Persefume‘s intro:
Today is a special day for Persefume! For the first time ever, we are proud to announce our Guest Writer: utterly talented Alex Musgrave of A Scent of Elegance/ The Silver Fox. His poetic take on artistic perfumery moves us deeply and we are truly glad that after many years of friendship, mutual passion and joint projects, The Silver Fox appears in our magazine, with emotional essay on transformation of Miller Harris brand in the context of two upcoming January 2018 releases: Scherzo by perfumer Mathieu Nardin and Tender composed by Bertrand Duchaufour. Enjoy this special, deeply personal and exclusive piece as much as we do! / Jakub and Aleksandra

The official Silver Fox avatar by Italian illustrator Massimo Alfaioli.

by Alex Musgrave/The Silver Fox for Persefume

Sitting down and sharing time with Sarah Rotheram the newly incumbent CEO of Miller Harris is an exhilarating, fizzing experience. She is obsessively passionate about her new role, overflowing with erudite and literary sparks flickering through her sharing of perfume plans, developing fragrance mods and genuine canvassing of opinion. She always looks beautifully constructed, careful attention paid to cloth, folds, shoes and especially colour. And let’s not forget her hair, usually a white/silver bob or pixie cut, a striking and distinctive signature look. I remember the first time she went silver, sweeping into a meeting like a warrior butterfly, it was quite the entrance.

Sarah Rotheram and In Bloom windows at Miller Harris Bruton Street store in London

Picking up the reins at Miller Harris in April 2017 it quickly became apparent how bright and urban, floral and experimental things were going to get. And that was just the explosion of botany and images across social media. Sarah studied fashion textiles and I think this passion for texture, design and art has always woven its patterned, chromatic way through her personal image making but also served her well when it came to the working through the concepts and campaigns at Penhaligon’s London and Aspinal of London, the two companies previous to Miller Harris where she was CEO. I have known Sarah since the Penhaligon’s years when she came on board from Molton Brown in May 2007 to save the fortunes of what was essentially an esteemed independent vintage house that had been passed from pillar to post and was starting to freefall.

Miracles were performed there, major expansion into the Far Eastern market, a tighter alliance between Penhaligon’s and its sister house L’Artisan Parfumeur, where she was also CEO. She brought the two houses under one roof in London with staff often sharing dual roles across the brands. She departed Penhaligon’s in rude health in 2014, going on to a CEO position at luxury leather brand Aspinal of London, again improving performance considerably over the three years she was in the role. Sarah managed to outlast her predecessors but she still missed the world of niche fragrance and honestly, it missed her.

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Books, beautiful books. Chez Sarah Rotheram. How beautiful is that shade of blue? (Image ©sjrrotheram)

Sarah has a real passion for perfume, a hunger for creating innovative things, but at Penhaligon’s this was held in check to a certain degree by the brand’s need to be faithful to its core heritage values. She was so busy it was insane. Her travelling was crazy, city after city, continent hopping, opening stores, dealing with contractors and the occasionally problematic network of wholesale and franchise partners. Much of this moved Sarah further away from the artistic olfactive heart of the business, the part she loved: taking part in and driving creation of extraordinary fragrances. Her tenure at Penhaligon’s transformed the sales and service within stores and a new more emotional language was developed to romance the clientele with olfactory texture, storytelling and honest, informed communication.

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Sarah Rotheram wearing floral necklace created by Erin Buckley for Miller Harris’ In Bloom campaign

During her seven years at the English heritage house she forged unique working relationships with perfumers like Olivier Cresp, Alberto Morillas, Olivia Giacobetti and most importantly of all, French master perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour who had already created a number of iconic perfumes for L’Artisan Parfumeur. Timbuktu, Al Oudh, Patchouli Patch, Dzongkha and Vanille Absolument are all classics in their genre. Sarah’s skill in 2009 was in suggesting to Bertrand he create something utterly new and daring for Penhaligon’s, a female floriental that would redefine how the house was viewed by press and public alike. Working closely with a talented marketing team, Amaranthine was born, an astounding and frankly divisive odour of milk-stained tropical jasmine, hothouse roses, banana leaf and a slick of rubbered ylang ylang. The indolic impact was shocking. Cardamom and coriander seed oils ran green and sweaty through the floral mix. The keynote I remember so vividly almost oozing out of the perfume, was a condensed milk accord in the base that looped back to the coconut at the start like some filthy erotic ouroboros.

