Robert and Bangla

by Nathalie de Saint Phalle

How did you meet Bangla Begum?

Jewelry can have different meanings and uses. Sometimes, it's a bait. It was a few years ago. I had noticed and observed on several occasions, instantly captivated, a dark-haired woman in the half-light of the salons and of the mysterious staircases of the Palacio Belmonte. Walking up from the garden or coming back from one of the terraces overlooking the Alfama, ready to go out or returning late at night, she was always dressed in black, in an almost abstract way, and adorned with jewelry that, just before stepping out, she hid under a shawl. At the sound of her footsteps on the stone tiles, I systematically interrupted my reading, or a conversation, to follow her with my eyes as she walked across one of the immense salons of what I considered the most extraordinary hotel in Lisbon, and according to my old-fashioned standards, probably in Europe. That this woman also chose this place to spend a few nights momentarily turned it into a precious box containing this stranger, who was imbuing the jewelry she wore with her own worth, as in a reversal of the rules. I took the bait. At my request, the owners of the hotel, empty in this season, introduced me to her, Bangla Begum, an expert and a collector of antique jewelry, and an inventor as well, in this case of baits, each involving a story told in the way of Scheherazade.

In the days that followed and then in other circumstances, I learned from her that jewelry is only precious if it has a story. If it doesn't, it is devoid of charm and power, therefore a story must be found. If it remains bland, so remains the person wearing it. But anything can happen. It can be lost, found, inherited or given, even to oneself, like a pact, a commitment, an alliance; it can wait because destined, it can be a vow, a bond, a memory more precious than a diamond, a link, a secret, an affinity, a sign of recognition, a relic, a fetish, an amulet, a wish, an incentive, a provocation, a talisman, a message, a language. Everything except the result of an impulsive and superficial act of vanity. And by stringing together sometimes extravagant stories that captivated me, she taught me how to tell the difference.

Robert Kaplan