Maori customary adornment

Traditionally, Maori made and wore items of jewellery that decorated the head, ears, neck, and breast. The most frequently used materials were pounamu (greenstone), whale ivory, and whale bone.

Heru (carved combs) were worn in the hair. Ear pendants included kuru, kapeu, and whakakaipiko, which were made from ivory, nephrite, and bone. Albatross feathers could also be worn suspended from the ear, as could a single mako (shark’s tooth). Some ear pendants could be worn around the neck as well. However, the main types of breast pendant were hei tiki, hei matau, pekapeka, koropepe, manaia, marakihau, rei puta, and kaka poria.

The most highly prized item of adornment was the hei tiki. Both sexes could wear it. It was usually made from pounamu, and was hung around the neck on a cord made of harakeke (flax).

The word ‘Hei’ means to suspend something with a cord. And tiki is the ancestor of all humans. It’s generally believed that he is the personification of the male organ. However, tiki is also sometimes said to be a human embryo, and to be a type of fertility symbol.

Hei tiki are given proper names which refer to historic events. They are passed down through families, and carry the mana (prestige) of important ancestors. The older a hei tiki is, and the longer it is owned by a family or by different individuals, the more mana it gathers. Because of this, an heirloom tiki may have more mana than any living member of a tribe.

Generally, fine adornments signified rank. The theft or wrongful use of such taonga (treasured objects) occasionally led to intertribal warfare.(1) People could also lose all of their possessions including taonga through the custom of muru. Muru allowed the families of victims of a crime to exact revenge by destroying the property, buildings, and cultivations of the guilty.

When Pakeha began arriving in New Zealand in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Maori jewellers incorporated the new settlers’ materials – beads, fragments of crockery, pigs’ teeth, and glass – into their work.

Today, contemporary Maori jewellery makers such as Areta Wilkinson and Gina Matchitt are branching out from customary forms and making works that continue to express a Maori world view, but through new styles as well as new materials.


1.White, John. (1888). Ancient History of the Maori Vol. IV. Wellington: New Zealand Government Printer. Reprint Christchurch: Kiwi Publishers, facsimile edition, 1997, p. 80.

More information

The following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre, Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.

  • Barrow, Terrence (1978). Maori Art of New Zealand. Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed.
  • Mead, Sydney Moko (1986). Te Toi Whakairo: The Art of Maori Carving. Auckland: Reed Methuen.
  • Neich, Roger (2001). Carved Histories. Auckland University Press.
  • Simmons, David (1985). Whakairo Maori Tribal Art. Auckland: Oxford University Press.


Portrait of a Young Maori Woman with Moko, 1891
by Louis J Steele
oil on canvas
Purchased 1995 with Ellen Eames Collection funds
Neg No: B.038097 © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
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