Reprinted with permission from 
Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry
P.O Box 265
Glen Oaks, NY 11004
VCFJ@aol.com
and the author

The Designs of Ruth Kamke
Legendary costume jewelry designer Ruth Kamke discussed her work with Nick and Linde Tollemache 
in the only interviews she has ever given.

Staring in 1940 at the age of 15 as the designer for Fallon & Kappel, and retiring from Panetta in 1987, Ruth Kamke has earned her place amongst the most accomplished designers of premium costume jewelry. Over those 48 years her creations range, in her words, from "the ones I am most proud of to the bread-and-butter that are necessary in any jewelry line."

Among her many renowned designs are the Hattie Carnegie "Crab"  and the Eisenberg Original "Bucket Lady" . She created almost all the Eisenberg Originals made after 1939 and the "Eisenberg Ice" made until 1972. Her numerous designs for Panetta include the "Panda" and "Dolphin" bangles and the "Longhorn Steer" slide . 

During much of her career she created up to 1,000 costume jewelry designs each year and, in all, many thousands of her designs have been produces.

 

Childhood influences

Ruth is an American designer, whose early childhood was spent in Woodhaven, NY. Both her parents were talented musicians and her mother, Maria Wortmann, was also a skilled dressmaker and designer of spectacular gowns for the Beaux Arts Balls and other New York costume events. Ruth remembers a "Snow Princess" gown her mother designed for one costume ball. It was made of pearl scent material, and into the hem she sewed mesh pouches which left  trail of mica frost as the wearer moved.

Ruth also recalls an unusual story about her mother to illustrate how creativity can solve a design problem.

A lady once asked Maria to make a rather revealing evening gown for a ball. On disrobing, the client exposed several bullet scars all over her back, which she explained were the result of machine gun fire from the war. Ruth’s mother then designed a gown, which revealed the body as requested except where the random leaves of a climbing vine covered each scar.

Early creativity

Ruth grew up surrounded by fashion books and trunks of wonderful fabrics, and by a love and appreciation of detail, style and, most importantly, of fantasy. From the beginning she was inspired by her mother to be a dress designer, and at the age of three she was drawing, using liquid shoe polish or anything else she could lay her hands on.

When she was five her family was forced by the 1929 Wall Street Crash to leave New York for Florida, but they returned in the mid-1930s to New York. At high school she took courses in the History of Art, Fabric Design, and Dress Design and Illustration, and won awards from Womens Wear Daily and a scholarship to college.

Her first portfolio

In her last year at high school Ruth started looking for temporary, part-time work with the Manhattan dress designers and couturiers. At school and in her spare time she had put together a portfolio of designs, which were unusual because in one corner of each drawing she sketched a costume jewelry piece to compliment the dress. (Clothes with the jewelry already attached were much in favor at the time). When she noticed a advertisement for an "enameller" at Fallon & Kappel (also known as "F & K"), a leading jewelry manufacturer for the couturiers, it seemed a good opportunity to make some money and use her lunch breaks to expand her portfolio. They particularly liked her jewelry designs combined with the dresses and, in January 1940, she was hired on the spot as an enameller at $12.00 per week.

With F & K/Eisenberg

After only one week of enameling, Mr. Kappel offered Ruth a permanent position-and $3 per week raise-as the firm’s first in-house designer. Her weekly salary was abut equivalent to the retail price of a single brooch she designed. Immediately she was enormously busy, because F & K produced the costume jewelry for many of the top milliners and couturiers including Hattie Carnegie, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Traina-Norell and Eisenberg. Eisenberg & Sons was a premium ready-to-wear dress business based in Chicago, which made a reputation for attaching magnificent fashion jewelry to its dresses. These had proven so popular that, shortly before Ruth joined F & K, Eisenberg decided to launch a jewelry line which would be sold separately from their dresses with the jewelry already attached.

Start of career

Specialized "manufacturing jewelers" were not uncommon, and F & K produced fashion jewelry from design concept through all the stages of production at their upstairs premises in Eaves Costume Building at 151 W 46th St. in Manhattan. The firm had been started by Mr. Fallon, an amiable old Irish jeweler who died before Ruth joined, and by Mr. Kappel, a salesman and shrewd businessman.

