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Mysterious Pearls

Did they once belong to Vietnam's royal family? Perhaps. But for Ben Zucker, a mystical "sleuth" of the gems trade, seeking the answer matters more than finding it.

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One afternoon in 1993, Benjamin Zucker, jeweler, collector and connoisseur, was sitting in his office on Fifth Avenue and 47th Street in Manhattan when he received a visit from a dealer who claimed to have "something very interesting."

"He just very languidly opened up this box," Ben Zucker said. Inside there were 23 pearls that were so large — some bigger than a robin's egg — and had such an intense color, a brilliant orange, that Ben said to himself, "This can't be happening; they can't be genuine." The dealer, too, admitted that he had never before seen orange pearls. All he could say was that the pearls had been purchased in Vietnam and that they were said to have come from the royal treasury. Vietnamese royalty! Ben was a goner.

And so begins a curious odyssey in which author James Traub travels to Vietnam with Zucker, a man who refers to himself as the "Sherlock Holmes of the gems trade," in hopes of determining the provenance of the mysterious pearls. Ben has a gift, explains Traub, "a combination of doggedness and the conceptual leap for tracing gems and jewels to, or at least near, their origins." While the Vietnamese celebrate Tet — the lunar New Year — Ben and his party search out archaeologists, curators, antiques collectors and former members of the royal entourage. They drive for hours through flat rice paddies to meet with men who remember the palmy era of French colonialism, and they interview fishermen in a village along the South China Sea. Through it all the clues are few, but Ben never loses faith in his quest. "I find that if you keep digging and digging and digging, sometimes you can find a provenance through a diary, through a reference, through a picture, through a portrait, through hearsay. It's amazing how, if you stick to things, something will come out."

In the end, the truth remained tantalizingly remote. "It was better, in a way," writes Traub. "The rapture of possession never meant so much to Ben as the pleasures of the hunt."

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