Jeanne de la Motte was the mastermind behind one of France’s greatest diamond heists.
1. She Fell From Grace
Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy—eventually Jeanne de la Motte—descended from kings but she grew up poorer than a servant. In her desperate attempt to climb back up the social ladder, she developed a venal mindset and turned to a life of lies and deception. Instead of making her way into the lap of luxury, however, she suffered a gruesome fall from grace.
2. She Was Greedy
Jeanne was born in July 1756 near Bar-sur-Aube, a long way from the glitzy Palace of Versailles where she believed she belonged. Where, in all fairness, her ancestors had once lived. She might not have had much, but she had noble blood running through her veins. If her genealogy didn’t bring her wealth, then her greed would.
3. She Was Descended From Kings
Even though Jeanne was descended from kings, she did not grow up like a princess. Her father, Jacques I de Saint-Rémy, Baron de Saint-Rémy, traced his lineage all the way back to King Henry II. Sadly, as a descendant of Henri de Saint-Rémi, King Henry II’s illegitimate son, Jeanne’s family had fallen from grace and it was a long way back to the top.
4. Her Family Was Disgraceful
Jeanne’s family hadn’t just lost their social standing, wealth and titles. They had, apparently, lost their courtly manners and aristocratic morals. Both of Jeanne’s parents disgraced their once-great family name. Her father developed a reputation as a heavy drinker who would do anything for a penny. Ironically, so would she.
5. Her Parents Neglected Her
With her good-for-nothing parents, Jeanne and her two surviving siblings grew up in dire conditions. Her parents—probably too busy knocking back drinks—frequently neglected her and she had to beg for food scraps from strangers in her bare feet. Growing up in these conditions, she would do anything to escape poverty. Anything.
6. Her Luck Changed
Jeanne and her two surviving siblings would likely have perished from starvation if it hadn’t been for the mercy of those around them. Different sources give different accounts of exactly who saved Jeanne and her family from starvation, but she was just lucky someone cared for her plight. Thankfully, her family’s fortunes took a dramatic turn.
7. She Finally Had Some Money
A genealogist at Versailles managed to validate Jeanne’s royal Valois ancestry. While the confirmation didn’t restore her family’s prestige or get her a castle, it did have some perks. Her family received a healthy stipend from the royal purse and she finally got the education that she needed. But it wasn’t enough. She wanted to live like the Queen of France herself.
8. She Had Delusions Of Grandeur
After completing her education, Jeanne returned to Bar-sur-Aube where she moved in with the Surmont family. Shortly thereafter, she married Marc-Antoine-Nicolas de la Motte, a nephew of the Surmont family. Just like Jeanne, he suffered from delusions of grandeur and a desire to climb the social ladder by any means necessary.
9. She Was A “Comtesse”
Both Jeanne and de la Motte had tenuous claims to nobility—and an even more tenuous grasp on reality. That didn’t stop them from putting on airs and vociferously reminding everyone that they were, in fact, descended from royalty. Despite their low rank in social circles and even lower reputations, they insisted on calling themselves Comte and Comtesse.
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10. She Rushed Down The Aisle
Jeanne and de la Motte clearly shared a little folie a deux. But that wasn’t the reason for their sudden wedding. When Jeanne said her “I dos” she was heavily pregnant with twins. Sadly, this illegitimate branch of the Valois family would not see another generation. Although, given how much trouble she was about to cause, that wasn’t a terrible thing.
11. She Lost Her Babies
Jeanne gave birth to twins just one month after marrying de la Motte. For reasons that no one really knows for certain, the children passed just a few days later. Tragic as it was, it must have been a relief for the greedy Jeanne. Given her ambitions and meager means, she couldn’t exactly afford more mouths to feed.
12. She Wanted More
Thanks to the generosity of Queen Marie Antoinette, Jeanne was no longer destitute. But, she wanted a more lavish lifestyle than what her humble stipend allowed. Furthermore, even though her husband, de la Motte, liked to call himself Comte, he was just a lowly officer with the gendarmes. But Jeanne was nothing if not resourceful.
13. She Wanted The Queen’s Attention
Jeanne hatched her first plan to get more money from the royal purse. Dressed in her finest clothes, she began to frequent the gardens at the Palace of Versailles, hoping to catch the attention of Queen Marie Antoinette. She planned on appealing to their shared femininity to boost her stipend. But there was a problem with this plan.