The following year Bertrand excelled himself with a modern day fougère inspired by the atmospherics of a traditional Saville Row tailoring workshop, specifically Norton & Sons, run by the dapper and charismatic Patrick Grant. I was visiting head office when the first set of mods came in. Watching and listening to Sarah navigate the samples according to the brief and with a mind on retail prospects and her own strong personal taste was fascinating. The mod that impressed us the most had the working title At Patrick’s although Dust & Scissors came close, a little less commercial although elements of it were sewn into what became Sartorial, which along with Amaranthine and Ostara (2015), also by Bertrand, they are probably the best perfumes the house made.

Personally I thought Sarah at Aspinal was a slightly uncomfortable fit. On a site visit to Edinburgh as she was preparing to open a store in the city, we sat outside a coffee shop on George Street for a blustery coffee and she admitted how much she missed the world of fragrance. I wondered again (and not for the first time) if she was planning her own line. It made strong sense, if anyone was going to bring something new and disruptive to the aromatic retail world it would be Sarah Rotheram.

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Miller Harris Rose Silence Eau de Parfum interpreted for In Bloom by Wild Renata Flowers with Polly Ellens

Her private announcement at the start of January 2017 to me and selected others that she was parting ways with Aspinal was not a huge surprise. She was obviously very discreet about her next move as she worked out her notice period, but I had already kind of worked out with a bit of research that Miller Harris was to be her destination and just in time to be honest. Sarah communicated nothing but pure excitement and a genuine sense of something rippling and buzzing as she talked as much as she could before we signed NDAs. It seemed she had boldly suggested to Miller Harris to surrender themselves to her and she would make the brand relevant, intriguing and desirable, a London perfume house that customers would hear talked about, see windows, notice campaigns and quite simply crave the fragrances.

This was quite an ask of a small house regrouping in the wake of founder Lyn Harris’ decision to move on. Her departure, while not unusual in the world of beauty and perfume was fretting the carefully constructed Anglo-French dreaminess that she had carefully nurtured since founding the house in 2000. Miller Harris was built around Lyn and her memories, her stories of childhood, the sojourns with grandparents in Scotland, the holidays in Batz-sur-Mer in Brittany, fig trees in the south of France, fuggy Parisian cafés and the vital aromatic legacy of her training in Grasse with Robertet.

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Miller Harris Noix de Tubéreuse interpreted for In Bloom by Palais Flowers

I have worn Miller Harris perfumes since the brand launched; it had always had a beautifully curated legacy and you felt you were wandering a little in Lyn’s scented memories. L’Air de Rien, the perfume created for Jane Birkin was my signature for a long while and now it’s back in my life obsessively again. I can’t really go a day without it and a bottle is always in my bag.

L’Air De Rien by Lyn Harris for Miller Harris

The aftermath of Lyn’s departure was one of redefinition and adaption. Mathieu Nardin, who worked alongside Lyn stayed behind working as he always did on elegant house briefs, although arguably with more of a commercial slant, which is no bad thing. Miller Harris was being run a little like a fashion brand and there was just a sense of quiet exhaustion. What was lacking was a sense of theatre and genuine passion that people were selling such beautiful perfumes.

Meanwhile Lyn Harris unveiled her new venture Perfumer H in an exquisite space in Marylebone, fitted out by Retrouvius. This hushed venture is in many ways a more rarefied and honed incarnation of the early years of Miller Harris. The perfumes are constructed textures and moods such as Charcoal, Leather, Velvet, Heliotrope and Moss. The perfumes pay homage to calm and purity in this dizzying, overexposed world. Some of them are more present than others, skin feels clothed and covered and others are more fleeting like haiku written in rain.

Sarah’s return to perfume at Miler Harris made superb sense. The house was still small enough, two retail stores in London (…now two more are imminent at the time of writing), not much of an international wholesale structure yet (although that too is now in hand), a tight chic portfolio of perfumes with the possibility of retiring some and returning old favourites and most importantly of all it gave Sarah the opportunity to get really creative on the fragrance front. She could explore some of the ideas that had been percolating away in her busy mind for a number of years. You have to remember that in 2000 when Lyn founded Miller Harris, she was an immaculate rebel, a female British perfumer with exquisite talent, creating botanical work that while undeniably beautiful often had edge, slice and shout. She herself was often invisible in her brand, in that Margiela way, allowing the work to speak for her. Each perfume was a story, a micro journey. In some ways Sarah is not so different, times have changed, modernity is brutally fast now and Sarah is delivering and adapting Lyn’s legacy in a digital age where social media has utterly transformed the landscape of self-communication.

