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Affair of the Diamond Necklace, A Scandal That Sealed The Destruction of the French Monarchy

The elaborate design of the Diamond Necklace

Today, July 14, is Bastille Day, a French National Holiday. It is celebrated with parades and fireworks around the country and its overseas territories.

The celebration commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 by a French mob during the early stages of the French revolution.

Prior to Bastille riot, there was a national scandal

Who would ever think that a splendid 2,800-carat diamond necklace could be instrumental in a French revolution that ultimately led to the destruction of the French monarchy?

Also known as "The Queen's Necklace", the Affair of the Diamond Necklace began a series of political tensions that morphed into a national scandal, triggering public hatred.

Historians believed the events triggered the French revolution that sealed the fate of King Louis XIV and Queen Marie Antoinette in the guillotine.

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace remained one of the most notorious royal scandals in European monarchy history because the primary issue was fraud involving Queen Marie Antoinette.

The Curse of the Diamond Necklace

During the early years of the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis, the Dauphin of France, she charmed the French people with her beauty, poise, elegance and fashion. She cultivated friendship within the French society and quickly became popular.

Portrait of Queen Marie Antoniette

This public approval, however, was not sustained. Years later, Marie Antoinette’s extravagant lifestyle, obsession on shoes, gambling and expensive masked balls disappointed the public. She was eventually viewed as a liability rather than an asset to the French royal family.

Within the royal court, her stubborn behavior also created tension. She would loathe anyone she found disreputable, often, in a loud manner.

One of the courtiers she openly resented was Jeanne Becu, popularly known as Madame du Barry, the known mistress of her grandfather-in-law, King Louis XV. 

It was through this mistress that her fate and that of the French monarchy would be determined. The dots of their misfortunes were connected by a piece of jewelry called the diamond necklace. 

Psychics developed fictitious stories about the necklace, claiming it was under the spell of a black magic. Anyone who had association to the jewelry will suffer a terrible death.

Whether the black magic story was accurate or just fabricated, circumstances linked to the jewelry proved that the three primary figures on the affairs of the necklace suffered a horrible fate.

How this cryptic necklace came into existence?

The story began in 1772 when King Louis XV commissioned Parisian jewelers, Boehmer and Bassenge, to create an elegant necklace for Madame du Barry. He intended to give it as a special gift to his mistress for the important role she played in his life and in the royal court.

Portrait of Madame du Barry

The king insisted to craft a splendid piece of jewelry that has no match in the world, so the jewelers created a masterpiece composed of large diamonds. It was elaborately arranged in intricate designs of festoons, pendants and tassels.

The jewelers began working laboriously on the design, spending their fortune for the diamond pieces and other precious gems to form a magnificent piece. 

Unfortunately, in 1774, Louis XV died before the jewelry could be completed. It was not paid, and Madame du Barry was banished from the court when Louis XVI became king. She was imprisoned at the behest of Marie Antoinette.

Desperate to recover the money they invested, the Parisian jewelers tried selling the necklace to the newly-ascended king whose wife was known for extravagance.

Louis XVI initially agreed but Marie Antoinette reportedly refused due to its price tag, a whopping 1.6 million livres, equivalent to $100 million in today’s currency. The Queen suggested to use the money instead for other serious business such as purchasing armaments.

How Marie Antoinette was linked to the scandal?

Analyzing the refusal of Marie Antoinette to acquire the diamond necklace and the rumor that she had been the leading figure of defrauding the jewelers, one could not help but wonder how the Queen was dragged into the scandal.

The necklace scandal that triggered it all

Well, it was 18th century France and the balance of public opinion was tainted. Marie Antoinette’s reputation of extravagance developed an increasing public mistrust. 

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace would eventually play an important role in the disillusionment of the French towards the monarchy, triggering series of political tensions that ultimately sparked the French Revolution.

In 1785, the drama of this scandalous affair began to move against the interest of Marie Antoinette. Deceit, betrayal, manipulation and forgery would soon follow, pinning her deeply into unyielding controversies.

The whole scheme was initiated by the ambitious Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois, an impoverished descendant of King Henry II of France who dreamed a life of comfort. She was married to Nicholas de la Motte, reportedly an aristocrat but had no estate nor wealth to sustain a luxurious lifestyle.

Pushed by her yearning to become rich, Jeanne concocted lies to be accepted in the French society, spreading stories that she had access to Marie Antoinette. 

In her pursuit of wealth, she started exploring all possibilities to be associated to the royal family. She was eventually noticed by Madame Elizabeth, Louis XVI’s sister.

Jeanne also began an extra marital affair with a French soldier, Armand Gabriel Retaux de Villette. But it was not enough to boost her social standing, so she formed an affair with a French nobleman, Louis Rene Edouard de Rohan, a former Ambassador to Vienna.

Jeanne bragged to de Rohan that she had access to Marie Antoinette. The nobleman was delighted. He had been desperately wishing to gain favor from the Queen because he wanted to become one of Louis XVI’s ministers. He ultimately saw his relationship with Jeanne de la Motte as a vehicle to glory and power.

However, Jeanne de la Motte was not the sweet girl he thought to be. She was in fact treacherous. Jeanne began tricking de Rohan with fabricated stories about her closeness to the Queen and the charities she spearheaded, to borrow money. She also started writing letters to de Rohan in the name Marie Antoinette.

