Pounamu is a precious taonga, a rare and prized treasure, found in Tai Poutini –the South Island's West Coast of Aotearoa / New Zealand.
Pounamu, is the Maori term for nephrite jade, commonly known as Greenstone. Pounamu is also one of the words in the Maori language for the colour green. The known location of all jade deposits in New Zealand is the South Island, referred to by the Maori as Te Wai Pounamu--the water in which pounamu dwelt.
True nephrite jade is a rare mineral all over the world. The largest fields in the South Island of New Zealand are found at Arahura and Taramakau in Westland. Other deposits are found near Lakes Wakatipu and Wanaka in the Otago and Southland provinces. Jade is formed under intense heat, super-heated water and pressure by the movements of crucible rocks. No rock seam of nephrite has ever been found. Over time boulders are revealed by the earth's movement and alluvial erosion and are then flushed out into the rivers.
Nephrite Jade is a composition of calcium magnesium silicate with various amounts of iron. It is the iron content that is responsible for the varying range of colours. The predominent colour of New Zealand jade is green and shades of green: in fact you can find colours ranging from almost white to nearly black. The colour of one block of stone can vary so much throughout that it is impossible to make standard colour identification. The translucency of another block of stone may totally modify it's apparent colour.
Maori mythology credits pounamu with life itself. They trace its origin in personified form to the time when the Maori world was created. According to oral tradition rocks, stones and sand are said to be descended from the union of Tane, god of the forests, the Fertiliser, and Hine-tupari-maunga, the mountain maid, the personified form of mountains and ranges. Pounamu is sometimes given a differnt ancestor in the legends, being descended from Tangaroa, god of the sea and Anu-matao who represents cold. One of Pounamu's brothers was named Poutini, the whole godly family being known as the iwi pounamu, the greenstone people. Traditional enemies were the grindstone people, represented by Hine-tua-hoanga, a personification of sandstone on which jade was ground by the Maori and her ally Whaipu or obsidian, the volcanic material fastened to the points of sticks used to drill holes in jade. In a dispute that arose between these peoples, Poutini fled from the mythical land of Hawaiki with a human named Ngahue:
"The very discovery of New Zealand is connected with greenstone. Poutini & Whaiapu both rested in the same place, and Hine-tu-a-hoanga (the Lady of the Rubber or the Sandstone Maid), to whom the stone Whaiapu belonged, became excessively enraged with Ngahue and with his stone Poutini. At last she drove Ngahue out of the place, and Ngahue departed to a strange land, taking his jade-stone, followed, however, by Hine-tu-a-hoanga. Ngahue arrived at Tuhua (Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty; it is the island of Obsidian) with his stone; and Hine-tu-a-hoanga also landed there, and began to drive him away. Then Ngahue sought a place where his jade-stone might remain in peace, and he found in the sea this island Aotearoa (North Island), and contemplated landing there. Thinking he would there be too close to his enemy, and lest they should quarrel again, he left carrying off his stone. So he carried it off with him, and they coasted along, and at length arrived at Arahura (on the west coast of the South Island), and he made there an everlasting resting place for his jade-stone, and with it returned; and as he coasted along he at length reached Wairere (believed to be on the east coast of the North Island), and he visited Whangaparoa and Tauranga, and returned thence direct to Hawaiki, and reported he had discovered a new country which produced moa (flightless bird now extinct) and jade-stone, named Tutauru and Hauhau-te-rangi. He manufactured some portions of one piece into images for neck-ornaments (hei-tiki), and some portions into ear-ornaments." (Chapman 1891).
The Maori regarded Pounamu as a treasure of immense spiritual & material value. Its ethereal qualities making it the most prized possession representative of mana (spiritual power) and rank. The courage, endurance and skill involved in locating and working the stone added to its prestige. For its beauty and strength, the Maori used jade in place of metal for jewellery, tools, ceremonial objects and weapons.
The Maori distinguished varieties of pounamu according to stone quality, shades of colour and translucency. The terminology used to describe the varieties differed from tribe to tribe, area to area. A few of the most well-known types are:
kahurangi--te kahu-o-te-rangi, the robe of the sky; kahu, robe; rangi, sky. Hue is emerald or brilliant green with fog-like waves that give an appearance of rolling clouds or sea foam. This colour and marking is very highly prized.
kawakawa--rich bright green, similar to the green leaf of the kawa-kawa or pepper tree. Branches of this tree were often used in Maori ceremonies.
kokopu--trout-stone; combination of dark brown, olive green and yellow in colour or with brown spots. Named after the native New Zealand freshwater trout due to the similarity in colour & markings.
totoweka--light green with definite splashes of bright red; toto--blood, weka--the Maori hen, "the blood of the weka jade." This type is vary rare and highly prized.
inanga--in general it is bluey-white, similar to well watered milk, and resembling the shade of the local white-bait minnows, the inanga of the Maori. Very fine in texture, hard, and takes a fine polish.