The ‘diamond necklace affair’ was a public scandal in the mid-1780s that followed the theft of some extremely valuable jewellery. Those involved used Marie Antoinette‘s name as part of their swindle. This railed public opinion against the queen, despite there being no evidence of her involvement.
France’s most expensive jewellery
The diamond necklace in question was originally commissioned by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame du Barry, but the king died a year later, long before the necklace was completed.
The necklace itself was made by Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge and contained 647 flawless diamonds, some of several carats each. At the time, the necklace was the most expensive piece of jewellery in France and possibly the world. Conservative estimates valued it at 1.6 million livres, though its true value was probably higher.
Such was the size and value of the necklace that gathering the gemstones to construct 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.
Royal buyers wanted
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 but 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 shop the necklace around to royal families and wealthy nobles outside France. They did this for a time but found no willing buyers.
“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.”
G. Fremont-Barnes, historian
Cardinal Rohan duped
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. Within a few months, Motte had convinced Rohan she was a confidante of Marie Antoinette. This interested Rohan, who had been unpopular with the queen, something he felt was an obstacle to his political ambitions.
At the suggestion of Motte, the cardinal began a lengthy exchange of letters with Antoinette, in which he expressed his loyalty and devotion to her. In return, Rohan received sympathetic and affectionate replies from Her Majesty. The reality, of course, was that Motte was not in contact with Antoinette and the replies had been drafted by Motte or her husband.
The ruse was so effective 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 Antoinette.
The necklace vanishes
Armed with large amounts of money borrowed from Rohan, Jeanne de la Motte became a regular in high society. With Rohan’s support, others came to believe that Motte was a close friend of the queen. Among them were the Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge.
In late 1784, they approached Motte and asked if she could persuade Antoinette to purchase the diamond necklace. Jeanne and her husband found the 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 promptly broken up, its gold and diamonds sold in the black markets of Paris and London.
The scam revealed
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, night-time meetings and Rohan’s deluded love for the queen – not to mention the missing necklace 1.6 million livres 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 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 refusing to buy the necklace.
In a climate poisoned by libelles, political pornography and anti-royal gossip, however, 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 and questionable conduct, even if the evidence did not support such a conclusion.
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.