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: Maori Jade Jewelry

Maori Jade Jewelry

Nephrite Jade Maori Tiki Necklace Pendant
Nephrite Jade Maori Tiki Pendant

The Maori are people of east Polynesian descent who have lived in New Zealand for centuries and developed their own unique culture. The Maori settled in New Zealand long before the arrival of Europeans, who brought great change and upheaval to the Maori people.

The Maori people made use of materials they call pounamu and tangiwai for weapons and decorations. Pounamu typically refers to nephrite jade, which is classified according to its appearance. For example, translucent to opaque, pearly-white or grayish-green pounamu is termed inanga pounamu. The name is derived from a freshwater fish that has a similar appearance. The most highly desired and rarest is kahurangi pounamu, which has a high level of translucency and a vivid green color. Tangiwai usually refers to bowenite, which is a compact variety of serpentine. In English, both pounamu and tangiwai are given the general term "greenstone".

Some of the earliest known Maori decorations were reels, which were likely worn as necklaces and made from bone or stone. Also worn were whale teeth or carved replicas shaped like whale teeth, V-shaped pendants and discs decorated with designs such as fish. These were typically made from whale bone, shark teeth, whale teeth or shells.

Nephrite Jade Fish Hook Pendant
Nephrite Jade Fish Hook Pendant (Hei Matau)

The discovery of New Zealand nephrite and serpentine came later for the Maori people; around one thousand years ago. These materials were used to make tools, weapons and decorations. It is said that the Maoris valued pounamu due to its attractive appearance, strength and durability. In fact, in 1870 when gold was to be mined in Coromandel, a prominent Maori called Te Otatu made the following remark, "Let the gold be worked by the white men. It was not a thing known to our ancestors. My only treasure is the pounamu". The greenstone was so treasured that its sources caused conflict between Maori tribes.

There are a variety of Maori motifs used for carved greenstone pendants. Fish hooks or hei matau are one design, which are said to bring luck, prosperity and promote safe water travel. Whales and dolphins are also important symbols, said to offer protection. Additionally, dolphins represent friendship. Koru resemble the spiral or curl of an unfurling fern frond and are thought to symbolize growth and new life. Circles and single twists are thought to symbolize eternity, whereas double or triple twists generally mean the joining together of people. A teardrop shape, known as roimata is believed to represent comfort. Also used as pendants are koropepe; an eel-like fish, and various mythical creatures.

Maori Ear Pendant
Serpentine Pendant

An important Maori jewelry item is a pendant known as hei tiki or simply tiki (see top image). Tiki is the name assigned to all human figures and hei is the word for an object that hangs from the neck. These are carvings in the form of a human that are worn by women and men. They are often passed down through generations. The significance of tiki is not clear. Various theories state that the tiki could be the first man, known as Tiki, or perhaps be a human embryo, symbol of fertility or an amulet to promote safe childbirth. It is believed by some that a hei tiki can help a woman to conceive. Tiki can be female or sexless and the earliest ones were made from bone, wood or ivory. Later, tiki were made from mostly nephrite jade.

Maori people also wore a variety of ear ornaments. Some of these were long, straight polished greenstone pendants or pendants which were bent at the end. Others were drop-shaped. Also worn were rings, hooks, teeth or feathers.

The unique history of the Maori people is integral to the history of New Zealand and pounamu is an important part of Maori culture. To this day, there is a prominent Maori population in New Zealand, who continue to practice and preserve their traditions, including the carving of their treasured pounamu or greenstone.

  • First Published: December-17-2014
  • Last Updated: August-22-2017
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