When my sister asked me to write a handmade-gemstone-jewellery-related article for her blog, I knew exactly what I had to write about.
History is full of thrilling stories that no mere writer of fiction could ever get away with. And one of the most remarkable stories in history is that of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace—a scandal that rocked a nation, ruined more than one fortune, and condemned a queen to death.
Our story begins in 1772 in France. The Revolution is less than twenty years away; but the tide of popular resentment has not yet arisen to sweep away the ancient regime. The old King of France, Louis XV, successor to the famous Louis XIV, lives in luxury in Versailles with his pampered family, with his fabulously wealthy courtiers…and with the most pampered and fabulous woman in France: Madame du Barry, his mistress.
Du Barry was loud and ostentatious, but she was also young and pretty, and it was no secret why the king was so crazy about her. The twenty-four-hour cabaret performance that was Madame du Barry upset one of the few people at the court who had no reason to fear her influence. The fourteen-year-old princess from Austria who had just come to France to marry the future Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, disliked Madame du Barry’s taste, was shocked by her extravagance, and was outraged by her morals. Marie-Antoinette would one day be Queen, and she took advantage of her position, refusing even to speak to du Barry.
Du Barry could hardly take revenge for this snub, but she did her best. “What a prude,” she said. “L’Austrichienne!” tittered her friends. This meant “the Austrian woman,” but it sounded suspiciously like the French word for “bitch.” How surprised du Barry would have been had she known that she herself would indirectly cause Marie-Antoinette’s downfall!
In 1772, King Louis XV ordered a necklace for his mistress.
It couldn’t just be any necklace. Madame du Barry was the showiest, most lavish and extravagant woman in France. All the royal mistresses were—it gave the common people someone to hate, and deflected criticism from the king himself—but Madame du Barry was special. She had to have the most sinfully extravagant necklace ever made. It would have festoons. It would have tassels. It would have simply ropes and ropes of the best diamonds money could buy. And it would cost two million livres—a king’s ransom.
The king asked the Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge to make the necklace. They agreed—you didn’t say no to the King of France, after all—but they didn’t have nearly enough diamonds. It took them years to accumulate a large enough collection. They had nearly finished when three terrible blows fell.
King Louis XV died of smallpox. His son, Louis XVI, banished Madame du Barry from court; her reign was over. And Marie-Antoinette, the new Queen, although she soon overcame her aversion to extravagance and began spending immense sums on new clothes, jewellery, and gambling parties—perhaps to relieve her anxiety about her marriage to Louis, which remained unconsummated—still didn’t like showy diamond necklaces. It was 1778 when the jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge asked the new king to buy the necklace, but Marie-Antoinette wouldn’t have it. The necklace had been made for Madame du Barry, after all, who not only had abominably bad taste but was also a scarlet woman so scarlet that you could see her a thousand miles off. “Far better to spend the money on something we need, like a man-o’-war,” she said, and Louis was inclined to agree. The new king loved a quiet life, and he knew the people were in no mood to stomach such a waste of money as that necklace.
This was, of course, terrible news for Boehmer and Bassenge. They had spent years accumulating diamonds for the necklace, and now they were not to be paid. In vain they tried to sell it to the very few other people in Europe who could afford it. Meanwhile things were looking up for the royal couple: they succeeded in producing an heir in 1781, and while cannons and fireworks went off, Monsiers Boehmer and Bassenge were to be found in Her Majesty’s ante-room, wearing desperate smiles and wondering if they could interest her in a little something to celebrate the occasion…a necklace, perhaps? Vain hope…
Meanwhile things had come full circle for Queen Marie-Antoinette. In the first years of her reign, she began spending immense sums of money. People began talking. She cost more than Pompadour. She cost more than du Barry. She was extravagent and wild and scandalous. All sorts of gaudy adventures were falsely attributed to her by scurrilous tabloids. In reality, she slapped the faces of half the roues in France, who thought that her marital troubles might result in a bit of luck for them.
When she became a mother, Marie-Antoinette became happier. Her spending and parties stopped; she restricted her social circle to a few trusted female friends and spent much of her time at Le Petit Trianon, the pastoral paradise she constructed in the country. Now her exquisite dress sense was again tempered by the simplicity of her upbringing in the informal court of Austria, and soon fashionable France had forsaken stiff silks and lavish jewellery for simple linen dresses a la reine.
Meanwhile an unscrupulous pair had arrived in Paris seeking their fortune. Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois was descended from the terrible, bloodthirsty, mad Valois family that had ruled France until a hundred years ago. Her husband, M. de la Motte, called himself a Comte. Jeanne was young, smart, cynical, beautiful, and poor; she and her husband were both willing to do whatever it took to get rich. Soon, they had found a likely target.
The Cardinal-Prince de Rohan was from an old noble family, and was thus incredibly wealthy. A cardinal in name and office only, he enjoyed a life of lechery and dazzling excess, running even his vast estates into debt. With her wit, good looks, and hard-luck story Jeanne la Motte had little trouble captivating him. Soon she was installed as his mistress in the lap of luxury.
