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Pounamu – jade or greenstone

by  Basil Keane

Treasured, valuable and with spiritual significance, pounamu – New Zealand’s highly prized stone – has been used by Māori to denote status and authority, for adornment, and for making peace.

Pounamu – several names

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.

  1. Quoted in Elsdon Best, Stone implements of the Maori . Wellington: Government Printer, 1974, p. 175. › Back

The origins of pounamu

The creation of pounamu

There are many different tribal traditions about the origins of pounamu. The following is adapted from a version given by Tipene O’Regan of the Ngāi Tahu tribe. 1

Poutini was a taniwha or guardian of pounamu. He feared another taniwha named Whaitipū, the guardian of Hinehōaka, who was the goddess of sandstone. Traditionally, sandstone knives were used to cut pounamu.

Once, Poutini was being pursued in the sea by Whaitipū and took refuge in a bay at Tūhua (Mayor Island, in the Bay of Plenty). There, Poutini observed a beautiful woman named Waitaiki coming down to the water to bathe. Enthralled by her beauty, he captured her and swam towards the mainland.

When Tamaāhua, Waitaiki’s husband, discovered that his wife was missing, he used karakia (incantations) and divination with a small, dart-like spear to find her. He threw the spear, which pointed towards the location of Poutini.

Tamaāhua chased Poutini through the North Island and down to the South Island, eventually finding him at the Arahura River. Fearing capture, but refusing to give Waitaiki up, Poutini turned her into his own essence – pounamu – and laid her in the river bed at the junction of the Arahura and a nearby stream. That stream became known as Waitaiki, and ever since it has been a significant source of pounamu, as is the Arahura River. Tamaāhua did not see Poutini, who slipped past him, and on finding his wife turned to īnanga (a type of pounamu) he grieved for her and then returned home.

Poutini, having eluded Tamaāhua, continued down the river to the coast. Since that time, he has swum the West Coast acting as a guardian spirit of the land and pounamu. From this comes the name Te Tai Poutini (the tides of Poutini) for the West Coast.

Geological formation

Geologists have determined that nephrite and bowenite formed deep in the earth, probably at depths in excess of 10 kilometres. Hot fluids caused a chemical reaction in zones where volcanic and sedimentary rocks were in contact, which produced narrow deposits of pounamu. High-quality pounamu is usually surrounded by altered material classed as serpentine.

As the mountains of the South Island were formed over the last two million years, the narrow bands containing pounamu were lifted up to the earth’s surface. The action of rivers and glaciers released the stone from its host rock into screes, river gravel and glacial deposits. Pounamu continues to be carried into rivers and down to the sea by erosion. In the more accessible areas, any exposed pounamu has been quickly collected.

  1. He kōrero pūrākau mo ngā taunahanahatanga a ngā tūpuna: place names of the ancestors . Wellington: New Zealand Geographic Board, 1990, pp. 83–84. › Back

Ngāi Tahu and pounamu

Raureka’s packet

Ngāti Wairangi people were the first to occupy the Poutini coast (on the West Coast of the South Island). Because of the mountainous passes separating the east and west coasts, their territory was protected for some time from encroachments on their valued pounamu.

However, a woman named Raureka discovered a way to the east coast. On finding some men of the Ngāi Tahu tribe building a canoe, she commented on the bluntness of their tools and showed them a sharp pounamu adze, which she unwrapped from a small packet. Impressed by this tool, a small group of Ngāi Tahu people returned with her to fetch some pounamu, and learned the route to the highly valued resource.

Poutini Ngāi Tahu

Over time the Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Wairangi tribes came into conflict over the stone. A number of battles ensued, and ultimately Ngāi Tahu wrested control of the resource from Ngāti Wairangi. This West Coast section of Ngāi Tahu became known as Poutini Ngāi Tahu, and it incorporated both Ngāi Tahu and the remnants of Ngāti Wairangi. Poutini Ngāi Tahu were then able to supply their eastern relations, and Kaiapoi became a focus of pounamu trading.

In the early 1830s, Poutini Ngāi Tahu was invaded by tribes from the north. However, when these incursions ended, Poutini Ngāi Tahu regained control of their territory.

The loss of pounamu

By the 1860s, Crown purchasing and policies began intruding on Ngāi Tahu’s access to pounamu. The tribe’s attempts to regain control lasted well over a century.

Poutini Ngāi Tahu began negotiations in 1859 with James Mackay, who had been appointed by the government to purchase the Arahura and Kaikōura blocks.