Package design & motif for Miller Harris ScherzoXTender. Designed by Jkrglobal

One of the slight issues with inheriting a company is the decision to honour what was left behind and already set up to run. I imagine that while working out her notice period for Aspinal Sarah was already planning ahead for her start at Miller Harris, formulating ideas and making contacts so that she could hit the ground running in her own inimitable fashion.

I have known Sarah from the beginning of the Penhaligon’s era and have really enjoyed working with her. She is a dynamic and inspiring team leader who isn’t afraid to mix stuff up and take risks. One of her strongest attributes is realising she doesn’t always know everything and being open to other people helping her realise her vision. She has a passion for beautiful intelligent things, interior décor, objets, furniture, lighting, glass and china cups for her beloved tea drinking. She is a serious reader of proper books, her beautifully curated home is piled with them, shelves groan. All this has becomes part an elemental part of her work, a mission to beautify environment and segue elements of this into the sensual world of perfumery.

Things always take time to settle. Sarah’s tactic has always been to motivate, openly demonstrating her passions and intent for the brand whilst at the same time making clear how she sees the brand developing. If you ask questions, she will answer. She works without a PA, preferring a much more direct contact with her team. I like this. Boy is she busy though, everything resides in her head, key info shared with the creatives around her, the big stuff locked down, after all she is responsible to a board of directors and for keeping on track to a budget, especially with Miller Harris who might understandably be a tad nervous with novelty and transformation after the latter Lyn Harris years.

Sarah is tough and can be intimidating if she chooses. Her role is not easy. She is still under forty and a woman. I travelled to Moscow with her some years ago and despite her status and ridiculously obvious capabilities and negotiating skills, I remember our Georgian business hosts who were pitching to be her agents in Russia were still inherently sexist, every now and again wondering why our male head of international wholesale wasn’t in charge. Mind you, when we hit a late night vodka bar and she matched them with shots and cigar smoking I think respect was nailed to the bar top.

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Le Cèdre by Mathieu Nardin for Miller Harris.

In Bloom* was a floral marketing campaign Sarah initiated and ignited at Miller Harris to refocus the public’s attention on the floral provenance of the brand. Lyn had drawn a lot of inspiration from nature, gardens and childhood memories of family holidays and travel and this was echoed in the joyful celebration of flora. There is a also a re-defining of the house as London perfumery and this was reflected in the panoply of eclectic city florists chosen to work on windows, instore campaigns and the beautiful In Bloom Insta images exalting the floral perfumes. The most striking and fabulous part of In Bloom was the lush series of collaborations with London florists, tasking them to interpret the various floral fragrances in their own distinctive ways. So, as the two stores blossomed with a palpable sense of newness, the Insta grid and Facebook page were flooded with a veritable tsunami of roses, jasmine, tuberose, irises, moss, orchids, smoke and luscious bouquets that revitalised what had been a somewhat generic social media profile.

Le Cèdre appeared, a scheduled launch, created by Mathieu Nardin, soft dry cedar with a heart of imagined atrementous orchid and then Etui Noir, a supple leather scent with iris and smoke won the CEW Best Men’s Fragrance Prestige Award 2017 in May. While all this was excellent, behind the scenes, Sarah had very interesting plans indeed, an erudite mix of her own ambitions and desires applied to a perfumed house in need of change and direction. As I mentioned earlier she is an avid reader and when she goes on holiday this is a time for her to lose herself in books both new and old. The olfactory journey towards the early 2018 launches Scherzo and Tender had already begun on a holiday in the summer on 2016. Despite still being at Aspinal her mind as usual is roaming all things olfactory and connecting her love of fragrance to things around her.

