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Most frequently asked questions (FAQ’s):
- What is new with Le Souk Ceramique?
Our big news was the switch in Spring/Summer 2016 to new clay that fires into vitrified Stoneware. This produces a much more chip-resistant piece, much more durable than our previous Earthenware. Our new Stoneware is also safe for freezer-to-oven use and does not get as hot to the touch in the microwave. It has far greater longevity, even with regular use in the dishwasher. More technical details are below.
- What is the difference between Stoneware and Earthenware?
In Earthenware, the glaze melts around the clay bisque, like a glove overlays a hand. In Stoneware, during second firing in the kiln, the clay and the glaze chemically/physically bind together in a process called “vitrification”. This fusing of clay and glaze is why Stoneware is not as prone to chipping as Earthenware. The clay we use for our Cookable Tagine is yet a different kind. This is Refractory Clay, also called Fireclay. In terms of glaze performance, it is like Earthenware in that the glaze overlays the clay body and is not vitrified. But Stoneware clay is not suitable for stovetop, so we use this Refractory Clay only for our stovetop cooking tagines.
- Where are you located?
Our two studios are in Nabeul, Tunisia on the Mediterranean coast about an hour south of Tunis and just north of the coastal resort town of Hammamet. Le Souk Ceramique got it’s start in 1997 and Le Souk Olivique, our olive wood studio dates from 2014. We are an American-Tunisian company with headquarters in the US (offices and US warehouse are in Clinton, near Seattle, Washington).
- What is different about Le Souk Ceramique?
At Le Souk Ceramique, we hand paint every piece entirely free-hand. We do not use any machinery or decals or stencils for our artwork. Legally, if most of a ceramic piece is painted by machine and just a small element is painted by hand, you can call it “hand painted”. At our studio, as you can see by our videos, we paint every element by hand. We use a team approach that involves between 3 and 8 people depending on the design and how many colors and artistic elements are included.
5. What are working conditions like in Tunisia and specifically at LSC and LSO?
We have uploaded videos of our studios on You Tube, Facebook and on this website. As evidenced by these videos, our studios are well-lit, well-ventilated and clean. Our starting salaries are always well above minimum wage and significantly above industry standards in Tunisia. We pay fully into the national health care system and Tunisian social security. For July and August in the full summer heat, our employees leave at 2pm for the day, though July and August salaries are paid in full. Males and females work side by side. LSC has over 50 employees and LSO has about 10. LSC is sponsored into WFTO as a provisional member. LSO is new still and growing, and WFTO membership processes are underway.
6. Are Le Souk Ceramique items foodsafe?
Yes, we use only food safe paints and glazes. We comply with US FDA regulations for lead and cadmium, European REACH regulations, as well as the even more stringent California Prop 65 standards. We buy all our glazes from several leading European manufacturers, such as Pastceram, Fritta, Ferro, Esmaltes and Colorobia. These glaze manufacturers produce highly sophisticated, foodsafe materials. Furthermore, we have our designs tested at a third-party laboratory to assure compliance. It is important to use foodsafe glazes not just for your health but for that of our employees as well. You can see many of our lab tests at the link here: Lead & Cadmium Test Results
7. What is the process for hand-painting the pieces?
We use a team approach. No piece is painted from start to finish by just one person. First, we paint the design outlines, such as the black fish outlines for Aqua Fish or the blue lines for Tabarka and then each piece is passed to a different person for each color or artistic element. So for Aqua Fish, the first person paints the black lines, then the second person does the green fill in, the third does the cobalt blue fill in, the fourth does the pistachio, the fifth sky blue, the sixth does the tiny black dots and then the seventh person does the blue edge work as the finishing touch for color. Finally, the eighth person dunks the piece into the glaze. Our short videos show these techniques better than we can explain in words.
8. How come the same design or item can look different sometimes?
Because of the team approach and because each artist paints their part free-hand, no two pieces will ever be identical, nor do we want them to be. Furthermore, we mix each batch of color by hand, so color intensity can vary over time. Also, as you watch the videos, notice how each person has a different water ratio to their batch of paint. Each time someone dips their paintbrush in water and then into the glaze color, the color density will be slightly affected. Furthermore, we paint a hundred or so of the same item at a time. So the items painted first will have dried longer than the more recently finished items. This will affect how the glazes fire in the kiln. And finally, items placed higher up in the kiln might have a shade difference compared to items lower in the kiln. In sum, there are a lot of reasons why no two pieces are ever alike.
9. Who comes up with your designs?
Some of our patterns are our own take on traditional North African designs. Variations of geometrical designs such as Tabarka or Sabrine are found all across the region in ceramics, tiles, mosaics and other venues (though the colors and final arrangement for Tabarka and Sabrine are specific to Le Souk Ceramique). Other patterns are our own creations, such as Salvena, Aqua Fish, Azoura, Citronique, Nejma, Jinane, and Marasca, etc. At any given time, we aim to paint 10 to 12 active designs in all our shapes. Please note that all of our designs are copyrighted.
10. Do you do private designs and private shapes?
Yes, we do and we have very reasonable minimum quantity requirements. If you are interested in a private design, please send us the artwork to review and we can discuss whether it’s something we can paint. All of our designs are copyrighted and we will respect the intellectual property and confidentiality of your artwork as well. For a private shape in Stoneware or Olive Wood, please send us the specs and we can work on it for you.