14. She Had A Bad Reputation
Unfortunately, Jeanne’s reputation preceded her. By the time that she started strolling around the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, Marie Antoinette had already heard of her—for all the wrong reasons. Marie Antoinette believed that Jeanne had a “questionable lifestyle” and distanced herself from the upstart to preserve her own reputation.
15. Her Marriage Fell Apart
Once Jeanne realized that her original plan wasn’t going to work, she quickly came up with another idea. Her new plan involved a new man. Because of their financial straits, her marriage to de la Motte was on the ropes. Nevertheless, they remained together and formed something of a business arrangement. Not necessarily a legal one.
16. She Caught Someone’s Attention
Jeanne had failed to gain an audience with Marie Antoinette. But, while strolling through the gardens at the Palace of Versailles, she managed to get someone else’s attention. Jeanne sparked up an affair with Armand Gabriel Rétaux de Villette. Far from nobility, de Villette was a notorious forger, procurer, gigolo and…well, did basically anything to make money.
17. She Needed A Mark
Jeanne’s husband, de la Motte, shared his wife’s ambition but lacked her ingenuity and venal nature. Rétaux de Villette, on the other hand, shared Jeanne’s ambitions and total lack of morals. If there was anyone who could help claw her way back up to the top of the social ladder, it was the forger de Villette. They just needed a mark.
18. Her Lover Found Her A Rube
With her new partner, Jeanne hatched a far more lucrative plan than her original idea. She just needed an “in” at court. Thankfully, de Villette was able to get Jeanne into the French court where she met Cardinal de Rohan. In no time at all, she sparked up an affair with Rohan and became his confidante, learning all of his secrets.
19. She Learned Everyone’s Secrets
Jeanne knew that the only thing more valuable than money was secrets—and she knew all of Rohan’s secrets. She learned that he had foolishly tried to prevent Marie Antoinette from marrying Louis XVI and even wrote insulting letters about her mother, the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa. Jeanne saw an opportunity in his past mistakes.
20. She Gave Her Lover Her Word
Jeanne learned that what Rohan wanted more than anything in the world was the approval of Marie Antoinette. With de Villette’s help, she convinced Rohan that she had, in fact, successfully sought the Queen’s favor. She promised that she would put in a good word for him. Her word counted for about as much as her watered down bloodline.
21. She Was “Slender”
Jeanne might not have had wealth or (real) titles but she did have looks. And she used them on Rohan to devastating effect. Contemporary sources described her as “slender” (probably because she was starving half the time) with a small, but shapely bosom. Her real assets, however, sparkled like the diamonds she always wanted.
22. She Had Eyes That Sparkled
Jeanne possessed flawless white skin, chestnut-brown hair, crystal clear blue eyes and a “winning smile”. One of Rohan’s servants remarked that Jeanne possessed the “wiles” of an ancient enchantress. She used all of those wiles and her sparkly blue eyes to pull a veil of deception down over Rohan. By the time he lifted that veil, he’d be flat broke.
23. She Was The Go-Between
After convincing Rohan that she frequently held a private audience with Marie Antoinette, Jeanne put her plan into motion. She began acting as an intermediary, going between Rohan and Marie Antoinette. Of course, Jeanne had never really said two words to Marie Antoinette. But, as long as Rohan didn’t know that, her plan would work.
24. She Forged Letters
As intermediary, Jeanne carried letters from Marie Antoinette to Rohan and vice versa. In actuality, however, the letters were forgeries. Unbeknownst to Rohan, Jeanne was working with de Villette behind the scenes to forge the letters in Marie Antoinette’s writing. It’s a wonder that the forgeries worked. They weren’t exactly very convincing.
25. She Didn’t Know The Right Etiquette
Jeanne and de Villette created mostly convincing fake letters. But there was one very glaring mistake that, as a courtier raised in the highest royal etiquette, Rohan should have seen. Jeanne and de Villette signed their fake letters with “Marie Antoinette de France”. Real royalty—which Jeanne was not—only ever signed with their given names.
26. She Wanted To Cash In
The letters might not have been good forgeries, but Jeanne was a gifted liar. She was such a convincing conman that Rohan didn’t notice the mistake in the letters. Jeanne began boasting openly about her totally made up relationship with Marie Antoinette. With Rohan’s blind confidence in her, she could now cash in.
27. She Was A Charity Case
Jeanne convinced Rohan to give her massive sums of money in the misguided belief that he could buy his way back into the Queen’s favor. But while Jeanne pretended that the money went to Marie Antointte’s various charities, it really only went to one charity case. The Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy Give Me More Money Now Charity.
