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The French Diamond Necklace
( Article orginally published August 1957 )
These gems have life in them:
In 1774, Louis XV, king of France, wishing to give his sweetheart, Jean Becu Du Barry a gift, ordered the courts to secure the finest diamonds in the land for a necklace. It was to be the most beautiful creation of its kind, and much time was to be spent in selecting the stones, the largest, purest, and most brilliant that could be found.
However, in the same year, and before the necklace was completed, the king died. Work was too far advanced on the necklace to be abandoned without a terrific loss, so the two jewelers decided to finish it with the hope that the new king would purchase it for his queen, Marie Antoinette. But the king's finances were low, and the necklace, valued at 1,800,000 francs (72,000 pounds siterling) remained in the jewelers shop far some years.
In 1772, Prince de Rohan, a French Cardinal, and grand almoner to Louis XVI, was appointed Ambassador to Vienna, and thus begins the scandal of the necklace.
It seems that Madame du Barry read a letter from Ambassador de Rohan to her at one of the royal parties, which gave some intimate details in the life of the Empress of Austria, the queen's mother. Louis evidently had left one of the Ambassador's private letters in the hands of the Duke d'Aguillon, and he had given it to Du Barry.
Marie Antoinette being very angry, disgraced de Rohan at court, and made his life very miserable from that time on.
When an adventuress, calling herself the comtesse de Lamotte, presented herself to the Cardinal de Rohan, asking him to help her secure aid from the royal bounty for charity, he advised her to gain audience with the queen. He also told her of the humiliation he had endured. When Madame Lamotte returned she told Rohan that she had secured permission to lay ?before Her Majesty his vindication also. The apology was given to Lamotte to be delivered to the queen. In due time the reply was brought to de Rohan. Lamotte in the meantime had made sure the Cardinal had not seen nor did not know the queen's hand-writing. Through the services of Madame Lamotte more correspondence went back and forth. One day a note came asking for 60,000 francs for charity. De Rohan borrowed the money, and received a note of thanks. A second loan was obtained the same way.
Then Lamotte sent him a note supposedly from the queen, asking him to go away for a while and he promptly set out for Alsace.
Madame Lamotte, knowing the court jewelers were still holding the priceless necklace, had it rumored that a lady of the court might be able to dispose of it.
De Rohan had now been summoned back, and was told that the queen desired the necklace and would pay for it from her own income as she did not wish the king to know about it. It was to be bought on the installment plan by the Cardinal as a token of confidence. He was to receive an authorization written and signed by the queen, but the contract was to be in the Cardinal-Prince's name.
On February 1, 1785, the necklace was placed in the Cardinal's hands, and 20,000 livres were deducted from the original price. Quarterly payments were agreed to and the prince's note accepted for the entire amount. It was to be delivered on the eve of a great fete, at which Madame Lamotte tbld de Rohan the queen would wear it. The jewel casket was taken to Versailles, to the house of Madame Lamotte where it was to be delivered to the queen's messenger. When the queen's messenger arrived Madame Lamatte gave him the casket. So cleverly was this deception carried out that de Rohan said he actually recognized the queen's valet.
Lamotte began to plan the acknowledgement of the necklace. She noticed that when the queen passed from her apartment daily across the gallery intothe chapel she made a motion with her head as she passed the OEil d'e Boeuf. Lamotte met the Cardinal on the terrace of the chateau and told him how delighted the queen was, and that if he would be in the OEil de Boeuf the next day. she would acknowledge it with a motion of her head. The Cardinal was there and was satisfied.
As Madame Lamotte had, no further use for de Rohan, she again had him go to Alsace, and her husband went to London with the necklace. It was broken up there and the small Stones reset in rings and bracelets for their accomplices. The balance were sold to jewelers and the money placed in the Bank of England under a fictitious name.
Then Cardinal de Roban persuaded the jewelers to write and thank the queen for her patronage. They were soon summoned to explain, and requested to bring a copy of the agreement and leave it with Her Majesty.
When the first payment was due, the Cardinal received a note saying the queen was making an effort to meet the note.
The queen's attitude had not changed toward him, and she, as far as he knew, had not worn the jewels, and the Cardinal demanded a meeting with the queen. Madame Lamotte arranged a meeting between 11 and 12 in a grove near Versailles. She engaged Madamoisells Leguet to impersonate the queen, and she was to thank him for all he had done, raise his rank, and present him with a small box containing a miniature.
The scene took place, and the Cardinal was so taken in, that he endeavored to borrow the 300,000 livres for the payment. However, a note came saying if the July payment could be delayed a month the jewelers would receive 700,000 livres at the end of August, 30,000 livres being tendered as interest which Madame Lamotte contrived to pay out of the proceeds from the sale of the diamonds. The jewelers gave the extension, but refused any further delay.
Her Majesty denied giving the authority of purchase, nor ever receiving the necklace. Madame Lamotte was branded and imprisoned. De Rohaal was summoned before the King and Queen to answer charges. He admitted buying the necklace with supposed authority from the Queen. He was arrested and sent to the Bastille. On May 31, 1785, he was proved innocent, but was ordered by the king to resign his posts at court and was exiled to his Abbey of La Chaise Dieu in the mountains of Avergne.
Although Queen Marie Antoinette had no actual part in it, the affair of the million dollar diamond necklace and other scandals revealed a moral laxity in her court, and greatly increased her unpopularity.