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Marie-Antoinette’s AFFAIR OF THE DIAMOND NECKLACE

marieIt was the biggest scandal at the court of Louis XVI in the late summer of 1785 that discredited the French monarchy on the eve of the French Revolution.

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 – totaling 2 800 carats in weight!

It 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. The jewellers hoped that the new king, Louis XVI, might agree to buy the necklace for Marie Antoinette. Such was the size of the necklace that gathering the diamonds to assemble it almost bankrupted its creators.

The choker of the necklace was made up of seventeen diamonds of five to eight carats each. From the choker hung six pear-shaped diamonds, one of nine carats, two of eleven carats, two of twelve and a half carats, and two that were at least thirteen carats each. There were also two clusters of fourteen diamonds that totaled ten carats each, and another cluster of eight diamonds that totaled twenty-four carats. There were festoons and tassels, as well, that added to the total weight of 2,800 carats. According to Frances Mossiker, the necklace was comprised of 647 diamonds.

At the time this necklace was the most expensive piece of jewellery in France and possibly the world. Valued at a whopping 1.6 million francs.

Boehmer and Bassenge were eager to sell the finished necklace – but its extraordinary cost meant the French royal family was the only potential buyer.

MARIE ANTOINETTE, HOWEVER, DID NOT WANT IT.

Though she had previously spent a great deal of her own money on diamonds, she no longer desired to purchase extravagant jewelry. How could the queen spend money on baubles when people in the country did not have enough to eat? In fact, the queen had previously told Boehmer, the jeweler, that she did not want to buy anything more from him.

“Marie Antoinette assured him she should much regret incurring so great an expense for such an article, that she had already very beautiful diamonds, that jewels of that description were now worn at Court not more than four or five times a year, that the necklace must be returned, and that the money would be much better employed in building a man-of-war”

It was on that morning of February First that Cardinal Rohan summoned the royal jewelers to his home. He had been in discussions with the jewelers about the possibility of purchasing the necklace on behalf of a great lady. He informed the jewelers that morning that the great lady was Marie-Antoinette herself. (Or at least, he thought so; he was being deceived be Madame de La Motte, who was providing him with forged letters from “the Queen”.) He produced a signed contract, worked out a payment plan, and agreed to take delivery of the necklace–to himself–that same day.

The Abbé Georgel, part of the Cardinal’s household, said it was Madame de La Motte who specified the date of the necklace delivery. It was the eve of Purification Day and the day of the investiture of the Cordon Bleu. Tellingly, Madame de La Motte arranged for the necklace to be brought by Cardinal Rohan to her apartments, where it would be picked up by the Queen’s messenger. The Cardinal, as instructed, brought the necklace in its box to Madame de La Motte’s apartments in Versailles and carried it inside with his own hands. After he entered, there was another knock at the door and someone cried, “In the name of the Queen!” The man, apparently a messenger from Her Majesty, entered the room and received the jewel box from Madame de La Motte.

Later, Madame de La Motte would claim this man was named Desclaux and was the Queen’s footman. The Queen denied any knowledge of the necklace or the messenger. Whoever the man was, after he carried away the necklace, it was never seen again in one piece.

SO WHERE DID ALL THOSE SIX-HUNDRED-PLUS DIAMONDS GO?

The necklace actually was divided and sold piecemeal, but not by the jeweler. Hearing of the situation, and thinking she could make a profit for herself, a con-woman - Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois (also known as the Comtesse de la Motte), set in motion a plan to trick Boehmer, among others. Separated from their setting, the stones were sold off one by one or in small batches. It’s likely the larger diamonds were cut down to make them less identifiable. The story goes Madame de La Motte gave some diamonds to her husband to sell in London and some to her erstwhile friend and lover Retaux to Villette.

Many of the diamonds showed up in London – for new jewelry and objects like snuff boxes. The diamond market, like all other markets, wasn’t closely regulated in the late 1700’s. Even legitimate businessmen weren’t necessarily going to ask questions about the origin of the goods brought to them for sale.

Two Parisian diamond merchants named Adan and Vidal reported him when he tried to sell them a suspiciously large number of diamonds. This was on February 15, just two weeks after the little charade at Madame de la Motte’s Versailles apartments. He candidly, but not very cannily, admitted to the police that a lady had given him the diamonds to dispose of. Upon being pressed, Villette even gave up Madame de La Motte’s name.

The jewelers’ bill for the necklace, of course, remained unpaid - which caused the whole situation to unravel.

The jewelers and Carindal Rohan began wondering where the necklace went. They all waited anxiously to see the Queen wear it in public, but of course that day never came. Madame de La Motte continued feeding the Cardinal excuses. By the following summer, it became clear that something was afoot. The trial was a sensation. At the end, Madame de La Motte was convicted of the theft of the necklace and sentenced to be beaten, branded, and imprisoned for life (she escaped to England). Villette was exiled.

Monsieur de La Motte was convicted in absentia (having quite cleverly fled to England when people started being arrested). Cardinal Rohan was acquitted. But the diamonds never showed up. It was easy for the public to believe de La Motte, since Antoinette’s love of jewelry was common knowledge. And ... since the queen’s reputation had already been greatly tarnished, people were convinced she had the necklace, refused to pay

for it and blamed that lack of payment on others. More than ever, the queen was held in derision.

People accused her, and her friends, of spending recklessly while the country itself was swimming in debt. As Louis XVI demanded more taxes of his

people, his wife was dubbed “Madame Deficit.”

The diamond necklace affair would be one of the final straws before the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette’s death sentence.

 

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