Background and History of Traditional Zelliges

Background and History of Traditional Zelliges


Back in the 12th century, craftsmen in Andalusia and Morocco developed a new tile decoration technique that was inspired on Byzantine and Persian mosaic patterns. These tiles are named ‘Zelliges’ which is the Arabic word for fired clay. Ever since these polychrome tiles have been used in palaces, mosques, hammams and other public places.

Well known Moorish buildings with zelliges are the Alhambra palace in Granada, the Ibn Youseff in Marrakesh, but also countless madrasas (Koranic schools) in and around Fez, such as the Bouanania, Neijereen and Mesbahia. These buildings are stunning examples of the zellige art in its best form and shape.

Because the Alhambra Palace is about the best known Moorish building in the world, we have named our collection “Alhambra Zelliges”.

From the 14TH century zelliges had become a permanent feature in Moroccan culture. During that period science, art, poetry, business and the construction industry reached great heights of success. Highly educated and skilled Zelliges Masters created with the support of royalty, rich merchants and the elite, a true architectural revolution. Becoming a Zellige Master is not a simple task as it demands at least ten years of intensive training. The tricks of the trade are passed from father to son, boys often starting at an early age and gradually accomplishing the craft over the years. A fully trained Zellige Master is called a Maallem.

The majority of production takes place around Fez, but ateliers are also found in Marrakech, Rabat and Meknes.

The first step in the production process is to blend clay found in Fez with water and mix it as long as is needed to form a fluid and homogenous mass. After that the clay is purified, small pebbles and other contaminating elements removed, to create a smooth paste.

Dedication of the workforce who perform this job is a paramount factor in the final quality of the tile. Once scrupulously cleaned the yield and the quality are high.

The paste is then pressed into small wooden molds, 12x12cm. The tiles are placed in the sun and regularly flipped over to dry equally on both sides. After having lost most of the moisture they are fired for the first time in a traditional kiln, turning the tiles into biscuit. Once the biscuit cools they will be glazed with the required color, either with or without an engobe, and fired for a second time in the artisanal kiln. The kiln has only one fire pit on the bottom. It can become as hot as 800 degrees Celsius, although closer to the fire pit the temperature can increase in intensity. Therefore, it is important to load the kiln in a particular order, since white glazes have a higher melting point than green glazes for example. Thus, the most common loading of the kiln is: white tiles first, then blue, and then yellow, green and red glazed tiles placed higher up. The precise positioning of the tiles is crucial in the development of the final color and bloom. Since each tile cannot occupy an identical place, the resulting effect will be different shades and nuances. When subtly applied these nuances can create a charming wall or floor.

Once the kiln is unloaded the tiles are selected by colour. They then go to the first workstation where an outline of the final shape on the tile is penciled in by a Rasham. Of course economy being key, waste is kept to a minimum.

On to the next workstation and a rough outline of the shape is created with a large, sharp chisel. This is performed by a Nakkash. At the following workstation the form is refined and cut into its actual shape, and this done by a Khalias.

After a final quality control the tiles are passed over to the Zellige Master, the Maallem. He makes a drawing of the final pattern. The tiles are placed upside down. This is to create a flat surface on the glazed side. Since the tile bodies are completely hand formed there are always slight differences in height and by placing the tiles upside down this disadvantage is solved. Last, but not least, the glazed side is inspected and grouted where needed.

The Zellige tradition of the family that owns the atelier who produce our Alhambra range, goes back 700 years. It was officially established in 1928 with only 10 workers. Now 500 workers are employed in 5 ateliers in and around Fez. They not only produce zelliges but also gypsum ceiling ornaments, wood cutting works and furniture too.

Now the Atelier wins prizes every year rewarding them for being one of the best companies in the industry. They have even been rewarded by the King of Morocco for being a model factory in the tile business. For the Tegel BV it is a true honor to have been chosen as their exclusive distributor for the European market.

Zelliges can be used for interiors and exteriors and they are frost resistant to temperatures as low as minus 20 Celsius. They can also withstand temperatures as high as 50 Celsius in blazing sun. Zelliges can be applied to walls and (light traffic) floors. They can be used in showers, saunas and even in fountains and swimming pools.

The special shapes of zelliges are often in small format. For example a popular shape for us is the 5x5cm - there are 400 pieces of 5x5 in a square meter. We can also make a tile as small as 1x1cm and in that case there are 10,000 pieces per square meter. In a normal 10x10 size there are 100 tiles in one square meter.

Heuristically one could say:  1) The smaller the tile, the higher the price;  2) The more complex the shape the higher the price.

Of course a trained tiler can place small tiles as well, but if fixing a large order of these the cost could be sky-high. Selecting for one's dream design might therefore not be an option, resulting in a less costly choice being made. We think this would be a shame, and have found a solution.

We can form panels of 30x30cm. There are 11 panels of 30x30cm in a square meter. The tiler will have placed these in the blink of an eye. Thus, although you have to pay and upcharge for the making of the panels, you will save a considerable amount of money on the placement of the tiles. In the end this method will be far more economical than placing tiles singly. Therefore, the more expensive the tile and the higher the price per square meter, the better the savings.

If you have a large and complex project we can fly in a team of skilled and experienced craftsmen so that your project is completed with splendid results.

Nowadays Zelliges are becoming a vogue in the western world. In the Maghreb the smaller and more complex forms are in demand, whereas in Europe and the Americas 10x10cm forms the bulk of business. Since special shapes contribute to our mission of being the place to come for exclusive handmade materials, we have invested in these and thus are one of the very few suppliers to have a full range in stock. Additionally, we are able to produce just about any shape, in any possible colour, as a bespoke assignment.

The color range of our Alhambra Zellige collection consists of 75 shades. We currently work with 20 different shapes which can be executed in all available colors. Optionally, we can adapt the finish in high gloss, semi-high gloss or matt. Furthermore, we can give a metallic look a translucent or water color effect. The combinations are almost infinite.

We hold considerable stocks of the most commercial items at our distribution center in the Netherlands. Out of stock items can be delivered four to six weeks from an order date. Sending orders either to the dealer, architect or building site is common practice for us.

Taking all the options into consideration, combined with a service-oriented support and sales team, we humbly state that we are one of the leading companies in the hand-made tile industry in Europe.

Next to the zelliges we have a number of other exclusive handmade tiles in our portfolio - 1) a large collection of cement tiles, around 400 different designs, 70 uni colors and 20 different shapes. 2) A unique artisan handmade terracotta collection, including a very seldom found Tuscan black terracotta tile for inside and out. 3) A wide range of Lava stone, either slabs or tiles completely catered to your needs, perfectly suitable for kitchen worktops, garden tables and vanity tops. Delivered in any RAL color available, 4) A high end Terrazzo collection with 16 different structures available in 60 x 60 x 2 cm up to slabs of 120 x 300 x 5 cm. A bespoke structure to match your interior is always possible - 5) A ceramic tile collection in 9 subtle colors in the unusual size of 40 x 10 x 0,8 cm. Perfect for bathrooms, kitchen backsplashes or toilets.

Our Company employs native speakers of Dutch, English, German, French and Italian. Do not hesitate to contact us, whatever the size your project might be. We are here to help you find the perfect solution, on time, on budget, and last but not least, to your fullest satisfaction.

Background and History of Traditional Zelliges
Background and History of Traditional Zelliges
Background and History of Traditional Zelliges
Background and History of Traditional Zelliges
Background and History of Traditional Zelliges