Pounamu is considered a precious and powerful stone by Māori people. It is often carved into a pendant or necklace which carries special meaning for its wearer.

Traditionally, pounamu, or greenstone, is regarded as a talisman. Māori designs and symbols carved in pounamu carry spiritual significance. More than just a beautiful art form, pounamu can represent ancestors, connection with the natural world, or attributes such as strength, prosperity, love, and harmony.

Where can you find pounamu in New Zealand?

All pounamu is sourced from riverbeds and boulders in the South Island, especially the West Coast. The colour and markings of each stone vary according to its river source.

Found in colours ranging from a cloudy light green to deep emerald with different markings, pounamu was considered so significant by Maori that they named the South Island for it - Te-Wai-Pounamu means “the waters of greenstone”. 

According to Maori 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. 

West Coast
Pounamu, West Coast

Hei-tiki, a symbol of status

The history of Māori pounamu

Through Maori 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. 

What does a tiki symbolise?

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.

Pounamu, New Zealand greenstone

Māori symbols and designs in greenstone

Pounamu jewellery is typically carved into traditional Māori symbols. Each unique shape has a spiritual meaning. They often represent aspects of the natural world, or show a connection with ancestors. 

Some of the most popular designs are: 

  • Toki: The toki, a type of adze or blade, is associated with strength and power
  • Koru: The graceful koru represents a native fern unfurling and symbolises life, hope and new beginnings
  • Hei matua: The fish hook design signifies a connection to the ocean and brings the wearer safety while travelling, good health and prosperity

West Coast
Pororari River, West Coast

Wild and untamed, the West Coast seems to be shrouded in mystery. It's little wonder the region is home to the precious greenstone.

Pounamu jewellery and souvenirs

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.

To learn more about greenstone carving, and shop for meaningful gifts for your loved ones, visit Mountain Jade in Rotorua for a free guided visit of their workshop. 

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