Affair du Collier

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace (part I): the necklace Marie-Antoinette refused.

Year 1783: Queen of France Marie-Antoinette’s popularity was at an all-time low.

For some time the press and the public had given her some unsavoury monickers as “The Austrian” or “madame Deficit“. As much as she had her responsibilities, it is also true that Marie-Antoinette was accused of every conceivable wrongdoing.

Marie-Antoinette in abito all'inglese
Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette with and her children (© Château de Versailles, dist. RMN – Grand Palais / Christophe Fouin).

The foreign sovereign was the top-choice scapegoat for all of France’s problems, many of which had started way before she was even born, and were more tied to the heavy military expenses than to her wardrobe.

King Louis XVI, a faithful and devoted husband, involuntarily doomed his wife to be the target of the popular wrath, a role usually bestowed upon the king’s favourites.

Around one year and a half before, an osé portrait where Her Majesty appeared in a simple chemise and not in a court gown as was customary had dissolved even the last speckle of sacrality that made her untouchable as Queen of France. A dangerous lapse in judgment, while trying to appear more “modern”.

Marie-Antoinette chemise
The scandalous portrait ofMarie-Antoinette in a chemise (informal inside gown) made by the Queen’s favorite portraitist, madame Vigée Le Brun. So strong was the scandal that the paintress had to change the picture in a hurry with one in a courtly gown, but the damage had already been done.

So, the situation was dire, and the worst thing was that Marie-Antoinette was absolutely oblivious of that.

The final blow to her reputation, and the rude awakening the Queen extremely needed, came from the ploy worthy of a novel that had, however, ultimately nothing to do with her.

Or rather, if the Queen had chosen to be greedy in the only occasion where that could have been proven useful for her, she would have saved herself some grief.

The fateful issue revolved around the craziest necklace ever conceived: the “Great Necklace of the Slave“, a jewel that had been offered to the Queen from the King himself more than one time, and that Marie-Antoinette had always refused.

Gran Collana della Schiava
A reconstruction of the Great Necklace of the Slave, originally thought to be offered to King Louis XV’s favorite, Madame du Barry, who adored jewels. It was composed by 575, 593 o 647 diamonds, according to the various versions.

She found the jewel ridiculously expensive, and she had pointed out that France was much more in need of warships than of necklaces. Marie-Antoinette had shown wisdom, but she royally botched the timeframe.

The diamond waterfall had been designed by two daring – or reckless, or greedy, depending on how you look at it – jewellers, who literally ruined their fortune hoarding the most beautiful stones for years, aiming at assembling the crazy necklace. They were Monsieur Bohemer, Crown Jeweller, and Monsieur Bassanges.

I gioiellieri Bohemer e Bessanges
The jewelers Bohemer e Bessanges who ruined their fortunes to put together the scandalous necklace.

The price had reached today’s 25 million Euro, a sum that made it almost impossible to find a buyer. Marie-Antoinette‘s refusal had therefore thrown the jewelers into the deepest despair.

Bohemer even threw himself at the sovereign’s feet and she, annoyed by the outburst, urged him to recompose himself, disassemble the necklace and sell the diamonds to avoid bankruptcy.

After all, nobody had forced him to embark on such an endeavour.

A reconstruction of the Great Necklace of the Slave from the temporary exposition “MARIE-ANTOINETTE, MÉTAMORPHOSES D’UNE IMAGE” at Conciergerie palace.

With these God-given words, Her Majesty thought she had seen the last of the problem. She couldn’t possibly imagine that a spider with a charming smile had just begun to spin the most intricate web against her, a web whose wires were as shiny as they were sharp.

(to be continued…)