by Emmi Micallef
February 25, 2021
As the world is busy, busy, busy - time slows down when entering a factory in Fes, Morocco. To witness the tradition of fabricating hand cut Zellige, one feels the precision in the air and the historic reverence of the craft. The smell is distinct of earth, clay and smoke, the clay dust is underfoot, the kilns looming large, roar with an intensity of flame, that jets out underneath a dance of fire, wood shavings and finely ground olive pits.
The abundant Miocene hard, gray clay deposits in Fes have been a gift to this craft, centuries old, dating back to the 10th century. Zellige tile making is a tradition that is revered and a process that requires many skilled hands. Importing directly from Fes, Morocco, Zellige Tiles require relationships made of trust and time. Cultural differences need to be respected. François understands these nuances and has established the bond necessary to bring Historic Decorative Materials our own hand cut authentic Moroccan Zellige Tile. As a direct importer of Zellige, the quality control is thorough and highly skilled artisans hand craft our Zellige following classical traditions from centuries ago.
This authenticity requires three necessities: the Miocene gray clay from Fes, Morocco, the intense sun from Fes, Morocco and an army of highly skilled and incredibly patient artisans following the classical Moroccan art of Zellige tile making.
There are tile manufacturers on the market that believe they too, can reproduce a Zellige tile - but in truth, it's a "Zellige" tile - not authentically Zellige and an informed eye can spot the difference. An authentic Zellige tile captures the eye and holds it there. The combination of the reflective thick glaze, the color variations, the hand cut chiseled edge, the tight grout lines, the high and low edges, the imperfections done with purpose...this is true Zellige.
Any given day at the factory - Fes, Morocco - My senses do not believe I am in the 21st Century
On a busy day, one is lucky enough to bare witness to the multitude of steps needed to produce authentic Zellige tile. The factory is sprawling; there are vast, open areas for tiles to be dried under the hot Moroccan sun, there are various long, open air wooden structures that provide shade for artisans who hand cut, glaze and chisel Zellige, there are nearly 6-foot high kilns, hand made from terra cotta clay, where fires are stoked and watched carefully. At the furthest point of the factory behind the structures, there are piles of irregular shapes of hard, gray Miocene clay, transported from the numerous clay deposits in and around Fes, Morocco. One would think they were merely rocks. There are large vats lined up along the outside wall where the hard clay is soaked in water to become buttery soft and malleable.
And the process begins...or has never stopped since the 10th century
It begins after the revered Miocene clay becomes pliable. First, artisans scoop the heavy, slick clay from the vessels into buckets where they hand filter impurities. The purified and kneaded clay is then manually transported in buckets to one of several open areas of the factory. This begins the first shaping and first of two drying times under the scorching heat of the sun.
Using metal molds that are two rectangles side-by-side, an artisan slaps and smooths with his fingers the clay into the molds. Quickly releasing the molds, he repeats this process, crouching on his knees until the vast open space is filled with rows and rows of wet, rectangular shaped terra cotta clay tiles. They are left to dry.
After a few days times, these dried tiles are transported to an artisan in one of the open air wooden structures. This artisan will transform the rectangle tile into a square tile by pounding, smoothing and hand cutting the tile using ancient, metal tools devised centuries ago. The now square smooth tiles are transported into another open air arena, meticulously hand laid by another artisan and left a second time to dry.
After this second shaping and second drying time, the tiles are amassed and carried back into another area of these long wooden structures. Here, seated artisans hand dip each tile in buckets before them into viscous glaze. Their movements are fast and exacting, leaving behind a smooth layer of thick glaze covering each tile. These glazed tiles dry quickly, allowing the second artisan to stack them into perfect vertical towers of about 24 tiles high.
These small towers of freshly glazed tiles are now carried by hand outside of the kilns. With skill and dexterity, a craftsman enters the vast kiln and quickly begins to side-stack the tiles into a beautiful geometric pattern, not dissimilar to a honey comb, but instead of the classic octagonal shape, they are triangular ones.
After the kiln has been fully stacked, the fire underneath the kiln is stoked with finely ground olive pits and wood shavings. It's a constant vigilance and with skilled training, the artisan will know when to stoke the flames to become hotter or less hot - between 1,830-2,190°F. This is done with intent, for a varied heat source means exquisite color variations after the firing. Therefore, for example, the famous Blanc de Fez white will be a palette of whites as spectacular as Farrow & Ball's palette of whites. It reads historic. It feels old.
