Lost Masterpieces

The Necklace That Cost Marie Antoinette Her Head

The diamond necklace had 647 diamonds, and after it went missing Marie Antoinette was accused of buying but not paying for it. And this French royal scandal only got juicier.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

One can imagine Marie Antoinette’s indignation when she discovered the latest accusation being made against her in 1785.

Yes, she and the king lived an excessively extravagant lifestyle. Yes, she would admit to being obsessed with fashion, ordering nearly one dress for each day of the year and setting the standard for outrageous poufs—a towering hairstyle that often weaved social or political commentary into its tresses. And, sure, she spent money like it was going out of style, which arguably it was given the serious recession and economic hardship that was causing the rest of France to turn on the nobility.

But she had nothing to do with the massive diamond necklace—647 diamonds clocking in at a breathtaking 28,000 carats—that had gone missing and that she was being accused of having bought but never paid for.

The hideous thing (carat quantity doesn’t always equal design quality) was at the center of the latest scandal afflicting the French court, and it was about to cost her her head…quite literally.

The stage was set for “The Affair of the Necklace,” as the scandal came to be known, well before Marie-Antoinette ascended her throne in 1774 at the age of 18 as the wife of King Louis XVI. It all started during the previous reign of Louis XV, when the French king decided to engage in the time-honored tradition of buying his mistress some elaborate bling.

Jeanne Bécu, the Countess du Barry, was the last in a series of mistresses that graced King Louis XV’s royal bedchamber.

Having affairs was a common occurrence for all reigning royals (with Louix XVI being the exception), and official mistresses often held positions of honor and power at court.

While Madame du Barry enjoyed the same, even attending the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as the guest of the king, she was not as widely beloved as some of her predecessors.

Du Barry was something of an 18th-century self-made woman. Born the illegitimate daughter of a lower-class couple, du Barry climbed up the social ladder affair-by-affair after realizing that working in a dress shop wasn’t going to give her the access to wealth and high society that she so craved.

After nabbing the highest prize—the man with the crown—she married the brother of one of her former lovers and became a Countess, thus making her eligible to be crowned the official royal mistress (yes, you had to be noble to win that title).

Despite winning the confidence of the king, Madame du Barry was unable to gain the affection of many of the country’s nobility. Prime among those who snubbed her for her lowly origins was Marie Antoinette, the young dauphine of France.

But who cared about the hostility of the less powerful when you had the unwavering affection of the king, who was more than willing to open his wallet to prove his love.

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Among Louis XV’s plentiful gifts to—not to mention monetary support of—Madame du Barry was a lavish mansion that was re-modeled and decorated in the height of the day’s fashion.

And then, of course, there was the diamond necklace.

In 1772, Louis XV commissioned the notoriously extravagant piece from Boehmer and Bassenge, one of the top jewelers of the day. The piece was entirely made of diamonds and consisted of an upper portion that fit choker-like around the neck with three cascading swoops of diamonds.

A lower portion featured four pendant-like protrusions that dangled down the décolletage and were garnished with garish little bows.

Two years after it was commissioned, before the necklace had been completed, Louis XV met his timely demise (he died at 64 of smallpox, having enjoyed the second longest reign in the history of the French monarchy). When the king died, so, too, did Boehmer and Bassenge’s dreams of payment for the piece.

As Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette ascended the throne, Madame du Barry was banished to a nunnery and Boehmer and Bassenge were left scrambling for compensation for the work they had finally completed. In short, they had to find a buyer for the insanely expensive necklace, and they needed to find one soon.

There weren’t too many people at the time who could afford the glittering monstrosity, so the jewelers approached the one obvious candidate—the new queen.

While fashion was France’s stock and trade by the time Louis XVI took the throne, Marie Antoinette departed from tradition by making what was en vogue her personal affair.

According to historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, prior to Marie-Antoinette’s reign, “the royal mistresses had been the leaders of fashion. They had the money and the position with no accountability.”

Queens, on the other hand, were expected to be very well dressed, but in a traditional and respectable manner. They also, technically, answered to the royal treasury and were expected to at least feign concern about their expenditures.

