Contemporary jewellery is informed by the Māori concept of taonga as a treasured object to be passed down generations. This has mostly been made from pounamu, a green stone from which beautiful ornament can be carved. Modern artists have sought to realise its many possibilities.
By Kevin Murray
Jewellery is a way of expressing what is valuable to us. The distribution of minerals across the earth means that nations are often blessed with unique deposits of precious metals and stones. These can include turquoise (Iran), silver (Mexico), gold (India), opals (Australia), diamonds (South Africa) and lapis lazuli (Chile).
Aotearoa New Zealand is one of the world’s great jade nations, alongside China and Myanmar. The stone is found in the wild terrain of the western part of the South Island, often in rivers making it difficult to access.
Here it goes under many different names, including New Zealand jade, nephrite, greenstone, or the traditional Māori term of pounamu. The stone lends itself to carving because of its sharp edge and variety of colours. It is fitting that this stone plays such an important role in adornment in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Objects made from pounamu were often considered taonga. These are heirloom objects that bestow mana on their owners. As Hirini Mead writes, “Greenstone objects, big or small, qualify as taonga because greenstone itself is highly regarded throughout the Māori world.”
In pre-contact use, pounamu took many forms. Mere pounamu were used as weapons in hand-to-hand combat. Te tatau pounamu (“greenstone door”) was presented as a way of closing the door on the past in a spirit of peace. The hei tiki objects were sometimes given individual names and gifted on significant occasions such as weddings. There were also hei matau (stylised fish-hooks), kaka poria (bird leg ring), pekapeka (pendant), kapeu (ear pendant) and toki poutangata (ceremonial adzes) and the common kuru pendant.
The colonies often produced elaborate ornament featuring local materials and subjects to bolster their appeal in the empire. During the gold rush in the early 1870s, pounamu was combined with golden ferns, kiwi forms and even Māori words as an expression of settler Pākeha pride.
Pounamu was subject to exploitation. Lapidary firms developed in the early 20th century used German equipment to cut stone at an industrial scale. However, it eventually proved more economical to ship the stone to the gem-cutting specialists in Germany’s Idar-Oberstein, where it was made into not only hei tiki but also watch-chain fobs and cutlery handles, sometimes exported to England. This practice was made illegal in 1947.
The value of pounamu was degraded by the mass market, producing thousands of identical souvenirs with little of their customary meaning.
To rescue pounamu, many local artists adopted the modernist principle of “truth to materials” to reveal its essential beauty.
The stone was promoted especially by Dutch artist Theo Schoon, who designed ornaments for the Westland Greenstone Company in Hokitika. A school of carving emerged in the West Coast of the South Island including Peter Hughson and Bill Mathieson, whose work featured in the 1972 exhibition New Zealand Crafts, toured overseas by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council.
Though Pākeha, these jewellers had some awareness of traditional meanings. As Peter Cape wrote in 1980, “most of the artists working with [pounamu] are prepared, at least at some stage, to take their treatment of it back to the traditional – and in some cases sacred – designs of the Māori. A once-sacred material is again being used in a talismanic form.”
Māori artists also experimented with the stone in the studio context.
The recent uses of pounamu often play with the relationship between traditional and modern, Māori and Pākeha. Joe Sheehan, whose father was a jade carver, used this material to create everyday objects. His series Final Cut (2006) make cutting tools out of pounamu, ironically reflecting on the process of carving. These are challenging works. Do they demean a sacred material or do they imbue the everyday with significance?
Pounamu is not the only local material that has been rescued from tourist cliché. Jewellers have also successful given dignity and beauty to pāua, the nacreous and opalescent shell ubiquitous in souvenirs.
As a way of valuing local characteristics, the history of modern jewellery in Aotearoa New Zealand involves the rescue from commodification of idiomatic materials, such as a pounamu and pāua. Through jewellery, artists seek to recover cultural meaning and explore the use of these iconic materials as a medium of artistic expression. Contemporary jewellery has restored appreciation and unlocked new artistic possibilities for Aotearoa New Zealand's jade heritage.
Header image: Hei tiki. Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, 356