Pounamu: New Zealand Jade or Greenstone
In New Zealand, the ornamental stone jade is called greenstone. This type of jade (nephrite) is also called ‘pounamu‘ after the Maori word for greenstone. Pounamu, which is classified as semi-precious stone, is gathered in riverbeds, especially on the western side of the South Island of New Zealand. The highly prized stone was hard to obtain in the sometimes treacherous transalpine areas. The Maori call the Southern Island ‘Te Wai Pounamu’, which means ‘the greenstone water’.
Especially Hokitika and the nearby Arahura river are the center of the pounamu district. For centuries this area has been the source of the finest greenstone of the NZ west coast. From here Maori merchants traveled across the country to trade the greenstone.
The green, translucent, gemstone is very hard, thus durable, and is regarded by the Maori as very valuable. Because of its hardness it was exceptionally difficult to carve. Greenstone carving goes back to the stone age when the human race didn’t have the disposal of metal tools. The intensive laborious efforts of carvers led to the belief that the greenstone would absorb the spirit of the artist. Because of this and other spiritual meanings, pounamu carvings are considered an honor to give or receive. Such treasures are called taonga.
Not only was pounamu the most valued, precious stone the Maori possessed, they also believed it to have magical powers. According to a Maori legend pounamu originated from fish which, when removed from the water, turned themselves into greenstone. This folklore refers to the fact that pounamu flourishes in water and truly reveals its innate beauty when it’s wet. There is also the legend of Poutini, a spiritual sea creature, who was a guardian (taniwha). Poutini’s function was to protect the people and the spiritual essence of pounamu. You can read the legend here.
Since historic times pounamu, as well as other types of ornamental stone, has been used to create tools, weapons, and jewelry. Common pounamu items carved by the Maori were adzes and chizels, used in wood carving, blades of ceremonial weapons, such as batons and clubs, and jewelry such as pendants and earrings. Some of these objects were passed on by former generations thus becoming family heirlooms. For these exclusive items the highest quality greenstone was used.
The most regarded heirlooms were made of this type of jade. When tribal wars were ended, pounamu was used as a gift to seal the peace treaty. Especially pounamu weapons such as the mere or patu, being signs of chieftainship, were valued.
Because of its importance in Maori culture the Crown handed back the ownership of all naturally occurring pounamu to the Maori people of the Southern Islands in 1997. Also referred to as the Ngai Tahu tribe.
The Maori classification system for pounamu describes four varieties: kahurangi, kawakawa, inanga and tangiwai.
- Kahurangi is the rarest form of pounamu. This light green stone has light streaks which seem to resemble clouds. Kahurangi is very translucent and has to be free of any flaws.
- Kawakawa is named after the leaves of the kawakawa tree. Just like these leaves it has a strong green color with varying shades.
- Inanga is the Maori term for whitebait. This type of greenstone has grey-ish, geen and pearl white colors and is generally translucent.
- Tangiwai (Bowenite) is harvested mainly at the entrance to Milford Sound in the South Island. It has a translucent, blue-green to olive-green type of serpentine.
Pounamu is historically a highly valued material, considered an honor to give or receive. A few examples of New Zealand jade kiwi necklaces: