UPDATED AUGUST 7, 2013 (see below)
The diamond necklace that went missing in 1786–created by the royal jewelers, intended for the late king’s mistress, but never actually commissioned by anyone–had stones measuring 2,800 carats and was worth 1.6 million francs.
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.
So where did all those six-hundred-plus diamonds go?
Well, the short answer is that no one quite knows where they went. There are conflicting stories about the ultimate fates of the diamonds themselves. What is known is that the necklace is gone: it was definitely broken apart.
[If you don’t know much about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, you might want to read The Short Story.]
It would appear that after she got hold of the necklace, Madame de La Motte gave some diamonds to her husband to sell in London and some to her erstwhile friend (and lover, we can assume), Retaux to Villette. [Maître Target, lawyer for Cardinal Rohan in the forthcoming trial, reports that Villette was arrested in Paris “on the subject of a considerable number of diamonds found upon his person”; Mossiker, 1961.] To whom the diamonds went and where they subsequently ended up is anyone’s guess. 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. Besides which, there were then (as there are now) plenty of ways to unload stolen goods.
One way or another, most of the diamonds were, therefore, probably discreetly sold off in London. [Why London? Well, it was the major economic center of Europe, it was close to France, and the English weren’t likely to oblige the French by extraditing criminals back to France.] 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. With no way to trace them or identify them, the diamonds have disappeared.
In the winter of 1785, however, all these diamonds were gathered together into a fantastical necklace worth the price of a warship. That necklace, before it was pried apart and its pieces sold off, was last seen on February 1, 1785. That is where the trail of the diamonds runs more or less cold.
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.
My theory is that this man was none other than Villette (I make this clear in my unpublished novel Grove of Venus). It would seem reasonable that Villette, a forger and gigolo (for all intents and purposes) who was already neck-deep in this conspiracy, should play this important part. After walking away with the diamond necklace, and after Cardinal Rohan had left the scene, Villette likely returned to Madame de La Motte’s apartments with the necklace and began disassembling it.
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.
Georgel claimed that some of the missing diamonds were made into jewelry for Madame de La Motte. As mentioned, Villette was detained in 1785: 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. Police Lieutenant General Lenoir checked into the reports since the lady had a reputation for peculation, but found that there had been no recent reports of stolen diamonds. Thereafter, the matter was dropped.
Meanwhile, as Georgel reports, Monsieur de la Motte was sent to London. He was clearly a much more capable thief than Villette, who clearly wasn’t very subtle or loyal. He didn’t get arrested, and he sent back large amounts of money (to allay suspicion, the lady claimed the money came from winning at the horse races). The new wealth showed itself in things like carriages and new furnishings from the shop of Gervais, Fournier, and Héricourt in the Foubourg St. Antoine. Madame de La Motte, meantime, in order to keep Cardinal Rohan in the dark, continued to receive him in modestly-furnished apartments. When Madame de La Motte and many of her friends were arrested, the party ended. She never did admit to taking the diamonds, and never said if she knew what had happened to them.
According to newspaper correspondence in the London Times in 1959, some of the sstones, sold by Monsieur de la Motte to Gray’s of London, ended up being purchased by the Duke of Sutherland; and others, sold by Monsieur de la Motte to Jeffreys of Piccadilly, London, were purchased ultimately by the Duke of Dorset. This, however, is purely conjecture, based on circumstantial evidence and family tradition.
Beyond these details, not a lot is known. Some concerted research could probably uncover more information (such as which dealers bought jewels from La Motte), but I have neither the time nor resources at the moment to do any in-depth research on French history. That research would probably require travel, and I can’t manage that now. I’m constrained to doing in-depth research on local American history, unfortunately. However, if anyone out there is reading this and digs up any interesting information, please share!
A FEW ADDITIONAL BITS OF INFORMATION:
These are thanks to Nico Hofstra, a fellow Diamond Necklace Affair enthusiast:
Retaux de Villette apparently sold 40 diamonds to Adam and Videl of Paris for 400 livers per stone.
Jeanne de La Motte-Valois brought two stones to the jeweler Regnier in Paris to be set; she sold some diamonds to a stranger; she traded a few diamonds for a small porcelain pot; and a pair of her diamond earrings were sold (at a low price, which she complained about) when she entered the Bastille or the Salpêtrière.
Nicolas de La Motte apparently paid with diamonds for three clocks from Furet in the Rue St. Honoré; and sold diamonds to William Greyson of New Bond Street, Nathaniel Jeffreys of Picaddilly, and Gray of Dover Street (the last two of these are mentioned above).
Mossiker, Frances. The Queen’s Necklace. New York: Phoenix, 1961