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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Adventures in stone-setting

As I mentioned in my New Year Goals post, a) I’m taking a stone-setting class to buff up (haha) my jewellery skills and b) my goal was to set one ring. When you say it like that it doesn’t sound that ambitious, but there are a few reasons why I may sound guilty of, well…

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First of all, it turns out that before you can set stones, you need to grind your tools into shape on a cool grinding wheel that makes sparks and everything. That bit was very exciting initially, but it was also REALLY, REALLY SLOW, because there’s one grinding wheel and…more than one person in the class. Also, you have to grind your cutting tools to fit your hand, and if you have tiny elf hands like me, that’s a whole lot of metal to grind off!

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All toolboxes look like this, right…?

Tools in hand, time to set a ring…right? Nope, because proper stone-setters do hardcore apprenticeships where they have to get used to tools, practise cutting, and learn to control to the drill before they’re even let near anything more interesting than brass plates. Luckily, it was only a few weeks of practice, but still, after one term I had not set a single ring, and I was a little disheartened. (Having missed 3 weeks for my honeymoon probably didn’t help either.)

I started this term aiming to set one whole ring and, lo and behold, I have set FOUR.

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They’re not perfect and some of them need a bit of cleaning up, but those stones aren’t moving ANYWHERE. So far I’ve fully set:

1) A simple 3mm circular stone in a rubover setting (cubic zirconia in silver):

 

2) A 9-stone eternity ring (2mm cubic zirconia; this one was HARD, hence the mess!):

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3) A four-claw oval ring (8x6mm; garnet and silver. These claws need more shaping but the stone is definitely not moving so I consider it set!):

 

4) A four-claw twisted circular ring (10mm; champagne cubic zirconia and silver. This one is NOT subtle!)

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And finally, a moment of silence for the TWO castings of the same ring I destroyed. The first time, I’d done a lovely job with the claws and in tidying them up I scored all the way across the gorgeous, dark blue CZ I’d just set.

 

The second time, keen to avoid damaging the stone during clean-up, I filed the claws too enthusiastically…down to basically nothing. At some point I will reset this stone, but I think I need some time to forget first!

 

Next up is the smaller version of my GIANT twisted ring above. The aim with this one is to be a little steadier with my drill and not create a dimple that then needs to be very carefully got rid of to avoid damaging the claw it’s gouged out of… I also have some exciting square rings to set, which is a more complex operation (hence the brass rings and very cheap CZ stone – no point throwing good stones after experimental work!)IMG_20180416_180044.jpg

 

It might not look like I’ve made a huge amount of progress in two terms, but I feel like I’ve already learnt a lot, including:

1) Stone-setting is simultaneously REALLY hard and really simple. The principles themselves are just logic and physics really, but mastering the techniques to a high standard takes years.

2) Filing is an art of its own. Before this course I was fairly adept at filing down a soldered seam, but that was about it. Watching my tutor filing a perfectly-shaped claw as smooth as silk in a matter of seconds in one of the first sessions floored me.

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3) I’m not naturally good at filing! So I guess what I have actually learnt here is to be patient…

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4) Being a bit behind and therefore towards the bottom of the class is not the worst thing in the world (much as my perfectionism likes to mutter otherwise). Everyone is going at their own pace and there’s no exam – I just need to do as much as I can.

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5) Homework doesn’t end when you finish formal education. Although we don’t have official homework, y own workshop doesn’t have a pendulum drill or grinding wheel, so the more rings I can prep between classes, the more time I have to actually set and benefit from the tutor’s expertise in class.

6) Practice absolutely does make perfect (I know, I didn’t want to hear it either!). My first claw ring took me 2 classes (5 hours) plus prep time outside class. My second was completed start to finish in one class, with a break in the middle to watch a demonstration of the next ring we’ll be attempting.

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What’s your achievement of the week? Bonus points if it’s jewellery-related!