Pounamu, greenstone and New Zealand jade are all names for the same hard, durable highly valued stone, used for making adornments, tools and weapons. Each name is used by different groups:
- Pounamu is the traditional Māori name.
- Greenstone is a common term, but increasingly it is being replaced by pounamu.
- New Zealand jade is a gemmological term that emphasises the similarity of the stone to overseas jade.
Varieties of pounamu
Māori people recognised four main types of pounamu, identifying their colour and translucence: kawakawa, kahurangi, īnanga and tangiwai. The first three are nephrite, while tangiwai is bowenite. There were many other names for varieties of pounamu (including tribal variations), based on shade and hue.
Nephrite and bowenite
Pounamu occurs in two mineral forms. Nephrite, the most common form, is a calcium magnesium silicate mineral of the amphibole group. It contains small amounts of iron, which determine the depth of the green colour.
Bowenite, found only at the entrance to Milford Sound, is an iron magnesium silicate mineral that is an unusual, translucent form of serpentine.
Overseas, the term ‘jade’ refers to two minerals widely used for carving – nephrite and jadeite. There is no jadeite in New Zealand. Strictly speaking, the term jade does not include bowenite.
Pounamu is found only in the South Island. Because of this, the island was originally named Te Wāhi Pounamu (the place of pounamu), but over time this name changed to Te Wai Pounamu (the greenstone waters).
New Zealand gold
Māori valued pounamu in the same way Europeans valued gold. Around the 1870s, Te Otatu from Coromandel remarked: ‘Let the gold be worked by the white men. It was not a thing known to our ancestors. My only treasure is the pounamu.’ (Kati ano taku taonga nui i te pounamu.) 1
The main deposits used by Māori are in the districts around the Taramakau and Arahura rivers in Westland, coastal south Westland and the Lake Wakatipu area in Otago. In addition, there is a significant field of bowenite in Milford Sound (Piopiotahi).
Traditionally, the pounamu in the Arahura River has been most important for Poutini Ngāi Tahu (Ngāi Tahu people on the West Coast), with the junction of this river and Waitaiki (Olderog) Stream being particularly important.
The South Island Ngāi Tahu people have a particularly close relationship with pounamu, which is found only within their tribal area. It is valued for its strength, durability and beauty. However, its value transcends the aesthetic and practical properties. Because of its link with chiefs and peace making, it is considered to have mana (status) and to be tapu (sacred). The stone is highly treasured by all tribes throughout New Zealand, and it was extensively traded in the North Island.