Marie Antoinette’s troubled tenure as the Queen of France was documented long before her fatal trip to the guillotine during the French Revolution. The Austrian-born aristocrat’s reputation fell on a steady downward slope for much of her husband’s doomed reign, mostly because of her alleged connections to enemy nations and her lavish lifestyle, which was blamed for the economic crisis in France. One incident greatly dampened public opinion of her and ultimately contributed to her downfall: a daring jewel scam involving a conniving minor noblewoman posing as a representative of the queen.
On the 22nd of July 1756, a woman named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Remy was born to a court servant girl and a drunken, debt-ridden baron descended from an illegitimate son of King Henry II. Despite their royal connections, Jeanne and her siblings went barefoot and begged for food until they were taken in by a boarding school. Jeanne went on to marry Nicholas de la Motte, a man of dubious nobility who nevertheless referred to himself as a count. Jeanne was henceforth known as the Countess de la Motte.
The countess had expensive taste, and demanded an extravagant, luxurious lifestyle that her husband could not afford. She was already receiving a yearly stipend from the royal family, but she was convinced that they could bestow her with a larger financial gift. At the time, any citizen could enter the Versailles grounds, permitted they were dressed for the part. Jeanne de la Motte entered the royal grounds, but her reputation preceded her and Marie Antoinette refused to see her.
The marriage between Nicholas and Jeanne failed, but the two remained in the same household. The slender and charming countess took two lovers. The first was an officer and acquaintance of her husband, Rétaux de Villette, who introduced Jeanne to her eventual second paramour: Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan. Rohan wanted to win back Marie Antoinette’s favor after he had angered her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, during his previous role as Ambassador to Vienna. The countess saw an opportunity to raise her social and financial status, and a plan began to form.
Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassange, two jewelers, were facing bankruptcy. The pair had designed and crafted an extravagant diamond necklace meant for Madame du Barry, the mistress of the late King Louis XV. The king died before payment—the equivalent of around $15 million today—could be made, and the jewelers desperately needed a buyer to stay afloat. The pair knew only royalty could afford such an expensive item, but the queen turned down the offer to buy. Despite her reputation as a lavish spender, she told her husband that she would rather build ships than buy diamonds.
Rohan wasn’t to know of this, however, and the countess seized her opportunity. She told him that she was on good terms with the queen, given her royal blood, and could help Rohan restore face with Marie Antoinette. He wrote letters to the queen, which the countess agreed to pass on. In reality, she was giving the letters to her other lover, de Villette, who was a master forger. He responded to Rohan’s letters as if he was Marie Antoinette.
After building up trust through this fake correspondence, the “queen” confided to Rohan that she had her eye on the glittering necklace, but did not want to tell her husband to buy it given the financial problems in the country. Rohan was asked to loan the money to her as a secret favor. He agreed. They were to meet at night in the Versailles garden to discuss the matter in person.
The countess found a sex worker who resembled Marie Antoinette and sent her to meet Rohan in the garden, where she assured him that all was forgiven. Completely hoodwinked, Rohan contacted the jewelers. He was to pay for the necklace in installments, while the necklace itself would be handed to Jeanne de la Motte, his liaison to Her Majesty.
The trickery was discovered fairly quickly. Rohan was late on his first payment, and could not produce the necklace when the jewelers asked him to return it. That was because Nicholas de la Motte was already selling the individual diamonds in London. When the jewelers complained to Marie Antoinette, she revealed her ignorance of the entire scheme.
Jeanne de la Motte, Rohan, de Villette, and the sex worker Nicole Le Guay d’Olivia were arrested, along with Count Cagliostro, one of Rohan's clients, whom Jeanne de la Motte fingered as the brains of the operation. Nicholas de la Motte stayed behind in London.
Though in reality she was not connected to the crime, Marie Antoinette made the fatal mistake of publicly prosecuting the countess with the goal of saving the royal family’s honor and improving her public image. The trial backfired against the queen spectacularly. Rohan and Count Cagliostro were both acquitted but exiled, the former to one of his Southern French properties and the latter out of the country entirely.
De Villette was found guilty and exiled as well. Jeanne de la Motte, however, was sentenced to be whipped, branded, and imprisoned. This infuriated the public, who saw the countess as an innocent scapegoat for the queen’s failings. Many believed that the queen was behind the scheme to defraud the jewelers and that she manipulated the countess in order to sabotage her enemy, Cardinal de Rohan.
Public opinion of the queen plummeted, while Jeanne de la Motte was able to escape her life imprisonment by disguising herself as a boy and fleeing to London. There, she published her memoirs in 1789, which placed the blame for the whole affair firmly on Marie Antoinette. Two years later, Jeanne de la Motte would die from her injuries after falling from her hotel room window while hiding from debtors. Marie Antoinette would meet her own fate just a couple of years later, her death by guillotine accelerated by her decision to bring Jeanne de la Motte to public trial.