives with beautiful and sparkly things! Cause sparkles from Sarah’s are the best!
So here's to lots more Sarah Sparkles!
You can find out more about Sarah and view her stunning designs here -
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