Until Ruth’s arrival the firm bought designs from freelance designers, which were often impractical to manufacture although they were beautiful. Ruth spent many hours under the tutelage of Matthew Conforti,  the firm’s head model maker, learning such things as the minimum metal thickness, prong allowances, sand and centrifugal casting emthods and other practical considerations necessary for the volume production of costume jewelry.

After Ruth had produced a preliminary sketch, she would take it to Mr. Kappel and his assistant Florence Nathan for review. They might accept the design immediately or they might ask to see it larger or smaller or with different stones. Neither Mr. Kappel nor Florie Nathan had design skills, but they had an excellent sense for what the client wanted. Once the design was finalized Ruth would meet with Matty Conforti or one of the three other model makers to produce the master model.

The clients

Ruth designed with no particular couturier in mind and, once the models were made, the clients were invited to choose which ones they wanted to be exclusively consigned to them. Sam and Harold Eisenberg would visit F & K from Chicago together with Sam’s son Karl at least three times each year. They were always immaculately dressed in beautifully tailored suits complete with a carnation in the lapel. They were very friendly and exchanged polite conversation with everyone, but they spent as many as ten hours each day with Mr. Kappel and Florie Nathan reviewing the models that had been made for the new line.

They would select the ones they wanted including the colors and quantities of each, because the "fancy cuts" and rhinestones had to be ordered from the stone dealers in advance of production. The number made of each design varied, but F & K would not go into production for less than 1 gross (144 pieces). At the end of the visit the Eisenbergs would place a very large initial order for their Chicago stock and also a complete line for each of their salesmen and showrooms. Finally, it was time to relax and enjoy the latest Broadway shows.

Ruth was not told why a client selected or rejected a design but cost was certainly one consideration. The clients seldom gave her any advise or instructions on the matter of design. With the exception of Norman Norell, who had Ruth come by to plan the jewelry for a specific dress, she never saw the designers’ clothes beforehand-the jewelry had to be ready in advance so that it could be launched simultaneously with the dress collection.

Signed jewelry

Once the buyers had chosen the designs and placed an order they were put rapidly into production the "HC" for Hattie Carnegie or the "Eisenberg Original" signature as part of the casting. Sometimes an engraved signature tag would be soldered on, and Ruth cannot remember any particular reason why one piece was identified in the casting while another would have a stamped identification or a tag. Sometimes the signature would be lost in the polishing . Eisenberg jewelry would be sent out unsigned if there was too little room on the piece and they would just hang a metal tag on a necklace to identify it. With the exception of Hattie Carnegie and Eisenberg, the F & K line was never signed regardless whether it was consigned to Schiaparelli, Chanel or another couturier.

Exclusive contract

F & K continued to supply all its couture clients until production was restricted by the ban on non-military use of "white metal," the tin-based alloy used for costume jewelry, and by the shortage of rhinestones and other war-related materials. Faced with these shortages, Mr. Kappel agreed to an exclusive arrangement with Sam and Harold Eisenberg, who had been taking an increasing share of production. The agreement was that F & K would drop their other clients and would supply only Eisenberg, and in turn Eisenberg would buy exclusively from F & K.

War shortages

Various experiments followed with substitutes for white metal before sterling was chosen as the most suitable. The supply of sterling for costume jewelry was rationed, but imports were permitted without affecting the quota, and Ruth saw huge cartons of plates and other silver object arriving from Mexico to be sent to the refiners. She remembers sadly that many of the objects which were melted down were far superior to the costume jewelry that resulted from them.

Unlike some other manufacturing jewelers, the firm made no products for the war effort and all its resources went into producing costume jewelry. When the war cut off supplies of stones from Europe, F & K was forced to use American made stones they called "American Ice," most of which were pressed glass rather than machine cut. They usually removed the foil backing for open back setting, and the stones had a special beauty in their own right although they never achieved the luster of pre-war rhinestones.

Casting techniques

In centrifugal casting, which replaced sand casting shortly before World War II, the rubber molds were spun to force the metal into dimensions and modulations that were impossible to achieve in sand casting without "layering." The rubber required for the molds was one of the materials that became unavailable after America entered the War, so F & K reverted to sand casting. This required Ruth to break a design down into layers that could be cast separately in the sand to retain the modulation and depth of the piece. A separate sketch was required for each layer. Since the firm had gained a reputation for its three-dimensional jewelry, it was not uncommon for a brooch to be made up of three or so different layers, each screwed or otherwise joined to the next.

