A Brief History of Zellige Tiles
Zellige (also spelled zellij or zillij and pronounced “zee-LEEJE “) tile is a glossy striking Moroccan tile that has become very trendy in recent years. There are few tiles with as much history and influence as the Moroccan zellige tiles. These shimmery hand-made tiles have been around for thousands of years. Fragments of Zellige tiles have been discovered in Tunisia, possibly dating from the mid-10th to the mid-11th centuries, suggesting the technique may have originated in the western Islamic world in that period.
Zellige-making is considered an art itself, with master artisans passing the skill from generation to generation. Zellige tile training usually begins in childhood, with an average zellige apprenticeship lasting ten years! The tiles are made meticulously by hand, crafted from unrefined clay found in Fez, Morocco. The artisans press the clay mixture into a square grid and let it dry out. Using a shaping block and hammer, they smooth the tiles and cut them into precise shapes and sizes. They apply enamel glazing by hand and only to the front of the tiles.
Zellige Factory in Fex, Morocco
What Makes Authentic Zellige Tiles Tricky For Commercial Spaces
Authentic zellige tiles from Morocco are stunning, but the tiles can be impractical, especially for commercial spaces. Zellige tiles are beautiful because they are hand-cut, but it’s the hand-cut charm that makes it quite challenging to get a flat, even surface with these tiles— some of the edges will protrude rather than lay flush, making the surface difficult to clean. The tiles’ edges are also quite sharp, so the unevenness can cause them to snag things like fabrics or skin when wiping the tiles down.
There’s another installation issue that can be a hurdle, and that’s the grout. All the zellige installation guides instruct not to use a grout joint. The tiles should be butt jointed, with no spacers, right up next to each other. Ideally, there should be no space between the tiles and no visible grout. Getting invisible or nearly invisible grout joints with these irregular tiles requires a skilled installer with specific experience installing zellige tiles. These installation issues can create substantial labor costs.
With inflation looming over every project lately, material costs are a big consideration. Because zellige tiles are one of Morocco’s most valued and recognizable art forms, they are not inexpensive. Adding even more to the cost, specifiers may want to increase a zellige tile order by 20-25 percent because a number of tiles will have imperfections, ranging from hairline cracks and edge chips to pits and chips throughout the glaze.
For a commercial application, and especially if the glazed tiles will be exposed to moisture, it’s best to seal the tiles to protect the grout and any cracks, crazing, or pits. The tiles will likely need resealing periodically as well.
Getting the Look of Zellige Tiles Without the Problems
Fortunately, ceramic zellige-look tiles are an excellent alternative for getting the amazing look of handmade Zellige tiles without the installation hurdles and higher costs. Our Zellige wall tile offers the look of the timeless handmade tiles at a fraction of the cost. Standard installation procedures apply, so it’s not necessary to hire a zellige expert to install them. These zellige-look ceramic tiles do not require sealing, and clean-up and maintenance are a breeze.
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Photo Credit: Dan Lundberg, Zellige factory-24116015119, CC BY-SA 2.0