The Affair of the Diamond Necklace

Last week, I delved into the recent sale of Marie Antoinette’s jewellery, but I didn’t have space to go into the bizarre tale known as The Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Strap in, everyone; this one’s a wild ride!

So, how exactly did a kerfuffle over a huge diamond harness contribute to the French Revolution? Yep, it was more of a harness than a necklace:

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Reproduction necklace based on sketches.

The necklace itself was actually commissioned several years earlier, in 1772, for the previous king, Louis XV’s, favourite mistress, the infamous Madame du Barry.

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Source: Wikipedia

Not one to believe that less is more, the king designed this monstrosity for du Barry, featuring a vast amount of diamonds, including 17 huge diamond drops:

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Original sketch of the necklace design. Source: Wikipedia.

Unfortunately for the jewellers who set about collecting the necessary stones, the king died of smallpox before they were done, leaving his debt unpaid. I know this may not have gone down well with an autocratic king, but this is a prime example of why you get money for custom orders up front, my fellow artists!

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Backed into a corner, the jewellers hoped that the famously lavish Marie Antoinette might want to buy the necklace off them instead. Unfortunately for them, the new queen was not one to wear someone’s sloppy seconds, especially if they were originally designed for a woman she despised and looked down upon.

In 1781, after trying to offload the necklace outside the country, the desperate jewellers once again tried to persuade Marie Antoinette to take it off their hands, but to no avail.

Enter con artist Jeanne de La Motte, who came up with a plan to further her status in court at the cost of the people around her. As you do.

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Source: Wikipedia

Her first play was to get into bed (literally) with the Cardinal de Rohan, a man Marie Antoinette happened to loathe because he’d been gossiping about her mother, naturally. Persuading de Rohan, who was presumably not too bright (or bothered about his vow of chastity), that she was cosy with the queen, La Motte promised to get him back into favour.

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Source: reactiongifs.com

Rohan began sending notes to the queen, with La Motte bringing him replies ‘from the queen herself’, and eventually setting up a meeting between the two at the cardinal’s request. Did this phase La Motte? Not one bit! She simply brought along a local sex worker with a striking resemblance to Marie Antoinette, and they all met in August 1794 in the rose garden at the Palace of Versailles.

Image source: By Kallgan - Unknown, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=336150

After La Motte’s friend had convinced Rohan that she (‘the queen’) had forgiven him, La Motte began borrowing large sums of money off the cardinal for ‘Marie Antoinette’s charity work’. She also started boasting about her relationship with the queen, which people seemed to believe.

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The enterprising jewellers, Boehmer and Bassenge, approached La Motte to try once more to sell the necklace to the queen, and she agreed. Following an incorrectly-signed note to Rohan instructing him to buy the necklace in secret so as not to raise tensions by buying lavish jewellery in a time of starvation.

Rohan merrily went on his way, and secured the necklace, after which La Motte and an accomplice merrily split it up and sold the stones on the black market!

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Unfortunately for them, it all came apart when the jewellers became suspicious of the lack of payment and notes ‘from the queen’, and went to Marie Antoinette herself to demand payment. The queen told them she had not ordered the necklace, had not received it, and most certainly would not be paying for it.

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With a flair for the dramatic, the king and queen resolved to arrest the Cardinal at one of the biggest religious celebrations of the year (presumably to make an example of him). When Rohan was ready to officiate the Assumption of Mary, on 15 August 1785, he was promptly arrested and brought before the court, then to the Bastille. Jeanne de La Motte, however, was not arrested until three days later, in which time she destroyed her papers relating to the fraud.

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Also arrested were Nicole Le Guay, the Marie Antoinette impersonator, and Rétaux de Villette, La Motte’s lover by whom she originally entered court society. Side note: Villette is described on Wikipedia as ‘French procurer, forger, blackmailer and prostitute’, which would make a pretty great Twitter bio…

Somehow, the feckless cardinal managed to worm his way out of punishment, but La Motte was whipped, branded with a V for ‘voleuse’ (‘thief’) on both shoulders (ew), and sent to prison at the Salpêtrière. Villette got off lightly, being merely banished, but La Motte’s unlucky husband was tried in absentia and sent to be a galley slave.