It was the model maker's task to cut out each layer from a piece of metal on a jig saw, and then sculpt each piece to conform with the design and with the other layers. If the model maker could not understand Ruth’s sketch or verbal guidance, she would make a clay model as illustration.

She would see the model through to the "layout man," who covered the area to be pavéd by laying out the exact size and location of each rhinestone using a very shallow, flat headed drill bit. This "flat drilling" was the guide the stone setters used later to position each stone.

Setting the stones

The production process might vary from one design to another, but after the jewelry was cast and prepared, it went to a stonesetter, who drilled the shallow stone locations with a pointed bit and set the rhinestones by forming the bead of metal that would hold each stone in place. F & K never pasted (glued) rhinestones until later in the 1950’s and each stone was set by hand. When finished, the stone setter stamped the back of each piece with his stamp, which might be a "X" in a circle or a number, so that it could be returned to him for resetting should a stone fall out. Willy Granice’s stamp was "N," while "D" was Vincent Oliveri, "3" was Scarino and "6" was Loria. The jewelry was then polished and plated, and a few designs were "enameled," although F & K was not known for its enameling.

Polishing was a dirty process and traces of the rouge and other materials that got into the settings were washed out with hot water and steam jets and then dried with hot air blowers. Plating was another process that had to be done right, because once the electroplating liquid got into the settings it could de-laminate the foil or discolor the stones. The pin joints and catches-or the clip findings-were bought from outside and were soldered to the jewelry.

Working conditions

Ruth remembers the working conditions at F & K were quite primitive. There was no air conditioning and Bongiovanni, the layout man who was in his 70s, wore glasses as the only form of magnification, working without a window and with only the light from a goose-neck lamp. The model makers sat on hard chairs and next to them on high wooden stools sat a row of fifteen or so stone-setters, working shoulder to shoulder at benches and using window light during the day and goose-neck lamps after dark. They ranged in age from about 30 to 65, and used only their glasses to magnify their work. The noise from the blowers and machinery was very loud and when the large jig saw was running the whole room shook.

The long commute

Ruth was living with her family in Brooklyn when she started with F & K and shortly thereafter moved to Freeport on Long Island. She would leave for work at 5.30 am and commuted on the infamous Long Island Rail Road to be at work in Manhattan by 7 am. She often did not return home until 9 pm. She took an evening job as a cashier and a weekend job as assistant manager at a theater to make extra money, since it became necessary for her to support her mother. The commute was a minimum 1 1/4 hours each way, but it gave her plenty of time to work on new designs. It became an important part of her social life, too, thanks to the many friends she made on the journey over 40 years.

The 1940s rolled into the 1950s and even during the 1960s Ruth was still the only full time designer at F & K, although four or five other designers came and left for family or other reasons. Meanwhile she continued to create some 400 designs for each of the spring and fall collections as well as a special "cruise" collection in between. Although a single motif might become a brooch, earrings, a necklace and a bracelet, (which counted as fur designs), each one had to be worked up to a model. The earrings could be particularly tricky because they required a left and right design.

New plant

During the early 1950s numerous attempts were made to unionize F & K. When they succeeded, Murray and Florie Silverman, by then the owners, decided to move the manufacturing to a non-union plant in Lindenhurst, Long Island. The offices moved to 14 E. 38th in Manhattan at this time, where Eisenberg built an elegant showroom custom designed in Louis XIV style. Ruth stayed with the model makers in Manhattan, but the skilled stone setters and other production personnel were let go and the Silvermans hired a new non-union crew for Lindenhurst. Ruth believes that was when F & K changed to pasting rhinestones as it was impossible to hire and train new stone setters. The inventory of fancy-cuts and rhinestones was kept with the castings in Manhattan, and Murray Silverman would drive out each day to Lindenhurst to deliver the processed orders and raw materials.

A visit to France

Paris regained it position as fashion leader after the war and Ruth flew there for F & K in 1960 to see the dress "Collections" and the latest trends in fashion jewelry. She stayed one time at the Hotel Ritz, where she was given a most luxurious suite since her own room was not ready when she arrived. With the Silvermans she visited the costume jewelry designers like Roger Scemema, Roger Jeanpierre and Countess Cis, who opened a bottle of champagne for their breakfast in the apartment above her business. ("Ah, that wonderful Paris!" remembers Ruth with pleasure).