The Cardinal de Rohan was a prince both temporal and ecclesiastical, but he had greater ambitions—he wished to become a minister in Louis’s government. He needed the money, and the position would bring other perks. The only problem was that he was a friend of Madame du Barry’s, and many years ago du Barry had read aloud to the whole court at dinner a letter from de Rohan ridiculing Marie-Therese, Marie-Antoinette’s mother. From that day forward, Marie-Antoinette wouldn’t speak to the Cardinal, would not even look at him. And now that she was the mother of the heir to the throne, Marie-Antoinette’s word was law. She never actually intentionally interfered with the ruling of France; but the King was devoted to her, and a word from her could ruin a man’s career. Or, for someone like the Cardinal, ensure that it never progressed.
“This man,” thought La Motte, “badly wants the Queen’s favour. There’s something in this for me.”
She concocted a scheme as bold and unscrupulous as she was. A previous lover, Retaux de Villette, had introduced her to court, and now she began to tell the Cardinal that she was friends with the Queen. She constructed an elaborate fantasy of this friendship for the Cardinal’s benefit, rehearsing to the last detail stories of her latest visit with the Queen. She even produced friendly letters from the Queen, on her private stationery and signed with her name. It was not hard to convince the Cardinal that she, La Motte, could persuade the Queen to forget the past.
A correspondence began between the Cardinal and the Queen—or at least someone writing on her stationery. This went on for some time, the tone of the letters becoming warmer, until the Cardinal believed himself in love with the Queen, and the Queen in love with him. As he grew more impatient, La Motte decided it was time for him to “meet” the Queen.
She admitted him to the gardens at Versailles in the evening to meet a slender, lovely blonde woman whose face was obscured by a veil. This woman gave him a red rose, but had only enough time to assure him that previous misdeeds would be overlooked when Madame de la Motte appeared. “The Countess of Artois is coming,” she whispered, and hurried the woman away.
The lady the Cardinal had met in the gardens of Versailles was Nicole Leguay d’Oliva, a Paris courtesan who resembled the Queen. The Cardinal didn’t know that. Sure that he had met the Queen herself, he put more trust in La Motte, giving her immense sums of money for the Queen’s charities. With this money La Motte bought her way into respectable society, talking freely now of her “friendship” with the Queen and convincing many that it was real.
It had now been thirteen years since the fabulous necklace had been ordered, and Monsieurs Boehmer and Bassenge were still trying to get rid of it. When they heard that Madame de la Motte was such great friends with Marie-Antoinette, they thought they might be able to use her to sell it to the Queen. La Motte originally refused, but in the end greed won out. She had already conned one of the richest men in France out of immense sums of money; perhaps there was more to be gained.
A few months after the meeting in the gardens, the Cardinal received a note, “from the Queen”, which asked him to secretly buy her the wonderful diamond necklace. It could not be bought publicly, the writer said, since the public would not stand for such extravagance; even at the height of her spending, the Queen had never spent a quarter as much on jewels in one year. The Cardinal was all too keen to obey, arranged to pay the two million livres in installments, and showed the jewellers the letter from the Queen authorising the purchase.
The Cardinal took the necklace personally to La Motte’s house in feverish expectation. A man simply appeared wearing the royal livery, collected the necklace, and went away. A few days later M. de la Motte surfaced in London to sell some of the larger diamonds. The rest of it vanished.
Then the first instalment fell due, and the Cardinal stalled payments. M. Boehmer, becoming anxious, eventually presented the authorising note to the Queen, asking her to pay the two million livres. Amazed, the Queen denied all knowledge of the matter and asked her confidante Mme Campon to investigate.
On Assumption Day in 1785, the Cardinal de Rohan was stopped as he went in to conduct mass and brought before the King, the Queen, and some high-ranking officials. He showed them a letter he had had signed “Marie Antoinette de France.” Louis lost his temper. The royalty do not use surnames—the Cardinal knew that. How could he have been fooled? The Cardinal went to the Bastille, and the rest of the conspiracy was also rounded up—Madame and Monsieur de la Motte, Nicole Leguay d’Oliva, Retaux de Villette, the famous magician Cagliostro, and Cagliostro’s mistress.
There was a sensational trial. The Cardinal, Cagliostro and his mistress, and d’Oliva were acquitted—the Cardinal in particular, who managed to win the sympathy of the Queen’s enemies in showing himself a helpless dupe. Villette was exiled, and the de la Mottes were sentenced, Monsieur to the galleys and Madame to be publicly beaten, branded, and imprisoned for life. This sentence was not carried out: La Motte escaped prison dressed as a boy.
The people of France were already fond of vilifying the Queen, and this provoked a fresh outpouring of scurrilous accusations, now collected and stored in the Bibliotheque Nationale and known as “The Inferno”. Never before had things been so bad: now it was positively dangerous for Marie-Antoinette to show her face in Paris. Though the Cardinal was acquitted and the La Mottes punished, the verdict did nothing to vindicate the Queen who was widely believed to have manipulated them in order to ruin the Cardinal. The common people of France came to believe that the Queen was corrupt and depraved, and the Church little better.
Three years later came the Revolution, and in 1973 Marie-Antoinette, after a trial during which she was accused of the most horrible crimes from the scurrilous pamphlets, was beheaded on the guillotine. A young man named Napoleon Bonaparte was watching events unfold with interest, and opined that “the Queen’s death must be dated from the Diamond Necklace trial.”
Nobody ever saw the famous diamond necklace again.
Sources: Wikipedia, Robespierre: The Fool as Revolutionary