New Zealand Jade: Art not Science

Before coming to New Zealand, we looked forward to seeing jade being worked, and shopping for a jade pendant or two. After arriving, we began to find out a bit more about jade and jade carving that did not make our search easier. Jonathan and I are well-trained researchers, and we like to know about things. We wanted to know what New Zealand jade really is, mineralogically, where it comes from and how it is carved. We barely got past the first question because there are too many answers.

On the right is an unpolished boulder (chipped to show jade interior). On the left is a polished jade boulder.

Jade is composed of silica and other minerals and is best known as a translucent green stone. (That is what I think of.) We also found that jade can be hard or soft, and occurs in all shades of green, lavender, blue, red, and black. There are so many varieties that what a carving is made of becomes impossible to determine without spectroscopy.

In New Zealand, jade is known from the earliest arrival of Europeans who observed the Maori people wearing carved jade pieces. In this portrait of Rangi Topeora, one of the few women leaders to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, you can see carved jade objects in two shapes, cylinders and hei-tiki. These are some of  the fairly limited repertoire of traditional shapes. I found the limited number of shapes a bit disappointing until I thought a bit about this portrait. The Maori didn’t carve jade to be decorative, they carved it to make symbols of power and personal rank. It was important for a carved piece of jade to be recognizable as a particular shape and carry its associated meaning. Creativity was only valuable within the constraints of a particular shape. A person wearing a hei-tiki wanted those who saw it to recognize it immediately.

Today, traditional forms are what you see in most stores. I am skeptical of the “meaning” that is described in flowery language on sales materials. What we know is that these shapes have been passed down through generations, providing buyers a memento that gives a nod to Maori history and tradition. In the Canterbury museum in Christchurch there are numerous examples of all the traditional forms along with a lot of jade fighting clubs. Jade was definitely associated with power!Not everything is traditional. There are some contemporary carvings made from jade, and also bone, wood, and stone.

Having given up on what jade is, we looked at where jade is found. New Zealand jade is found in several localities on the west coast of the South Island as pebbles and boulders that wash out of the mountains. Most jade collecting is reserved for authorized members of an ‘iwi’, a traditional Maori group. The jade is carved by Maori carvers, or sold to others to carve. When we heard that it was possible for anyone to search for jade pebbles on the beach in Hokitika, on the west coast of the South Island, we knew we would visit and have a look for ourselves. When we got there, we used our combined archaeological surface collecting expertise and our diligent beach-combing efforts to search out jade pebbles. Jonathan found one, about the size of his thumbnail. This is definitely an activity in the “if it was easy there’d be a lot more people out here” category. I decided against purchasing a carving and instead bought two tiny matte-finished slices of jade out of which I made earrings. I spent a lot less than I would have on anything comparable. It was fun and makes a good story.

Hokitika Beach
Hokitika Beach

We concluded that the best way to purchase jade in New Zealand is to talk to people, especially those who work with jade, rather than buy items in a gift shop.  Chatting with people at craft markets can lead to meeting someone who actually carved the jade themselves, or possibly someone who collected the jade personally. A small studio run by an individual or a family may make it possible to find out where the jade you are looking at comes from and who carved it. To me, the greatest enjoyment of an object comes from knowing something of its history. I met a woman selling jade pieces near the beach in Hokitika and she explained that her husband did most of the carving though she was learning and could produce simpler shapes. They purchase their jade from the Maori authorized to collect it, and she could describe the shapes and varieties of stone. I enjoyed our discussion more than any of my visits to the shops in town.

When you find out that jade can be almost anything, you depend upon the honesty of the seller to find what you want. That proves problematic, as a lot of jade is treated to improve the color or to make the piece smooth. These “enhancements” include anything from simply rubbing the piece with wax (the finish on most pieces), to dying, impregnation with resin, or placing stone on plastic backing. Sellers of jade do not mention any of these techniques of ‘enhancement’. How is a person to shop? The color question is amplified by adding the questions of where jade comes from and who carves it. The largest seller of jade carving in Hokitika is Mountain Jade, with at least two stores. Looking around the store we found that though some of the jade was local, most was not. Some items were marked “New Zealand jade”, others “New Zealand greenstone”, others “carved in New Zealand”. This means that carved items not marked “New Zealand” are likely to come from sources in China or Canada, especially as the owners of the business are from China and Canada, where British Columbia produces much of the world’s jade today. Objects not marked “carved in New Zealand” might well be carved in Indonesia or China. A “featured artist” bio in the store described a designer who purchases stone in New Zealand, ships it to Indonesia to be carved and then re-imports it to sell in New Zealand. We were disappointed by this, as we’d rather see work by local artists. Maybe that’s just us.

The jade hunt was very enjoyable, and we learned enough to ask questions and chat with people. A significant part of the beauty and value of jade is based on what the buyer believes, and not on any particular measurement or test, a case of art, and artifice, prevailing over science.[Those of you who read my posts regularly may have noticed a bit of a gap over the past two weeks. I splashed coffee on my keyboard one morning, and despite my rapid actions, part of my keyboard stopped working. I now have a much cleaner laptop and an interim keyboard, though I may never catch up in describing all the great things to see in and around Christchurch.]


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

2 thoughts on “New Zealand Jade: Art not Science

  1. When we were at high school a Maori elder came and gave a very informative lecture on greenstone and it’s importance to the culture. He told us it was in the nephrite family. Also, ‘mere’ – a handheld weapon used to basically brain the enemy in hand to hand combat – was always made of greenstone. Sadly there is a rip-off trade of fraudulent items made in China and the Philippines, that is sold to unwitting tourists. This has sprung up over the last two decades. You are best to buy only from a known Maori carver. Some of their spirit goes into each item they carve, and it is considered quite high ranking in their culture to be a carver.


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