The tribe made it clear that one of their guiding principles was the retention of their pounamu. Mackay assured them that they would keep this right, and guaranteed them ownership of the Arahura river bed. While Poutini Ngāi Tahu wanted to reserve land along the banks of the river as far as Mount Tūhua, Mackay granted them only 2,000 acres. However, he agreed that Ngāi Tahu would later have the option to buy back the rest of the land at a cost of 10 shillings an acre, although he was only paying a penny for 100 acres. He made it clear that the government had little use for pounamu:

I informed them that the Greenstone was of no use to the Government, and if it was all they wanted, they might have the whole of the Arahura bed, that it was of no use to anyone and even if they sold it to the Government, no objection would be raised as to their procuring Greenstone from it. 1

Despite this recognition, the river bed was not reserved, and no special legislative recognition was given by the Crown to Ngāi Tahu’s special relationship with pounamu in the Arahura or in any of Ngāi Tahu’s tribal area.

In 1976, the Crown vested ownership of the bed of the Arahura River in the Māwhera Corporation, which was set up to represent the original owners. Even then, it was doubtful that this returned the right to pounamu to the corporation. At the time, mining and extraction of pounamu was controlled by the Crown under the Mining Act 1971, and it had been similarly controlled under previous legislation.

The real thing

Many greenstone items sold in tourist shops are cheap copies of Māori designs, made overseas from inferior jade. The tribe with responsibility for pounamu, Ngāi Tahu, is developing a trademark so that tourists will know they are buying genuine New Zealand pounamu. In addition, toi iho™ – a registered trademark used to promote and sell authentic, quality Māori arts and crafts – requires its artists to use only this stone.

Ngāi Tahu regains its pounamu

The Waitangi Tribunal, in responding to the Ngāi Tahu claim dealing with pounamu, said that ‘the unique nature of pounamu and its deep spiritual significance in Māori life and culture is such that every effort should now be made to secure as much as possible to Ngāi Tahu ownership and control’. 2 The Crown agreed to return the legal ownership of pounamu to Ngāi Tahu and passed the Ngāi Tahu (Pounamu Vesting) Act 1997. Under this, ownership of all pounamu occurring in its natural state in Ngāi Tahu’s tribal area, including the coastline, was vested in Ngāi Tahu.

Following this settlement, Ngāi Tahu vested ownership of pounamu in the Arahura area in the Māwhera Corporation, in recognition of the special relationship of Poutini Ngāi Tahu with this pounamu. To protect the sustainability of the resource, Ngāi Tahu developed the Pounamu Resource Management Plan, which was approved in 2002.

  1. Quoted in Waitangi Tribunal, The Ngai Tahu Report 1991 (Wai 27). Wellington: Brooker and Friend, 1991. › Back
  2. Waitangi Tribunal, The Ngai Tahu Report, 1991 (Wai 27). Wellington: Brooker and Friend, 1991, p. 90. › Back

Implements and adornment


Initially, Māori used pounamu to make tools. The toki (adze) was used to make canoes, cut down trees and in building. It is said that the discoverer of Aotearoa, Kupe, and his voyaging companion, Ngahue, took several pounamu boulders back to Hawaiki. According to one tradition, the adzes used to shape many of the voyaging canoes that brought the various tribes to New Zealand were made from the stone that Ngahue brought back.

Whao (chisels) and whao whakakōka (gouges) came in all shapes and sizes and were used for carving. Ripi pounamu (knives) and scrapers are among the oldest pounamu artefacts known. Other less common items were fish hook barbs, awls, hammer stones, drill points and bird spear points.


A number of items of jewellery were made from pounamu. They were earrings such as the kuru (long and straight), kapeu (long and curved at the end), and the koropepe (shaped like a curled eel). There were also necklaces – the pekapeka, in the form of a native bat, and the hook-shaped hei matau. Pōria kākā (rings to tether pet birds) were also worn as pendants.

Hei tiki

The hei tiki, a neck ornament, is the most well-known piece of Māori jewellery. It has been suggested that the tiki is in the form of the first man, named Tiki. However, some doubt this, as hei tiki are either female, or sexless.

The hei tiki looks like a distorted human figure sitting cross-legged, its large head tilted to one side. Hei tiki were usually worn by women, except in very rare cases. There are instances where previously infertile women have given birth after being gifted a hei tiki.

