Meanings & designs
Our designs are a homage to the art, design, and culture of New Zealand. Their meanings stem from historical accounts of Maori life and the rich mythological and spiritual beliefs they held. Todays meanings and designs are a modern interpretation of this history.
WORDS BY JACOB SHEEHAN PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACOB SHEEHAN
Pounamu is known as the God Stone of the Maori people, and modern Maori who wish to give a gift of pounamu will always seek out New Zealand nephrite (learn about the stones different names here). Traditionally, Maori have embraced this stone as a talisman and believed in its spiritual powers to evoke strength and prosperity, to protect, express love and kinship, and to depict growth and harmony.
Maori designs carved in jade are steeped in religious and spiritual belief. The symbols and patterns that you see carved into stone, wood, and bone have strong spiritual meanings. They tell stories of ancestors long lost, depict spirits from the heavens, earth, and underworld, show historical lineage and paint images of the natural world that surround and surrounded them. They are no doubt beautiful, but they’re more than a form of art. For Maori they create a strong connection with their ancestors and the natural world they live in.
This is especially true of necklaces carved from pounamu. It was believed by Maori that as a pounamu carving was worn against the skin it absorbed some of that persons essence. As carvings were passed down through the family they absorbed essence from each family member, creating a direct ancestral connection through the necklace itself. This is one reason why Maori design is so special, it is more than just an art form.
Though our carvers are constantly pushing the boundaries when it comes to creating new designs, they also love paying homage to classic Maori carvings passed down through generations. Take hei tiki as an example. When carved from pounamu, these were once considered the most valuable personal items of adornment. Previously reserved for women and originating in Polynesia, they’ve been said to do everything from protect the wearer to bringing about fertility. Some find they represent the human embryo or the Maori god Tiki, who was responsible for the creation of life in Maori myth. Designs where hands are placed on the loins directly reference fertility. They were often buried with their owners and then exhumed along with bones at a later date and passed onto the living; apparently this increased the mana (prestige) and spiritual value of the hei tiki.
The toki, or adze, has its origins as a practical tool used in axes and as a ceremonial talisman reserved for chiefs and warriors, who wielded the toki when speaking to show their importance and dominance. It predates the 18th century, before Europeans colonised New Zealand. The strength of the toki when used as a tool has led to this design representing strength and courage in the wearer.
The hei matau, or fish hook, has endured since pre-colonial times (prior to the 18th century) and symbolises abundance, and a respect for sea. The design represents the special relationship Maori people have with fishing (historically they lived from fisheries and depended on the sea for food gathering) and Tangaroa, god of the sea. Designs range from the ultra-realistic through to more conceptual styles, and wearing one is said to bring good fortune when travelling across oceans.
The koru is a modern design used extensively in Maori art, however it was rarely seen in pounamu carving before the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand. It’s based on the unfurling silver fern frond and represents new life and growth. Another modern design is the twist, which symbolises life’s eternal emerging paths. Consisting of a single, double or triple twist, the two arms represent love, loyalty and friendship between people.
Heart designs are also a modern design. They're often associated with feelings and meanings of love, unity, and cohesion because the heart is where many of us experience our feelings.
The manaia is a relatively modern design to be carved in greenstone, and is considered the messenger between gods and mortals. It is usually depicted with the head of a bird, the body of a man, and the tail of a fish. Modern manaia are said to represent spiritual power and are thought to guide human spirits to heaven.
The whale tail or whale can represent two things. Whale forms were often carved on Maori food store houses in wood. Traditionally large spirals represented their jaws. When a whale was stranded and died, it provided a huge amount of food and bone for eating and carving. Because of this it is associated with abundance. A whale necklace can also represent a respect and connectedness to the sea.
A less common greenstone Maori design is the poria ring. These designs were originally used to snare and confine the native New Zealand kaka parrot. The square ring would have a hole cut through its centre. This would then be fitted over the birds head or around its leg. The bird would eventually become tame and be used to attract the attention of other birds which would also be caught and trapped with a greenstone or bone poria ring.
From the traditional to the modern, all our jade is imbued with meaning and significance which only intensifies as it’s worn.