The ‘diamond necklace affair’ was a scandal following the theft of France’s most valuable piece of jewellery. The diamond necklace was stolen in 1785 as part of a confidence trick involving Catholic cardinal Louis de Rohan and other figures. Those involved used the name of Marie Antoinette to facilitate the swindle. The scandal was later unpacked at a public trial and despite having no direct involvement, the queen was subject to gossip and ridicule.
The diamond necklace at the centre of the furore was made by Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge. It contained 647 flawless diamonds, some several carats in size. The necklace was the most expensive piece of jewellery in France, possibly the world. Conservative estimates valued it at 1.5 million livres, though its true value was probably higher.
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 really the only potential buyer.
An offer to Versailles
In 1778, the jewellers made an official approach to Louis XVI, offering him the necklace as a gift for Marie Antoinette.
According to reports, the queen was shown the necklace, tried it on and expressed some interest but the sale was not completed. Legend suggests it was vetoed by Antoinette herself, who opined that the money would be better spent on battleships. The real reason, however, is not recorded.
Boehmer and Bassenge were left to sell the necklace to royals and wealthy nobles outside France. They had no luck, however, due to the exorbitant asking price.
De la Motte and De Rohan
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’s unpopularity with Marie Antoinette had proved a stumbling block to his political ambitions. His eagerness to win the queen’s favour proved his downfall.
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, replies that were actually forgeries written by Jeanne or her husband.
The ruse was so effective that Rohan came to believe 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.
The great swindle
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 were Boehmer and Bassenge.
In late 1784, the Parisian jewellers 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 to them 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 on the black markets of Paris and London.
The conspiracy unveiled
The scam was uncovered 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.
The pair were tried before the Paris parlement the following spring. 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 – the trial caused a sensation in Paris.
Jeanne de la Motte was ultimately 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 indeed even heard of – Jeanne de la Motte. If anything, both Louis XVI and Antoinette acted with caution and fiscal responsibility by deciding not to buy the necklace and cast the nation further into debt.
In a climate poisoned by libelles, political pornography and anti-royal gossip, however, many preferred to believe the queen a willing player in the fiasco.
Rumours quickly circulated that the trial was a cover-up, a verdict engineered to protect the queen’s reputation. They interpreted 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 easier to think Marie Antoinette guilty, regardless of the lack of evidence.
A historian’s view:
“Once Marie-Antoinette became a mother, she focused most of her energy on her children. This resulted in a noticeable decline in the lavishness that had characterised her youth. She no longer bought jewellery or wore elaborate wigs. Nevertheless, her household consisted of 500 people who jealously guarded their little empires. Despite the marked decrease in her social activities, she was known as the ‘Austrian she-wolf’. Slander about her spread, scandalous stories were freely invented, many of them believed. Her reputation was already at a low ebb when she was unjustly implicated in the… Diamond Necklace affair.”
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.