Artist Profile: Pounamu – Greenstone

Pounamu (nephrite jade) is New Zealand’s semi precious stone.

Pounamu is the Maori name for what is commonly called greenstone. The Maori name for the South Island, Te Wai Pounamu means ‘the waters of pounamu’. Pounamu is very significant to the Maori people as the most precious of materials. Traditional uses of Pounamu include the manufacture of jewellery, adzes and weapons.

To Maori, the West Coast of the South Island is known as Te Tai o Poutini or simply Tai Poutini. Legend is that Poutini was a taniwha (a giant water being) swimming up and down the rough seas off Te Tai o Poutini protecting both the people and the spiritual essence (or mauri) of pounamu (greenstone). The mana (spiritual force) of pounamu comes from Kahue (or Ngahue) an atua (God). Taniwha Poutini as protector of the stone, is the servant of Kahue.

One day, while resting in the warm waters off Tuhua (Mayor Island, in northeast NZ) he saw a beautiful woman, Waitaiki, bathing in the sea.
Poutini looked at Waitaiki with lust in his heart. He lunged forward and snatched her and fled south towards the mainland. Waitaiki’s husband, Tamaahua was a powerful chief and skilled in the rituals of the spirit world. When he realised that his wife had been taken he threw a magical dart in the air. The dart pointed in the direction of his wife. Tamaahua and his slave paddled after then in hot pursuit.

Poutini was concerned. Fearing Tamaahua’s strength and determination, he decided that if he could not have Waitaiki, no-one would. He transformed her into his likeness (pounamu) and laid her in the cold waters of the river.
Tamaahua found his young wife cold and lifeless, transformed into stone in the riverbed. Realising what had happened he went back home, grieving.
To the Ngai Tahu people, Waitaiki is the mother of pounamu. The Jade fragments that break from the mother lode and roll down the river to the sea are her children.

Pounamu occurs in a wide range of colours, but three main colour varieties are widely recognised. The most highly valued Pounamu in traditional times was Inanga, named after the young whitebait fish, because of its pearly-white or light green colour. The most common variety found is Kawakawa because of its resemblance to the dark, deep rich green leaves of the kawakawa plant. The third main variety is called Kahurangi, which literally translates as ‘the robe of the sky’ because of the light streaks appearing like clouds in a translucent, light green stone free from dark spots or flaws. Other lesser known varieties include Auhunga, Kahotea, Pipiwharauroa, Raukaraka and Totoweka. As many of these varieties grade into each other there is often some overlap and tribal differences in applying these names.