In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It’s A Watch To Pay Attention To

//In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It’s A Watch To Pay Attention To

In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It’s A Watch To Pay Attention To

The Patek Philippe 2526 has long been the little brother, nay, old man in the family of vintage Patek Calatravas. It’s not super sexy like a two-tone 570, or athletic like a steel 565. Nor was it the very first Calatrava like the little 96. What the 2526 is, in my extremely humble opinion, is one of the best buys in vintage Patek right now, if not all of vintage watches. In this report, I’ll tell you why.

But before I do that, I want to clarify what I mean by “one of the best buys” in watches. Do I mean it’s a bargain? No, because no vintage Patek above the price of $10,000 is a bargain, really. Do I mean they should be worth more? Not really, though on some level, I do believe the 2526 should be more expensive than it is. What I mean is that offers its owner a tremendous amount of charm with its lovely 36 mm, screw-back case, technical prowess with Patek’s superlative caliber 12-600AT, and added value in its twice-baked enamel dial. And because the earlier time-onlys – the 570s and 565s – are so hot right now, I think the 2526 is really being over looked. Let’s dig a little deeper.

What Is The 2526 And Why Does It Matter?

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The 2526 is really just one model among a handful that used Patek Philippe’s very first self-winding caliber – 12-600 AT – though many refer to the 2526 as being Patek’s first automatic. I do not dispute this, but I simply don’t know if the 2526 hit the market before the 2552 and other self-winding watches using the same caliber. Incidentally, the same could be said for the Heuer Monaco – for years people called it the first self-winding chronograph, when in fact it was just one of a few Heuers to hit the market in 1969 – all using the same caliber 11. The quality of this caliber is one reason the 2526 is so special, but it is not the sole reason. The 2526 has numerous other distinguishing traits that elevate it about its peers that share the same 12-ligne, self-winding caliber. What are they? Well, let’s talk movement first and then we’ll get into the rest.

The Best Time-Only Movement In The World (Maybe Of All Time?)

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Okay, let’s have a look at what the caliber 12-600 AT means to Patek. Launched in 1953, the caliber is a 12-ligne movement, roughly 6 mm in diameter, and automatic. Thus, you have the name 12-600 AT. The caliber was Patek Philippe’s very first self-winding movement, launched some 22 years after Rolex patented its perpetual mechanism. This is meaningful because it was not as if it took Patek a good two decades to catch up with Rolex – it was that Rolex had a two decade patent on the mechanism, so Patek, or anyone else for that matter, was legally prohibited from selling a full-rotor, self-winding movement like this.

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So, if you assume Patek began working on the 12-600 AT soon after Rolex patented their movement, you can imagine the time and lengths they went to differentiate the caliber from the Rolex movement. And while they are both superlative calibers, the Patek caliber is several steps above what we see from Rolex, to the point where many people tout the 12-600 AT as perhaps the finest self-winding caliber ever made.

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The caliber features Patek’s Gyromax balance wheel (first introduced in 1951), which is an adjustable inertia wheel. What this means is that instead of the adjustment screws being on the outside of the rim, they are actually recessed into the rim of the wheel. The variation of the Gyromax remains a trademark of Patek Philippe even today. We see a swan-neck regulator and self-compensating Breguet-style balance spring. Separate cocks are used for the balance wheel, escape wheel, and fourth wheel, while the third and center wheels are attached to a large bridge, which also hold the bearing for one of the movement’s most important and meaningful features – the 18 karat gold rotor. The rotor, arguably the very first decorated rotor in history, is still the benchmark for decoration. Featuring a stunning engine-turned motif, the lovely “PP” crest at center was used as the inspiration for Patek Philippe’s own seal of quality introduced in 2009, replacing the Geneva seal on all Patek watches.

“With good care, and after ‘personal’ adjustment to your own wrist, the maximum variation is only 1 second in 24 hours.”

Period Brochure For The Patek Philippe 2526

The caliber beats at 19,800 vph, is adjusted to five positions, heat and cold, and isochronism. Oh, and it features a downright astonishing 30 jewels! This was roughly double what most movements featured at the time. Oh, and if we look at the caliber found inside the 5196 (arguably the modern watch closest to the 2526), we see that its caliber 215PS has just 18 jewels. It’s manually wound, so it should in theory have less, but even the automatic caliber 324 today has 29 jewels.
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In a period brochure of the 2526, the caliber is described as being of exceptionally high quality, attaining unequaled aerodynamic characteristics with absolutely scientific correction of the performance, to the point where, after regulation, the watch should have a maximum variation of only one second per day. Think about that. One second per day! In 1953!
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Oh, and the finishing! Look at the 12-600 AT – insane bevels, wide and flawless Geneva strips, and that rotor that we mentioned? Come on. That has to be the nicest rotor ever made, with engine turning in progressively tighter patterns as you move from the periphery to the center point.

