Pounamu is much more than a souvenir because it has a treasured spiritual significance.
Also known as greenstone or NZ jade, pounamu is found only in the South Island. The South island was originally named Te Wāhi Pounamu (the place of pounamu), but over time this name changed to Te Wai Pounamu (the greenstone waters).
Poutini Ngāi Tahu (the Ngāi Tahu people of the West Coast) are the guardians of the pounamu found in the rivers that carry these precious rocks down from the mountains.
There is an ancient legend that tells the story of the origin of pounamu.
Poutini — the guardian of pounamu — and a taniwha (a giant water creature) snatched a beautiful Māori woman named Waitaiki from the North Island. He brought her south to the Arahura River (near Hokitika) but her husband Tamaahua gave chase.
Fearing Tamaahua's strength and determination, Poutini decided that if he could not have Waitaiki, nobody would. So he transformed Waitaiki into his likeness as pounamu, and laid her in the cold waters of the river.
The jade fragments that break off and roll down the river to the sea are known as Waitaiki’s children.
Pounamu is a stone renowned for its strength and beauty. It was a highly valued commodity for Māori who travelled from throughout Aotearoa to the West Coast in search of pounamu to use for adornments and weapons.
Pounamu is only found on the West Coast of New Zealand, and in only a few rivers. There are five main types of pounamu, each with a unique appearance and beauty, which then distinguishes the origins of each stone:
For those who like to fossick there is the chance to find a piece that's washed up on the beach. Look out for pebbles with a grey, milky-coloured outer skin and a 'soapy' feel, or the occasional green piece that's already smoothed by natural processes.
Please note that while fossicking is permitted on the beach, any pounamu found elsewhere cannot be taken away.
Hokitika is known as 'jade country' and ‘capital of pounamu’ because of its proximity to the Arahura River — a key source of pounamu —and vibrant community of artists and workshops.
Today, modern pounamu artists continue those traditions creating contemporary jewellery and sculptures, often using traditional designs. There are several open workshops in Hokitika and guided cultural tours.
Many arts and crafts stores on the West Coast have working stone artisans and carvers who are happy to chat with visitors about their work. You can even visit certain workshops for a hands-on carving class where you can turn your own piece of pounamu into a beautiful and meaningful souvenir of your visit.