Marie-Antoinette would have none of it. From her early days in her adopted home, she was passionate about not only keeping up with the latest fashion, but also setting the styles that would sweep the nation. This turn of events very much concerned her mother.

“As you know, I have always been of the opinion that fashions should be followed in moderation but should never be taken to extremes. A beautiful young woman, a graceful queen, has no need for such madness,” Maria Theresa of Austria wrote to her young daughter. Later, she apocryphally added, “You lead a dissipated life. I hope I shall not live to see the disaster that is likely to ensue.”

But Marie Antoinette took these letters and stuffed them away in a metaphorical drawer. She was determined to participate in the great French fashion industry, and she would do so on her own profligate terms. But that didn't mean she would go for every extravagant piece of jewelry that came her way.

Whether Marie Antoinette was loathe to purchase her rival’s hand-me-down or whether she just flat out didn’t care for the necklace (although she allegedly never saw the piece), her answer when Boehmer and Bassenge approached her about their glittering charge was a resounding “no thank you.”

As the jeweler’s dejectedly slunk off, another self-made woman of a different sort saw her opening.

Jeanne de Saint-Remy, the Comtesse de la Motte, was an 18th-century confidence woman. Born into poverty to a man who claimed to be an illegitimate heir of King Henry II, Jeanne had grown up on the streets begging for her daily bread. In her adult life, she developed a taste for the good life and for the scams that could help her achieve it.

Jeanne’s target in this particular scheme was Cardinal Louis de Rohan, a man who had the misfortune of falling out of favor with Maria Theresa—and, by extension, her daughter—when he made some ill-considered comments while serving as the French ambassador to Austria. Banished from the French court, all the poor cardinal wanted was a path back into the inner circle of the royal couple.

And Jeanne offered him a way back in. Posing as a close confidant of Marie Antoinette’s, she encouraged the Cardinal to write letters to the queen that she would personally deliver. Rohan complied, and he was thrilled when he began to receive responses (letters actually written by Jeanne’s lover). He was on his way back into the game.

So when “Marie Antoinette” sent him a letter asking for a favor, he was quick to comply.

The letter confessed that she was eager to get her hands on a gorgeous diamond necklace owned by the premiere jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge, but, given its expense, she was too embarrassed to procure it herself. Would the cardinal be so kind as to buy it on her behalf?

Clearly, Rohan had drifted very far from the royal couple because when Jeanne staged a secret meeting for him with the queen, he didn’t notice that the woman he was speaking with was actually a prostitute who resembled Her Grace. The con was on and Rohan quickly procured the desired jewels. He delivered the necklace to “the Queen’s” footman and that was that.

Until, that is, collection day came. Boehmer and Bassenge understandably wanted to be paid for their prized possession, but when they approached the queen about settling up, both sides were shocked to find resistance.

The queen claimed she knew nothing about the necklace or the transaction that they were referring to. How dare they accuse her of such a thing, especially after she had already turned the piece down more than once.

A scandal of epic proportions ensued. All the guilty parties were eventually sent to the Bastille where they were tried for their crimes. Rohan was eventually acquitted of wrongdoing, while Jeanne’s sentence included lashings, being branded with a “V” on her chest (to stand for the French word for thief), and confinement in prison.

The necklace had already escaped to London, where it was taken apart and sold off diamond-by-diamond by one of her consiglieres.

The necklace may have been lost, but the mystery had at least been cracked and justice served, right? Well, sort of.

Marie Antoinette, by this point, was starting to be accused of a lot of things by her disgruntled subjects. But, in this one case, she was innocent of all wrongdoing.

But that didn’t really matter to the people of France.

Despite the facts that were revealed, the people of France refused to see this scandal as anything other than yet another example of the Queen’s excess at the expense of the struggling masses. Some historians even say that “The Affair of the Necklace” the last straw that the people needed to write her off for good.

Over the next eight years, conditions in France would grow increasingly fraught and Marie Antoinette’s personal circumstances would become grim. Her situation would slowly deteriorate from house arrest to imprisonment to, finally, death by guillotine in October of 1793.

Her one-time rival didn’t fare much better. Two months after the queen lost her head, so too did du Barry. Both went to their graves never having felt the cold embrace of 28,000 carats around their necks.