Pounamu, or ‘greenstone’, is the name given to the nephrite jade and is sacred—or tapu—to Māori. It is found only on South Island, mostly in large boulders around the rivers Taramaku and Arahura on West Coast, as well as Lake Wakatipu and Milford Sound—and so the title of Te Wai Pounamu was bestowed upon the region, which translates as ‘the waters of greenstone’. Pounamu is of extra special significance to the Ngāi Tahu who serve as the legal guardians of this revered resource. According to Māori legend, their original ancestors even set sail with the intention of discovering this mythical ‘God stone’.
Another legend, this time concerning the stone’s origin, recounts how Poutini, a water-being, fell in love and escaped with a beautiful married woman called Waitaiki. Later, rather than be captured by her husband and lose her, Poutini instead turned his captive into his essence, pounamu, resting her forever in the riverbed of the Arahura.
“Pounamu is a vessel which can house the essence of things,” says Ben Te Aika, a Ngai Tahu master carver, to Tourism New Zealand. “Through spiritual practices, pounamu can be cleansed and imbued with purpose.”
Greenstone is believed to connect the heavens to the earth, the stars to the water, and, in turn, connect its wearer to their history and culture and to their surrounding elements, too.
“It can also enhance and protect the mana of its possessor,” says Te Aika. “Pounamu often leaves its keepers and is known to disappear only to be found in another time and place when it is ready.”
Pounamu in Practice
Nephrite jade is mostly a calcium magnesium silicate whose taut fibres account for its unsurpassed durability and why, when finished, it retains such an alluring, polished glow. Recognising its strength, Māori originally used pounamu to make sharp tools such as adzes, knives and chisels, shaped by sandstone. It was also used to fashion fish hooks and weaponry like spears, and, most famously, the fierce, sharp-edged club known as the mere. Owing to their beauty, pounamu weaponsserved as ceremonial symbols carried by chiefs as a sign of status and sometimes given as peace offerings. And then there’s the exquisite jewellery.
Types of Pounamu
the translucent kahurangi is among the most treasured due to its scarcity, and fittingly translates as ‘treasured sky’.
kawakawa is darker in colour with rich spots or lines—and named after the native pepper tree whose leaves’ markings it resembles.
also named after a native tree, the green body of raukaraka is blessed with complementary splashes of yellow and orange.
named after the native bird, totoweka is a type of kawakawa famed for its red iron flecks.
kokopu borrows its name from a native trout owing to its charmingly mottled texture.
a type of whitebait is the fish that lends its name to inanga thanks to the greenstone’s streaks of silver.
considered by many to be the most gorgeous of greenstones, flower jade boasts beautiful bursts of gold colouring.
Cut from boulders with diamond saws, only around 10 percent of pounamu is considered of jewellery quality. While precious stones are generally valued by carat weight, pieces of pounamu are examined individually to assess their strength, colour and markings, and to see how they can best be carved.
From rings to bracelets to earrings, just about any jewellery piece can be fashioned from greenstone, but the most iconic are undoubtedly the carved pendants that are worn around the neck. Common carvings include:
hei matu, or ‘fish hook’, that symbolises the significance of fishing to Māori and their connection to the sea. It’s said to also bring luck and keep the wearer safe while travelling.
the spiral of the koru, a metaphor for hope and new beginnings.
the notion of friendship honoured by the intertwined twist of the pikorua.
hei tiki, a nod to the first man—son of the Sky Father and Earth Mother—often gifted from parent to child.
the protective figure of manaia, whose bird’s head, man’s body, and fish’s tail represents balance between the elements.
Buyers should be aware that Ngai Tahu-authenticated pieces are bestowed unique codes that identify the origin and the genealogy—or whakapapa—of the stone, as well as how it was extracted and carved, and the artist who did so. This can be done through the Authentic Greenstone website (ngaitahupounamu.com). Not only does this ensure the item’s legitimacy, but that it was sourced with cultural respect.