What started as a gift from French king Louis XV to a woman he was infatuated with led, in August 1785, to a scandal that became known as ‘The Affair of the Diamond Necklace,’ and ultimately the French Revolution, as the reputation of the monarchy – in particular, Queen Marie Antoinette – was ruined.
A major fraud was indeed perpetrated as certain people sought to make capital from the hugely expensive necklace, while check fraud can be foiled now though modern tamper proof checks measures, back in 18th century France forged letters was all it took to set a major fraud in motion.
An expensive gift
In 1772, Louis XV decided to gift Madame du Barry – with whom he was infatuated – an extra special gift of a diamond necklace of exceptional grandeur. The necklace would take several years to make and cost a remarkable $14 million in today’s money.
Before the necklace was completed Louis XV died and Madame du Barry was banished from court.
The jewelers hoped the new Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, would buy it. New king Louis XVI did offer it to her, but she refused saying that France needed new ships, not extravagant necklaces.
The fraud is instigated
Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy – a confidence trickster also known as Jeanne de la Motte – saw an opportunity to amass wealth and entry to French society and maybe even royal patronage.
By 1785 she had become the mistress of Cardinal de Rohan who was trying to regain the Queen’s favor having upset her through circulating rumors concerning her behavior and writing disparaging letters about her mother, Maria Theresa.
Jeanne told the Cardinal she was in good favor with the Queen and that she could possibly help him repair relations with her. To this end she posed as Marie Antoinette in writing forged replies to the Cardinal’s letters, and even managed a nighttime meeting between the Queen and the Cardinal by using a prostitute to pose as Marie Antoinette in the darkened garden where the meeting took place.
The bogus Marie Antoinette told the Cardinal their past disagreements were forgotten, and Jeanne took advantage of the Cardinal’s belief in her by borrowing large sums of money from him, enabling her to fulfill her wish of moving into high society.
Buying the necklace
Amongst the forged letters from the Queen to the Cardinal was one agreeing to buy the necklace.
The Cardinal arranged the purchase of the necklace and took it to Jeanne’s home where (so the Cardinal thought) a valet of the Queen collected it. In fact, it was an accomplice of Jeanne’s, and from here the necklace was dissembled and the valuable gems sold on in Paris and London.
Jeanne presented the Cardinal’s notes to pay the jewelers for the necklace but they were insufficient. The jeweler complained to the Queen who replied she’d not received or ever authorized the purchase of the necklace.
A basic error
When the Cardinal was apprehended it was pointed out that the letters he thought were from the Queen had been signed ‘Marie Antoinette of France’ whereas royalty only signed with their baptized names – something he’d totally overlooked.
The Cardinal was acquitted, Jeanne was found guilty but managed to escape, and there the matter may have rested had it not been for the French peoples’ scorn for their Queen.
Aftermath and revolution
Despite Marie Antoinette being blameless in that she’d never wanted the necklace in the first place and had no idea what was going on, the French public saw the acquittal of the Cardinal as somehow proof the Queen was at fault.
Her earlier history of excessive spending and seeming disregard for the plight of French citizens at a time of hardship, such as in her famous (though disputed) “let them eat cake” quote, had tarnished her reputation. Despite her innocence this time, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace set in motion increasing feelings of open hostility towards her and ushered in the French Revolution.
She was executed in 1793.
Join the discussion on this topic with Arts On Earth by visiting our contact page.