Like most good scandals, this one involves a smattering of diamonds, a prostitute and forged correspondence. We'll begin with the diamonds.
Jewelers Böhmer and Bassenge nearly went broke creating a necklace that they presumed King Louis XV would buy for his mistress Madame du Barry. Weighing in at 2,800 carats, the jewelers thought they'd fetch 1.6 million livres for the stunner -- that's roughly equivalent to 100 million U.S. dollars in today's market. Unfortunately for Böhmer and Bassenge (and Madame du Barry), the king died before he could purchase it. They hoped that the new king, Louis XVI, might agree to buy the necklace for Marie Antoinette. Whatever frivolous reputation she may have acquired later in her reign, Marie Antoinette made a patriotic, sentient decision to discourage Louis from purchasing the necklace. She reasoned that he'd be better off putting the money toward France's navy [source: Muschamp].
The necklace languished in the jewelers' possession until a desperate, enterprising woman named Jeanne de Lamotte Valois devised a plot to pull herself out of debt by acquiring the necklace and selling it for parts. The Comtesse de Lamotte appealed to Cardinal de Rohan, who was rather unpopular at court. From 1772 to '74, he'd served as the French ambassador to Vienna, where he became a quick enemy of Marie Antoinette's mother -- and of Marie Antoinette herself. The comtesse told the cardinal that Marie Antoinette desperately wanted the diamond necklace but that she didn't want to ask Louis for it. Lamotte slyly suggested that if Cardinal de Rohan could find a way to procure it for Marie Antoinette, his good reputation would be restored at court.
Lamotte had her lover, Rétaux de Villette, write letters in Marie Antoinette's hand and send them to the cardinal, asking him to buy the necklace [source: Covington]. The comtesse even paid a prostitute who looked like the queen to have a secret tête-à-tête with the cardinal in the Versailles gardens one night. At last, the cardinal wrangled the diamonds from Böhmer and Bassenge on credit. The jewelers presented the necklace to the queen's footman for delivery -- only the footman was Rétaux in disguise. He seized the necklace and headed to London.
When his first payment was due, Cardinal de Rohan couldn't cough up the amount. The jewelers demanded money from Marie Antoinette, who had no knowledge of the necklace. By then, the necklace had been sold. A furious Louis had the cardinal arrested; later, he was acquitted of all charges and exiled. The scheming mastermind Lamotte was imprisoned but broke free and took up residence in England. There, she spread propaganda about the queen -- though she needn't have bothered.
Marie Antoinette's reputation (already hanging tenuously in the balance) was ruined. The scandal confirmed that she was, indeed, "Madame Déficit." The diamond necklace affair would be one of the final straws before the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette's death sentence.
But before her head rolled, the good times did. Next, we'll peek into her boudoir and investigate her affair with a Swedish soldier.