In 1769, during Captain James Cook’s historic circumnavigation of New Zealand, the explorer picked up a small but precious gift: a tiki pendant carved by the Maori from a hard, green stone called pounamu. Cook may have been among the first visitors to bring home the valuable jade (his piece wound up in the Royal Collection Trust), but he wasn’t the last; pounamu remains a sought-after keepsake to this day.
Gemologically, pounamu refers to several varieties of nephrite jade and bowenite—each characterized by varying patterns and opacities of green and yellow—that are found in the South Island’s West Coast waterways. Long revered by the Maori, the stone is believed to be imbued with mana (status) and life force and is therefore tapu (sacred). Popular designs include the spiraling koru, which recalls the unfurling of a young fern, and the manaia, a mythological protector whose three fingers represent birth, life, and death (pictured above, $265).
For pounamu to be considered authentic, it must come from the South Island’s Ngai Tahu tribe, which sells raw stone to only 84 licensed artisans. Those craftspeople, in turn, include an eight-digit traceability barcode with their finished carvings to assure purchasers of the provenance. When you get home with your mementos, you can enter the codes online to authenticate the origin, meaning, and history (whakapapa) of each individual piece.