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These little treasures were found at different Queen B Estate Sales and when new, existed on opposite ends of the pricing spectrum.
The two pairs of black, sparkly chopsticks are made of a wood or bamboo base, painted in built-up layers of black, tan and red lacquer and painstakingly hand-inlaid with real pieces of abalone or mother of pearl shell. A single chopstick represents hours of skilled labor so they originally were very expensive.
The different lengths are not a mismatch, the two pairs represent ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and are a traditional wedding gift in Japan. The groom’s pair is longer while the bride’s pair is shorter, accounting for the different sizes of the intended user’s hands. While this set is all-black, another common color combination is black for the groom and vivid red for the bride, with the shell inlay being identical on both.
Luxury chopsticks such as these would have originally been kept in a matching wooden presentation case that was also lacquered and inlaid with shell. The cases, sans their eating implements, can easily be mistaken for fancy pencil cases so if you are specifically searching for a chopstick case at a QBO sale, check out our office area as well as the Asian art section and the kitchen area.
The off-white Chinese-style chopsticks are made of plastic. They were popular in American Chinese restaurants in the 1960s, 70s & 80s. Because they are cute and interesting, over time a large proportion of them ‘walked away’ from restaurants in coat pockets and handbags, so most restaurants today have switched over to disposable bamboo chopsticks, although it is still possible to find the traditional-looking plastic ones in use at older establishments. They are also more readily uncovered at QBO sales than the fancy Japanese ones.
And in spite of their cheap materials these plastic chopsticks were designed to look luxurious; they are an imitation of traditional, very expensive ivory chopsticks, complete with an ‘inscribed’ design highlighted by rubbed-in colors just like the real thing.
As with the lacquered Japanese chopsticks, this Chinese version has an element of romance: the teeny-tiny Dragon represents the Chinese emperor and the teeny-tiny Phoenix represents the Chinese Empress (if you squint really hard you can kind of make them out!) Together these two mythological creatures symbolize a happy marriage. The red characters at the bottom mean “Double Happiness” and convey a traditional wish for a happy and fruitful marriage.
Last we have a pair of plain black plastic chopsticks in a satin brocade case. These are inexpensive and often sold in bulk as party favors, so it is not uncommon at a single-household estate sale to find that the person living there had only one pair. If there are multiples, the satin cases are usually a mismatched rainbow.
If you are hunting for chopsticks at Queen B estate sales, you can get some clue as to their origin by their shape: Chinese chopsticks are long and end in blunt tips, while Japanese chopsticks are shorter and taper to a point. Korean chopsticks are slightly flattened along their entire length, are usually made of metal and are often accompanied by a matching long-handled, metal spoon. They also often come in a fancy presentation case.
In addition to common materials such as bamboo, wood, bone, plastic and stainless steel, chopsticks are also made of expensive materials such ivory, jade, gold, and silver. In the past, silver-tipped chopsticks were used by wealthy people who believed that the silver would turn black if it touched poison (and silver does indeed tarnish when it comes into contact with some, but not all, poisonous compounds!)
Chopsticks originated in China about 5,000 years ago and were later adopted in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand, although in some countries they are specialized utensils only used for eating noodles. Chopsticks do not pre-date spoons and knives, but are considerably older than forks, which were not used for dining until the second millennium. Surely you must need a set to eat your noodles with!