It might sound crazy to think, but there is indeed a story of a diamond necklace that played a not insignificant part in the lead-up to the French Revolution of 1789 – 1799. Including all the elements you like to see such as thievery, death, betrayal, and of course, diamonds; it’s not a story to be missed.
For anyone not in the know, Marie Antoinette was not the most popular Queen of France. In fact, she was the last Queen of France largely due to her reputation among the French people as a frivolous spender who cared more about her fancies than about the welfare of the general public. In the lead up to the French Revolution, Antoinette was involved in a scandal surrounding an exorbitantly expensive diamond necklace that took her public reputation from bad to worse.
It all started with King Louis XV, the predecessor to Antoinette’s husband, Louis XI. Louise XV wanted to have a diamond necklace commissioned for his most favoured mistress, Madame du Barry. The Parisian crown jewellers, Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassange were requested to make an exceptionally lavish diamond necklace, something that would outshine all others, so that his mistress may wear it with pride. It took many years for the jewellers to acquire diamonds fit for the extraordinary necklace, at great cost to the jewellers.
The necklace was described as having a row of 17 diamonds the size of acorns, a three-wreathed festoon attached below the diamond row, and pendants encircling it in various cuts including pear-cut diamonds. By the time the creation had been properly sourced and constructed, King Louis XV had died, and his mistress had been banished from the court – an unpopular figure among the other royals.
Almost bankrupt, Boehmer and Bassange had to find a new way to profit from their work. The new Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was known to not only be a big spender, but also to be a big fan of lavish jewellery. The jeweller’s approached King Louis XVI about purchasing the necklace as a gift for his wife, and he was set to make the purchase, but supposedly Antoinette claimed that France had greater need for more battleships than it did for diamond necklaces. Whether this was Antoinette’s true response is impossible to verify, as others theorise that perhaps Louis had changed his mind about the necklace, or potentially Antoinette didn’t want it because it had been made for du Barry, whom she was known to have openly disliked.
Things start to really spice up at the entrance of Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, a sly thief who gained notoriety as a consequence of her involvement in this scandal. Jeanne saw opportunity in the necklace, seeing it as a chance to gain wealth and potential power, and so set to work on manipulating those around her. She became a mistress to the Cardinal de Rohan, who was disliked by Marie Antoinette because he had spread rumours about her to her mother, as well as writing about her mother in a way that Antoinette found offensive.
Jeanne was known to have a close relationship to the Queen – something that wasn’t true, but was always perpetuated by Jeanne herself. Rohan was under the impression that he could use his own connection to Jeanne in order to get back in the Queen’s good books. Jeanne confirmed for the Cardinal that she was doing what she could to help him. Jeanne’s next move was to lead Rohan to believe that he was in direct written correspondence with Antoinette, except the reality of the situation was that Jeanne was playing the part of Marie Antoinette, leading Rohan to believe his relationship with Antoinette was consistently improving.
Eventually, Jeanne worked together with Boehmer and Bassange, writing to the Cardinal as Antoinette and claiming that the queen wanted to buy the diamond necklace, but couldn’t risk being seen buying it while France was in a time of need. The so-called ‘Antoinette’ ordered Rohan to deliver letters to the jewellers confirming her purchase of the necklace. Boehmer and Bassange, also believing that Jeanne was closely linked to the queen, received the letters and were happy to hand the necklace over to the Cardinal, having read the letters and agreed to the terms laid therein: that the queen would send Rohan with funds in instalments in exchange for the necklace.
The Cardinal delivered the necklace to an accomplice of Jeanne’s, believing him to be a worker for the queen. Jeanne and her accomplice quickly disassembled the necklace, selling the gemstones from it on the Parisian and London black markets. When it came time to pay and no funds were presented, Boehmer and Bassange took their complaints directly to the queen. Marie Antoinette claimed that she did not order nor agree to pay for the pendant, but when the public heard tell of the scandal, it wasn’t enough for the queen to deny it. Antoinette was tried at court and was eventually declared innocent, with Jeanne and her accomplices being found guilty.
Even though Marie Antoinette had nothing to do with the necklace in reality, her association with the scandal surrounding it tarnished her public reputation beyond repair. Within a few short years, the French Revolution began, ultimately ending in Marie Antoinette’s death by guillotine. Who could have guessed that a piece of jewellery could have such an impact?