..She walked on, between kaleidoscopic peonies massed in pink clouds, black and brown tulips and fragile mauve stemmed roses, transparent like sugar flowers in a confectioner’s window – until, as if the scherzo of colour could reach no further intensity, it broke off suddenly in mid-air. (From Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

I remember Sarah telling me about this quote and how her mind just filled with possibilities for what perfumers might bring to such a literary concept. As an essayist on perfume, I like the things I write about to have some substance and imagination behind them as opposed to tenuous puffery and gloss. The press launch for Scherzo and Tender took place last month in London in an elegantly conceived flower-filled space with Fitzgerald’s quote projected onto scented lit voiles. The build up was teased with a brilliantly realised floral rosette concept of mixed blues, yellows, pinks and reds that I can imagine had to go through a ruthless Sarah Rotheram audition. She is very particular about details. The rosette is cleverly melted, like gloss paint rendered flat then tipped and allowed to slowly weep off a canvas. The image has been used upside down by Miller Harris too, implying a plunging rose, comet-like, colours smearing as it falls.

Tender by Bertrand Duchaufour for Miller Harris (Image ©TSF)

In the press release Sarah says:

‘This is a very personal journey to me. Whist on holiday in the summer of 2016 I was reading Tender is the Night, a book I had read many years ago. Only a few chapters in I came across the word scherzo and was inspired, reading the preceding lines, there on the page sat a fragrance brief. A wonderfully descriptive passage of text, bringing to life a garden in the South of France. The book is a tale of contrasts, between innocence and passion, the end of the war and the pain that comes with the war and the hope of a new era, youth and age, old worlds colliding with the new, love, romance, dark and light.
We wanted the perfumers to extract from the passage their own interpretation of the fragrance, so we were careful not to provide an olfactive brief and I am delighted that the contrast between these two fragrances not only brings the passage to life but the many tensions and contrasts in the novel. I have a feeling that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tender is the Night, will always remain close to my heart.’

So, sitting with Sarah, sampling mods, passing perfumed strips back and forth, making comments on the development of projects. The most striking thing is just how fluent in the complex language of perfumery she is, how comfortable and bold she seems discussing the materials, technicalities, lab details and the on-going development of briefs to received mods. Brands often have some sort of evaluator as an intermediary between themselves and the noses or labs who can keep an eye on things, interpreting and reporting results to a CEO for example. Sarah has wisely chosen for now to do this for herself, making time to go through samples, noting anything that stands out: intriguing notes, a clever twist on a brief, something that might be used later. You can tell how much she enjoys being back in the perfume game; it flows through her engagement with the creation process.

The satisfying and valued friendship with Bertrand Duchaufour has taught Sarah a lot over the years about the business of perfume and how to read and react to raw materials. Also more importantly I think how an independent artistic nose like Bertrand approaches a brief. The weight of expectation for Scherzo and Tender, the first real launches of Sarah’s tenure is high; there is a lot riding on them. She needs to prove to the current shareholders of Miller Harris that she can deliver the modern bohemian vibe and rejuvenated house she promised. I think as well, she herself has her own very high personal standards. The person I meet now at Miller Harris is a more contented and focussed one than the Sarah Rotheram of old, but learned steeliness has honed her into a generous and purposeful maven who is both gleeful and ruthlessly serious in her perfume pursuits.

ScherzoXTender for Miller Harris (Image ©TSF)

So what of Scherzo and Tender ? Well, both are superb, I expected nothing less to be honest and would have been a disappointed Fox if they had fallen anywhere below the mark Sarah had set herself. Grasse perfumer Mathieu Nardin steps out of Lyn Harris’ shadow to focus on the confectioner’s art of sugared flowers mentioned in that beautiful Fitzgerald quote for moreish Scherzo and Bertrand Duchaufour creates the most extraordinary illusion of black tulips, pink peonies, and bruised roses for Tender. I will admit Tender made me swoon; despite being familiar with the themes in some of the early mods the cut sap green embrace of the notes and the ensuing explosion of blooms impressed me immensely.