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Now you might say, “I’ve seen better finished movements,” and today, maybe you have. But consider that this watch came out in 1953, and all this work was done completely by hand. Oh, and consider that sapphire case backs didn’t become a thing until 40 years later, which means Patek was doing this work for nobody but those who would likely be their own watchmakers down the road. The customers couldn’t see the all the hand-work that went into the finishing of this movement like they can today, but Patek did it anyway. How great is that?

In writing this story and researching the 2526 over the past year or so, I’ve spoken to many people about the watch and its caliber. The consensus, among the six or so trained watchmakers I’ve spoken to, is that the Patek Philippe caliber 12-600AT is one of the all-time greats. One watchmaker, who is famed for servicing the best of the best, had this to say: “Today, the very best self-winding caliber in the world is the Lange caliber L021.1 found inside the Daymatic. If Patek still made the 12-600AT, the Lange would be in second place.”

The 12-600AT was discontinued in roughly 1960 after around 7,000 units were made across a handful of references. And though it not a perfect movement, some would say it’s as close to a perfect automatic movement as anyone has ever built, to this day.

A Dial Meant To Last Forever

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So the 2526 has a great movement, but there’s much more to a watch than what makes it run. The other easy-to-define trait of the 2526 that makes it so special is its dial – the vast majority of which are twice-baked enamel! Enamel dials are, to this day, a very special thing, and when a watch hits the market with an enamel dial, collectors instantly take note (example A, example B). Again, enamel is used sparingly today because it is delicate and difficult to produce – it’s somewhat ornate at this point, but Patek chose to use enamel on the 2526 for a different reason; it would last forever.

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Yes, in the same period brochure for the 2526, it reads: “The dial, of baked enamel, is impervious to the action of outside agents, such as tarnishing produced by sunlight.” Essentially, Patek wanted to a create a watch that would last forever, and as we’ve seen, most dials from the 1950s were anything but resistant to the outside elements. It is the enamel dial of the 2526 that I believe really elevates this reference to something very special – the eggshell color of the enamel used by Patek is simply divine.

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Can an enamel dial end up looking like what you see above? Certainly, but I think the delicacy of these dials is vastly overstated. Are they more fragile than a normal metal dial? Sure, but it would take a lot to produce cracks like you see above, and the upsides far outweigh the chances of your perfect Calatrava turning into a shattered mess.

Image courtesy of Antiquorum. In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It's A Watch To Pay Attention To In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It’s A Watch To Pay Attention To az
Image courtesy of Antiquorum. In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It's A Watch To Pay Attention To In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It’s A Watch To Pay Attention To az2

It is important to note that not all 2526s came with enamel dials. In fact, arguably the most special dials you can find on a 2526 are not enamel – including all dials with diamond markers and the famed “LBJ dials” that read “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” These are standard metal dials, and while the LBJ and diamond dials are popular with some, I really believe that if you are going to own one 2526, it should have an enamel dial.

Finally, what makes the fact that the 2526 uses an enamel so remarkable is that this was a standard production watch – not a limited edition, or some rare piece meant only for connoisseurs – but the watch that Patek believe would be the backbone of their entire collection. Essentially, the 2526 was intended to be everything great about watchmaking in one model. Show me a normal production watch, at this scale, that uses an enamel dial today. I don’t think you can, and yet Patek did it 60 years ago.

Big, Bad Bracelets Everywhere

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Another curious trait of the 2526 is that a significant percentage of them were born with or sold with large gold bracelets. Again, I believe the thinking here was that a gold bracelet would last forever and offer the wearer the most rugged and lasting strap option possible. Any number of options were available, though perhaps the most common is the “G” bracelet, which many call a “lobster” bracelet.

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Lobster bracelets are signed PP on the clasp and fully signed on the inside. Other bracelets, like the pink-gold bracelet found below, are signed simply by Gay Frères. There is no clear hierarchy when it comes to desirability here, and many owners of 2526s simply do not care for these, but they do add something very special to the watch that is undeniably interesting.

