FOR Portuguese native Paulo Gomez and his wife Marcia, starting a business selling goods made from cork material was a happy accident.
“We were helping a friend from Portugal who was selling these things and I bought a couple for Marcia,” Paulo explains.
“When they arrived, she said, ‘Why don’t we have these in Ireland? They’re beautiful.’ And I said, ‘You know, we could do this’. And that’s how we started, completely by chance.”
Living in Ireland since 2003, and based near Youghal with their seven-year-old son, the couple still hold down other jobs, working opposite shifts to facilitate childcare.
However, they also found time to launch their business Cork Art last May, selling items such as backpacks, handbags, laptop cases, baseball caps, hats, wallets, purses, shoes, sandals, belts, spectacle cases, jewellery, coasters and placemats.
Items made from cork material are common in Portugal but less so here (despite the coincidental name of our city and county!), so a little history lesson from Paulo is useful.
“Portugal is the main exporter of cork in the world. It comes from the cork oak tree which is natural in the Mediterranean area of Spain, southern Portugal and northern Morocco.
“Portugal has an ancient tradition of making corks for wine bottles. But when they used a strip to make the cork for the bottles, the rest was thrown away.
“It takes 25 years for a cork oak tree to develop that skin, ‘the cork itself’, so it’s a long period of time that you have to wait for it to grow. And once you peel it you have to wait nine to ten years to peel it again.
"Even though it is sustainable there is a long period of waiting, so it was hard to see the waste.
"They came up with a technique of using the cork, shredding it and transforming it into cork fabric. And with that, they were able to do pretty much everything.”
He continues: “In Portugal, we do a lot of tiles for houses with cork; we do a lot of wall insulation with cork. So there are a lot of applications for cork.”
Even astronauts will be familiar with the material, as, for example, the space shuttle Columbia’s huge external fuel tank was partly insulated by 497lbs of cork taken from the bark of 225 cork oak trees in Portugal.
“NASA uses cork because it is a very light material,” Paulo explains.
Its lightness, along with its surprising softness, is part of the unique selling point of Cork Art products.
“If you hold a leather bag you feel the weight immediately, even before you put all your stuff in, whereas the cork one is very light”, explains Paulo.
“Also, people assume that it is something that is hard but it’s not. It’s something that is very soft; it’s as soft as leather. And some people don’t like the small of leather but these have no smell whatsoever.”
Paulo is proud to say that their products have Peta approval, are suitable for a vegan lifestyle, and are 100% sustainable and ethical.
Paulo considers himself ‘an ambassador’ rather than a distributor of the gift items. He is finding his new business all consuming, with future plans racing around his head.
“In our mindset it is 24 hours a day. Even when we are sleeping we are thinking about this,” he says.
“ I want to start producing here and I am trying to get the means of producing.
It’s not easy; it won’t be for this year, but I want to get the fabric and make our own line in Ireland, next year hopefully.
“We’d like to add clothes - t-shits, vests, skirts, made from a cork fabric. That’s why I think of this 24 hours a day!” he laughs.
He also thinks the future may bring a rebrand, because, based on the business name, some people are erroneously expecting to find him selling local works of art such as paintings and sculptures.
For the moment, Cork Art products are available online from corkart.ie, while the business is also active on Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok.
The Cork Art team can also be found at various markets in the run-up to Christmas. They are at Fermoy Farmers’ market every second and fourth Saturday of the month and have also started at Midleton Farmers’ Market on Fridays and Saturdays from 9am to 2pm. They’ll also be taking part in the Ballymaloe Craft Fair from November 26 to 28.
And what is proving to be the most popular product?
“Ladies’ wallets,” Paulo says without hesitation. “They fly off the shelf. They are irresistible.”