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But it’s not over yet! After a year’s imprisonment, La Motte escaped dressed as a boy, and fled to London, from where she published a savage memoir blaming everything on Marie Antoinette.

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So why did the queen take the fall despite the evidence acquitting her?

This all went down in 1784-5, just 4 years before the French Revolution broke out and the monarchy came to an end. The profligate, Austrian Marie Antoinette was already wildly unpopular, the subject of a lot of vicious political cartoons (seriously, the picture below was the cleanest one I could find…), and her reputation didn’t need much of a push to hit rock bottom.

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Source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately for her, public opinion sided roundly with La Motte, with some suggesting the queen had used her as a way to get some petty revenge on Rohan, or that she simply wanted some new jewels and was stealing from the public purse to get them. Following the affair, the pamphlets against her (read: political porn) began to be produced at an even greater rate, fuelling the anti-monarchy sentiment that eventually led to Marie Antoinette’s own beheading in 1793.

As I said earlier…

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If you’re interested in learning more about the scandal, the chapter on it in Aja Raden’s Stoned has a lot of great detail and is also a really fun book. And if you just can’t get enough, Jonathan Beckman has written an entire book on the subject. Enjoy!

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Disney Designs 5: Sale As Old As Time

The Goblin and I recently watched Beauty and the Beast for the first time in a few years, and you know what that means… Time for another Disney Designs post!

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Source: tenor.com

It’s not entirely clear in which historical period Disney’s 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast is supposed to be set, but a quick Google suggests some time around the mid-to-late 18th century, so let’s go with that.

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Source: giphy.com

In the film, Belle is too busy swooning over the Beast’s gargantuan library (wahey) to wear very much jewellery, but you know who was around at this time who did? You guessed it: Marie Antoinette, the soon-to-be-headless Queen of France.

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Marie Antoinette (pictured here pre-guillotine, obviously..!) Source: Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, Marie Antoinette’s jewellery collection was just auctioned at Sotheby’s in Geneva, after going on display for the first time in two centuries. The collection was sold alongside other royal gems from the Bourbon-Parma family, and the whole lot broke Sotheby’s records, going for a whopping £33.63 million!

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Source: Tumblr

Before the French Revolution broke, she saw the writing on the wall and shipped some of her jewels off to her nephew in Vienna, meaning that they avoided the dismantling which befell the pieces left behind… and, indeed, their owner!

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Source: giphy.com

So, let’s take a peak inside Marie Antoinette’s jewellery box… (Ok, that’s probably enough innuendo now…)

 

It’s clear from first glance that this famous historical magpie was a BIG fan of both diamonds and pearls. Unlike today, where cultured pearls are plentiful and relatively affordable, in Marie Antoinette’s time, naturally-occurring pearls were very rare, and required many hours of life-threatening dives to obtain in any great number. Is it any surprise, then, that they were a favourite of this image-conscious royal?

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, some saved jewellery was later broken up and reset anyway. This was and continues to be common practice amongst aristocratic families when it comes to heirlooms, since the component gemstones are often more valued than the piece they’re set in. Thus, it’s not unusual to see particularly beautiful stones set and reset into more contemporary pieces over the centuries.

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A 19th century diamond brooch made from stones smuggled out of Paris by Marie Antoinette. Image (c) Sotheby’s.

If you’re interested in the relationships between family members and gems, Sotheby’s have put together a handy family tree to show where each piece came from:

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Source: Sotheby’s (c)

The most famous and anticipated piece sold at auction was this pendant, fashioned from an enormous natural pearl (26 x 18mm!), topped with a diamond bow and large solitaire diamond:

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Image (c) Sotheby’s

It sold for *drumroll please* £28.4 million, beating its £1 million estimate by, er, quite a way, and beating the record previously set by Elizabeth Taylor’s Peregrina pendant.

 

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Source: Tumblr

It’s a total the queen herself would likely have been proud of, although it is true that her lavish tastes were exaggerated by her contemporaries. After all, can you blame them? The opportunity to tie Marie Antoinette to 1784-5 scandal known as ‘The Affair of the Diamond Necklace’ was too good to resist amongst the anti-monarchy feeling of the day…despite the fact that poor old Marie Antoinette had nothing to do with it. But that’s a story for next week’s post…and it’s a banger!

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Source: tenor.com