When you travel to the South Island of New Zealand, you’ll likely find a curiously ubiquitous style of jewelry. Made from vivid, green stone, it can be found everywhere from the highest end jewelry stores to the tackiest tourist shops. Carved in a variety of interesting ways—stylized fish hooks, bug-eyed humans, simple pendants, organic leaves—it has an entrancing luminosity and an understated warmth. While not every instance of this ubiquitous bijoux is created equal—a few of the cheaper ones are actually plastic—they’re an essential piece of the island nation’s history and, as such, deserving of a closer look.
This jewelry, and the stone it’s made from, is called pounamu, the Maori name for a mint-green form of nephrite jade. Found exclusively on the South Island of New Zealand, it was prized by the Maori as an important form of taonga, or treasure. They valued it for its durability, color, and ability to be carved to a sharp point, qualities that made it perfect for everything from fish hooks to ceremonial pendants and weapons. In fact, the Maori name for South Island, Te Wai Pounamu, means “the Land of Greenstone Water.”
It was the search for pounamu that fueled the various Maori tribes of South Island’s explorations of the region (and, later, many of their wars and territorial disputes). Like other forms of Maori taonga, it was believed to have its own mana or “prestige,” a quality that increased as it was passed from generation to generation. They were often given as gifts (sometimes to induce a compulsory act of quid pro quo) or to seal important agreements. Two of the most common forms of pounamu (and the ones you’re most likely to find in stores today), are hei-tiki–necklaces with human figurines on them—and hei matou—necklaces with highly stylized fish hooks on them.
Perhaps because of pounamu’s significant cultural value, the green stone became a point of contention for Maori tribes when negotiating land rights with the New Zealand government during the late twentieth century. In fact, in 1997, the Ngāi Tahu Tribe were ceded the rights to all naturally occurring pounamu on the South Island as part of a major settlement. Today, tribe members use helicopters to lift large boulders of the stone out of river valleys for use in jewelry.
Considering its distinctive history, we believe that it’s important to make certain the the pounamu you’re buying in New Zealand is authentic. Many tourist shops offer cheap copies of Maori designs, often carved overseas and brought back to undersell the real thing. We recommend buying only from recognized artisans, preferably ones endorsed by the Ngāi Tahu Tribe. Your guide will gladly assist you with recommendations.