The Diamond necklace that contributed to the downfall of Mary Antoinette, the French monarchy and the popular uprising that became the French Revolution. This is the story of love, greed, power, deception, forgery, and politics, as well as a tale of blind desire for position and riches that led to ruin and destruction on a massive scale.
A duo that went down in history due to a single diamond jewelry item were the two Parisian jewelers, Charles Boehmer and Paul Bassenge. The two created a diamond necklace that contributed to the downfall of Mary Antoinette, the French monarchy and the popular uprising that became the French Revolution. This is the story of love, greed, power, deception, forgery, and politics, as well as a tale of blind desire for position and riches that led to ruin and destruction on a massive scale.
Boehmer and Bassenge were two celebrated Parisian jewelers who were commissioned in 1772 by King Louis XV of France to create a necklace for Madame du Barry, a former prostitute who became the king's chief mistress. The deceit started here. Although du Barry had a royal title, she was not a royal by birth. To earn it, she married her pimp's brother, and together they created a false birth certificate that included a fictitious noble heritage and made her three years younger. Now, with a royal title, she could become an official mistress of the king, following a series of affairs and clientele that included ministers and nobles, among them Marshal of France Richelieu.
The commissioned necklace was to be a special gift, and king was willing to spend an extraordinary amount on it, instructing the jewelers to create a necklace "surpass all others." They agreed on a cost of 2,000,000 livres, which translates to about $14 million in current value. Outlandish expenditures by the King on his mistresses were not unusual. He spent much on the previous chief mistress Madame de Pompadour, after whom the marquise diamond shape is named – fashioned after her lips.
Boehmer and Bassenge immediately went to work. The planning stage took a while, but eventually they arrived at an elaborate and unusual design that included a series of festoons, pendants and tassels, all set with diamonds, a great number of them fairly large. They then started to buy diamonds across Europe, a complicated process, because they were apparently not paid a large down payment. This forced them to buy the diamonds in stages, each time waiting before they saved enough to make the next purchase. In the end, the necklace included 647 diamonds with a total weight of 2,800 carats. According to reports at the time, they were of the highest color and clarity, probably as close as possible to D color, flawless clarity. There are no credible records of the cost of the diamonds, but some reports claim that the jewelers spent most of the 2 million livres budget on purchasing the diamonds.
Some two years after they were commissioned to make the necklace, King Louis XV died of smallpox on May 10, 1774. This left Boehmer and Bassenge with a fantastic yet unpaid for necklace. If they did not find a buyer, they would be faced with financial ruin.
After several years of attempting to sell the necklace, the two turned to the newly crowned King Louis XVI, offering him the necklace as gift for his wife, Marie Antoinette. In 1778, Louis XVI offered it to his wife as a gift, but she refused to accept it. According to one account, the Queen refused it because of the high cost, which she felt would be better spent on a war ship. Many believe that she refused to accept the necklace, because she did not want a second-hand jewelry item that had been designed for a courtesan. Some go as far as to state that Marie Antoinette deeply disliked Madame du Barry, and that is why it was turned down.
In October 1781, Marie Antoinette gave birth to Louis Joseph de France, her and the king's second child, and their first son. As the eldest son of the king, he was the heir apparent. Boehmer and Bassenge thought that this could be a cause of celebration calling for a unique jewelry item and approached the Queen again, reducing the price to 1.6 million livers. However, she still was not interested. She even suggested to the two jewelers that at such an exorbitant price, the sensible course of action would be to dismantle the piece and sell the diamonds so they could at least recoup their costs. Boehmer and Bassenge may have been too emotionally tied to the hard work and great results of their creation to bring themselves to take it apart.
At this point, Marie Antoinette was already being viewed very unfavorably by the public, considered extravagant, foolish, and consumed by a lust for male and female lovers, presiding over a Dionysian court of feasts, with total disregard for the growing plight of the common people. To make matters worse, rumors circulated that the children she bore were not the king's, but those of her lovers. Ironically, it could very well have been that same public perception that led to her refusal to have such outlandish and expensive necklace.
Over the years, the two jewelers took the necklace outside of France to show it to several possible buyers, with no success. This left them desperate. That is why when they were approached by the Countess of La Motte, who offered to sell the diamond necklace to a cardinal. They agreed. Although a decedent of King Henry II of France, apparently of one of his illegitimate children, Jeanne de la Motte turned out not to be a Countess, but a con woman.
