Cork’s history intersects with that of Humanity. It pleased the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians. People who soon discovered the potential of the cork oak bark for a multitude of everyday objects. Cork was used in shoes, buoys and fishing equipment long before Christ was born. It was used to insulate the cells of convents from the cold and humidity. In the 15th and 16th centuries it was used in the ships that led the Portuguese discoverers to discover the New World. Cork has crossed the centuries, highlighting its characteristics, stating its potential, winning ground.
It is one of the raw materials most of note of the 21st century, in the field of new applications. In fashion, sports, transport, construction and decoration, cork continues to amaze. It is in the NASA shuttles and the ESA spacecraft, in top competition kayaks, in tennis and cricket balls, it is part of the special effects of Hollywood movies, in the world’s most expensive whiskey, it is used for international award-winning designer items, and it walks around on the feet of a lot of people.
The first references to cork date from 3000 BC in Egypt and Persia, where it was used in fishing gear. Its unique properties were also known to the Babylonians, Assyrians and Phoenicians. During the classical Greek-Roman period, it was widely used in the construction of floats of various types, honeycombs, soles for shoes, and stoppers. It has been with wine that cork has had its strongest and most significant relationship. Ever since man came to produce and consume wine, cork has been the perfect material to seal the recipients used for its conservation – pitchers, barrels, bottles. The industrial use of cork on a large scale only began to take shape towards the end of the eighteenth century, stimulated by the increasing use of glass recipients in the packaging of wines.
Despite its many different uses, for centuries the most faithful ambassador of cork to the world has been thenatural cork stopper, a seal of exceptional quality that is still today preferred and demanded by the great wine producers. However, throughout History there have been numerous references to this product and its varied applications. In 3000 BC, cork was already being used in fishing tackle in China, Egypt, Babylon and Persia. In Italy remains dating from the 4th century BC have been found that include artefacts such as floats, stoppers for casks, women’s footwear and roofing materials. Also dating from that period is one of the first references to the cork oak, by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus who, in his botanical treatises, referred in wonder to “the ability that this tree has to renew its bark after it has been removed”.
Wine and cork are two products that have long been companions. Proof of this is an amphora from the 1stcentury BC found in Ephesus: it was not only sealed with a cork stopper but also still contained wine. Later, in the 1st century, the Roman naturalist Plínio, in his famous Natural History, makes a new extensive reference to the cork oak tree and he explains that it is considered a symbol of liberty and honour in Greece, which is why priests were the only ones authorised to cut them down. In that work, we can read that cork oaks were consecrated to the god of Olympus, Jupiter, and their leaves and branches were used to crown victorious athletes. In Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by the brutal eruption of Mount Vesuvius, wine amphorae sealed with cork have also been found.
Portugal can be proud to have been a pioneer in environmental legislation, the first agrarian laws protecting cork forests having been enacted in the early 13th century, in 1209. Later, during the Age of Discoveries, the builders of the Portuguese ships and caravels that set sail in search of new worlds used cork oak wood for the parts that were most exposed to inclement weather. They claimed that the “sôvaro”, as it was called then, was the best wood for masts and yards: besides being exceptionally strong, it never rotted.
In the middle of the 16th century, cork is represented in the chapter room window of the Convent of Christ, in Tomar, Portugal, and it is used to line the cells of the Capuchos convent, in Sintra, and the Carmelite convent in Buçaco.
In the 18th century, while in England the physician Robert Hooke obtained the first microscopic images of cork using a microscope that he himself had designed, in France, the monk Dom Pierre Pérignon, treasurer of the Hautvillers Abbey, began to use cork to seal bottles of his famous Dom Pérignonchampagne. A choice which stood the test of time, being adopted in 1729 by Ruinart and in 1743 by Moët et Chandon, and is still used to this day.
However the systematic cultivation of the great cork forests that characterise the Iberian Peninsula and can still be found in Catalonia and Portugal, dates only from 18th century, when the production of cork stoppers became the main objective. This was also when the first studies were made of its chemical composition by the Italian chemist Brugnatelli, and the first compendium on cork oak cultivation (growing trees of the Suberfamily). Azinheiras, Sovereiras e Carvalhos da Província de Além-Tejo, was published in Portugal in 1790 by Joaquim Sequeira.
In the 19th century, France, Italy and Tunisia invested in the systematic planting of cork forests and countries as different as Russia and the United States also started planting cork oaks. It was a century marked by significant developments in the cork stopper industry: in the United Kingdom the first cork stopper manufacturing machine was patented, and auxiliary equipment was invented, such as cork stopper counting and calibrating machines. For the first time, new industrial applications for cork were used, such as simple or white agglomerate for parquet flooring discovered by the Americans. In Reims, France, the first two piece glued natural cork stoppers began to be manufactured.
In the next century, the cork industry in the different cork-producing countries began to invest more in innovation and development, launching various new products onto the market. In 1903, cork stoppers with natural cork discs and a body of agglomerate first appeared. Some years later, patents were registered for the use of cork in transmission belts and tyres and during the Second World War, this material was used in many pieces of military equipment. In the 1950s, an American company produced the first agglomerated cork tiles with a vinyl film covering.
The importance that cork begins to have in Portugal drives the creation in 1956 of the Portuguese Cork Association, but under the name of Regional Guild of the Cork Industry of North Portugal.
In recent decades, various initiatives have emerged aimed at research and the definition of international standards for the cork industry, including the Confédération Européenne du Liège (C.E. Liège), founded in1987. Formed by the cork federations from various countries, this organisation presented the International Code of Cork Stopper Manufacturing Practice, in 1996, a key document for quality control in the production of cork stoppers. This document describes and regulates the corresponding manufacturing processes and is still being permanently revised and updated in accordance with increasingly demanding levels of quality. The launch of that Code was the result of the Quercus Program initiative, a project supported by the Commission of the European Communities and by C.E. Liège, to diagnose and eliminate the causes and components of the detested “taint”.
Finally, all the signs are that in the 21st century, cork will again enjoy the respect and admiration that the Greeks and Romans afforded it as a noble and adaptable material. Not only has the reputation of natural cork stoppers as the quintessential seal remained untouched, but in this century in which environmental concerns have become a constant, the use of an ecological, recyclable and reusable material such as cork has increased, particularly in innovative areas such as Design for Sustainability and Eco-Design. Increasingly, new generations of artists seek to create everyday objects – articles for the table, kitchen, leisure, furniture – from the “fruits of the earth”, materials that are one hundred per cent natural and contribute to environmental sustainability. In Portugal, for example, interest in the potential of cork has grown exponentially.
Recently, the market was surprised with an absolute innovation: a car seat with a base made from cork which halved its volume and made it three times lighter than traditional seats. The extraordinary thing about this invention is that each of these new seats can reduce the weight of a normal car by 45 kilos, thus helping to resolve two of the major problems of the vehicle industry, weight and volume. Made from 60% ground cork, this cushion, besides offering the same comfort with half the volume, has the added benefit of being recyclable. The seat is a national project conceived entirely from Portuguese know-how – design, technical and scientific support –, and although it is still at a prototype stage, it has already captivated Magna, the world leader in automotive parts which has made orders worth more than 300 million euros. Cork does not stop surprising the world. Its properties continue to be explored and there are always new applications that arise in various parts of the planet and that confirm this material is inimitable and able to fascinate professionals from different fields.