The word "tessares," meaning four, is thought to originate from the Greeks and eventually became "tessera" in Latin. A tessera, to the Romans, was a 4-sided tablet made of wood, stone, or bone and it was used for a variety of purposes, from ticketing to identification. Tesserae, the plural of tessera, thus was an appropriate word for the 4-sided colorful cubes of stone, shell, or ceramic that were used for many mosaic materials of the period.
Types of tesserae today include larger tiles and some made of glass, hand-painted stone, and even metal. So much so, that, in some cases when larger mosaics are premade or on a grid backing, the word "tesserae" is now synonymous with the word "tile." Here are some of the different materials and types available to the prospective buyer.
Some of the original mosaics seen in Pre-Columbian times were made with tiny shells. They can easily be imbedded in clay and have a beautiful repetitive motif that can create fantastic patterns. You can still create your own mosaics using shells, but tiles today use inlays of mother-of-pearl, rather than the whole tiny shells. This Silo tile, for example, shows mother-of-pearl cabochons embedded in marble.
Glass tiles come in many different types, and include vitreous, smalti, mirrored, and clear glass tiles. Vitreous tiles are the ones more commonly known today. They are the ones sold on a grid backing for easy installation into a bathroom or kitchen. Smalti is a type of hand-cut glass made in Italy that is expensive. Clear glass looks somewhat like stained glass. Mirrored tiles offer a unique take on glass tiles and helps to bounce the light around a room a bit more, however, the same effect can be gotten from other types of glass tiles, like in this mosaic created with tiles from the glass Glow collection.
#3 Penny Round
Penny round is a term that denotes the mosaic materials that are small, like a penny. However, they come in a variety of shapes, not just round. You can get hexagonal penny tiles just as easily as more classic cubed tiles. They can be made of ceramic, stone, or even actual pennies, if that's what you want in your mosaic project. Metallic tiles are considered pretty modern. If you want a penny tile design with something more unusual, here is a tile that looks like a collection of penny tiles in star shapes.
Another ancient material that has now become ultra trendy because of its sustainability is the use of pebbles. In the past, pebbles were used only outdoors to line paths, but today you can put them in your organic bathroom to give it a real "back to nature" look and feel. A pebble would have been considered a tessera, if it was used in a mosaic and the same is true today even though an entire tile sheet made of pebbles is far easier to install that one pebble at a time. This tumbled river rock tile gives the floor a rustic, but warm, look.
Ceramic mosaics were created with clay shards, busted porcelain china, and hand-painted clay tile shards as well as glazed tesserae. However, you don't have to smash tiles up into tiny, bite-sized, pieces for the tiles to have a mosaic look to them. You can get glazed or unglazed ceramic tiles on a plastic grid sheet that are already laid out in a mosaic pattern. This Moroccan tile when repeated against each other makes a beautiful mosaic pattern.
If you like the tiny mosaic look, you can still get it in stone in the same manner, with pre-designed tiles. It can even have an ancient look to it even though the materials and process are completely modern. Here is a wave mosaic border, a very Old World motif, created from a pre-made marble mosaic design.
#7 Hand-Painted Stone
Just like ceramics can be hand-painted, so can stone. Thus, even if the stone tiles are small, once hand-painted, they can give a look of having a mosaic in place. This Merritt design shows the difference in look and feel of a hand-painted mosaic to one made where each tile is its own individual color or shape.
#8 Other Types of Tesserae
I hope you realize now that there are no limits to the types of materials, shapes, and sizes you can use to create your own mosaic design. Churches in the Renaissance period were even known to use precious gems and gold in their mosaics. If you wanted to use plastic buttons or even sewing bobs, and even old DVDs, like this YouTube artist, you can. Tiles and mosaics are not limited to ancient materials anymore!
A Wide Assortment of Types
This is just a small list of the many different types of tiles out there that you can use to create a mosaic effect. A classical tessera is a small piece of mosaic material, but this was prior to the invention of backings that allowed you to create your mosaic outside the job site. Now, they can be sheets of different materials, that include a mosaic design that includes stone, glass, mirrors, mother-of-pearl, and pebbles, amongst other choices.
The use of the word tile and tesserae is almost identical these days. The size of the tile has become less important than the mosaic look and feel that it creates. Even mosaics made with small tiles that are hand-painted can be qualified as one. Those with mosaic designs on sheets that are far larger than the original chips of marbles used by the Romans and Greeks are also included in the term. In addition, there are far more materials in use to create fascinating mosaics that weren't even available in the past, like shards of DVDs.