The Nephrite Age

Society has come so far in its ability to exploit the resources of the world, from the Stone Age, through Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial, Atomic, and the grey area we currently find ourselves as a combination of nuclear, post-nuclear, cybernetic, bio-engineering ages. Perhaps it is time for woodworkers to avoid the confusion of the modern era, and return to a modern version of the Neolithic era.

Nephrite, one of the two forms of Jade, is commonly called greenstone or pounamu in Māori, and the South Island is also called Te Wai Pounamu, or The (land of) Greenstone Water. The pre-European Māori were in a Neolithic Age, having not utilised metal, and perhaps the abundance of Greenstone went a way to explain why this was the case, and for the same reason why modern woodworkers might be keen to usher in a new Neolithic era: the Nephrite Age.

Nephrite is not a particularly hard jemstone- on the Mohs scale, where diamond ranks top at a 10 for hardness, and most jems rank over 7, Nephrite scores between 5.8 and 6.5 (where Jadeite, another form of Jade scores between 6.2 and 6.7). However, on the same scale copper only scores 3, iron 4 and steel 4-4.5. (Hardened steel manages 7.5-8) So the incentive to migrate into a copper, then iron age just isn’t there as much.

Nephrite can withstand almost 8 tonnes/square cm before fracturing, and although reasonably hard, can still be ground to a required shape by other rocks, or more modern methods obviously.

One researcher put this to the test, and duplicated some common metal components in Nephrite to see how they’d function compared to their metal counterparts.

A spokeshave worked equally as well as metal, a drill bit cut holes in wood and aluminium easily. He created a Nephrite cold chisel and used it to shear a 1mm steel plate, and open a metal drum. Nails made from Nephrite worked well, and they didn’t bend (although I imagine that instead of bending you’d find yourself with a lot of jade shrapnel instead if you did miss-hit!)

So could you imagine having a set of Nephrite tools?


I canonly imagine how awesome a set of chisels would look, or perhaps a smoothing plane such as the one by HNT Gordon made entirely in Greenstone, including the blade.


Just how cool would that be?!!!!!!!

Aotearoa Pounamu

It is sometimes hard to find the perfect souvenir, especially from a place that was once also home.  I was looking for something particularly meaningful, a bit of a statement of my past. I already have a bone fishhook – a very traditional symbol representing the hook used by Maui when he hooked and pulled Aotearoa from the sea.  Hei Matua (the fishing hook) represents strength & determination, and safe passage over water.

Polynesian Sailing Canoe at Auckland Museum

I wanted to add to this something carved from Greenstone (also known as Jade). With such a flood of cheap Chinese knockoffs, and non-New Zealand Jade being sold as if it was genuine, I tried hard to identify something locally crafted, from genuine New Zealand stone. As a woodworker, there was an extra layer of meaning in the piece I chose – a traditional adze-head form. Greenstone is Pounamu in the native tongue (an official language in New Zealand).

It is said that each piece absorbs the mana (the spirit) of the individual, and the stone forever yearns for its source- Aotearoa, and a promise that those whole leave the shores will one day return. (Added importance therefore of getting New Zealand stone, and not some Chinese knockoff.  To be fair, Canada is also a source of quality Jade, and a lot of that is also sold in New Zealand.  Look for “New Zealand Nephrite Jade”.  If it just says “Nephrite Jade” it is likely British Colombian.  If it doesn’t have that, it is likely to be Chinese. You have to ask if it is not clear.  Not that Chinese jade is necessarily of lesser quality, but I have a problem with the concept that I am trying to buy something authentic- hand crafted/carved Aotearoa Pounamu (New Zealand Greenstone), and don’t want some cheap crap machine manufactured, potentially inferior quality jade that may or may not be chemically treated so it looks better than it is.)

Greenstone is a traditional material chosen primarily for its ornamental properties. It was used as a practical material although was often reserved for obsidian- a volcanic glass. Very hard, and being glass, can be chipped to form an extremely sharp working edge.

Adze Heads at Auckland Museum

I must admit to being very disappointed (but I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised) when I discovered that there was so much foreign jade imported, and shaped offshore into traditional designs.  Why there isn’t a ban on the importation of it is rather confusing. Is the pursuit of the almighty dollar more important than heritage? One major reseller of jade in Rotorua looked as if almost 3/4 of their stock was foreign materials and/or foreign shaped & carved.

Something to be aware of, if shopping for a memento, and wanted something traditional. Not everything green is (NZ) stone.

Aotearoa Pounamu

Other than the bone fish hook (Hei Matua) that I already had, the Adze head piece was the one that I added this time.  Known as Toki, it was originally a carving tool that became ceremonial, inherited Taonga (treasure), which symbolises strength and courage.

The final piece was one my wife got, which incorporates the Koru, which is the unfurling fern frond and depicts new beginnings and growth.  Both jade pieces were carved by a young Rotorua carver Scott Parker.

Silver Fern Frond

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