Why Moroccan Zellige Tiles Are So Expensive
Narrator: Zellige tiles start out as a simple mixture of clay and water. But after several days of painstaking work, artisans chisel and transform them into a complex work of art. Compared to other popular tiles, Zellige tiles aren’t cheap. A square foot can cost $50, while ceramic subway tiles might only cost around $0.15. But this art form relies on the skilled artisans that make each tile by hand. Like Ahmed Al-Maghari, who has been making Zellige tiles for 54 years. So how are Zellige tiles made? And is this what makes them so expensive?
While perfection is often valued, it’s the imperfect qualities of Zellige that make the tiles so unique. Artisans in Morocco have been hand-making Zellige tiles for centuries. Today, they continue this tradition in the city of Fez.
Ahmed Al-Maghari: Every design is not like the other. That’s what makes experience in this craft. In this craft, you cannot say, “I became a good craftsman,” because you are always learning. There is always something new.
Narrator: But before artisans at Arabesque can create tiles, they first need to form the clay. Fez has remained a center for Zellige partly because of these rocks. They’re considered some of the best materials in the region for making high-quality clay.
Ahmed Al-Maghari: The clay is of Moroccan origin, and it is found only in the city of Fez.
Narrator: This clay is believed to be more durable than some clays found further south, and it can withstand very high temperatures once fired. First, an artisan tosses the rocks into a pit in the ground called a zuba. They fill the zuba with water and leave the rocks to soften for a day. Then, in one of many tedious stages to come, an artisan kneads the clay using their hands and feet to make it more malleable. After the clay has fermented for a day, a different artisan has the task of molding it into the proper shape.
The artisan places the clay into a mold, smoothing it over with one hand so the surface is flat. For every 10 kilograms of clay, artisans can make over 10 square feet, or about 1 meter, of tiles. After molding hundreds of tiles, they leave the clay to dry under the sun. The next stage is vital to ensuring the tiles will remain intact.
Abdelwahed Massaoud: We place the mold on top of it. We bring a special knife. He hits it to make it flat, giving us 1 centimeter or 1.5 centimeters, depending on the scale we want.
Narrator: Hitting the clay repeatedly also removes air bubbles. If the air isn’t removed, the tile may break when an artisan later tries to chisel it. Once each piece is perfectly square, the tiles dry again under the sun. Finally, it’s time for the clay to head to the kiln. Precision is critical at this stage, which is why just one person is trusted to lead the job.
Abdelwahed Massaoud: After it dries up, we bring it to the stage which we are in now. Then we put it into the furnace. This is the wood-fired kiln. There is a craftsman called the charger who specializes in shipping the furnace. It’s a specialty he has learned since his childhood.
Narrator: Abdelwahed glazes the tiles, and then they’re fired for a second time. This second firing ensures the color won’t fade. It also gives Zellige tiles one of their most distinct features. Heat doesn’t circulate evenly in a traditional Moroccan kiln, which is why each tile, even those with the same color glaze, will have a slightly different shade. But these tiles are just getting started.
After glazing, the tiles move on to the cutting stage, where artisans trace the small shapes they’ll later carve. Chiseling the tiles requires total concentration. Artisans must carve each piece as cleanly as possible. Otherwise, it may not fit properly into the final design. How well and efficiently this is done depends on the expertise of the artisan and a tool known as the menkach. It’s a combination of a hammer and an ax. Because they’re hand-chiseled, no two Zellige tiles will look exactly the same. It’s the prime feature that distinguishes Zellige from mass-produced tiles that are notably uniform in color, shape, and texture.
Arabesque first creates designs on the computer. Then Ahmed uses a paper printout as a guide to assemble the final design on the floor. Ahmed inserts each individual tile by hand, like a puzzle piece, making sure every tile seamlessly fits next to its neighbor.
Ahmed Al-Maghari: We work with our eyes, hands, and all our senses. All our senses are working while we work on the tiles. Sometimes we need 1,000 small pieces to fill 1 meter, and sometimes only 100 pieces can fill a meter.
Narrator: After about 15 days of assembling the pieces, Ahmed can reveal the finished design.
Ahmed Al-Maghari: The work came out the exact same. This is the drawing that was given to us, and this work is the exact copy of it. As you see the drawing on the paper, you see the piece on the ground.
Narrator: The final price of a mosaic like this is the sum of several factors, including the number of pieces and their shape.
Adil Naji: This is the average, normal, 36 pieces. The shape of it is very square. So the price of it, it’s very affordable. Unlike if we go here, which is made of stars and cross. There are 36 pieces by 36. So 36 pieces here also, but the price of this is four times the price of the other one because of the shape.
Narrator: Adil also considers the size of the tiles within a design. Smaller pieces are not as simple to chisel by hand. The smaller the tiles, the more expensive the design will be.
Adil Naji: There are areas where you have a square foot that can have 64 pieces, 128 pieces, 360 pieces versus 36 pieces. So if you have one that costs $10 per square foot, the other one might cost 10 times, $100 per square foot.
Narrator: The price increases further for more complex designs.
Adil Naji: This tile has an interlace. The interlace is automatically double the price. So if you have a $10 square foot, with the interlace, it’s $20.
Narrator: Centuries ago, Zellige tiles were reserved for royal palaces. Today, they’ve become synonymous with Moroccan design. You’ll find them covering walls, floors, and fountains across Fez.
Adil Naji: When we talk about Morocco and Moroccan architecture, the first thing comes to mind is Zellige.
Narrator: But its influence goes beyond Morocco. Demand has grown in the US, especially in recent years, as notable designers like Kelly Wearstler incorporate Zellige into their own work. But the way some are using the tiles is different. Rather than mosaics, they’re creating monochromatic backsplashes. Part of the appeal of using just one color of Zellige is that it appears ombré when multiple tiles come together, thanks to their subtle variation in shade.
But while Zellige becomes more popular overseas, Adil struggles to find young people locally he can trust with the trade.
Adil Naji: This is more of a living art, but it’s also a dying tradition. Nowadays, people are not patient as much as in before. If you look at the people who used to work for/in this trade, they’re very calm. They’re very peaceful. They have inner peace. Nowadays, we find extreme hardship to train and adapt people who can carry this kind of tradition as Zellige artisans.
Ahmed Al-Maghari: A good craftsman is the one who gives work his right. When he starts work, he must focus on it. If he wants to own this craft, he must give its right of time and effort to gain skills, and with time he works and learns. He is not called a teacher, because he always learns throughout his life.
Narrator: The quality of Zellige depends on the hand that makes it. Preserving it means finding more artisans like Ahmed, willing to spend decades learning the craft behind this signature Moroccan design.