How small can a pearl be? At the American Gem Trade Association show in Tucson, the Japanese Pearl Exporting Co. presented some akoya keshi pearls only 0.7–0.9 mm in diameter (figure 1). At this size, it is difficult to distinguish individual pearls when looking at a strand. According to the seller, the single strand shown in figure 5 contains more than 300,000 keshi pearls, which would take one person four years to drill and assemble.
Traditional tools are used to drill these tiny pearls. A thick wooden board is soaked overnight to soften it, and each pearl is embedded in the board to keep it stable. A very sharp, thin drill is used to bore a hole in each pearl. By pulling a thread attached to the drill, the worker can keep rotating the drill until it reaches the desired depth.
Figure 2. These tiny akoya keshi pearl strands are paired with ruby and sapphire. Photo by Eric Welch.
“Keshi,” the Japanese word for poppy seeds, form as by-products of the akoya culturing process. They account for less than 0.5% of all annual akoya production, which has diminished in recent years. Akoya keshi pearls come in various sizes, shapes, colors, and lusters. Strands are often paired with colored stones such as ruby and sapphire (figure 2).