11. How many shapes do you make?
We currently make over30 different shapes and sizes in Stoneware, plus two sizes of Cookable Clay Tagines, and 80+ shapes in Olive Wood. We do make small changes every year usually but we’re pretty stable with most of the bisques. If you do have a suggestion on a new shape, please let us know. For Olive Wood, we are newer at this production, so our repertoire of shapes will change more frequently. Your input is welcomed.
12. How do you make the shapes?
For many year, we used all fully hand-made processes for ceramic bisques, but we started to semi-mechanize a few years ago. We simply could not make enough bisques the old way, nor could we make stoneware now without the mechanical advantages of semi-manual presses. We have mechanical rollers and presses as you can see in our more recent videos, though 8 to 10 people still touch and work each piece. We still do some potters-wheel work for hollowware like pitchers and mugs, but we also use a pour-moulde (slip cast) mechanism for a lot of hollowware.
13. Where do you get your clay?
We get our raw clay mix from Portugal. We used to use local Tunisian red clay but the technical shortcomings of this clay were insurmountable. The raw white Stoneware clay from Portugal is truly world class. It is more stable, durable, consistent and most importantly, the coefficient of dilation (thermal expansion) is pegged to work with the paints and glazes we use, so the result is a glaze that fuses perfectly with the bisque body. This is the case for our Stoneware tableware. For our Cookable clay for Tagines, this is an entirely different clay mix than the white Stoneware clay, but it is also from Portugal. It is a red refractory clay mix that is high in mica, quartz and iron to allow for stovetop cooking.
14. What’s the difference between cookable clay and serving clay?
There is a huge difference in the clay. Our Cookable clay is “refractory”, meaning it can be used directly on the stovetop at low temperature for slow cooking. The clay is able to absorb the heat without physically expanding so much that it cracks. The clay we use for our Stoneware serving pieces is not refractory, meaning it cannot be used on the stovetop (though it can go in the oven). With every order of a Cookable Tagine, we include a sheet explaining the difference in clays as well as care instructions and a few recipes.
15. What is crazing and will it happen on Le Souk Ceramique pieces?
Crazing does not occur on our new Stoneware, but it will always happen on our Cookable Clay Tagines, since this refractory clay is still considered to react like Earthenware. When heated and/or cooled, the tagine will expand or contract ever so slightly, while the glaze cannot. Glaze is essentially a layer of melted glass and there is no elasticity to glaze. Crazing is the micro fissures in the glaze that appear with thermal expansion. It’s inherent in all earthenware and not considered a defect. Crazing is not a matter of hygienic safety but rather aesthetic value, though it is unavoidable on our Tagines.
16. Are your items safe for the dishwasher, microwave, oven and freezer? Care instructions?
~ Dishwasher safe
~ Microwave safe
~ Oven safe for baking to 225 C (450 F)
~ Freezer to oven safe
~ Not for use on the stovetop or broiler
~ No special care instructions or limitations
~ Hand wash
~ Microwave safe
~ Stovetop safe for low temperature cooking with diffuser
~ Oven safe for baking to 225 C (450 )F
~ Not for use in the freezer
Please see seasoning & care instructions that come with each Tagine order
17. Who are your typical retailer partners?
The individual, independent store owner, in the middle to upper-middle niche of the marketplace, is our most frequent partner. This includes kitchen and gourmet stores, upscale home décor businesses, coffee shops, wineries, and finer gift shops. We do on occasion supply selected large retailers, but you will not find Le Souk Ceramique items in big-box retailers or discount/off price outlets. We work with a few select websites, though we try to restrict our items from Amazon or Overstock or other massive websites.
18. Do you sell directly to the public?
No, we don’t. Our business is to make ceramics/olive wood, and to supply and support our fine retailer partners. Additionally, our ceramics are available online through various websites and in some retail catalogs and on occasion through flash sales. If none of the above options are viable for your situation, please contact us directly. Our Clinton, Washington, USA warehouse has neither a showroom nor a retail shop. Our studio in Nabeul is likewise generally closed to the public, though we can accommodate a visit if you happen to be traveling through Nabeul.
19. Do you do wedding registries?
If there is no retailer near you, we are happy to help you set up a registry on your wedding website. Kindly call us for information at 360-579-1227.
20. How do you ship and do you drop-ship?
From Tunisia, we load up a 40-foot ocean container for our US warehouse. It takes two months for the container to go from Nabeul to Clinton. For Europe, we ship by pallet via a trucking company that crosses into Europe by ferry or by container. For the most part we ship with UPS within the US. We do not charge any kind of packing or handling fee and bill only the amount we pay for shipping (i.e. we do not use shipping as a profit center). On some occasions like trade show specials or seasonal sales specials we will cap freight charges or even offer free freight (rarely!). If the order is large enough, usually around US $2000 or so, we would ship by pallet if your store can accommodate receiving such a shipment. As for drop shipping, yes, it is a service we offer on a very limited basis. Please contact us directly for more details.
21. How do you contact retailers for updates and information?
We do not ever send out broadcast emails or spam. With your permission, we will email you about new designs, sales or seasonal offerings, upcoming trade shows and the like, but this will always be a personal email, not a broadcast. We do not rent, loan or sell any customer information whatsoever. No exceptions.
22. Fascinating technical specifications?
Coefficient of Dilation: 185
Porosity: 3.5% to 4%
Mechanical Resistance: 650 to 700 Kgf/cm2
Bisque Firing Temperature: 1,000 C
Glaze Firing Temperature: 1,120 C