Pounamu boulders were often uncovered during alluvial gold mining and dredging. These and boulders from the Arahura River were the main source of material used for lapidary work (cut, shaped and polished stone) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was often difficult to identify boulders of suitable quality because they usually have a weathered rind on the outside. The only way to check on quality was to move one to where it could be sawn open. Much of the stone tested this way was rejected.
Chinese miners occasionally experimented with polishing fragments of pounamu during their spare time, perhaps because of the Chinese appreciation of jade.
The lapidary industry began during the 1860s with the establishment of a number of workshops in Dunedin, which became the centre of the industry until the mid-20th century. Much of the work involved the reproduction of Māori artefacts such as mere, pendants and in particular, hei tiki. A number of Māori commissioned and purchased various items of pounamu from these lapidary workshops.
From the start of the 20th century, overseas workshops became interested in the use of pounamu, particularly in Idar-Oberstein – a small German town with a centuries-old reputation for gem cutting. Much of the pounamu that was exported to Germany returned to New Zealand, particularly in the form of hei tiki. This trade was reduced by the decline of goldmining in the Westland area, and the two world wars.
From 1947 the export of uncut pounamu was prohibited.
Modern workshops use fast-cutting diamond tools – a far cry from the traditional labour-intensive methods. Boulders are generally sawn into thin slices with diamond slab saws, then cut down on a trim saw to the rough shape of the object (called a preform). The preforms are fashioned, using either an abrasive wheel or a hand-held diamond cutting instrument, and then polished.
Kiwi dog tags
Many young New Zealanders overseas are easily identified by their pounamu pendants. One London market has a Māori carver supplying these identity tags to homesick Kiwis.
Because pounamu is found only as boulders, the development of a stone-working industry was limited by supply and the difficulties of transport. From the early 1960s, helicopters made it possible to retrieve large boulders from formerly inaccessible places like Waitaiki (Olderog) Stream, which resulted in a boost in the available material. This led to the establishment of a factory, Westland Greenstone, in 1963, and others followed. Hokitika has the unofficial title of ‘Greenstone capital of the West Coast’.
As in earlier periods, most of the output reproduced Māori artefacts, many of them mass-produced for souvenirs. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries a number of skilled, professional carvers started to produce high-quality jewellery, emphasising both Māori designs and the stone’s natural beauty.