The firing is now finished and soon mounds of rich, reflective colored tiles find there way into yet another area of an open air structure. One would think the process has been nearly completed. But it's just the beginning.
The Maâlems are the master craftsmen. They are not artisans - they are classically trained artists that have learned their skills from a lifetime of craft. This is the classical art of hand cut Zellige - passed down from generation-to-generation. The Maâlems develop exceptional skills in patience, precision, mathematics and geometry, and the square glazed tiles before them are merely their canvas upon which they will work.
It Takes Three
Zellige is a word that comprises the entire range of glazed terra cotta tile shapes, from familiar 4" x 4" squares to minute octagons, cabochons, trapezoids, triangles, hexagons, circles and stars. A word more familiar to us would be mosaics. It takes three Maâlems - or Master Craftsmen to transform glazed square terra cotta tiles into a dizzying array of hand cut Zellige shapes. The first Maâlem selects the tile upon which he draws the desired shape(s), before passing it to the second Maâlem. The second Master Craftsman roughly chisels out each form using a medieval tool called a Menkach. This sharp, ancient tool is a combination of an axe and a hammer that the Maâlem constantly sharpen on natural rock beside him. Finally, the most important part of this process is the third Maâlem, who hand cuts the excess clay and finalizes each piece with precision cutting. The results are breathtaking and the patterns are limitless.
L'Art de Fez Authentic Hand Cut Moroccan Zellige Tile
François and I have brought to our collections Zellige for one reason - the same reason behind any of our other collections we offer - it's historic authenticity. We are a niche business that diversifies our tile, wood and stone materials - yet they all must sing the same song. This song is one of ancient hand craftsmanship where aged or antique materials exist under the umbrella of "lives lived before us". All our materials can be imagined and viewed throughout centuries and cultures of historic interior design. Marrying reclaimed French oak floors with antique Belgian bluestone or Delft tiles with French reclaimed terra cotta tiles prove that beauty knows no cultural bounds when it comes to historic materials.
However - Zellige, being a part of the world outside of Western Europe, has nearly a mythical quality to it. The process of making reclaimed hand made terra cotta tiles 200 years ago, whether they be from France, Italy or Spain - all have the same process as the Zellige to a point. That point is an abrupt left turn when the Maâlem step in, carrying on a classical tradition centuries old. Simply put, our Western cultures are nascent.
It is no wonder that the use of Zellige - new tiles that look authentically antique, not only co-exist easily with reclaimed Western European tile, wood and stone - they enhance them. From a Western European or American interior design perspective, Zellige is embraced. In fact, Zellige is the ultimate team player. Have you ever pondered a Belgian farmhouse kitchen with sparkling Zellige on the backsplash? Or a Shaker English kitchen + Zellige? Or a California Boho interior + Zellige? Or a French pied-à-terre + Zellige?
Why does Zellige work with so many interiors? Aside from it's reclaimed authenticity, I feel Zellige adds the right contrast to other materials and contrast equals beauty in nature, in fine art and interior design. Spatially, Zellige tiles read pattern of small squares of sparkling color and light. When combined with opaque surfaces that are muted in tone - like wood or stone - it sets up an unequaled tension of beauty. It's the contrast of scale, the contrast of textures, the contrast of subtle color nuances with overall one color palette. It is glorious as a team player. Zellige can enhance a small backsplash to entire bathroom walls. It only takes center stage if you give it the stage. If not - it's that quiet, intriguing party guest that makes everyone else feel special.
I hope you enjoyed my walk through our Zellige Moroccan tile factory. I hope when you hold an authentic Zellige in your hand and view a Zellige installation - you will have a new appreciation of this ancient skill stemming back from the 10th century. Zellige will forever be a classic building material at Historic Decorative Materials. It's the compliment in texture, color and contrast to our reclaimed tile, wood and stone materials and has the mystical ability to make so many interior designs shine.
To view our collection, specs, pricing and to purchase our L'Art de Fez Authentic Hand Cut Moroccan Zellige Tile, click here.
Thank you for your time,
Historic Decorative Materials, a Division of Pavé Tile, Wood & Stone, Inc.
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