The meanings of Pounamu

Carved Greenstone pendant and necklace designs are steeped in religious and spiritual belief. For Maori they tell stories of their ancestors long lost as well as depicting spirits from the heavens, earth and the underworld. They can show historical lineage and represent the natural world that surrounds and surrounded them. The ancestral, historical and cultural significance of these beautiful items is vastly important so it is important to understand the beliefs associated with each design. Before buying a piece of pounamu jewellery we advise that you check out our guide to understanding what each symbol means:

The toki, or adze, was originally designed as a practical tool, most commonly used in axes and as a ceremonial talisman made exclusively for chiefs and warriors, who wielded the toki when speaking to assert their dominance and show their social importance. It is one of the oldest designs and was designed before Europeans colonised New Zealand, thus predating the 18th century. Due to the practical origins of this design, it has grown to represent strength and courage in the wearer.

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. The design represents new life and growth and is said to depict an unfurling silver fern frond. 

Like the koru, the manaia design is a relatively modern design to be carved in greenstone and is said to represent the messenger between gods and mortals. It is commonly carved as the head of a bird, the body of a man, and the tail of a fish. Manaia pounami are said to illustrate significant spiritual power and act as guides for the human spirit so it may reach heaven.

Heart designs are the most historically recent and became popular after New Zealand was colonised. Similarly to the connotations of hearts in western culture, these designs are meant to represent love, unity, and togetherness.

Another modern design is the twist, which symbolises life’s eternal emerging paths. Consisting of a single, double or triple twist, the two arms can often represent love, loyalty and friendship between people.

The hei matau, or fish hook, has been popular since pre-colonial times and signifies respect for the ocean as historically Maori people lived and depended on fisheries, the sea and the ocean to travel build and gather resources the symbol is also associated with Tangaroa, god of the sea. Designs range from the ultra-realistic through to more conceptual styles, wearing one supposedly brings good fortune when travelling across oceans.

Some say that they represent the human embryo or the Maori god Tiki, who in Maori mythology was responsible for the creation of life. 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 descendants or loved ones of the deceased; this was said to increase the mana (prestige) and spiritual value of the hei tiki.