This story starts, as many other stories started, with a fine piece of jewellery. It was made by a pair of Parisian jewellers Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassange on a request from Louis XV of France. You see, in 1772 he wanted to impress his Maîtresse-en-titre, or as we peasants say, chief mistress, and decided that a ludicrously expensive necklace would do just that. He ordered one, waited for over two years for it to be made, but then got smallpox and died. With the buyer gone, the poor jewellers tried to sell it to the new queen, Marie Antoinette of Austria, but she refused, even though the new king, Louis XVI, offered it as a present. And this story would end right here, if not for a lovely lady Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, a confidence trickster, or as we peasants say, con artist.
Jeanne was a small fish in a big pond, but was living comfortably, married to a Gendarme Nicholas de la Motte, and was receiving a modest pension from the King on account of being a descendant of an illegitimate son of Henry II. But living comfortably is boring, especially in a city like Paris, and so in 1785 she became a mistress of the Cardinal de Rohan. A powerful and well known man in his right, but sadly a bête noire, or as we peasants say, unfavourite of Queen Marie Antoinette. Rohan did not like that, did not like that at all, as he wanted to become a minister, and without the Queen’s approval it was unattainable. Jeanne knew about that, after all men love pillow talk, and offered to help the Cardinal to smooth things over. Rohan could not say no, he knew that Jeanne frequented the royal court and was sure that she was his ticket to success.
There was one problem with this plan, Jeanne did not really know the Queen or was in any form associated with her. But it did not phase her one bit, she promptly set up a bogus correspondence between Rohan and an alleged Queen, by writing warm replies herself. And the replies were warm, even hot, so much so the Cardinal was sure that Marie Antoinette was in love with him and wanted to meet her. Jeanne had to step up her game and in August 1784, Rohan met his Queen in the garden of the Palace of Versailles, or at least he met a woman, he did not bother to double check, and if he did, he would find out that she was a local prostitute who possessed (probably quite profitable) resemblance to Marie Antoinette. The meeting went well and poor Rohan was sure that he became close friends with his favourite Queen.
At this point everything was going fine for our Jeanne. She had the Cardinal on the hook and was slowly dragging large sums of money out of him by using the Queen’s name. She was so proud of her success that she was openly boasting how close she was with the Queen and how they were besties forever and ever. And that was when Boehmer and Bassenge, the misfortunate jewellers with one expensive necklace on their hands, came back into the story. You see, they decided to use Jeanne’s royal connections to finally sell the damn necklace to Marie Antoinette, and Jeanne was more than happy to help them.
Of course, she could not go to the Queen and ask for money, but she had another ace up her sleeve, the Cardinal. She sent a couple of fake letters to Rohan, asking him to buy the necklace, and signed them “Marie Antoinette de France”. If the Cardinal was a little bit more curious, he would remembered that French queens used their given names when they signed any documents, but he did not, he just wanted to be a good friend. So he agreed to be a secret intermediary and handle the purchase of the necklace. He went to the jewellers, made the arrangement to pay the sum in small instalments, showed his bogus letters from the Queen and picked up the necklace. He took it to Jeanne’s house and handed it to a man who introduced himself as a valet of the Queen. Except he was not a valet of no Queen, but good old Gendarme Nicholas de la Motte, who took the necklace and went straight to London to pawn the expensive trinket.
And here we could finish up with a happy ending to this interesting story, if not for the annoying jewellers, they actually wanted to get paid. They went to Jeanne first and she shoved the Cardinal’s note into their faces, but that was not enough for them. They dared to go to the Queen herself and ask for their money. As you can imagine, Marie Antoinette was surprised to find out that she bought herself a new necklace and was pretty much a lover of some cardinal. She was furious of course, so was the King. Rohan was brought before them and was allowed to explain himself. He promptly produced one of the Queen’s letters, expecting to be cleared of any wrongdoing. But it was not so, the King took one look at the fake signature and threw poor Rohan into the Bastille.
It all went downhill from here. The prostitute, aka Queen’s doppelganger, was arrested and made to confess of her crimes. Jeanne was caught and trialled, and so did her husband. Everyone got what they deserved, at least in the King’s humble opinion. The Cardinal got exiled to the Abbey of la Chaise-Dieu. Jeanne was sentenced to be whipped and imprisoned in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, or as we peasants say, prison. Her husband became a galley slave, and nobody knows what happened to the poor prostitute. The cold justice was served. Well, Jeanne did escape her imprisonment and ran away to London, where she published her memoirs in which she blamed Queen Marie Antoinette for orchestrating the whole affair. It seems like sweet book deals were a common thing even back in the 18th century.
Oh, a little side fact. This scandal damaged the French monarchy reputation so badly that it hasted the beginning of the French Revolution. Thank you, Jeanne!