Also known locally as “greenstone”, pounamu is the Maori name for those varieties of nephrite jade and bowenite found in New Zealand. It is found only in the South Isleand, which is known in Maori as Te Wai Pounamu “The place of greenstone water.” It is generally found as large boulders, which are not particularly distinctive until cut open.
Pounamu is considered a taonga (treasure) and has an important place in Maori culture. In recognition of this cultural significance, in 1997 the Crown handed back the ownership of all naturally occurring pounamu to the South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu as part of the Ngai Tahu Treaty Claims Settlement.]
Historically, pounamu was used to make tools, weapons like mere (short clubs) and adzes, tools and ornaments like hei-tiki (neck ornaments of supernatural beings). These items were generally treated as heirlooms or given as gifts of significance, since they were believed to carry their own mana, independent of their owners. Today, it is often used in jewellery, particularly pendants, which are carved into traditional, symbolic shapes arising from another area of Maori culture, bone carving – these are generally worn on leather thongs, rather than chains.
While pounamu comes in a large number of forms, there are four main varieties: kawakawa, kahurangi, inanga and tangiwai. The first three are nephrite jade, while tangiwai is a form of bowenite. In modern usage pounamu almost always refers to nephrite jade.
Kawakawa is the most common variety of pounamu and ranges in colour from a rich vivid green to a much darker shade. It often has inclusions, small dark flecks, and some variations have reddish spots or streaks. Kawakawa pounamu is named after a native tree, because the colour is said to resemble the leaves of that tree.
Kahurangi is the rarest variety of pounamu. It is highly translucent and often comes in vivid shades of green. The word kahurangi means “clear sky” and kahurangi sometimes has small markings on it that produce a cloud-like effect, though these must not reduce the overall clarity of the stone or it will no longer be classed as as kahurangi. Highly valued, this was the preferred variety of pounamu for use in the blades of the ceremonial adzes ( known as toki poutangata) owned by tribal chiefs – the rangatira.
variety is especially prized by southern Maori and is named after the native freshwater fish commonly known as whitebait, because the pearly-white or grey-green inanga pounamu is reminiscent of the pale colour and transparency of the mata (young whitebait). It can vary from translucent to opaque and oxidization may occur as the stone ages, changing the colour of the stone – it develops a light olive tint. To develop similar silvery characteristic Maori sometimes heat treated other varieties of pounamu at low temperatures.
Unlike the other forms of pounamu, which are nephrite jade, Tangiwai is bowenite rock. It is clear like glass, and the colour ranges from blue-green to olive green. It is the oldest form of pounamu and is sourced almost exclusively from the Milford Sound. Tangiwai means “the water of tears” and it takes its name from the kind of tears that well from deep sorrow – the longer name, Koko-tangiwai refers to the kind of grief that is never fully healed – there is a legend that says the stone is the petrified tears of Waitaiki, a woman stolen away from her husband, Tamaahua, to Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) by the taniwha Poutini.