Le Souk Ceramique & Olivique
THE ARTISAN : LE SOUK CERAMIQUE & OLIVIQUE
The studio of Le Souk Ceramique opened in 1997 in Nabeul, Tunisia. Each timeless design is created in the studio where the artisans do not use any machinery or decals. The artisans mix every color batch of food safe glazes by hand and freehand paint every detail, resulting in one-of-a-kind works. Le Souk sets wages above minimum wage, provides healthcare and social security payments for artisans, and is in process to receive Tunisia’s Fair Trade certification.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Le Souk Ceramique & Olivique
After a chance meeting between a US Embassy worker and a ceramic artist in Tunisia in 1997, Le Souk Ceramique was born. Over the past 18 years, Le Souk Ceramique has expanded from a garage studio in Nabeul, Tunisia, to a fully-functioning workshop with over 50 employees, producing hand-painted ceramics and olive wood products. New olive wood products will be launching soon on our site! The Little Market was able to chat with Doug, a co-founder of Le Souk Ceramique, for a little Q&A. Enjoy!
QUESTION: How did Le Souk Ceramique get started in 1997?
ANSWER: I was posted to the US Embassy in Tunis in 1997. By chance, I met a ceramic artist in Nabeul one weekend and ended up spending a lot of time in his studio, which was in a garage back then. His name was Lotfi Zine, and he was probably the most talented artist I’ve ever known, but had no business per se. We decided to partner up. I returned to the US and started the marketing, sales and distribution side, and we quickly ended up outgrowing the garage and started to hire some help. Sadly, as things were growing and doing well, Lofti developed lung cancer in 2001 and passed away in 2003. But we persevered through this rough phase, and we are now up to 50+ employees in Nabeul.
QUESTION: Your company has an emphasis on fair trade practices in your workshop in Tunisia – what are some of the practices you are using to make fair trade a way of life for your artisans?
ANSWER: When I started Le Souk Ceramique with Lotfi, “fair trade” was not much of a concept, it was just simply the right thing to do – Lofti was my friend, and I would not have wanted to exploit him. As we hired more people, they were often friends and family, so again, it was just simply the right thing to do. Our practices go far beyond what most Fair Trade requirements are. We have uploaded videos of the studio so customers can see the working conditions. Our employees walk around with their iPods playing, men sit side-by-side with the women, it is well-lit and ventilated, and you can see coffee or tea cups on people’s tables. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere. On a per capita basis, many of our employees in Tunisia actually earn more than I do as the owner and CEO. My plan is to eventually turn the full ownership of the studio over to the employees, both in Nabeul, as well as in our US operation.
QUESTION: In the Fair Trade industry, how important do you think it is for the customer to be connected with the artisan and their stories?
ANSWER: I always want to avoid guilting someone into buying Le Souk Ceramique. That’s the tough part of formal fair trade – it potentially risks damaging the actual goal. But on the other hand, I do want people to know that we are not your typical American corporation where the CEO gets paid 20 or 50 or 100 times the salary of an entry level employee. Connecting to the story and the artisan is great, but suggesting that because of that “connection” you should buy a piece is wrong. The finished product first needs to stand and sell on its own but it’s the story that might make the consumer come back for a second piece and maybe a third piece or a full set or tell their friend the story of Le Souk Ceramique.
QUESTION: We are very excited to carry your new olive wood pieces at The Little Market! What is the process that goes into making one of those pieces?
ANSWER: This is our newest endeavor. We only started Le Souk Olivique (the olive wood sector) in late 2013 and we are still learning a lot about wood and improving our techniques. For many years, I did the classic thing of buying someone else’s olive wood products and just adding them in our ocean containers of ceramics for US distribution. But the quality was never good, and after trying to work with various suppliers, I finally gave up and started our own facility.
We buy the raw wood, and we let it dry outside for about a year. This slow drying helps to prevent splitting. One of the things we used to encounter before we started LSO, was that the wood would often split after we shipped it to the US. This was because most suppliers were drying the wood in saltwater instead of waiting the year for the wood to naturally dry.
The next step is the rough cut, and it is the only part we outsource to experts. It is very dangerous because of the use of band saws. Since we are a new studio, I am not willing to take the risk of doing this at LSO yet. Perhaps down the road we will take this step in-house, but only when we are really ready to manage this risk properly.
With the rough cut piece, we then take it in-house and do the rest. We do some fine cutting that uses smaller hand tools and is not nearly as dangerous as a band saw. We sand down the pieces, then dunk the piece in food-safe finishing oil and let it drip dry for a day. Then we do one last sanding and one last buffing with the oil and a towel. This creates a silky smooth finish of the olive wood surface and helps seal in the little remaining moisture so that the piece resists checking/cracking.
QUESTION: Where does Le Souk Ceramique source its materials from?
ANSWER: We buy our raw clay from a factory in Portugal. For many years, we used a local Tunisian clay, but the quality of this clay has gone downhill, so in 2012, we switched. The Portuguese clay is finely controlled and each batch is tested at their lab before shipping to us. For glazes, we buy from various factories in Portugal, Italy, France, and Spain. The glazes are very modern and use only food-safe materials. We buy no glazes at all that have a lead or cadmium component.
For the olive wood, there are actually several varieties of olive trees growing in Tunisia, but only a couple of them are suitable for our use. We are careful to buy only Cha’ali and Sahli varieties. The other species are too brittle, too prone to checking, lack a nice grain pattern or are too light in color. The Cha’ali and Sahli woods are the most expensive, but make the best product possible.
QUESTION: How does Le Souk Ceramique impact the community of Nabeul, Tunisia, where its workshop is located?
ANSWER: When I got started in Nabeul, it had over 400 kilns but it’s down to maybe 150 or 200 now (we have two). We make a difference because we are going in the opposite direction of all the other ceramic studios in the city, and maybe someday we will help re-energize the ceramic industry. The industry is in crisis because other studios have gotten caught up in a terrible cycle of cutting prices and quality to gain market share or purchase orders. We have gone in the opposite direction. We are creating harder and more ornate designs, and we continuously try to find solutions to technical flaws. Our ceramics are far from perfect, but we make the best ceramics in Tunisia now. If we can have any impact, it would be to show others that by improving workmanship, you can actually thrive.