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Pounamu

New Zealand jade is pounamu - a Maori word. This is due to an historic misunderstanding of 1769, the date of Captain James Cook's first visit to New Zealand. Cook noticed in meetings with Maori a predominance of men wearing green stone amulets. Chiefs among them also carried implements of the same material. Thus the term "greenstone" was born and remains a nationally accepted name for jade as well as a recognized mineralogical name. Fortunately, it is rapidly being supplanted by the more poetic pounamu ("po-naa-moo") - a word that, according to one prominent scholar of early Maori, did not originally identify the colour. Pre-European Maori dialects only possessed words for black, red and white. Pounamu meant the stone itself, not the colour alone. However the word has subsequently become Maori for green. Only New Zealand nephrite and bowenite (found only in New Zealand) can be identified as pounamu. So this word does not always mean jade.

Bowenite or "tangiwai" is a highly translucent form of derpentine (yet another mineral group) and therefore not true jade. Yet possessing all of jade's characteristics and values. Most people will be hard-pressed to distinguish bowenite from either nephrite or jadeite. The differences are often much too subtle. By the time of Captain Cook's arrival, Maori had developed a stone-based culture equal to China's in intensity. And some of the values are as strong as ever. It is a strange fact, but Jade is one stone-age substance to have survived and prospered beyond the ages of metal. Most surely here in New Zealand.

Jade as Maori currency

The Maori bought stone-working with them from the Pacific Islands somewhere around 1000 years ago. Skills they had inherited from ancestors who moved out of Asia many millennia before. Evidence of when Maori started working jade in preference to other hard stones available in New Zealand are still a best guess. But a few jade artifacts have been scientifically dated back to around 1400 BC and this, in accordance with Maori legend, is possibly the date of local jade discovery. According to further legend, supported by some anecdotal evidence, within about 100 years jade's probable discoverers had been conquered by another more aggressive tribe - an event that coincides with pounamu being widely recognized throughout land.

These initial finds occurred primarily in the Southern of New Zealand's main two islands. Nationally Maori had begun referring to the larger South Island as "Te Wai Pounamu" (the water of green stone) and the North Island as "Aoteoroa" (land of long white cloud). The latter becoming the indigenous name for the whole country.

Jade becomes legend

According to Maori oral tradition the arrival of pounamu itself is the subject of several interesting and occasionally conflicting stories - some supported by geological fact -.

Ngahue and Hine-Tua-Hoanga

Ngahue and Hine-Tua-Hoanga who lived in the Maori homeland of Hawakii (assumed to be somewhere near Rarotonga) both possessed pet fish of stone. Ngahue called his green stone fish Poutini ; Hine-Tua-Hoanga called her obsidian (volcanic glass) and flint fish Waiapu. Hine-Tua-Hoanga wanted the ocean for Waiapu's playground alone and caused such a fuss Poutini swam away with Ngahue in hot pursuit. Followed shortly thereafter (why - from guilt or regret? - is not known) by Hine-Tua-Hoanga throwing obsidian and flint onto several land features she touched on. One of these was Tuhua or Mayor Island in New Zealand's Bay of Islands. Unfortunately the fugitive Ngahue had made landfall there also and, sensing her presence, was forced to continue the search for a land where he and Poutini could live in peace. Poutini chose it for him - a place called Arahura on the West Coast of a new land Aotearoa (New Zealand). To this day Ngahere's green fish lives in the Arahura and other rivers of the West Coast as Pounamu. And Tuhua is New Zealand's premier source of raw obsidian. Hine-Tau-Hoanga is somewhat disparagingly remembered as the "woman of the grindstone" because obsidian and flint were occasionally used to turn pounamu into implements of great usefulness and articles of supreme reverence.

Poutini and Waitaiki

How jade deposits became to be discovered in other locations in New Zealand's South Island is the subject of another tale involving Poutini. Again some geological verification exists for this story of abduction. Like all good tales of this kind it includes a dragon or spirit creature Maori termed a Taniwha.

It appears Poutini must have turned into such a beast and with mischievous intent swum back to Tuhua (Obsidian Island) to steal-away Waitaiki the beautiful wife of a Tama-ahua. Another hot pursuit followed which resulted in bits of jade (possibly fish scales) being rubbed off Poutini on more features of the New Zealand landscape - all major Pounamu sources today. As a result the sea along the South Island's West Coast became known as Te Tai O Poutini - "The tides of Poutini" - where he remains as the spiritual guardian of not only pounamu but also all the land and it's people. And this is not just another "fishy" tale, for it is no accident that fishy forms are a major motif in much of Maori pounamu carving.