There is a powdered joy to Scherzo, a sense of glossy modernity, politely boozy with the Davana in the top and a chic brightness made crisp and translucent by a gourmand shimmer of candied glassy petals. The use of pittosporum is intriguing, a flower seldom used in perfumery but one that night-blooms with distinctive soft honey-scented often bell-shaped flowers. The name pittosporum comes from the Greek, pitta for pitch, and spora for seed, referring to the sticky pulp that envelopes the seeds and makes the plant so notorious as it sticks to anything as a means of dispersal. This subtle touch of sweetness blended with vanilla, ethyl maltol to suggest the ‘…sugar flowers in a confectioner’s window…’ is very pretty indeed, the maltol, often over-poured, is calibrated here just on the right side of excess to allow what Miller Harris are romantically calling a dark rose to take centre stage for a while. Ably supported by warm patchouli with unexpected black tea vibes and a drowsy oudh, the rose is only dark in the sense that it smells jammy, intense and rendered, spooned from a jar and eaten off a small silver spoon.

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Scherzo by Mathieu Nardin for Miller Harris

There is something odd I really love in the opening of Scherzo, a wet, medicinal swabby note, like the cold breathy wipes used to clean skin before anything subcutaneous. It drops off quickly enough but makes quite an impression before the more decorative and romantic notes effloresce. My perfumer friend Mr E says this is most likely due to the dosage of safraleine and the fractionated patchouli and re-sampling it with this in mind and trying as I sometime do to switch off the surrounding olfactive noise and isolate the effects/notes I want to focus on I know he is right. This medicinal asepsis is echoed in the cut snapped steminess of Tender’s opening although it is stained more verdant, soaked in the bittersweet pungency of hyacinth.

Bertrand Duchaufour’s work on Tender is among his very best. Since becoming aromatically independent in 2008 he has established a reputation as a master perfumer of largesse and determined modesty. He is an erudite and artistic man capable of imaginative and intriguing work with a range of niche, artisan and smaller more personal projects. His working relationship with Sarah at Penhaligon’s and L’Artisan Parfumeur produced Sartorial, Amaranthine, Ostara, Vaara, Nuit de Tubéreuse, Al Oudh, the Mon Numéro series, Séville à L’Aube, Vanille Absolument, Traversée du Bosphore, the off kilter Explosions D’Emotions series and Rose Privée, made with Stéphanie Bakouche. It is quite the micro-collection if you think about the overall impact and individuality of these perfumes.

Now Sarah has entrusted Betrand with helping her reinvigorate Miller Harris, along with Mathieu Nardin by creating her first perfumes for the brand. She has also been something of a risk taker artistically, more than able to walk her intelligent talk. The fact that sometimes things don’t always turn out she way she expected is testament to the fact the risk was still taken in the first place.

Tender is Sarah’s personal favourite of the duo. I can see why. It has a daring O’Keefe-esque petal-form sense of the avant-garde; materials pleated, lipped, curved and hooded. And that black tulip accord. To my mind Betrand has suggested white tulips plunged into black ink and piled on the stone stairs to a lover’s chamber. He has used a tulip accord before in Traversée du Bosphore for L’Artisan Parfumeur, manipulating the spermy, squeaky odour of stems with powdered iris, sweet apple tea and the faintly urinous tang of Istanbul’s tanneries. I adore it and was astonished by the tulip flourish; they are flowers I find myself quite obsessed with from time to time, the multi-dazzling colour palette and the shift in physical from pert and reaching to sombre and bowed like weary postulants.

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Tender by Bertrand Duchaufour for Miller Harris

The olfactory dipping and monochromatic staining of Tender tulips provides a very different approach to his Bosphore theme. His beloved schinus molle (pink pepper CO2) and fling of aldehydes is quite a dramatic introduction to the staircase of scattered inked flowers. The notes list leather and it takes a few wearings to pick up on this but when you do, you notice it every time, barely there but just the trace of a vintage evening glove traced across a cheek in passing.

The thing I find most fascinating is Tender’s perceptible melancholic echo of Jean-Paul Guerlain’s Chamade (1969), a perfume along with Après L’Ondée (1906) I rate among the finest from the esteemed French house. Chamade is a complex term that dates back to the Napoleonic war for a drum roll or tattoo used to signal a retreat or a ceasefire to allow negotiations. However it has another hugely emotional translation, referring to the rapid sound of the heart in love as it beats in the body’s bone of cage. Francoise Sagan’s 1969 novel of the same name concerns the lives and loves of Lucile and Antoine and their subsequent retreats from one another. The preoccupation with love was reflected in the original Guerlain flacon design of an upturned heart pierced by an arrow.

