This is a quick overview of the crazy but true events of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.
Jeane de Valois de St-Remy was born to a noble but impoverished family. One of her ancestors was the illegitimate son of Henri II, king of France. Her family had been slowly declining in wealth and was basically penniless. Her mother was a servant in the household, her father a rather weak man. Jeanne’s childhood was troubled; she was orphaned and begged on the streets, was put to work in couturier shops, and eventually wed a young man from her hometown named Nicolas de La Motte.
The La Mottes were in a bad financial state as well. Even so, they began to refer to themselves as Comte and Comtesse de La Motte, despite having no right to the title. Jeanne spent many fruitless years attempting to get the attention of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, or their ministers. She failed to get more than a small pension, which she and her husband quickly spent.
Her next step was lying through her teeth. She found that even suggesting she was a friend of the Queen’s could be lucrative. She pretended to have influence with the Queen, even going so far as to make it look as though she came from the private gatherings at the Petite Trianon. People were willing to make friends with someone who was a friend with the Queen. She was able to get some money out of them as well as hospitality.
One of the biggest fish she hooked was Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan. He was from an extremely wealthy and powerful family, the Rohan family, and was of course a Cardinal. He was in his early fifties but handsome and a womanizer. He was also in disfavor with the Queen. Many years earlier, he had insulted the Queen’s mother, Maria Theresa, and Marie Antoinette had never forgiven him. Jeanne had met the Cardinal through a noble friend, the Marquise de Boulainvillers. She told the Cardinal that, as a good friend of Her Majesty, she could repair the broken relationship. She and her “personal secretary” Reatux de Villette composed forged letters to convince the Cardinal to send “the Queen” money. She needed just a little loan to tide her over. The Cardinal, thinking he was making friends with the Queen, sent the money, which of course went to putting clocks on the mantel and find hangings on the beds in the La Motte household.
At some point (there are different versions of exactly how and when), Jeanne learned about a diamond necklace created by Messieurs Boehmer and Bassenge, the royal jewelers. They had begun assembling a huge pile of diamonds to make the most extravagant necklace ever produced. They intended for Louis XV (grandfather of Louis XVI) to buy the necklace for his mistress, Madame du Barry (or perhaps for her to buy it herself using the King’s money, but it amounts to the same thing). The problem is that they had not been commissioned to make the necklace, and there was no guarantee that the king would buy it. Unfortunately for them, the king died before the necklace was finished. The new king had no flashy mistress, so the jewelers tried to interest Marie Antoinette, the new queen, in the massively expensive necklace. It wasn’t really to her taste, though, and besides the country was going through economic troubles. She couldn’t buy the necklace and didn’t want to anyway. The jewelers had mortgaged everything they owned to buy the stones. Now they had everything invested in a necklace that they couldn’t sell.
So, there were two very desperate people (counting the two jewelers as one entity). Jeanne fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle, seeing where she could play them off one another. Forged letters were sent to the Cardinal: the queen really would like to buy the necklace, but she didn’t dare do it publically. However, “the queen” could get an intermediary to buy it for her. She had chosen the Cardinal to do it. All he had to do was sign his name as guarantor.
The necklace, worth 1.6 million livres, was worth a large fortune, not just a small fortune. Cardinal Rohan showed some signs of uneasiness. To convince him, Jeanne arranged for him to “meet the queen in person”–a hoax. He was told to go to the gardens at the Chateau de Versailles at midnight, where the queen would personally give her blessing. Jeanne hired a prostitute named Nicole d’Oliva to play the part of the queen. Oliva wore a loose white gown (the queen’s favorite fashion) and told him, “You know what this means.” The Cardinal was convinced.
With all the niceties arranged, the necklace was handed off on February 1, 1785. Cardinal Rohan was given the necklace by the jewelers. He took it to Jeanne’s rooms in Versailles, where it was given to a man in livery whom the Cardinal believed was a messenger from the queen. Instead, it was Jeanne’s secretary Villette. Soon, Monsieur de La Motte was in London selling off diamonds and there was evidence of a sudden economic upturn in the La Motte household.
By that summer, the plot was beginning to come to light. It took some time for the queen to pay attention to the strange messages being sent by her jewelers. She continued to think that they were pestering her to buy the necklace. Finally, it came to light that the Cardinal had bought the necklace in her name but that the necklace was nowhere to be found. On August 15, the Cardinal was arrested. Within a few days, so was Jeanne de La Motte. Following not long after were Nicole d’Oliva, Villette, and the mystic/fraud Count Cagliostro (who had been flitting around the La Motte’s social set). Monsieur de La Motte stayed safely in England.
The matter could have been handled quietly. Louis XVI could have pronounced summary judgment. It was his prerogative as king to do so. Marie Antoinette, however, wanted to be publically vindicated. This backfired massively. It was an enormous mistake. The trial was sensational. During the entire thing, the queen’s name was dragged through the mud. The queen couldn’t be tried, but she was essentially deemed guilty of being loose and immoral. The court acquitted Rohan. The charge was criminal disrespect for the queen for presuming to think she would meet with him at midnight in the gardens of Versailles. When he was acquitted, the Court was saying that it had been reasonable for Rohan to expect such a thing. It was an insult to the queen. It was an enormous blow to her public image that she never recovered form. May people also believed that she had orchestrated the entire thing just so that she could force the Cardinal into an embarrassing position.
Jeanne de La Motte was convicted. She was branded on both soldiers with “v” for voleuse or thief. She was condemned to imprisonment for life, but managed to escape from prison. She made it to England, where she wrote salacious memoirs about her life. She died shortly before Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793.