Diamond Burs Are a Girl’s Best Friend: How to Drill Pearls

Two years ago, diamond ball burs gave me the creative kick I needed to grow as a jewelry maker. They allowed me to drill pearls and carve swirling patterns in them. I was also able to epoxy faceted stones into beads, cut seats in disk-shaped pearls for cabochon settings, and make large-hole beads out of pearls and lapis.

Since my story on pearl carving appeared in the April 2016 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, I’ve been teaching this technique all over the country. I’ve tried several brands of burs and now prefer Lasco diamond burs, which come in a variety of grits. (I picked this up from the teaching assistant at Metalwerx.) Lasco’s 600-grit ball burs virtually polish channels in the nacre as they cut through a freshwater pearl. Even better, the company’s prices are slightly less than the figure listed in their catalog.

how to drill pearls: Lasco drill bits

Lasco catalog drill bits

How to Drill Pearls: Large-Hole Pearl on Chain Necklace

Below is a free project on how to drill pearls, which demonstrates one way you can use these ball burs

Materials

15 to 20mm cultured freshwater pearl (or soft gemstone bead, such as dyed coral or lapis)
20″ sterling silver 3mm olive bead chain
3mm sterling silver bead chain link connector
(2) 4mm sterling silver grommets
2-part clear epoxy
flexible shaft and hand piece or cordless Dremel with 3/32″ chuck
B10 150-grit; B20 200-grit; B30 400-grit, B40 600-grit diamond ball burs
small bowl of water
nail salon sanding stick
superfine micro brushes
disposable plastic cup
safety glasses
nail polish remover
polishing cloth

Steps

  1. Starting with the smallest ball bur, ream out the bead hole as far as you can go. The width of the shank will eventually be too big for the hole you are drilling, so the small bur won’t go all the way through. As you work, dip the bur and the bead in a bowl of water about every three seconds to flush away the pure white mud.
  2. Repeat with larger and larger burs until they go all the way through the bead. You want the hole to be a little larger than 3mm so the chain will slide through. Rinse well and dry with a towel.
  3. Use the sanding stick to flatten and roughen the ends of the pearl that will come into contact with the grommets.
  4. Fit a grommet into each end of the pearl by enlarging the bead hole ends with your largest ball bur to a depth of about 1mm. You may need to move the bur in a circle around the edge of the hole. And don’t go too deep. You only want to cut until the grommet sits perfectly flush.
  5. Gently sand the sides of the grommet that will come into contact with the pearl so the epoxy will adhere better. The grommets are tiny and can be tricky to hold. So keep a couple extras on hand in case one goes flying.
  6. Flip your plastic cup over, using the bottom as a glue mixing palette. Mix equal quantities of two-part epoxy on the bottom. Apply to pearl and sterling silver. Press together, making sure the grommets are flush. Wipe off any excess epoxy and let cure. (Learn how to use epoxy.)
  7. Shine grommets with polishing cloth or buff and Fabuluster. Scrub with soapy water to clean.
  8. Thread chain through pearl. (If hole is full of glue, ream it out with a bur and plenty of water.)
  9. Use link connector as your clasp.
how to drill pearls, carved pearl earrings by Betsy Lehndorff

carved pearl earrings by Betsy Lehndorff

Betsy’s Resources
olive bead chain #355CH – Myron Toback (Wholesale only; ask your favorite bead shop to order for you if you don’t have a wholesale license)
bead chain link connector #694-139 – Rio Grande
sterling silver grommets #627-723- Rio Grande
diamond ball burs – Lasco
superfine micro brushes – Micromark

Learn More About Pearls


Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. Her step-by-step project in the September/October issue shows how to pin rare seafoam turquoise to a pendant backing using half-drilled pearls. You can reach her at betsylehndorff@gmail.com.


Learn how to make more pearl jewelry with these resources!

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