The reason I cannot shake the echoing drumbeat of Chamade as I wear Tender is Bertrand’s expert (…and very French) handling of a green hyacinth effect he has used. It swells like pale green laughter in the composition supported by throaty cinnamon and incense echoing the potent headiness of hyacinth and acidic recoil of cassis bud Jean-Paul Guerlain used in Chamade. Turkish rose is used in both; in Chamade, combined with a wet lilac accord and creamy sandalwood creating a gentle yet insistent vortex around that central green motif. Basenotes of musks, resins, a rooty chewy vetiver, tonka and woods are a Guerlain landscape ostensibly vintage, yet within Chamade there is something defiantly brutalist, green and bright, green and strange, juxtaposing bitter pungency with just enough boudoir memory to justify the lack of air.

There is a sensation of this brutalism in Tender with Bertrand slightly overdosing his sympathetic hyacinth note and the damp cling of cyclamen as he did in the beautifully doomed Ostara for Penhaligon’s. Incense creates a haunting smokescreen for Fitzgerald’s blooms and the Turkish rose smells bruised and carmine, petals on the edge of falling. Finally Tender becomes itself, gorgeously so, green notes and plumose aldehydes sink into skin and you feel loved.

Sarah and Bertrand have succeeded in creating an elegant duo of thoughtful and radiant olfaction; a mix of abstracted familiarity and bookish imagination. The big question is: are they Miller Harris?

Well, not as it was for sure, but if you have been careful and caring enough to follow the alterations and developments since Sarah’s arrival and understand a little something of perfume, not too much but enough to know that the house had to evolve, you will know instinctively that Scherzo and Tender are achingly perfect. They have echoes of the old style Miller Harris botanical respect for bloom, tree, garden and root whilst at the same time incorporating so much of what Sarah has been thinking about since Penhaligon’s until the recent Miller Harris office move to Shoreditch from cramped quarters in Soho. Her creative hunger is writ large across these two 2018 launches but as always and more intensely now than ever, she is gathering a collaborative web around her of designers, writers, florists, architects, painters, filmmakers, perfumers, photographers, bloggers, vloggers and Insta stars to help her transform the Miller Harris brand and deliver a dynamic and different kind of message about what this contemporary couture perfume house is now all about.

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Miller Harris 2017 Christmas campaign, created in collaboration with London-based artist Julie Verhoeven

Christmas 2017 has been truly madly designed by Julie Verhoeven whose singular fashion illustrations are indeed an accurate reflection of how emblazoned and politely bonkers she is. She has created a delirious Christmas ensemble of crazy loco sounds, demolished boxes, boxes as hats, Picasssoesque noses and eyes splashed in and out of glitter, clown collars and a shrieking palette of Zandra Rhodes 70’s madness. The hedonism is in the detail, all handcrafted and somehow it works, a collision of deadly serious chromatic combustion and a happily startled House of quiet, elegant perfumes. It feels a little like putting a normally reserved relative into a sequinned catsuit at Christmas and suddenly they’re raving the room to Scandic house music.

Miller Harris Scherzo and Tender will launch early in the new year and I’m sure Sarah is already way ahead with scented planning for the rest of the year. Briefs will have already gone out, mods coming in, sampled and evaluated. It will still be under a year that she has been in the role of CEO at Miller Harris and things have changed considerably already. It is a tricky and emotive time, but the company’s ethos, personality and brand vision must be a huge focus as it always is in Sarah’s companies. Not everyone is going to like the changes and overt storytelling gearshift at Miller Harris. But one must never forget how much respect Sarah has for perfume, she is obsessed by it and forever dreaming up intelligent and accessible concepts for future projects but also re-framing and re-imagining the existing collection in such a way that it breathes the same giddy air as everyone else and feels involved and nurtured.

For now, Miller Harris has a slightly schizophrenic edge to it as the two eras fold into one another, but 2018 will see the firm and vital commencement of Miller Harris London as a perfume house to be reckoned with.

*The ‘In Bloom’ campaign for Miller Harris, conceived and designed by Prop Studios has won Retail Week’s 2017 award for Best Pop up/VM Solution

©TheSilverFox 23.11.17

All images ©Miller Harris unless otherwise stated.

Persefume wants to thank both The Silver Fox and Sarah Rotheram for this incredible, so personal and informative piece.