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If you think that French history is boring, think twice. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace is one of the most famous heists in history that discredited the French monarchy on the eve of the French Revolution. The Diamond Necklace Affair was an incident at King Louis XVI’s court in Versailles that involved his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette. Filled with mystery, intrigue, and desire, this incredible story had an infamous diamond necklace at the center of it all.
The Affair of the Diamond Necklace has been retold in literature and film. You can find the story of the Diamond Necklace Affair in the book How to Ruin A Queen, by Jonathan Beckman, and in the film The Affair of the Necklace (2001) directed by Charles Shyer and with Hillary Swank, Adrien Brody, Jonathan Pryce, and Christopher Walker as main characters.
Here’s the story:
The Diamond Necklace Affair – Main Characters
The Diamond Necklace
This magnificent diamond necklace, wrongly known as Marie-Antoinette Necklace or Madame du Barry Necklace, is the main character in this story.
In 1772 King Louis XV commissioned a magnificent diamond necklace for his mistress, Madame du Barry. To craft this extravagant piece of jewelry, the prestigious Parisian jewelers Boehmer and Bassange fell into debt while trying to source the many precious stones to meet the royal demand. The result was the finest diamond necklace the world has ever seen, with 647 diamonds that weighed over 2,800 carats.
Before the Madame du Barry necklace was finished, King Louis XV died, and the jewelers found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy and stuck with a necklace, today worth 14 million dollars, that no one could afford.
Jeanne, Comtesse de La Motte
Jeanne de La Motte Valois, a countess whose name was stripped from her by the Royal Family during the late 18th century, was the person who masterminded this incredible heist. Jeanne was an impoverished member of the Valois royal family who was orphaned at a young age. The French government took her family’s home to pay off their debts.
Jeanne had her sights set on the Palace of Versailles. She believed that finding favor with the new Queen was the key to living the life she felt was owed to her. Jeanne pleaded with Queen Marie-Antoinette to get her family’s home and fortune back, but the Queen had been warned about Jeanne’s dubious reputation and refused her. Jeanne decided to get what she wanted her own way!
Cardinal de Rohan
Louis René Edouard Prince de Rohan was a member of one of France’s most distinguished families. He aspired to become a minister in King Louis XVI’s court, but Queen Marie-Antoinette despised him.
During his years as French ambassador to Vienna, from 1772 to 1774, the Cardinal de Rohan had slandered both Marie-Antoinette and her mother through official letters and court gossip. Now that Marie-Antoinette was Queen of France, he found himself barred from the political appointments he so dearly desired.
The Queen of France, wife of King Louis XVI, was not lucky! After the famous quote Let them Eat Cake, Marie Antoinette was one of the victims of this incredible Diamond Necklace Affair despite her.
When King Louis XV died, Marie-Antoinette, well-known for her lavish spending, was offered the Madame du Barry necklace. She declined the offer because she knew the history behind the necklace.
READ MORE: Best Movies about Marie-Antoinette
Affair of the Diamond Necklace – The Plot
In an attempt to recuperate her family’s lost fortune, the Comtesse de La Motte decided to steal the necklace for herself. The Countess’s scheme involved Cardinal de Rohan, who was anxious to be restored to favor at the French Court.
Jeanne started to hang around with the Cardinal by claiming to be a close friend of the Queen. After a few months, Jeanne and the Cardinal became both confidantes and lovers.
The Comtesse de La Motte suggested to the Cardinal that the Queen wished to acquire the necklace secretly and would be ready for a formal reconciliation at Court if he would facilitate its purchase by negotiating with the jewelers.
After reading forged letters supposedly from the Queen – cordial letters at first, then a little bit flirty – that turned into a brief nocturnal interview in the gardens of Versailles with a prostitute disguised as the Queen, Rohan went to see the jewelers to purchase the diamond necklace on the Queen’s behalf.
Boehmer and Bassange negotiated a payment plan of four installments over the next two years and gave the diamond necklace to Rohan, who in turn gave it to Jeanne to pass along to the Queen.
Needless to say, Queen Marie-Antoinette never saw the diamond necklace! The Comtesse de La Motte gave the necklace to her husband, who in turn quickly set off to London to disassemble it and sell the 647 diamonds separately.
The plan was a total success… at least for a couple of months. When the Cardinal failed to raise the first installment in full, the jewelers went above him and asked the Queen directly. Understandably, Queen Marie Antoinette was rather confused by their demand for payment for a necklace she had refused in the past.
Finally, the trickery came to light, and King Louis XVI had the Cardinal arrested and later exiled and deprived of all his offices. The Comtesse de La Motte was sentenced to be flogged, branded, and imprisoned for life. She later escaped to England and there published her scandalous Mémoires vilifying Marie-Antoinette.
Despite Queen Marie-Antoinette being innocent, the Diamond Necklace Affair tarnished her reputation forever as she was seen by the people as the instigator of the scandal (hence the Marie-Antoinette Diamond Necklace nickname). Some historians believe the Diamond Necklace Affair was the prelude to the French Revolution.