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What is Gutta-Percha?

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  • Written By: Karyn Maier
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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Gutta-percha ( Palaquium gutta) is a fruit-bearing tree belonging to the Sapotaceae family that shares its genus with more than 100 other members. Found scattered throughout Southeast Asia, this tropical botanical received its name from the Malaysian word for getah perca, which loosely means “rubber.” This was a reasonable nomination since the sap of the tree yields a naturally occurring latex that had been put to use by native residents for hundreds of years before being “discovered” by the British in the mid-1800s. Since that time, however, gutta-percha has been part of an equally long and fascinating history.

Initially, gutta-percha was an attractive alternative to the latex obtained from the rubber tree of the same region, otherwise known as unvulcanized rubber. This was due to the fact that the latter was prone to becoming brittle since it was susceptible to ozone cracking because of its double bonded molecular structure. In contrast, gutta-percha exhibited thermoplastic properties, which meant that it was much more stable and could be reshaped when heated. This property led to the development and improvement of numerous 19th century products, and even a few famous firsts.

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For example, gutta-percha resin replaced the rubber used to insulate telegraph cables, including those that draped the floor of the Atlantic Ocean to enable the infamous transatlantic telegraph communication between Queen Victoria and U.S. President James Buchanan. The same material was used to produce daguerreotype and tintype cases and to make jewelry, such as decorative hairpieces and combs. Of particular note was the use of gutta-percha to embed the hair of a lost loved one into pearl, enamel, and other materials to create “mourning” jewelry to honor their memory. Some of these pieces have survived and are of considerable value today.

Even the furniture industry of the 19th century took notice of the exceptional properties of this material. In fact, The Gutta-Percha Company quickly seized the opportunity to make chess sets, figurines, and tea trays from the substance of the same name. However, they also began producing molded mirror frames, sideboards, chairs, and sofas that rivaled the elaborate detail found in pieces hand carved from wood. This was a far leap from the traditional furniture-making standards of the time.

Many of these trinkets and furnishings of the past live on in museums or in private collections. However, examples of gutta-percha handiwork can also be found by looking in the mirror and saying “aah”—that is, for those who have endured a root canal. That’s because the stuff is mixed with other resins and zinc oxide and used to fill up the void left in the tooth after it’s been drilled out. This practice, which also began shortly after Britain introduced gutta-percha to the world, continues today. In fact, Brazilian gutta-percha farmers harvest the resin for this purpose, which earns approximately $30,000,000 US dollars from the U.S. each year.

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