Pounamu: Greenstone

“Which stone calls to you?” the Maori shopkeeper in Rotorua asked us.

“That is the one that you should get. Also if it feels warm in your hand when you touch it, that is also a sign of it being right for you,” he continued.

He was telling us about greenstone or pounamu (Maori name), a unique mineral found in New Zealand which is commonly worn as pendants. In New Zealand, pounamu is only found on the South Island and in only a relatively small number of locations primarily on the west coast. In fact, the Maori name for the South Island of New Zealand is Te Waipounamu, which means “The Waters of Greenstone.”

Locations on South Island where poumanu (greenstone) is found.

Locations on South Island where poumanu (greenstone) is found.(1)

Prized for centuries by the Maori for both its beauty and hardness, pounamu was commonly used to make weapons, tools and jewelry. Today, it is the precious stone that best represents New Zealand, commonly being carved into a number of traditional Maori designs and sold in gift shops throughout the country. Indeed, sometimes New Zealanders can be identified overseas by their wearing of a greenstone pendant.


Two mineral forms, nephrite and bowenite, make up what is commonly called pounamu, greenstone or New Zealand jade.

Nephrite, a calcium magnesium silicate, is the principle one of these and is more commonly found, while bowenite, a variety of the serpentinite species antigorite, is more rare and found only at the entrance to Milford Sound on the South Island.

The generic word ‘jade’ refers to either one of two minerals: nephrite or jadeite. Only nephrite is found in New Zealand. The more familiar Chinese jade is actually jadeite, a mineral chemically distinct from nephrite. To clarify this distinction, greenstone is sometimes referred to as New Zealand jade.

Nephrite is formed deep within the earth. As the mountains of the South Island lifted, narrow bands containing pounamu were brought to the surface, where rivers and glacier action released it. Currently it is found in boulders in or near rivers or scattered along the coast. All the free material in readily accessible areas has generally already been found. Boulders containing poumanu are sawn into thin slices using diamond saws, and then crafted into individual items.

Greenstone boulders

Greenstone boulders (2)

A common measure of mineral hardness is the Mohs scale, created by the German mineralogist Friedrich Mohs in 1812, which classifies minerals on a scale of increasing hardness from one to ten. For example, talc has a Mohs hardness rating of 1, while diamond has a rating of 10. Nephrite (greenstone) has a Mohs scale rating of 6.5, which places it just below quartz in hardness.

Mohs Hardness Scale (3)

Mohs Hardness Scale (3)

This level of hardness made pounamu highly desirable for tools, weapons and jewelry by the Maori.

Pounamu is commonly green in color, although it can be also be white or almost translucent. Maori classify pounamu into five different types based on color and other characteristics.


Pounamu was a valuable commodity to the Maori, and was traded throughout the country including on the North Island. The main deposits are in Westland around the Taramakua and Arahura rivers, coastal south Westland and the Lake Wakatipu area of Otago.

A woman of the Ngai Kahungunu tribe wearing a hei-tiki pendant.

A woman of the Ngai Kahungunu tribe wearing a hei-tiki pendant. (4)

For the Maori, along with pounamu’s usefulness, pounamu objects were also felt to be sacred (tapu) and a sign of one’s status or power (mana). Many individual items had their own specific names identifying them and were passed down through generations. Traditionally, pendants, earings, weapons and tools (commonly adzes) were made from greenstone.


Six different shapes of pendants are commonly fashioned today. Each shape is felt to carry with it certain attributes, meaning that the person wearing that specific pendant shape has those qualities or wishes to acquire them.

Hei matau (fish hook) symbolizes prosperity, abundance, good health, strength, determination and a respect for the sea and all its life. It is also believed to provide safe journey over water.

Hei matau

Hei matau  (5)

Pikoura (twist) symbolizes the paths of life and is an eternity symbol. A single twist design can symbolize the loyalty, friendship and love between two individuals. Even though the individuals may take different paths, they will always remain connected. Double or triple twist designs represent these same bonds between groups of people or cultures.


Pikoura (6)

Toki is the Maori word for adze which was used as a cutting or shaping tool and sometimes as a weapon. The toki symbol represents strength, determination, courage, focus and honor such as a warrior might need. Also traditionally worn by Maori elders, toki can also represent power, wisdom and authority.


Toki (7)

Hei-tiki looks like a distorted human figure sitting cross-legged. It is most commonly felt to represent fertility, and traditionally might be worn by a woman wishing to become pregnant. It is also thought of as a good luck charm and believed to give the wearer clarity of thought.

Hei tiki

Hei-tiki (8)

Manaia is a design that most often consists of a head of a bird, a human body and the tail of a fish. It represents the balance between sky, earth and water and serves as protection from danger or evil.


Manaia (9)

Koru (‘loop’) refers to the new shoots of an unfurling fern frond. It symbolizes new beginnings, rebirth, new life, personal growth, nurturing and peace.


Koru (10)

How much do greenstone pendants cost? Usually from around fifty to several hundred dollars.

Whether the greenstone is highly polished or not is a personal preference.

Sometimes fakes are sold made of either plastic or soapstone, the latter of which is referred to as fool’s greenstone.

A number of beliefs are sometimes associated with greenstone. Some say you should never buy greenstone for yourself, rather someone should buy it and gift it to you. Another belief says that if you ever find a greenstone item, you should never take it and wear it, instead you should throw it into the sea.

And finally, if you are trying on a greenstone pendant and it falls off your neck, it is not meant for you!



‪1) New Zealand’s pounamu deposits – Pounamu – jade or greenstone – Te
www.teara.govt.nz477 × 585Search by image
New Zealand’s pounamu deposits

‪2) Pounamu boulders – Rock and mineral names – Te Ara Encyclopedia of …
www.teara.govt.nz500 × 375Search by image

‪3) Rock and Mineral Prospecting
www.thecityedition.com320 × 346Search by image

‪4) Hei-tiki – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
en.wikipedia.org545 × 700Search by image
‪Hinepare, a woman of the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe, wearing a hei-tiki

5) hook-greenstone-b22.jpg
www.shopnewzealand.co.nz220 × 400Search by image

6) ‪Graeme Wylie, jade carver – Kiwi gifts handmade in NZ | Kiwi2go
www.kiwi2go.co.nz420 × 420Search by image
Hei pikorua, path of life pendant

‪7) Kahurangi Pounamu Greenstone Hei Toki Pendant – Kiwitreasure.
www.kiwitreasure.com350 × 350Search by image
‪Kahurangi Pounamu Greenstone Hei Toki Pendant

‪8) hei tiki Ngāi Tahu Authentic Greenstone Blog » Blog Archive » Pounamu – “A …
blog.authenticgreenstone.com600 × 649Search by image
‪Hei Tiki

‪9) Manaia Jade Greenstone Pendant – Silverfernz.
www.silverfernz.com350 × 350Search by image
‪New Zealand Manaia Jade Greenstone Pendant

10) Koru ‪Maori Greenstone Koru Pendant. – Silverfernz.
www.silverfernz.com350 × 350Search by image




3 thoughts on “Pounamu: Greenstone

  1. What a fun read !!! I like the simplicity of the Toki…and its ‘warrior’ interpretation … 🙂 The locations of greenstone is so few, I’m suprised they are not more expensive…. Good post !!!

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