Since childhood, Alex Sands, founder of Sands Carving Studio, has been carving Maori designs.
Of Maori descent (Ngati Kahungunu o Te Wairoa) and European descent from England, Scotland and Ireland, Alex’s heritage and life experiences have guided his creativity and his carving passion.
Sands was first inspired by the jade creations of the world and his Maori ancestors, leading to creating his own intricate small pieces with basic tools, files and small chisels.
While at high school, Sands spent three years training the Tongan bone carver Eli Fehoko.
By age eighteen he was studying Whakairo Rakau wood carving at Te Wananga O Aotearoa under tutors Mike Marchitt and Rhys Shaw.
During his wood carving studies, Sands travelled to Tonga to immerse himself in traditional Tongan carving, learning from local carver Steven Fehoko.
During his stay, he created a body of works (a mixture of Maori hand clubs, earrings and pendants) that he was later encouraged to present to Queenstown galleries by his mentor Mike Marchitt.
Carved from mostly whalebone and whale tooth, Sand’s designs were drawn to fit and maximise the shape of the resource, pushing his capacity and expanding his carving abilities.
Completing his studies at twenty-one years of age, Sands then went on to open his workshop studio with his father.
Established in 2016, Sands Carving Studio is the culmination of Sands life passion for Maori carving; sourcing, exploring and creating in the indigenous materials of Aotearoa.
Based from the Hamilton studio, Sands creates pieces that are a reflection of his heart, divine inspiration and that honour Maoridom and ancestral lineage, traditions and values.
Opening his studio, Sands immediately saw potential in the market and that its demands weren’t being met.
Seeing that he needed assistance to produce more Taonga, Alex employed the help of his father and later Mike, his mentor, who stayed on with Sands for over three years.
“Having Mike Matchitt here was great because not only was he a mentor to me, but through his experience and contacts we were able to meet and employ a number of other highly skilled carvers, such as Malcolm Cox who still works here with us today!” says Sands.
Prior to the pandemic, Sands Carving Studio supplied thirty-five retail stores nationwide with Taonga, employing a strong team of nine expert carvers from around the country.
Revenue had tripled in the three years prior to Covid.
With a large percentage of their customers being international tourists, Sands Carving Studio, as many local businesses did, saw an enormous drop in sales (around 95%) since 2020’s first lockdown.
Domestic business however has increased and remains strong, with the local market seeing Sands and his team shifting their efforts to bringing further awareness to the traditional and contemporary art form here in New Zealand.
Opening conversation around the education of appropriately wearing and confidently honouring Maori Taonga and the significant heritage and meanings behind each piece.
While their long-term plans may be taking some twists and turns, adapting to the evolving economic climate, change in tourism and local trade, their fundamental principles remain the same.
“We only use New Zealand natural materials for our Taonga; we reduce waste to a minimum; we take pride in creating the highest quality bespoke and commissioned pieces and our customer service is exemplary,” says Cox.
Alex and his team have seen their creative efforts modified to cater for the increase in domestic market interest, expanding the availability of their Taonga through strengthened e-commerce.
Their most celebrated and desirable pieces include traditional Hei tiki, Mere Pounamu, Whale Bone Taonga, and Taonga Puoro.
Online demand is stronger than ever as New Zealanders continue to embrace sourcing and wearing pieces that reflect their whakapapa, their ancestry.