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Further, these bracelets are valuable. To certain collectors, these could be worth upwards of $20,000 on their own in today’s market, so I think it’s interesting to note that the 2526, of all models, was the one most often sold with them.

The Ultimate Watch From The Ultimate Watchmaker At Its Very Best

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The 2526 has so much going for it – the remarkably high quality caliber that is good to one second per day and finished to the nines and the enamel dial that today is only used on the most special watches in the world are really just the beginning. The double P crown that you see on the 2526 was introduced for the caliber 12-600 AT and while it is not unique to this reference, it is probably most associated with it. This crown is simply beautiful, and one of my personal favorite attributes of the watch.

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Then you have the actual design of the case and dial – which I would put up there with the very best of them. The watch is a screw-back, meaning it’s waterproof – something that was a real selling point back then, and maybe even more so today. Screw-back watches are now selling for significant premiums versus their snap-back brethren, but in terms of the 2526, the thicker case, coupled with the self-winding movement, makes for a much more substantial feel on the wrist than, say, a 565 or 570.

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The dial, with sub seconds, minute plots, and beautiful dauphine accents, is without flaw, and the case, with its sharp but curved lugs, is completely balanced.

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What you have then in the 2526 is arguably the finest time-only watch
Patek Philippe made in serial. The quality of the movement, dial, and case
and dial design, and its wrist presence, make the 2526 the epitome of Patek
Philippe in my belief, and it was clearly designed to be the ultimate
watch – touting it as having “unchallenged supremacy.” Oh, and guess
what Patek priced it that way, too.

The retail price of the 2526 in the mid 1950s ranged from just over CHF 2,000 for a yellow-gold watch on leather strap to an astonishing CHF 5,500 for a platinum version with diamond markers. In between, there were rose, yellow, and white gold watches with enamel dials, with and without bracelet – but if you assume the average 2526 on bracelet in a gold (not platinum) was around CHF 3,400, you start to get the picture. Why? Because the 2499 – a perpetual calendar with chronograph, the only one that existed in the world at the time – sold for roughly CHF 3,800 at the time! So, a 2526 on bracelet cost almost as much as new as a 2499. Incredible to think about, but again this brings back my earlier point that the 2526 is and has always been, since the day Patek created it, something very special.

Collecting The 2526

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I remember the very first time I saw a Patek Philippe 2526 – I was walking an editor from GQ.com (actually, it was was men.style.com back then) around a Patrizzi & Co. (RIP) preview in New York. The editor pointed to a yellow-gold 2526 and asked to see it. The expert from Patrizzi & Co. replied, “Oh, you don’t want to see that, that’s an old man’s watch!” Okay. Sure. But that has long been the prevailing sentiment toward the 2526 for as long as I’ve been in watches. It just wasn’t a hot watch, and frankly it’s still not.

As I said in the very beginning, today is the day that a 570 in steel can sell for six figures with a plain, boring old dial. The early Calatravas – 570 and 565 (to a lesser degree 96, 2508 and 2508) – are what people are looking for these days. I understand – heck I’ve owned a 2508 and I currently own a 565 – but short of the amazing two-tone dialed watches or downright mega reference 530s, the 2526 is a far more special watch. Now I’ve outlined above what the facts are with the 2526 – its killer movement, stunning baked enamel dial, and fantastic history all make the 2526 great, on paper. But if we know one thing about watch collecting, it’s that nothing makes sense – it all comes down to supply and demand. Right now, demand for the 2526 is relatively low, and this why I think it represents such a fantastic opportunity. I’ll walk you through the basics of collecting 2526s here.

How To Identify A First Series Dial

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As I’ve said a few times now, producing enamel dials isn’t exactly an ordinary thing – that’s why we only see them on very expensive watches today. The very first 2526 dials produced have special traits compared to the rest – the hour markers are actually set into the dial themselves using pins. All later dials are glued to a solid enamel surface. Setting the markers into the dial itself proved to be massively problematic, and Patek quickly abandoned this practice. You know what this means – any time there is something proven to be difficult and only done for a short period, collectors will want it. And that’s clearly true here with the first-series dials on the 2526. How can you tell if you’re looking at a first-series dial? Turn it on an angle and look at the hour markers – you’ll see small dimples at the edge of each hour marker. Later dials will be completely flat by the hour markers. Here’s a better illustration of what I mean:

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A later dial missing an hour marker. In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It's A Watch To Pay Attention To In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It’s A Watch To Pay Attention To Patek2526 19

The image on the left shows what it would look like if an hour marker were removed from a first-series dial. The image on the left shows the same on a later dial – one is set into the dial itself, the other is glued. This is the big difference between enamel dials, and while some sub-divide 2526 dials even further, I tend to think of it as first series (with dimples) versus everything else. The earlier dials are rarer and more desirable, but this is not a super important thing when buying – more of a nice thing to have.

