The Necklace That Kick Started The French Revolution

Marie Antoinette was the last Queen of France and to this day remains the ultimate symbol of Versailles at its peak. She’s remembered as an egotistic and greedy monarch who had a tremendous love of luxury items. All of these traits made her the perfect symbol around which the revolution was rallied.

It would be easy to blame the revolution on several different aspects of French life at the time, mass poverty, increasing cold-weather leaving more people starving and all while the rich got richer. Despite all these contributing factors, the revolution still needed a catalyst, which came in the form of L’Affaire du Collier – or the Affair of the Necklace.

The Affair of the Necklace was an incident from 1784 to 1785 at the court of King Louis XVI of France that involved his wife, the previously mentioned Marie Antoinette. Marie’s reputation was already tarnished by constant gossip in the French court and this latest controversy would prove to be her downfall.

The French Queen was now being accused of participating in a crime to defraud the crown jewellers in acquiring a hugely expensive diamond necklace.

In 1772, Louis XV of France decided to make Madame du Barry, with whom he was infatuated, a special gift at the estimated cost of 2,000,000 Livres (approximately US$15.1 million in 2020). It would take the jewellers several years to amass the appropriate set of diamonds. In the meantime, Louis XV died of smallpox, and his grandson and successor banished du Barry from the court.

The necklace was described as “a row of seventeen glorious diamonds, as large almost as filberts… a three-wreathed festoon and pendants enough (simple pear-shaped, multiple star-shaped, or clustering amorphous) encircle it”.

It was hoped that the new Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, would buy the necklace and was indeed offered it by her husband, the new King Louis XVI as a present, but she refused. There have been varying reports as to why she might have refused it including her want to spend money of ships instead of jewellery, her dislike of Du Barry or even that Louis XVI himself changed his mind.

L’Affaire du Collier was a scandal surrounding the theft of the worlds largest necklace. Marie Antoinette was charged with having embezzled state and church funds, with having subverted the King and with having both seduced and plotted against a cardinal – all to acquire the priceless necklace she had already been offered and had no interest in.

In the end, the real conspirators of the theft were unmasked and the queen was found inculpable. But by that point, the damage was done to her reputation and the monarchies. Marie Antoinnete became a symbol of all the wrong in Versailles and the diamonds merely highlighted the greed and suffering in French society.

She went on to become known as Madam Deficit and was found guilty in the court of public opinion, a place where rumour has a way of becoming fact.

The affair of the diamond necklace was important in discrediting the Bourbon monarchy in the eyes of the French people, taking place just four years before the French Revolution. The public relations nightmare led to increasing in salacious and degrading pamphlets, which would serve as a kindling for the oncoming French Revolution.

She was never able to shake off the idea in the public imagination that she had perpetrated an extravagant fraud for her frivolous ends