Seven Sources of Pounamu

In due course Maori identified seven locations where jade could be found. All are in the South Island, close to the major alpine fault line running the length of it. Termed fields today, they are : Nelson, Westland, South Westland, Wakatipu, Wanaka, Livingstone and Milford. In none of these areas did Maori ever mine jade, although occasional large chunks where wrested from protrusions in hillsides. Most was found as rocks and pebbles in rivers, streams and on beaches after being washed from the Southern Alps by the many swift-flowing rivers.

Some water-sheds were more productive than others. Chiefly the rivers Taramakau, Arahura and their tributaries. From here and a handful more locations early Maori traded precious pounamu to the rest of New Zealand's tribes - especially in the North Island - . Pounamu became a convenient currency for aquiring many of the foodstuffs and materials pounamu's South Island guardians could not produce themselves. Many traded items, like dugout canoes, were produced with implements fashioned from hard pounamu. This trade engendered inter-tribal jealousies that often festered into fierce battles for the exclusive rights to the raw stone. This situation was to have an historic resolution in 1997.

Maori dependence on jade

It is believed early Maori arrived in New Zealand with implements made from rock, wood, shell or even coral. In the search for suitable local replacements they would have tested several suitably hard rocks. Finest of all, but possibly hardest to work, being pounamu. Undaunted they persisted with the meanest of tools - water, abrasive sand, primitive boring instruments and rock hammers - to develop methods of stone carving only surpassed by steel implements. And only for speed. For example a classic pounamu adze head may once have demanded months of patient work by one man. Where an almost exact copy demands only days now, yet is no more beautiful than the ancient model.

Maori attraction to pounamu was based at first on the stone's superior hardness and toughness. It blunted but very slowly and would not easily break, even when hammered. Many a giant tree was to feel pounamu's bite prior to becoming a house or canoe. Demand for jade implements generally outpaced supply, because the stone was usually collected after laborious overland journeys on foot. Often once per year and in the face of hostile weather and attacks by rival claimants to the source. Plus, as Maori had no beast of burden other than slaves, loads of the heavy stone were restricted to what an individual could carry.

Short supply forced Maori to refashion worn or broken tools into other implements, like smaller axes, chisels, gouges, files, drill bits, cloak pins, leg-bands for decoy birds, fish hooks and lures. So prized were some easily misplaced implements, like small chisels and gouges, tribal artisans wore them around the neck or hung from the ears. A tradition likely to have led to the custom of neck, nose, ear, wrist and ankle adornment among all Maori.

Reutilisation or refashioning of tools occurred in other crafts-based cultures and sometimes occurs to this day. It is not unknown for artisans to value fine tools long after their usefulness has ended and, rather than discard, retain them for other purposes. Perhaps from thrift, habit or in recognition of years of faithful service.

For early Maori carvers, the act of reconsidering previously engraved or used stone called for closer scrutiny of the characteristics of each piece. This gave birth to the development of shaping to emphasise unique colour, clarity, grain, texture and imperfections. Work that often increased intrinsic and perceived worth to a point where many stone carvings became imbued with special powers or "mana" and gave rise to the a tradition of treasuring pounamu creations as living works of art or worship. Even the humblest will grow in stature with time.

More Than Jewelry

Whilst most jade appears on world markets as personal adornment it has found many other uses - often inspired by early Chinese examples. Jade has been fashioned into furniture, monuments in public and private places, sculptures large and small, items of personal use like pens and watch faces. Musical instruments too. Especially wind chimes, because of its natural gong-like resonance. In Australia a magnificent to-scale replica of an orchestral harp was created from their unique jet-black jade. At just 20 centimetres high and strung in pure silver it required over 1500 hours of patient skill to complete. Over the years Jade Factory carvers have received many requests for individual carvings; although by the very nature of the handwork involved every piece, regardless of size, is almost unique.

The Value of Jade

He iti rá

He iti mapihi Pounamu

Small indeed

But made of greenstone

(Maori proverb)

The value of jade is a difficult question to consider, because appreciation is so very subjective. For example, a relatively inferior piece of low grade jade imported from Siberia may, once it has been through the hands of a master carver, fetch a high sum. Just as many fine pieces have been wasted through inferior workmanship. Some customers prefer their jade as close to the raw condition in which it was found. To others, only the most intricate or ornate carving will suffice. And are prepared to pay accordingly.