Cardinal de Rohan completely believed Jeanne’s charade, giving his full trust, lending her money. But it was not enough. The nobleman wanted to meet the Queen. So, Jeanne, who had no access to Marie Antoinette in reality, hired a prostitute to pose as the Queen.

She organized the meeting in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles and surprisingly, Cardinal de Rohan did not notice this deception. When he met the prostitute, who closely resembled the Queen, he was ecstatic. Grateful with Jeanne’s supposed arrangement, he paid her with monetary rewards.



The successful deception

Jeanne then lived an aristocratic life, socializing with the elites in the French society using the money she had conned from de Rohan. Eventually, her supposed association with Marie Antoinette finally caught the attention of the Parisian jewelers.

Boehmer and Bassenge, who were still looking for a buyer of the diamond necklace, were on the brink of declaring bankruptcy. 

Desperate to recover their investment, they approached Jeanne de la Motte to help them contact the Queen for the necklace.

Jeanne, whose association to the Queen was totally bogus, enlisted the help of Cardinal de Rohan to facilitate the negotiation of the purchase. She had tricked the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted to keep the transaction private and needed another person to pose as a buyer.

The Cardinal, who had a vested personal interest to please the Queen, agreed and began a correspondence with the jewelers. He negotiated the purchase of the jewelry for 2 million livres to be paid on installment.

The cardinal also received a note from the Queen authorizing the purchase, the note was signed “Maria Antoinette de France”, unaware it was forged by de la Motte’s lover, Villette.

Boehmer and Bassenge thoroughly believed with this charade. They handed the necklace to Jeanne de la Motte, her husband, Nicholas, and Cardinal de Rohan, with a third party presumed to be a royal aide. 

The jewelry was secretly transported by the de la Mottes to London, dismantled and sold the diamonds separately.

When the jewelers did not receive the money that de Rohan and de la Motte had promised, they decided to go to the Queen directly to complain. 

Marie Antoinette was shocked and enraged when she discovered there was a fake negotiation carried under her name. She was further humiliated when the jewelers presented the authorization letter bearing her signature.

An investigation was conducted and pointed Cardinal de Rohan and Jeanne de la Motte as primary perpetrators. 

King Louis XVI was reportedly incensed with the cardinal’s innocence. He was infuriated with de Rohan for allowing himself to be fooled when, as a nobleman, he was aware that royals traditionally never used surnames in public transactions, much more fixing signatures.

Cardinal de Rohan and Jeanne de la Motte were arrested while de la motte’s lover, Armand Gabriel Retaux de Villette, who confessed of forging the signature of Marie Antoinette, was expelled out of France.

In what could have been an attempt of the royal family to clear the name of the Queen and redeemed her reputation, they requested a public trial for the suspects. 

But the result was not something Marie Antoinette had expected. The cardinal was acquitted and was sent into exile. While Jeanne, who was found guilty of thief, was imprisoned and whipped, but was able to escape and went to live in London with her husband. They lived in comfort with the fortune they amassed from the sale of the diamonds.

The scandal brought a different turn of events in the life of Marie Antoinette. Although it was proven that she was innocent and had nothing to do with the negotiation, she did not successfully avert the rumors of her alleged involvement on the transaction. Known for her penchant of luxury, she was viewed by the public as guilty.

The scandal that triggered the revolution

Eventually, the scandal was sensationalized all over France with the accusation of a conspiracy theory between the Queen and the de la Mottes to get back on de Rohan. 

Prior to the ascension of Louis XVI, de Rohan served as French ambassador to Vienna. The ambassador was believed to have reported all of Marie Antoinette’s misconduct to her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who chastised her daughter to behave. 

After learning it was de Rohan who spilled the beans to her mother, Marie Antoinette shut off her door to the ambassador.

In public perception, the diamond scandal was viewed as the Queen’s revenge to get back on de Rohan. 

Eventually, the issue was blown out of a proportion. Pamphlets, which were produced by the de la Mottes. were distributed, implicating Marie Antoinette as the leading figure in the scandal. The accusation was accompanied with more salacious stories of her promiscuity and rounds of orgies at the Palace of Versailles.

By 1789, the fate of the French monarchy clung on a thin thread. The worsening economic condition of the country, coupled with the national disgrace of Marie Antoinette and the purportedly weak decision-making of the king, who was increasingly dependent on his wife, galvanized the hatred of the French against the monarchy.



The necklace as a curse

The Fall of Bastille in July 1789 was followed by the storming of the angry crowd to the Palace of Versailles, forcing the royal family to take refuge in Paris. 

It triggered a series of rancorous events that ultimately led to the downfall of King Louis XVI. He was forced to abdicate in 1792 and was executed for high treason in January 1793.

Marie Antoinette was put into trial and listed, among the numerous charges implicated on her, the Diamond Necklace scandal. 

Stripped of her elegance, wealth, privilege, and even family, the Queen was publicly beheaded on October 16, 1793.

How contemporary literary writers came up with the idea that the Diamond Necklace had been cursed?

All three main characters directly attached to the necklace’s fame suffered a gruesome death. Queen Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry were both beheaded during the French Revolution, while Jeanne de la Motte leaped to her death from the window of her London hotel and her body was severely mangled. 

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