Maori revere pounamu (hard nephrite jade) and tangiwai (softer, translucent bowenite), usually collectively known as greenstone. In Aotearoa’s pre-European culture, it took the place of durable metals for practical, warfaring and decorative uses: adzes and chisels were used for carving, mere (clubs) for combat, and pendants were fashioned for jewellery.
In Maori, the entire South Island is known as Te Wahi Pounamu, “the place of greenstone”, reflecting the importance of its sole sources, the belt from Greymouth through the rich Arahura River area near Hokitika south to Anita Bay on Milford Sound – where the beautifully dappled tangiwai occurs – and the Wakatipu region behind Queenstown. When the Poutini Ngai Tahu arranged to sell most of Westland to James Mackay in 1860, the Arahura River, their main source of pounamu, was specifically excluded.
Greenstone’s value has barely diminished. Mineral claims are jealously guarded, the export of greenstone is prohibited and no extraction is allowed from national parks; penalties include fines of up to $200,000 and two years in jail. Price is heavily dependent on quality, but rates of $100,000 a tonne are not unknown – and the sky’s the limit when the stone is fashioned into sculpture and jewellery. Many of the cheaper specimens are quite crude, but pricier pieces exhibit accomplished Maori designs.
Hokitika is the main venue for greenstone shoppers: keep in mind that the larger shops and galleries are firmly locked into the tour-bus circuit so prices are high. Big shops are fine for learning about the quality of the stone and competence of the artwork but smaller places have more competitive deals. Buyers should ask about the origins of the raw material – insiders suspect that lots of greenstone sold in New Zealand is cheaper jade sourced overseas.