Born Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, she married an officer of the gendarmes by the name Nicholas de la Motte, and in 1785, 13 years after the necklace was commissioned by Louis XV, Jeanne de la Motte befriended Cardinal de Rohan. There are mixed reports about their relationship. Some claim she was the Cardinal's mistress. Others say they simply knew each other. The Cardinal, the former ambassador to the Austrian court in Vienna, fell out of favor of the French court after he spoke critically of Marie Antoinette to Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, the mother of Marie Antoinette. Further, he may have also expressed a disrespectful tone about the empress, something that reached Queen Marie Antoinette.
Rude, undiplomatic, out of favor of the court, and apparently not very bright, the cardinal sought his way back to the court. That gave Jeanne de la Motte the idea to try and con them all. She suggested to the Cardinal that he buy the necklace for the Queen to gain back her favor. She then suggested to Boehmer and Bassenge to serve as a sort of broker between them and the court so they could finally sell the necklace. Her real goal, however, was to steal the necklace.
Through a series of letters, supposedly from the Queen, de la Motte convinced the cardinal that Marie Antoinette was open to a suggestion for a peace offering. Next, de la Motte arranged for a meeting between the cardinal and the Queen in the garden of the Palace of Versailles. The Cardinal met with a woman he believed to be the Queen, but in fact, the woman was a prostitute named Nicole Leguay d'Oliva, who was hired by de la Motte. The cardinal was convinced that the Queen was ready to forgive him and set aside her grievances.
Next, de la Motte introduced Cardinal Rohan to Boehmer and Bassenge after she told the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted the necklace, but did not want it to be known publically, supposedly asking him to act as a go-between and hide the identity of the true buyer. Cardinal Rohan agreed to buy the necklace for 2 million livres, to be paid in four installments over a period of two years. On February 1, 1785, he took the necklace and brought it to de la Motte's house. There, he met a man who was introduced to the cardinal as a servant of the Queen, who was there to take the necklace to her. The cardinal handed him the necklace with great excitement, and off the man went. The man was in fact de la Motte's husband, who immediately left Paris to London with the very precious necklace. Once in London, the necklace was dismantled, the diamonds and gold sold. This magnificent and lavish creation fit for the most outlandish court in Europe, was never seen again.
There are a few accounts of how the scheme was discovered. One says Boehmer and Bassenge asked a chambermaid if the Queen had already worn the necklace, only to discover that she had never received it. According to another account, a payment was due to Boehmer and Bassenge in July 1785, and when it was not made, they asked the Queen about it. Through them, Marie Antoinette discovered the cardinal's involvement and decided to summon him to the palace.
On August 15, believing that he was called to the Palace of Versailles to deliver a sermon, Cardinal Rohan was taken to the King and Queen to explain himself. The cardinal described the events. The king was furious at Rohan for letting himself be fooled, and ordered him arrested and taken to the Bastille. Jeanne de la Motte was captured and arrested several days later, and the two were brought to trial, together with Nicole Leguay d'Oliva.
Although the cardinal, Boehmer and Bassenge, and in a way the Queen were the victims of this scam, as far as the public was concerned, it was the Queen, her character, and her way of life that were on trial. The trial, with the Parlement de Paris as judges, further aggravated the already brewing public dissent against the royal family. On May 31, 1786, Jeanne de la Motte was convicted as a thief, sentenced to be whipped, branded with a V (for voleuse, "thief") on each shoulder, and sent to life imprisonment in the prostitutes' prison. Her husband was tried in absentia and condemned to be a galley slave. However Cardinal Rohan was acquitted.
The cardinal's acquittal sparked further furry in the royal palace, where he was viewed as a fool and an accomplice. Among the people, the cardinal's acquittal was a reflection of the Queen's true character. After all, the trial accepted the cardinal's belief that Marie Antoinette would be the sort of woman to meet him alone, in the dark, unescorted at night. Much can be said about her, but in this case, Marie Antoinette was not only not behind the scheme, as far as the necklace was concerned, she was financially cautious, preferring an investment in the country's navy over herself.
In the poisoned political climate of Paris in 1786, many believed the trial was a cover-up engineered to protect the Queen's reputation. The Queen's reputation was ruined forever. The Queen was the scandal. She was guilty of conspiracy, even if the facts pointed to others. Over the next few years, popular unrest only grew, leading to the French Revolution. Six years after the trial, on October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette was executed. There is no known record of what became of Boehmer and Bassenge after the trial.
Image: "The Queen's necklace", reconstruction, Château de Breteuil, France