End of an era

By the end of the 1960s the costume jewelry business was becoming very competitive and manufacturers in Providence were using the latest techniques to increase production speeds and lower costs. With few exceptions, the standards of the industry changed, but Fallon & Kappel refused to follow. The firm had developed no other clients because of its exclusive arrangement with Eisenberg. With costs rising and demand from Eisenberg for premium priced jewelry falling, the Silvermans announced suddenly in 1972 that the firm would closed its doors in two weeks. It was a complete surprise to all. The building supervisor placed large trash barrels in the building and everything went into the incinerators or to the dump, including the production records showing the quantity of each piece produced and the consignee. Ruth managed to rescue a few of her working sketches and notes from the trash, but most of her design sketches had gone to the company archives and she never saw them again. After 32 years with the firm, she remembers sadly how she watched the stock of fancy stones and findings being thrown into the trash along with other mementos that would be gone forever.

Ruth’s first task on joining F & K was to design some jewelry for Eaves Costume for a Broadway show. Eaves was New York’s largest stage costume supplier, taking up several floors of their building below F & K. While she loved to look around and admire the costumes, it was not a particular source of inspiration for her. Other than that first order, she clearly remembers the "Piggy Goes to Market" design (1941) she did for Eaves; it wa s pig dressed in a bonnet and shawl and it had a basket on a spring hanging from one arm. It was sold as an Eisenberg Original.

 

The stones

Her inspiration came from many sources, but one in particular was the stones themselves. Dealers from New York would constantly travel to Europe looking for stones to import from Swarovski and other producers. Her Hattie Carnegie "Crab" design (1940-41) (shown in the photo gallery)  was a good example of the result of sitting at her drawing board wondering "Now, what can I make out of this stone?" The Eisenberg Original "Gaping Fish" (1943) is another example of designing around an unusual stone. One Eisenberg Original flower basket is an example of which she is particularly proud-the shapes of the stones in this case were very difficult and unforgiving and the dimensions were hard to achieve with sand casting, yet the result is pleasing. Production always had a significant influence on her designs, which had to be capable of being made in volume. The model maker was always influential too, and could make or break a design-and a designer-with his skill as an artisan.

A designer’s eye

Another source of inspiration was Ruth’s library of books, particularly the architectural and wildlife books, and an old illustrated dictionary she owned, which was the origin of many ideas. She remembers that the Hattie Carnegie "Unicorn" (1940-41) was inspired by a tiny 1/2 inch heraldic drawing in the dictionary. The Hattie Carnegie and Eisenberg Original "Buddha Face" (1940-41)-the HC version has a "Chanel" beard of stones-were inspired by another book. Many of the clear symmetrical clips were inspired by architectural books, while others were a matter of manipulating stones in a pleasing order.

Sometimes the inspiration would be a theme that they decided to produce, which might be a patriotic theme or bows or a tailored line. One theme she developed was the flowers that appear in the Eisenberg Original "Ballerina" and the "Moose" (1943), in which she explored designs that could be used to contain the flower theme. The original ballerina theme is attributed to Van Cleef & Arpels, but Ruth remembers hers was just another way to use the flower motif and the Van Cleef ballerina was a coincidence.


Ruth looked at anything and everything with a designer’s eye and with a passion to adapt a subject to a design. One of the most surprising is an animated cartoon, in which Bugs Bunny dressed as a can-can dancer with frilly panties and inspired Ruth’s Eisenberg Original "Can-Can Dancer" (1943). The Eisenberg Original "Fighting Cocks" (1943) was inspired by a visit to a museum.


Sadly, the inspiration that created the Eisenberg Original "Scrub Ladies" the "Broom Lady"  and "Bucket Lady" (1943), are forgotten with the passage of time. They were not designed as a "series"-it is more likely she showed two designs of a "Scrub Lady" and Mr. Kappel said "Why not do both?"

Sixties style

Paris was only one influence, and after her trip in 1960, Ruth experimented with the new color combinations she had seen there . While fashion was not particularly important to F & K, since they were not much influenced by the latest "mode" or by Dior’s "New Look,", it certainly influenced the jewelry. As clothes became less structured and fabrics more delicate during the 1960s, the heavy fur clips and castings had to be replaced by smaller and lighter jewelry. Brass stampings were incorporated in combination with white metal castings .