A Question Of Case Material

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The 2526 was produced in four metals: yellow gold, rose gold, white gold, and platinum. Yellow gold is obviously the most common, and a yellow cased watch with enamel dial is still probably your best bet if you want something like this without spending too much money. They are out there, and you can find them without much trouble – again why I say now is the time to buy. You’ll always want to ensure the dial is crack-free and the case not too polished, but these watches are a remarkable buy simply for the watchmaking that they contain.

Rose-gold examples are wonderful watches, and offer a lot of charm with the warm hue of the metal. Many of them were sold in South America, often at Caracas dealer Serpico Y Laino.

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I happen to think that rose gold against the eggshell dial color is a lovely combination, and these are rather rare watches. A very good example of a rose-gold 2526 will cost you significantly more than one in yellow – but then again it’s a more desirable color, and the thinking is there is about one rose-gold 2526 for every eight yellow-gold examples – and possibly even fewer.

Then we have the white metals. Platinum and white gold 2526s are exceedingly difficult to find. In fact, by some estimates, we’ve seen less than 25 platinum examples ever, and less than 20 in white gold to the market. So we are talking absolutely minuscule numbers here. And I haven’t even gotten to the fact that the vast majority of white gold and platinum 2526s featured metallic dials with diamond markers.

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The watch you see here is a 2526 in platinum – it sold at Phillips in November of last year for CHF 227,000, and many would agree this was a conservative price for the watch. According to the footnote, it is one of five known platinum examples with an enamel dial. White-gold examples could be even more rare with enamel dials. There was never a stainless-steel cased 2526 – the closest thing to this would’ve been the 2585, which used the great 12-600 AT, but came in a different case and without enamel dial. The last time one came up we wrote about it here – and it subsequently sold for CHF 785,000. If a steel 2526 were ever discovered, I think it’s fair to say it would sell for even more.

Double Signatures And Special Dials

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As stated, the two holy grails of 2526 collecting would be a white gold
or platinum example with a flawless enamel dial. They are, for all
intents and purposes, practical unobtanium. What’s amazing is that we
actually saw one in Talking Watches with Matt Jacobson.
There are a variety of different metal dials for the white gold and
platinum watches – all featuring diamond markers. The 2526G or P with a
diamond dial is certainly not an everyday watch, but might be one of
the most elegant watches in the world. Still, because they are more
common than enamel dials, they sell for less despite the diamond
indexes. The exceptions, however, would be a white-metal watch with a black metal, diamond dial. Many consider these up there with white-metal, non-diamond, enamel-dial examples as the pinnacle of the 2526 family, and when they come up, they go big.

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The other highly collectible metal dial would be the Tiffany-signed watch that you see above, which reads: “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” The story is that these watches were ordered by LBJ before becoming President, as he was a prominent client of Tiffany in New York. It should be noted it is likely these dials were not fitted by Patek, but instead by Tiffany after the sale of the watches to the Henri Stern Watch Agency – and as such, Patek has, of late, not been forthcoming with archives for such watches. Further, the vast majority of these watches have been re-dialed, so finding one with good, honest patina on the dial and correct script is very uncommon. To me, these are the coolest and most interesting of the metal-dial 2526s.

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Coming back to enamel dials – there are double-signed watches like this
first series Serpico Y Laino in pink gold that sold recently at Phillips
, which have to be considered more rare and valuable than non-double-signed watches. For Serpico Y Laino watches, always make sure there is an “S&L” hallmark on the case back – if there isn’t, it could mean the dial was swapped to a new case, or that the case was so polished that it is no longer visible. Either way, it’s a pass.

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Oh, and while we’re on hallmarks, all 2526s have a hallmark between the 6 o’clock lugs, as well as on the rear of the lugs. Be sure to look at them to gauge how polished a case might be.

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Here is a photo of three enamel-dial 2526s, all signed by Serpico Y Laino, and achingly rare with black dial and in platinum.