Symbols of chieftainship

Mere pounamu (greenstone weapons)

Mere pounamu (or patu pounamu) were considered to be the most valuable greenstone items. They were the main symbol of chieftainship and were as valuable to Māori as precious stones were to Europeans.

Traditionally, mere were used for stabbing and cutting, rather than delivering axe-like blows. The latter was too risky as the weapon could hit another and break, wasting the years of work put into its making.

Toki poutangata

The toki poutangata was a war adze, though it was rarely used in battle and was never used for shaping wood. Like the mere pounamu, it was carried by chiefs to symbolise their authority. It was owned by chiefly families and was used on ceremonial occasions, such as being placed on the chest of a chief lying in state.

Tribal heirlooms

All tribes have stories of pounamu artefacts. In particular, toki (adzes), mere pounamu and toki poutangata are central in these. These items are often given names, and they are seen as being tapu (sacred) and having great mana (status). They were a talisman to remind people of stories of battles and great events in which their ancestors took part. They were also a physical representation of connection, through whakapapa (genealogy), to venerated ancestors, and the artefacts were often remembered in songs.

Protective stone

Stones, including pounamu, were often used as a talisman to represent and protect mauri – the vitality, or life force of both living and inanimate things. Ngāi Tahu gifted a pounamu boulder named Mauri to the National Museum in 1986. It now acts as a mauri stone for Rongomaraeroa, the marae of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Similarly, when the Te Māori touring exhibition returned to New Zealand, a pounamu boulder named Te Māori was its mauri. The stone was returned to Ngāi Tahu and placed at the Southland Museum.

Te Āwhiorangi

Te Āwhiorangi is an adze that is remembered in a number of tribal traditions. This is the Ngā Rauru tradition relating to this adze.

Te Āwhiorangi was said to have been used by the god Tāne to cut the sinews that bound Ranginui (the sky) and Papatūānuku (the earth). It is said that Te Āwhiorangi became a symbol of mana for all adzes ever made.

This adze was passed down from Tāne through a line of paramount chiefs to Turi. It was later used to make the voyaging canoe, Aotea, of the Ngā Rauru tribe. Eventually, this adze was considered so sacred that it was deposited by the ancestor Rangitaupea above a burial cave so it would not be disturbed. It is said that when it was discovered by Tōmairangi, who had married into the tribe and was unaware that she was trespassing upon a sacred site, lightning, thunder and snow came from the heavens. She said, ‘Kotahi te mea i kite ai au i reira, anō he atua, ka nui taku mataku’ (I saw one thing there, which was as a god, and I was greatly afraid).

Following this, Ngā Rauru and some of the Ngāti Apa tribe assembled at dawn where two priests chanted incantations over the adze. As they did, lightning, thunder and mist descended.

In the late 20th century this adze was said to be held by Ruka Broughton of Ngā Rauru, a tohunga, lecturer and Anglican priest.

Modern stone work

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.

Overseas interest

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.

Pounamu and peace-making

Peace agreements using pounamu

Heirlooms or weapons of great status, often made of pounamu, were exchanged as a symbol of a peace agreement. An example is a mere pounamu named Hine-nui-o-te-paua, which the Ngāpuhi tribe gave to the Ngāti Pāoa people many generations ago. This was later gifted to Governor George Grey to emphasise the desire for peace with Europeans. The mere was believed to have such great status and sacredness that it could promote peace.

The tatau pounamu (greenstone door)

Pounamu was used in a metaphorical sense to seal peace agreements – in the concept of a tatau pounamu (a greenstone door). This symbolised a passageway between the territories of warring parties. Each party to the peace pact chose a hill to represent the greenstone door. The door was closed to all who wanted to draw blood. The enduring nature of pounamu also symbolised the permanence of the peace agreement.

This would sometimes also involve arranged marriages between the parties. Such a tatau pounamu was made between the Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tūhoe tribes.

Three Ngāti Kahungunu chiefs requested a meeting with chiefs of the Ngāi Tūhoe tribe. Principal negotiators were selected from each tribe – Te Āhuru of Ngāi Tūhoe, and Hipara of Ngāti Kahungunu. In the discussions, Te Hipara offered his daughter in marriage to Ngāi Tūhoe. While she represented the tatau pounamu, the gesture was purely symbolic as she did not marry a Ngāi Tūhoe man. However, Hipara also offered a hill, Kūha-tārewa, as a marriage partner for Turi-o-Kahu, a Ngāi Tūhoe hill. The symbolic marriage of these hills represented the tatau pounamu.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Pounamu – jade or greenstone', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 12 June 2006