The ‘diamond necklace affair’ was a public scandal in the 1780s that followed the theft of some valuable jewellery. The diamond necklace at the centre of this affair was made by Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge and contained 647 flawless diamonds, some of several carats each. This necklace was the most expensive piece of jewellery in France and possibly the world. Conservative estimates valued it at 1.5 million livres, though its true value was probably higher. The necklace was stolen in 1785 as part of a confidence trick involving Catholic cardinal Louis de Rohan and several other figures. The story of this scam was later unveiled in a public trial. Those involved in the theft of the necklace had used Marie Antoinette’s name as part of their swindle. Despite not being directly involved, the queen was publicly discredited by the diamond necklace affair.
The diamond necklace in question was originally commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry – however the king died a year later, long before the necklace was completed. Such was the size of the necklace that gathering the diamonds to assemble it almost bankrupted its creators. Understandably, Boehmer and Bassenge were eager to sell the finished necklace – but its extraordinary cost meant the French royal family was the only potential buyer. In 1778 the jewellers made an official approach to Louis XVI, offering him the necklace as a gift for Marie Antoinette. The queen was shown the necklace, tried it on and expressed some interest – however the sale was not completed. According to legend it was vetoed by Antoinette herself, who decided that battleships would be a wiser purchase. The real reason, however, is not recorded. Boehmer and Bassenge were left to sell the necklace to royal families and wealthy nobles outside France, with no luck.
G. Fremont-Barnes, historian
In March 1784 Jeanne de la Motte, the young wife of a conman, began communicating with Cardinal de Rohan, a high ranking clergyman and diplomat. Rohan was unpopular with Marie Antoinette and this had proved a stumbling block to his political ambitions. Within a few months Jeanne had convinced Rohan that she was an agent for Marie Antoinette. The cardinal began a lengthy exchange of letters with Antoinette, expressing his loyalty and devotion to her. Rohan received affectionate replies from Her Majesty, though these replies were forgeries written by Jeanne or her husband. The ruse was so effective, however, that Rohan came to believe that Antoinette was in love with him. He pushed Jeanne to arrange a secret meeting with the queen. Jeanne responded by organising a nighttime rendezvous between Rohan and a Paris prostitute who bore a passing resemblance to the Queen of France.
Armed with large amounts of money borrowed from Rohan, Jeanne de la Motte became a regular in high society. Others also came to believe that Jeanne was a confidante of the queen – among them the Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge. In late 1784 they approached Jeanne and asked if she could persuade Antoinette to purchase the diamond necklace. Jeanne and her husband found this opportunity too good to resist. Using some forged papers, Jeanne convinced Cardinal de Rohan to acquire the necklace on Antoinette’s behalf. The 1.6 million livres fee, these papers claimed, would be paid in instalments. In February 1785 the necklace was passed to Cardinal de Rohan, who handed it to a third party purporting to represent the queen. The necklace immediately disappeared and was never seen intact again. It was broken up and its gold and diamonds were sold in the blackmarkets of Paris and London.
The scam was uncovered several weeks later, when one of the jewellers asked a royal chambermaid if Antoinette was yet to wear the necklace in public. An investigation soon uncovered the involvement of Jeanne de la Motte and Cardinal de Rohan. Both were arrested in August 1785, Rohan as he was about to conduct mass at Versailles. They were tried before the Paris parlement the following spring. The trial caused a sensation in the capital, with its chain of lies, forgeries, secret letters, prostitutes, nighttime meetings and Rohan’s deluded love for the queen – not to mention the missing 1.6 million livre necklace. Jeanne de la Motte was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, accompanied by flogging and branding. Cardinal de Rohan was acquitted, despite the weight of evidence against him and despite his sizeable role in the whole affair.
Most historians concur that Marie Antoinette played little or no part in the ‘diamond necklace affair’. There was no evidence that she had communicated with – or even heard of – Jeanne de la Motte. If anything both Louis XVI and Antoinette had acted with caution and responsibility by deciding not to buy the necklace and thus cast the nation further into debt. But in a climate poisoned by libelles, political pornography and anti-royal gossip, many Parisians preferred to think the queen a willing player in the necklace fiasco. They interpreted the outcome of the trial as a cover up, a verdict engineered to protect the queen’s reputation. They chose to interpret the parlement’s acquittal of Rohan as a sign he had been ‘used’ or betrayed by Antoinette. In the poisoned environment of 1780s Paris it was more convenient to think Marie Antoinette guilty of conspiracy, even if the evidence contradicted this.
1. The ‘diamond necklace affair’ was an incident in 1784-85, involving the theft of a highly valuable necklace, by scammers claiming to represent Queen Marie Antoinette.
2. The scam unfolded in 1784 when Jeanne de la Motte began communicating with Cardinal de Rohan, claiming to be an agent of the queen, Marie Antoinette.
3. Eager to offload the necklace, which had been rejected by Louis XVI and Antoinette, its creators approached Jeanne de la Motte, believing she was a genuine royal courtier.
4. The jewellers were provided with forged documents, claiming to arrange the purchase of the necklace for Marie Antoinette. The necklace was delivered to a third party claiming to represent the queen, but promptly disappeared to be broken up and sold.
5. Those involved were arrested and sent to trial. Jeanne de la Motte was found guilty and punished, while Cardinal de Rohan was acquitted. Contrary to the evidence, many in Paris became convinced that Marie Antoinette was directly involved, further damaging her reputation.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “The affair of the diamond necklace”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/affair-of-the-diamond-necklace/.