is zellige right for you? the top 10 things to know about zellige and more

by clé tile | published: Apr 24, 2021

1. Firstly, how to pronounce zellige?

It’s easy. It rhymes with prestige: ‘zellij’.

2. We love zellige, but it isn’t right for every design.

You’re thinking of buying zellige. You’ve seen the beautifully installed images from Studio McGee and Becki Owens and you are smitten. You are the sort of person who prefers cotton and linen over silk — you prefer your jeans worn and torn vs new and dark blue, you prefer patina over brand-new.

Then you place your order and when you open your boxes you see hand hewn tiles packed with orange wood shavings, revealing tiles that may have pits, chips and cracks as well as glaze and shade variation. Rest assured, this is authentic zellige.

Looking down at polka dot shoes on a teal cement tile floor.
Looking down at polka dot shoes on a teal cement tile floor.

Unlike tiles stamped by machines and formed via mass production (what you’ll often find in big box stores or at local dealers) these tiles show the journey of their craft — they bear signs of their authenticity.

In fact, it’s this authenticity — these “imperfections” and variations — that people are responding to when they see zellige in magazines and instagram feeds. And it’s exactly why we love our authentic zellige.

That said, this may not be what your design calls for. If, for example, your design may call for something more uniform in color and surface, authentic zellige may not be for you. We offer many other alternatives that are no less beautiful but offer more uniformity, such as Eastern Elements Mochi or Fornace Brioni x clé’s Casale Rustico. (See, for example, this post comparing our various artisan white tiles.)

Looking down at polka dot shoes on a teal cement tile floor.
Looking down at polka dot shoes on a teal cement tile floor.

3. It’s the real deal. We sell authentic zellige, made the traditional way.

Here’s what you need to know before deciding whether zellige is the tile for you. Zellige is a glazed terracotta tile handmade in Morocco. This is an ancient traditional tile, and we have gone to great lengths to find a studio in the exact location where the tradition began. In fact, we use the original source for zellige clay in Fez. Once this clay is dug up, it is molded into blocks, cured in the sun, then hand cut into tiles before being hand glazed then fired in ancient bee-hive kilns, fueled by olive branches.

What does this mean? The result of this primitive firing means that each tile will typically have pits and chips on the surface from olive pits exploding in the kiln to the occasional minerals in the unfiltered clay contracting after firing then popping through the glazed surface. This is how zellige has been created for centuries. This is what we mean by authentic.

Minton encaustic tiles in the US Capitol Building

4. Expect Color Variation and some iron spots

With the exception of our natural zellige, each tile is hand dipped in a glaze before being fired, which means there will be variation between tiles. In some cases, the glaze will be thick and in others, you may see the terracotta through the thin layer of the glaze. In some rare cases there will be little variation depending on how the artisan glazed the tile. In addition, the process of firing in a wood-fired kiln means that depending on where the tiles are placed in the kiln, the zellige glaze colors will vary from tile to tile, some more than others. These variations result from our commitment to the use of ancient glaze production methods and the use of raw materials.

Please also refer to the color variation key on the product page which will show how much variation to expect with each glaze. Blending is important with all tiles but especially so when there is a lot of color variation. In addition please ensure to order enough tile as it is highly unlikely any add-on order will match your initial order.

5. Expect crazing

Crazing refers to the hairline cracks which may occur in the glaze surface of zellige after firing and is common in handcrafted tile. To minimize the possibility of the tile becoming stained when grout is applied, clé recommends using a penetrating sealer or grout release. Before applying, always test a small section following the sealer/release manufacturer’s instructions. Please note for unglazed zellige - referred to as the color “natural” — this will require the same sealant methods as our standard unglazed tile sealing.

And there’s more...

Minton encaustic tiles in the US Capitol Building

6. Expect uneven edges

The next stage is probably the most difficult part of the zellige craft process — the art of chiseling the tile to size — by hand. Each tile is hand chiseled at an angle to create a chamfered edge which means the edges are uneven and irregular. This is a tradition that has been handed down through generations.

Minton encaustic tiles in the US Capitol Building

7. Expect Size Variation

As mentioned, all zellige tiles are hand crafted and hand chiseled to size. This creates obvious size variation in width and length which is part of zellige’s charm. Also please anticipate size variation in depth for both standard zellige (3/8") and bejmat (3/4") due to shrinkage in the clay in the firing process.

Minton encaustic tiles in the US Capitol Building

8. The mark of the artisan.

Blue (or other color) markings on your tile? Worry not. These are the ink markings used in the chiseling process and are easily wiped off with a damp cloth.

Minton encaustic tiles in the US Capitol Building

9. Learn how to blend

Blend, Blend, Blend. Please DO NOT install straight from the box. Zellige from several different boxes should be mixed before installation to achieve the best overall blend of color and surface characteristics. Just as important when ordering tile is to make sure to add enough overage as add-on orders will invariably be from a different batch and matching batches is an impossible feat with zellige.

10. Consider the impact of lighting

As with other tiles, but even more importantly with zellige, consider the lighting and the surrounding area in your zellige selection. Zellige tile, especially lighter colors, will look different under different lighting. Natural lighting versus indoor lighting will change the look of your zellige and the surrounding walls, furniture and amount of lighting available will change how zellige looks. We strongly recommend sampling several pieces of tile of your desired color and then placing the tile both outdoors in natural lighting and comparing it to the look of the tile in the area you wish to install.

Below are two photos of the exact same tiles, one outdoors in natural lighting and the other inside under artificial lighting, the difference can be stunning.

Looking down at polka dot shoes on a teal cement tile floor.

a. Tempered Steel Zellige Color in Natural Lighting

Looking down at polka dot shoes on a teal cement tile floor.

b. Tempered Steel Zellige Color in Artificial Lighting and Darker Surrounding

We really want you to be happy with your tile, so if any of the above gives you pause for thought then you may want to reassess if zellige is right for you — or consider zellige tile look-alikes.

As a company that embraces authenticity and is committed to keeping handcrafted traditions alive, we want customers to cherish zellige as much as we do–and that means knowing exactly what to expect and how to work with all the character-ful characteristics of authentic zellige.