The lesson is, try and look at the stone itself and not what has or has not been done to it. You may overlook features that have been subtly highlighted by a clever carver.

Pounamu - Gift of Gifts

In New Zealand today a gift of pounamu jade is a preferred token of love, gratitude or respect. Although, traditionally Maori never buy or barter for jade for themselves, preferring to wait until it is offered or are invited to select a piece. So powerful was this custom that a chief suing for peace would send first a prized possession, his personal pounamu mere badge of rank, to his enemy as a token of respect. The gift spoke for him by transferring to the recipient some of the power, prestige or "mana" of the giver and his people.

This also gave rise to a legend wherein pounamu often chooses its own recipient. Today it is not uncommon for a pounamu purchaser to exclaim, upon realizing they have exceeded their budget : "It made me do it !". Such is the power of jade... 

The following are the most popular varieties of pounamu; notice how they compare to traditional Chinese jade descriptions:

  • Inanga: pearly white or gray-green similar to the indigenous minnow called whitebait or Inanga - a New Zealand delicacy -. This jade is usually translucent (as is the fish) or opaque ; Most highly prized for its rarity and colour. Oftern reserved for ceremonial clubs or mere.

  • Kahurangi: highly translucent with a light green hue; few or no dark spots or flaws. Named for the purity of a cloudless sky. Again one of the rarest of pounamu. As a result the name also is used to mean distinguished, prized, treasured possession or jewel. Favoured for the manufacture of ceremonial adzes and pendants.

  • Kawakawa: deep dark to rich green commonly flecked with small dark iron inclusions that, far from being flaws, actually heighten the natural beauty. Named after a medicinal plant of the same name and colour related to the Pacific Islands shrub used for production of ceremonial kava drink.

Bowenite (serpentine) is often identified as Tangiwai. Remember: bowenite is not jade.

The Green Gold rush

Nearly a hundred years after Captain Cook others, predominantly European, began arriving in New Zealand in search of easy riches. Most were captivated by the beauty and durability of pounamu, but their primary interest lay in gold. This inspired several major gold rushes of the 1860's. During the hunt many fine pieces of pounamu were discovered, only to be discarded for lack of ready market or suitable transport. Even Cantonese immigrant followers of the gold diggers had little use for jade they frequently encountered.

By the 1890's, however, lapidaries (gemstone craftsman) locally and in Europe had begun to demand more of the quality pounamu pieces gradually finding their way into gem workshops. This coincided with a change in gold recovery techniques requiring massive investment in machinery beyond the abilities of most prospectors. Some turned to prospecting for jade. Only, back then, it was called Greenstone. Manufacture of jade jewelery began in several New Zealand cities of the 1900's to meet a growing demand. Chief among them being Dunedin in the South Island. The craftsmen employed were almost, without exception, non-Maori, as their traditional methods of working the valuable stone could not compete with modern metal tools. Maori carvers, though declining in numbers, were however adjusting to the change. And their art was to have dramatic impact later. All the same New Zealand jade remained virtually unknown by the rest of world for decades and, as a result, rather poorly regarded.

That was until several German lapidary houses, with experience developed over two centuries, began to recognize the unique properties of New Zealand stone. One company, still in production in Idar-Oberstein (Germany's gem-cutting centre), opened an office in Sydney, Australia for the purposes of actively purchasing New Zealand jade for their German workshops. Among the many items they and others of their kind produced were clever reproductions of Maori artifacts then in vogue for collection or as personal adornment. In particular the hei-tiki, it's form finally recognized as a unique style of indigenous art. Many railway wagonloads of South Island jade where to reach the Continent as a result, only to return to New Zealand as "authentic" Maori carvings. Some fetching very high prices.

Meanwhile the small number of jade carvers regularly employed in New Zealand had become the major suppliers to Maori still requiring ceremonial pieces to be carved. Often utilising stone inherited from ancestors, because local supply was rather erratic as a direct product of exports and the low national interest in jade. Several events beginning in the 1960's were to help reverse this situation.

One was the discovery of New Zealand by overseas tourists coupled with an increase in the availability of air flights to this country ; another was "Te Maori" a major indigenous art and artifact exhibition touring several of the world's major capitals to high acclaim; another was the resurgence of belief by Maori in their own abilities as a race after long domination by immigrant cultures. This, in turn, coincided in renewed interest by all New Zealanders in their own achievements as a nation. 1970 was to be especially significant.

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