Found in colours ranging from a cloudy light green to deep emerald with different markings, pounamu was considered so significant by Māori that they named the South Island for it - Te-Wai-Pounamu means “the waters of greenstone”. All pounamu is sourced from riverbeds and boulders in the South Island, especially the West Coast.
According to Māori legend, the taniwha Poutini was a guardian of pounamu who fell in love with a woman named Waitaki. Although she was married to another, he ran away with her but fearing being captured, transformed Waitaki into pounamu and laid her in the riverbed at the junction of the Arahura river and a stream that became known as the Waitaki. To this day, the Arahura and Waitaki streams are well-known sources of pounamu. The colour and markings of each stone vary according to its river source.
Through Māori history, greenstone was carved into a myriad of tools and also jewellery design, each with its own distinct meaning. The best known is the hei-tiki. Strong and enduring, these were worn by chiefs as symbols of status, exchanged as peace-making gifts, and passed down from generation to generation. Each piece carries a mana (prestige) that increases with each new bearer, with the most precious having known histories stretching back into time.
There are many beliefs surrounding pounamu, chief of which is that one should not carve or buy one for oneself. Just as pounamu was a gift from the land in its natural form, carved greenstone should always be a gift between two people.