The prongs of the brass settings were much finer than the cast prongs, and this allowed the fancy-cut stones to be set much closer together to create mass without weight.

The Eagle

The fashion magazines could influence the whole industry by promoting jewelry or leaving it off the models in the editorial pages. The Eisenberg Original "Eagle" that appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in September, 1950 was requested by one of their fashion editors, who drew her concept for Ruth on a scrap of paper. It was a scribble no larger than a quarter, and looked more like a coat hanger than an eagle! The final piece had a 4 inch wing span and appeared in numerous editorials as well as in the famous "I dreamed I was wearing my Maidenform bra" advertising series. It led to several smaller sizes with earrings and all were hugely popular (center, below). When the magazines stopped promoting the use of costume jewelry in the 1960s, it was a major factor in the demise of the industry.

Unsolved puzzles

Twice each year Eisenberg’s sales representatives from all over the country would visit New York and share with Ruth what their clients were requesting. The West coast rep, Matt Goldsmith, was very influential in Eisenberg’s use of multiple colors and antique finishes. If a client requested a popular theme F & K might occasionally create its own version, but Ruth cannot remember any time they knowingly copied another designer. Her designs, on the other hand, were pirated frequently-all it took was to buy a brooch, take out the stones and then use it as the model for casting.

Ruth does not recall ever hearing the name "Reinad," and "Staret" was a name she barely recognized. Ruth believes F & K would never have agreed to another firm using a design after consigning it exclusively.

The combination of different stone colors was Ruth’s responsibility. One source of reference was information from the leather accessory manufacturers, who did extensive research on which color belts and other leather accessories would be in fashion for the following year. This was very useful in giving a clue as to what would harmonize with the fabrics of the season. With fashion jewelry the clear rhinestones were sometimes lacquered in colors to match the colors of a fabric. Swarovski launched new stone colors each year, which increasingly dictated the color combinations used in costume jewelry.

Among the puzzles that remain unsolved is the Eisenberg Original "Barbaric Head," which also appears in very similar form signed "Chanel." This was not one of Ruth’s designs, but she remembers seeing castings in the F & K archives. She assumes it was one of the freelance designs they purchased and made for Eisenberg before she arrived. Since they made jewelry for Chanel, it is possible they made the Chanel version too. Another puzzle Ruth could not resolve so long after the event was her Eisenberg sterling mermaid design, which is very similar to a design by Fulco di Verdura, but she supposes it may have been a special request from a client.

Yet other puzzles include the "Bowknot" design registered as Design Patent 131688 that was granted in 1942 to Florence Nathan . It was not Ruth’s design but Florence did not design anything, so Ruth supposes it was a freelancer and Florie signed the application as a formality. Regarding the paste (glue) set, white metal jewelry from around 1940 which is signed "Eisenberg Original," they were not her designs and Ruth supposes they were made by another manufacturer before the exclusive agreement with Eisenberg, since F & K never pasted rhinestones until later

Inspiration

Summing up the process by which she created such a range of magnificent designs, Ruth says: "There were the occasional flashes of inspiration but 99% of the designs came about through hard work and a passion to create." She remembers sleepless nights when she would think about how a design could work out to its best advantage. Again and again she would go over in her mind different ways of doing things and putting things together, and the results ranged from those which pleased her to those she would just as soon forget. In the middle are the ones Ruth labels " just another day in the office," which include many of the pieces which have been chosen to illustrate her work.

Which are her least favorite designs? Of one design, (perhaps appropriately of a dog), Ruth says "I must have been delirious!" Among those she would as soon forget are the symmetrical stone dress clips, in which there was really no design, just manipulation of the stones. And which are her favorite designs? There are several, but among them is her "Orchid" (1943) 

Going freelance

In the year after F & K closed, Ruth was in demand as a freelance designer, but it was a time she did not enjoy. She missed the daily contact with people and working with the modelmakers. She found it hard to get inspired when she set up her drawing board by the window in the bedroom each day. As much as anything, she missed seeing her designs come to fruition in the form of finished jewelry.

