For those wanting to make a statement in their home, the handcrafted look of zellige tile may be just what you’re looking for. These naturally unique tiles have been making their mark in trendy bathrooms for a few years now.
But is it right for your bathroom? We’ll dive deep into some common questions about zellige tiles to help you make a decision. Their uniqueness comes with a few downsides, but they may not be enough to deter you.
What Is Zellige Tile?
Zellige tiles are traditional Moroccan handmade glazed terracotta tiles. The ancient technique is done by maalems that first start learning how to make them as apprentices, and gradually become masters.
All processes of making the tile are done by hand, including the shaping, cutting, and glazing, meaning no two tiles will be the same. While their shapes can be similar, there will always be some imperfections. This is part of their charm.
Zellige tiles are made with natural clay from a specific area in Fez, Morocco. This clay is mixed with water, shaped, and kiln-fired over olive branches. This traditional craft goes back about 1300 years, with very few changes to how these tiles are made.
Some antiquated examples can be found in Moorish and Islamic architecture in Spain, Morocco, and other Islamic parts of the world. The unique enamel glazing gives off an iridescent quality that is unmatched by any other kind of tile.
Modern Zellige Style
Modern-day designers started to use zellige tiles as the trend for more natural, organic spaces became popular in the last few years. Their hand-crafted, glazed look is unique and shiny, and yet versatile enough to be used in many different styles and applications.
Historically, the tiles were used to create colorful mosaics, whereas the modern-day approach sees more monochromatic designs. Zellige tiles add a striking translucence to traditional farmhouse designs, especially kitchens, but they also easily fit in with contemporary or minimalist designs.
While you can find un-glazed zellige tiles, it’s rare to get a matte look, and part of their charm is their pearlescence. The Arabic translation for zellige is “little polished stone”.
These tiles are now being mass-produced, so there are more options and styles to choose from. Tiles come in square, hexagon, or rectangular ribbons and slats, which are all the rage right now.
Zellige tiles are actually a precursor to subway tiles, as both are solid, squared ceramic tiles that are laid one on top of another in a row, and used in public spaces. They are very versatile but distinctive—you know when it’s zellige right away.
How to Spot Authentic Vs. Fake
The most authentic zellige tiles will come straight from Fez, which is a northeastern city in Morocco. A trip to the city would give you a first-hand look into the beauty of zellige tile, as the city is bedazzled in old-world mosaics.
The country has also instated regulations on zellige tile, and no authentic tile can have lime or iron added to it. These additives harm the tiles, and authentic zellige from Fez will be labeled as such.
When shopping, you’ll need to spot the difference between authentic zellige tile and zellige-inspired tile. Both may be a kind of glazed ceramic, but you may not be getting true zellige tiles from big box stores, even though they look the part.
If you’re worried about authenticity, boutique and specialty shops will be able to answer your questions about the origin of the tiles and how they were crafted. Online stores that don’t specifically mention the handcrafted process may be selling ceramic tiles that merely look like zellige.
While one of the key characteristics of authentic zellige tiles is that they won’t be uniform in size, shape, or color, tile companies have been able to mimic these design flaws to make people think they are buying zellige tiles.
If the origin story of these tiles doesn’t matter to you, then you can still get the look and feel of zellige. However, the price may not be that different, and your newly tiled bathroom won’t have the same cache as if it was done in true zellige.
How “Imperfect” Are They?
Another true way of knowing you have purchased zellige tile is that there will be many imperfections in the tiles – and not just manufactured imperfections. True zellige will have hairline cracks, or “crazing” as it’s called, as well as chips, holes, and cracked edges.
This is mainly because of the natural handmade process, but also because these tiles have to travel a far distance to American buyers.
One of the ways that installers get around this is to order 15-25 percent more tile than what’s needed. Contractors regularly order more tile for any job, as cuts and smaller pieces means you never order exactly the square footage, but normally the number is 10-15 percent for overage.
For zellige, you may want to order just a bit more than that so that badly chipped tiles can be used for cuts and smaller pieces, or tossed out. Keep in mind that when some of the more imperfect pieces are strewn about the rest of the tiles, they usually blend in with the overall look.
Manufacturers also recommend that you lay out all of the tiles before installing them. That way, you can use broken ones for cuts, or try and blend them in throughout the whole project.
This goes along with the traditional look of zellige, so if you want something more uniform, either this tile isn’t for you, or you need to increase your order to make sure you get tiles that are close to perfect shape.
Another tip to consider is that a matching grout color will hide these small cracks and pits after all is said and done, so the worst of the imperfections may not stand out that much at all.
Cost of Zellige
As zellige has gained in popularity, the mass production has made them more available. However they are still not cheap, and if they are, they may not be the real deal. A true, handcrafted single rectangle tile (2” x 8”) will be around five dollars. Yes, just for one tile.
You may be able to source out deals and find zellige tiles on sale for around five dollars a square foot, or about $25 for a box that covers five square feet, but that’s rare. The number of tiles in a box will depend on their shape and size, so just remember to focus on price per square foot when shopping.
