Long-prized by Māori for its beauty and strength, New Zealand pounamu or greenstone is a protected natural resource that benefits from a unique tracking system.
The ‘Authentic Greenstone’ website identifies the source and authenticates genuine greenstone articles bought in New Zealand.
The website is the brainchild of the South Island’s Ngai Tahu Māori tribe who are legal guardians of the precious resource.
Pounamu - also known as New Zealand jade - is only found on the remote southwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island. It is protected through a sustainable management plan and responsible environmental practices.
New Zealand pounamu
For Aotearoa New Zealand’s Māori people, pounamu - also known as New Zealand jade - is of great cultural and spiritual value, and is considered tapu or sacred.
In traditional Māori life, pounamu was used for everything from jewellery and adornments signifying the wearer’s mana or status, to tools and weapons. It was often used as a gift and as a symbol of peace.
Justifiably, the Māori name for the west coast of the South Island is Te Wai Pounamu - the greenstone waters.
Pounamu is mainly found near the Taramakau and Arahura rivers in Westland, around Lake Wakatipu in Otago, and in Milford Sound, in Fiordland.
Ngai Tahu Māori tribe
Historically, the Ngai Tahu tribe is considered the kaitiaki or guardian of all pounamu found in the South Island - a right won through battles with the Ngati Waitarangi tribe.
The tribe - which takes its guardianship very seriously - has also been recognised as the legal owner since 1997 when the New Zealand government formally handed back ownership to the tribe.
The Ngai Tahu resource management plan helps protect greenstone reserves, and to ensure that it is harvested in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way for future generations.
Buyers of genuine Ngai Tahu pounamu articles can trace the origin of their pieces on the ‘Authentic Greenstone’ website.
Each Ngai Tahu authenticated pounamu piece bears a registered trademark and a unique code. When the number is entered into the website, it identifies the origin and whakapapa (genealogy) of the stone, how it was extracted and processed, and the Māori artist who carved it.
Visitors who buy authenticated pounamu are guaranteed that their stone came from New Zealand’s South Island, has been sourced legitimately and processed with cultural respect.
Labour of love
Ngai Tahu have two experienced master carvers who work on carving pounamu - Jeff Mahuika and Ben Te Aika.
Te Aika has been carving for 26 years and started working on pounamu six years ago.
"I carve many things from large sculptures to weapons and musical instruments. I also work in the arts associated with body carving known as moko," Te Aika said.
Te Aika says that time spent on a piece varies from a day to weeks, depending on the stone used and design.
The process begins with sourcing a carvable stone - only about 10% of pounamu is considered "of jewellery quality". Once found, the boulder is then broken down with diamond saws until it is of suitable size.
From there, a design is developed and slowly takes shape. The finished carving is polished with diamond paper to the desired sheen before being hung on a rope or mounted on a base.
Te Aika wants to ensure that visitors ask the right questions at point of sale to ensure they are purchasing a genuine piece of pounamu.
"Pounamu is a vessel which can house the essence of things. Through spiritual practices, pounamu can be cleansed and imbued with purpose. It can also enhance and protect the mana of its possessor. Pounamu often leaves its keepers and is known to disappear only to be found in another time and place when it is ready."
Story of pounamu
Pounamu is culturally significant to Māori and all New Zealanders because it links heaven and earth, along with the stars and water. Whanau or families who maintain their heirloom pieces keep a connection with their heritage and history.
There are many different legends about the origin of pounamu. One well known story tells of Poutini who fell in love with Waitaiki - a beautiful married woman that he saw bathing in the river.
Poutini was chased by the husband Tamāhua who had kidnapped his wife Waitaiki. Fearing capture but refusing to give up his love, Poutini turned Waitaiki into his essence - pounamu - and laid her in the riverbed at the junction of the Arahura river with a stream that became known as Waitaiki.
Te Aika recounts two other stories that came from Kati Wairaki - his personal hapu or clan.
"The first is the story of Tairea waka, which was wrecked and carried by a great wave to Hohonu river and turned into stone. The waka forms the stone reef of pounamu in the mountains, which is the source of all pounamu stones found in the river (now known as ‘Greenstone River’).
"The second story comes from ancient tradition which describes the origin story of all pounamu. It begins with the creation of the universe and follows the creation of all the senior gods to Raki, the god of heaven. He coupled with Papatuanuku - the goddess of earth and his third wife. From this union was born a daughter, Kamaukiwho and from her came a long line including the star constellations, Parinui and Pariwhiti. From these were born sea goddesses. One was called Anu Matao, who coupled with Takaroa and from these two atua (ancestors), was born Pounamu."