During this period she designed both precious and costume jewelry. She did not consider self-promotion to be part of her repertoire and it was no pleasure to commute into Manhattan to try to sell her designs to the jewelry firms. On the other hand, she was able to design fine jewelry, which provided all the advantages of working with precious stones and strong, fine platinum instead of white metal. She found it easier to design precious jewelry that would be made by hand than to design costume jewelry with all the restraints imposed by volume production.

Increasingly her designs were bought by the Panetta firm. This was a pleasure since Ruth knew Armando and Amadeo Panetta from when they had been stone setters at F & K thirty years earlier. Before long they told Ruth that, since Panetta was buying all her designs, she should join the firm full time, which she did in January 1974.

Panetta

The time at Panetta was very busy for Ruth, who originated or developed numerous designs during her 14 years. It was a total change, because at F & K she designed "fashion jewelry" which made no attempt to look like precious jewelry, while at Panetta the inspiration was fine jewelry. She succeeded in making the transition and produced designs in complete contrast to her years at F & K. Along with designing many of Panetta’s major pieces, she designed exquisite tiny stick pins and other small jewelry.

At F & K Ruth was virtually a one-person design department, only needing Mr. Kappel or Florie Silverman to approve the design before it went into production. At Panetta, the design origination and development was more of a team effort, with Armando Panetta providing direction and supervising the design effort. The model makers provided their input as to which designs should be made and how they should be developed. Sometimes the sales team would see jewelry they liked and would ask Ruth to develop the design for Panetta. This approach required a different technique to F & K and Ruth was always working and developing designs to keep the model makers busy.She enjoyed working at Panetta because the quality of the jewelry was so high, and Panetta continued to use stone setters to hand set the rhinestones until the firm closed.

 She also enjoyed it because of the Panetta brothers and the people she worked with, including the two model makers, who became personal friends.  Along with designing the "show pieces," much of the work involved numerous designs for small pieces, but each one still required a designer's talent. Her design sketches for Panetta were kept by the firm and Ruth presumes they went to the buyer when it was sold.

A Practical Designer

Looking back on her long career as a costume jewelry designer, Ruth’s greatest motivation was seeing her beautiful designs come to fruition at the end of the production process. She liked to see some chic lady walking down Fifth Avenue wearing one of her creations but, perhaps surprisingly, she felt no great pride in it. Rather she took pride in being a "practical designer," something she was taught very early in her career by Matty Conforti and which was seldom taught at design school. All her conceptions were completely workable and not just beautiful illustrations. Nevertheless, she enjoys seeing her creations, whether for Eisenberg or for Panetta, appearing in the television shows such as Murder She Wrote, Dynasty, and Designing Women.

Ruth is surprised at the interest today among collectors and fashion historians in the jewelry made of her designs ("They pay how much for that?!!"). She thinks it is important to bear in mind that costume jewelry was a business and that the participants were trying to make money under all the pressures of the fashion industry. She wonders if things are sometimes over-analyzed today. For example, she explains that the reason one stone shape was substituted for another was quite likely because they ran out of the first stone rather than any great design inspiration.

Looking back in retirement, and still happily together with her husband of 55 years, she hopes her memories will be of interest, and that they are accurate: "Don’t try to pin me down! I’m lucky if I remember the right decade, let alone the right year after all this time," she admonished.

She wishes that she had been able to buy her own jewelry creations, but in the early years it was impossible on her salary. Instead she has some happy memories, and a few sad ones, and she has the few mementos of her designs which she was able to rescue when F & K closed. Not surprisingly, someone with Ruth’s talent could have chosen a different career path, and she sometimes wonders what would have happened if she had accepted Claude Arpels’ invitation to work as a designer for Van Cleef & Arpels in New York.

It is almost unbelievable-even to Ruth-that any one person could have been responsible for the number of designs that she created over 48 years. Perhaps as inconceivable to those who admire her work is that she was creating important fashion jewelry for clients like Chanel when she was 15, that she designed so many uniquely creative and memorable pieces among all the volume, and that her range extends from massive F & K "couture jewelry" to minute Panetta tie tacs. That the book Jewels of Fantasy illustrates seventeen of her designs from the period she worked at Fallon & Kappel attests to the talents of this charming and gifted lady.© 1999 Nicholas Tollemache

Jewelry by Ruth Kamke Photo Gallery

 

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