Maori carving techniques used to make jade necklaces
04 Feb 2016

Maori carving techniques used to make jade necklaces

In pre-1800 New Zealand jade was crafted by Maori into tools, weapons, and items of adornment. Being such a hard and durable stone, how did they manage to shape it? What Maori carving techniques were used to craft the jade necklaces they wore? And how do these techniques differ with modern day ones? Believe me when I say you will have a new appreciation for the craft when you learn how labor intensive these techniques were.

Traditional Maori carving techniques - Abrasive stones

Maori carving techniques

Abrasion was the most valuable Maori jade carving technique. This is where a harder material is rubbed against a piece of jade with an applied abrasive substance so that it’s slowly worn down to the desired shape. It's a very labour intensive process and carving one jade necklace could take weeks or months. It was used in every step of the carving process.




1. Breaking fragments of jade from the larger mass

With a large wooden hammer Maori 'miners' would hit smaller fragments of jade from the larger mass down pre-cut grooves. To make sure the fragments broke from the larger mass in the desired direction, large grooves were cut into the jade by rubbing sections with an abrasive quartz rich mica schist. Quartz is harder than jade (Quartz 7, Jade 6.5) therefore rubbing slowly wore grooves into the piece of jade.

In the image of the jade boulder above, Maori would rasp grooves on opposing sides of the boulder using the abrasive method. When the grooves were close to meeting in the middle, one side of the boulder would be hit and it would snap down the groove.

2. Shaping the piece of jade

Having snapped off a fragment of jade along the cut groove, Maori craftsmen then had to smooth its surface by rubbing it on a piece of sandstone. Through extremely long periods of rubbing a smooth finish would be achieved. Take a look at the second image above to see what sandstoning can do. Maori would have had a similar process.

3. Drilling holes in the piece of jade

Using the Maori stick sand and water hand drill was the most time consuming part of the Maori carving process. In some instances Maori drills were tipped with stone and used to create the first impression in the piece of jade. In other instances two cuts were made at right angles. Where they met, there was a small depression where the drilling of the hole would begin. Flax rope was almost always wound around the shaft and pulled back and forth to create a fast reciprocal drilling motion.

Modern carving techniques - Diamond tools

Today we use diamond impregnated tools to carve jade. It's far more efficient. Like traditional Maori carving technique's and tools they are all abrasive, however, ours are synthetic and machinated to run over 2500 times faster than hand carving techniques. We are also able to create abrasives with a much harder surface than naturally occurring stones such as quartz which the Maori used. These synthetic diamond tools make modern carving faster and more precise.

Armed with this knowledge it’s easy to see why jade was such a taonga (treasure) to Maori. It was a labour of love.

Further reading: We recommend you purchase 'Pounamu' by Russel Beck if you're interested in learning more about New Zealand pounamu and Maori carving techniques. It's the most complete compendium on New Zealand pounamu to be published.

The header of the article shows  a jade rock which was carved hundreds of years ago with traditional Maori tools. Grooves were rasped on either side of the boulder. When close to meeting, the side of the rock was hit to snap it in half. This is how Maori cut jade boulders.

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