Although Limelight is only the second exhibition for greenstone carver Joe Sheehan, he has an impressive background working with nephrite.

Since completing a contemporary jewellery degree at Unitec in the mid-90s, Sheehan has visited nephrite deposits throughout the world.

His jade carving dates back to his childhood, although other things dominated when he was doing his degree.

"I did more jewellery stuff then," he says. "No stone, even ... just kind of getting some metal skills down. And there was a big conceptual component with what Pauline Bern was teaching and that was fantastic."

That conceptual background is evident in this show, which uses materials and forms from around the world to address the way in which jade's cultural associations are marketed by tourist stores.

"The thing for me with using foreign stone was that there is a completely natural response to it in the assumption that it's pounamu," he says. "I didn't want to deceive people. I don't like that deception and that's something that gets kicked around within tourism.

"The Russian dolls [in the exhibition] do it as well. They play on a particularly New Zealand reading. They are beautiful stone but there is something kind of edgy about the fact that you read them as tiki when they're Russian dolls."

Sheehan frequently refers to his father, John Sheehan, who is also a carver and owns jade stores in Rotorua and Queenstown, in which both Sheehan and his brother have worked. As well as instilling Joe with an enthusiasm for carving stone, John also introduced his son to jeweller Warwick Freeman, who inspired Joe to study jewellery.

After leaving Unitec, Joe worked for a friend of his father in what had been an asbestos mine in Cassiar, Canada. He was paid in stone. "I got close to 100kg of stone for my work up there," Joe says.

His job was to prospect and he used a spray-can to mark any jade he found.

On returning to New Zealand, Sheehan - who says his cultural heritage roots are a Pakeha mix - joined the carving team at his father's Rotorua shop.

"A couple of times he sent me over to the far outreaches of the world and I went to see some jade deposits and brought back some samples.

"In Russia I think I was the first non-Russian to go into the Sayan Mountains by Lake Baikal, near Irkustsk, which is the back of beyond."

Sheehan works alone in a converted coalshed at the back of his Brooklyn, Wellington, home where he lives with his wife and two children.

Last year he had his first solo show at the Wellington gallery Avid, using circular jade samples.

"It's a symbol of industrial processing and a tourist thing," he says. "I just wanted to use it ... and try to get something happening that wasn't going to be read as specifically Maori."

Industrial techniques also play a major role in Limelight, which includes carved Bic pens, sunglasses and a necklace made from precision-cut disks of Russian nephrite. The necklace is an anchor-piece in the exhibition "because it's really in tune with how the stone is worked today", he says of the contemporary tools that are often used to mimic pre-industrial techniques.

"The thing that weirds me out a little bit about the work you see around is that it all still sort of looks like it has been scratched away on the edge of a river with a bit of sandstone. I wanted to make something that reflected my workshop, which is essentially a modern place full of powertools and high-speed machinery."

Sheehan is concerned that most jade carving is produced for the tourist industry in a way that limits its potential as art.

"The trick for me was to try to get it out of a commercial endgame. There is some amazing work being made but a lot of it is being drawn into tourist shops ... it doesn't really tell you the story about the maker or the work or the current environment it's been made in.

"It's a pretty rich culture in ancient terms and in contemporary terms. There have been some fantastic exponents of greenstone carving and I just want to extend that."

*What: Limelight, by Joe Sheehan
*Where and when: Objectspace, 8 Ponsonby Rd, to Sep 17