What does it take to shape such an important part of New Zealand’s culture? We sit down with local carver Luke Leaf to find out...

Many of those who flooded into New Zealand a few centuries ago had their eyes glued to the ground, hunting for that flicker of natural rock that would earn them mana (status) in their home country. Much to the surprise of the local Maori, they searched for gold, not greenstone.

Greenstone, or Pounamu, has been an integral part to the people whose lives depended on it for tools, religion and art. Stronger than steel, Pounamu dances over every shade of the green-to-white spectrum, and its cultural significance cannot be underestimated. 

So how does it feel to shape such an important part of the country’s history with your own hands? We ask Luke Leaf, a Queenstown jade-carver, who grew up hunting the beaches for jade with his friends from the Ngai Tahu tribe.

How did you get into jade carving?

I was born on the west coast, where you can either become a dairy farmer, a fisherman or a greenstone carver. Fortunately, I was always quite creative! 

When I was 16 I did some work experience in a greenstone factory in Hokitika, which is the South Island’s hub for Pounamu, and it grew from there. 

How long have you been in Queenstown?

I moved here in 2000, and have been carving greenstone ever since. My workshop is in Frankton, but I sell to galleries around New Zealand and do commissioned pieces.

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What inspires you?

The dreaded question! I guess from traditional designs, the natural elements - everything from nature and organic forms to nicely designed objects. 

I find carving very therapeutic and meditative. At the start of the day you have an idea, and by the end, you have the physical product in your hands - the process is fascinating.

How long does it take to make a piece of jewellery?

It took me about four hours to first do a basic pendant, but now it’s about an hour. Sculptures can sometimes take weeks. I do all the bindings myself using traditional flax or waxed nylon - which is super strong so works great.

Where do you get your greenstone from?

I get all my stone from friends from the Ngai Tahu tribe, they’re the legal kaitiaki of New Zealand greenstone since 1997 and pretty much the only source for authentic Pounamu.

What’s on the horizon?

As well as jade-carving, I’ll be launching my new Raw Empire wallets soon, made with real leather and hand-finished with silver I’ve moulded. 

Luke Leaf’s designs can be seen at Queenstown’s KAPA design store, in Queenstown Airport, and featured on the Silvermoon online shop.

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