Online specialty shops may be the best way to source these tiles since many of them will ship from Europe, where authentic zellige is more readily available. You can also find real zellige tiles from Etsy sellers who dispatch straight from Morocco. The prices are expensive, but you can see that the product is authentic.
For true zellige you’ll likely be paying around $40-$50 a square foot, and remember that you need to account for overage. The cost is a big consideration about whether zellige tiles are right for your bathroom project.
Can You Use Zellige in the Bathroom?
Zellige tiles can be used anywhere in the bathroom as their enamel coating makes them waterproof, and their shiny glaze looks stunning on backsplashes, walls, or full shower and tub surrounds.
While zellige tiles can be used on the floor, because of the uneven tile surface, this may make it a little uncomfortable for bare feet (this will depend on how “imperfect” the surface is).
They also tend to be smaller, so if you are set on having a zellige floor, laying them will be intricate work, as smaller tiles take more time and patience. This is also what makes good tile work stand out: small tiles can turn a regular bathroom into a work of art, whether they are laid in mosaic form or not.
Since zellige are not uniform, laying the tiles can be trickier than regular tiles, which again may deter you from using them for a large project versus wanting them to highlight one area or space. Zellige tiles can easily be paired with other ceramic tiles, or even marble to create the look you want within the budget you have.
How to Install Zellige Tile
Manufacturers recommend mixing tiles from all the boxes of zellige tile, as one box may have a slight color or shape variation compared to the other. These differences are a part of the charm, and when spread out together create the unique look.
Zellige tiles should be installed close together, without wide grout lines or even the need for tile spacers. This allows the installer some freedom, as the tiles don’t need to look perfectly in line. However, tiles still need to be level and flush with each other, so you’ll need to rely on other methods to get it right.
The use of levels and straight edges will help the installation process, especially since zellige tiles are typically smaller, and hard to keep straight already. Patience and a skilled hand will be needed for a professional final look.
Otherwise, zellige tile can be laid just like other ceramic tiles by prepping the area with an adhesive for either a wall or floor application. Grout is recommended to use between the tile spaces, as it will fill in the thin spaces from the natural unevenness, as well as any natural pits, cracks, or broken edges.
Grout also ensures that the whole space is sealed and waterproof, although the overall look will appear groutless. This can be a bonus for people who don’t want to have to clean grout lines constantly, but not for those who want to play with color in the same way that tiles with more prominent grout lines can.
Most zellige tiles are grouted with a matching color, or something very neutral that blends in.
Glazed zellige won’t need to be sealed, and grout won’t either since the lines will be so small (you don’t need to seal grout lines, anyway, but that’s a different article). Unglazed zellige will be porous and therefore needs to be sealed after installation and grouting.
Note that before installation starts, each tile should be submerged in room temperature water for a couple of minutes to remove normal dust and debris due to their natural clay construction and their lengthy transportation.
Zellige should also be cut with a wet tile saw, and not a manual tile saw because of the imperfect surface.
Zellige Tile Maintenance
Handcrafted, glazed zellige tiles will need very little maintenance if they are installed properly. They are strong and durable, and should last for decades. While the tiles may naturally gain a weathered look or show some wear, this is part of their charm and doesn’t indicate that they need to be repaired.
Unglazed zellige will need to be sealed on a regular basis, usually about once a year, but check with the supplier. Otherwise, glazed zellige are naturally waterproof, which means you don’t have to worry about mold or mildew getting in behind the shower or bathtub walls for a very long time.
Cleaning zellige tile will be very similar to any other ceramic tiles, and wiping it down with regular bathroom cleaning products will be just fine. The uneven surface may snag material like cloths and sponges, or certain kinds of mops if you’ve used it on the floor.
Will the Trend Continue?
Zellige tiles will always be popular, and whether or not they are trendy doesn’t really matter. The look of them is unparalleled, and now that designers and homeowners are more aware of their existence, their timeless look will not be forgotten.
In terms of trends for the coming year, zellige tiles will likely be trendy for some time to come. Their unique characteristics are in line with a lot of the current design trends for 2022 and 2023 as people are shifting towards natural, raw materials that can boast an interesting back story to boot.
They will always be a specialty tile because of the traditional, handcrafted process, and where they are made – nothing will change what makes zellige authentic. Americans can’t just go to the local big box hardware store and find true zellige tiles.
They may be able to find something similar that does the trick, but these knock-off tiles will likely fall out of style or appear outdated if they aren’t the real deal, and experts will be able to tell the difference.
Whether you should use the beautiful, handcrafted look of zellige tile in your bathroom comes down to a few key questions. Budget will be the biggest deterrent from using zellige, as its specialty nature brings with it a big price tag.
If you absolutely love it, however, you may be able to compromise and use zellige as a statement feature, or for smaller areas like the backsplash behind the bathroom sink and vanity area. It can also be used it in conjunction with cheaper ceramic tiles to bring costs down.
Zellige tile is so versatile that it can be a small part of your project or used for the entire bathroom. That brings up the other question of the work involved. While their installation is similar to other tiles, zellige takes more time and patience throughout the entire process.
Once they are installed, however, you will have a timeless, beautiful looking bathroom that will shine for decades to come. The investment may be high, but if your mind is set on zellige tile, the end result will be worth it.