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Okay, back to dials – I think what can be considered on the same level as a white-metal, enamel-dial 2526 is anything with a confirmed
original black enamel dial. You will find black-dial 2526s out there – I
tend to think of them as a once (maybe twice) per year occurence – but
the majority of them feature dials that were added later. Yes, that is
possible, so you must ensure that the watch was born with a black dial, otherwise it is a very different proposition. Here, for example, is the last black dial 2526 to be sold publicly
prior to this past weekend, but it was not born that way, and even
Christie’s declares that. It made $81,000 in November of 2015.
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This weekend, Phillips offered another 2526 with black enamel dial, this time confirmed born with said dial, and while an estimate of CHF 60,000 to 90,000 was offered, the result was significantly higher. That’s a roughly $100,000 difference between watches just based on an extract – amazing, but true, and to be kept in mind if someone offers you a 2526 with a special dial; it’s nothing without confirmation.

Finally, there are a few known special dial 2526s out there, and pricing those, while difficult, should be done based on material and dial types. Andy Warhol, for example, wore a 2526 in yellow gold with Breguet numbers. There have also been examples of black enamel dials with luminous Arabic hour markers, which I consider to be some of the the most interesting examples of the 2526.

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What is neat about the 2526 is that there really are dozens of different dial types, and unlike the 570s and 565s, not many are following along. So, you might be able to scoop up a very rare iteration of the 2526 from a dealer who doesn’t know exactly what he has.

Finally, a word about “sigma dials” – some would say that a 2526 with a dial that features the “sigma” marking at 6 o’clock is likely a service dial. This means the dial was swapped by Patek and in many cases, it is no longer enamel but a metallic dial covered in lacquer. I am not saying all sigma dial 2526s have lacquered instead of enamel dials, but when buying, pay much closer attention to those with a sigma dial than those without.

Emotion, Charm, And Wearability

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Now, on to the completely subjective part of this story. I personally love the 2526, if you haven’t been able to tell so far. I think it is truly the culmination of what makes mid-century Patek Philippe wristwatches so special – the over-engineered and utterly gorgeous caliber, the stunning and rich enamel dial, the flawless 36 mm waterproof case, and just perfect double-P crown. Again, the 2526 was truly intended to be the untouchable time-only watch from Patek, a watch of “unchallenged supremacy,” and though modern tastes have pulled many away from it, I think that description holds true today.

What’s more is how important Patek viewed the 2526 in its hey-day. It was the watch chosen by a man who would be president, by Warhol, and the very first 2526 was indeed given to none other than mega-client J.B. Champion. The 2526 was a revolutionary product in 1953, and one that simply would not be made today – there are too many factors at play today for Patek to make such a special time-only watch, and price it amid its complications. Today, the closest thing we have to a 2526 is Lange’s Richard Lange Pour Le Mérite, and that was a 250 piece (across two metals) limited edition.

In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It's A Watch To Pay Attention To In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It’s A Watch To Pay Attention To Patek2526 40
In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It's A Watch To Pay Attention To In-Depth: The Patek Philippe 2526, And Why It’s A Watch To Pay Attention To Patek2526 42

Yes, I think the days of timeless designs and pride in engineering may be a thing of the past for many great watch brands, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be found today. As I’ve said, a yellow-gold 2526 can be found for the price of a new Nautilus in steel – and which do you think has more handcraft, or even a better story to tell? Further, the case size and shape of the 2526 is simply perfect, thicker than a 570 and I think even better balanced, and the 2526 looks great on both men and women (as you can see above – that’s also a bargaining tip to be used with the sig other).

The 2526 remains today one of Patek Philippe’s most beautiful and lasting accomplishments – at least to my eye – and I hope that after reading this story, you’ll agree.

Acknowledgements & Disclosures: I would like to thank my friend John Goldberger for his constant support in research and images and Mr. Eric Wind for giving me the period brochure for the 2526 and always acting as a sounding board and friend. Further credits go to EricTortella.com and Patek Philippe: Cult Object And Investment. Finally, I want to disclose, not because I have to, but because I want to, that I am indeed an owner of a 2526. So many of the features on the site represent a personal journey, and this is no different. It is writing stories like this one that reminds me of why I started HODINKEE in the first place – to share the knowledge that I, and my friends in this wonderful world, have with as many people as possible.

By | 2016-12-23T20:17:21+00:00 May 18th, 2016|Blog|0 Comments

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