28. She Had To Arrange A Meeting
The money was pouring in and Jeanne didn’t want it to end. But, the more money that she swindled out of Rohan, the more elaborate lengths she had to go to to maintain her lucrative ruse. Even when Rohan requested an audience with Marie Antoinette, Jeanne refused to give up the gig. She needed to get the Queen to meet Rohan.
29. She Needed A Convincing Body Double
Of course, there was no way that Jeanne could arrange a private audience between Rohan and Marie Antoinette. But that didn’t stop her from trying. She hired a well-known courtesan, Nicole Le Guay d'Oliva, to help her keep the lie going. With a little powdered make-up, a wig, a big dress and some favorable lighting, she could continue the lie.
30. She Was A Master Of Disguise
Jeanne arranged for Rohan to meet up with “Marie Antoinette” in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles late at night. Of course, Marie Antoinette didn’t actually turn up. But Nicole Le Guay d'Oliva did. In the gentle moonlight, she looked so much like Marie Antoinette that Rohan fell for the trick. It seemed like Jeanne could convince him of anything.
31. She Finally Had Money
At long last, Jeanne was living the lavish life that she had always wanted. The life that her ancestors had lived. With Rohan’s money, she successfully bought her way into Paris’ upper society where she believed that she belonged. But it was just chump change. She wanted a much bigger pay day—and she was about to get one.
32. She Wanted Everything
The famed jewelers, Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassenge, approached Jeanne with a rare opportunity. Believing that she had a close relationship with Queen Marie Antoinette, they asked Jeanne to help them sell her a 2,000,000 livres ($15 million) diamond necklace. They even offered her a commission. Jeanne wanted the whole thing.
33. She Just Saw Diamonds
The diamond necklace that the jewelers wanted to sell to Marie Antoinette was almost as famous as the French Queen herself. Marie Antoinette’s deceased father-in-law, King Louis XV, had commissioned the necklace for his mistress. But the spectacular piece of jewelry contained so many diamonds that, by the time the jewelers procured all of the stones, Louis XV had passed.
The diamonds sparkled almost as much as Jeanne’s greedy blue eyes.
34. She Was The Last Hope
Facing bankruptcy, the jewelers had tried selling their prized necklace to Marie Antoinette several times before to no avail. Marie Antoinette had repeatedly declined the necklace, citing the poor financial situation in France and the potential backlash that such an extravagance would bring. Desperate, they made an appeal to Jeanne as their last hope.
35. She Came Up With A Master Plan
With the help of her loser husband, de la Motte, and her ne’er do well lover, de Villette, Jeanne hatched one of the biggest diamond heists in history. The jewelers’ desperate situation, the provocatively expensive necklace, and Jeanne’s deception of Rohan made for the perfect storm. The perfect $15 million dollar storm, that is.
36. She Fooled Rohan Once Again
Jeanne produced letters from “Marie Antoinette” to Rohan, ordering him to act as her secret agent in purchasing the necklace. The letters talked about the Queen’s desire for discretion in the matter in order to avoid scandal. Fooled once again, Rohan made arrangements to purchase the wildly expensive diamond necklace.
37. Her Plan Was In Motion
Rohan showed the forged letters to Boehmer and Bassenge with the “Queen’s” instructions and conditions. Relieved that they had finally found a buyer, the jewelers agreed to the terms and handed the controversial piece of jewelry over to Rohan. They would never see it again. At least, not all of it and not in one piece.
38. She Completed Her Plan
As per “Marie Antoinette’s” instructions in the letter, Rohan made a down payment on the necklace. The jewelers then gladly handed it over and Rohan promptly took the most expensive necklace in France to Jeanne’s house. Once there, an unidentified man whom Rohan thought was one of the Queen’s valets, took the necklace.
And that’s the last anyone ever really saw it.
39. She Got Her Hands On The Necklace
Once they got their greedy, grubby, grifting little hands on the infamous diamond necklace, Jeanne de la Motte and de Villette knew they had finally struck it big. They immediately set the rest of their plan into motion. Frankly, as to why the jewelers hadn’t thought of this genius scheme themselves is a scandal all its own.
40. Her Diamonds Aren’t Forever
Jeanne and her no-good associates got to work finishing their her master plan. They “picked apart” the stunning piece of jewelry and began selling the gems individually at markets all over Paris and London. Their elaborate diamond heist seemed to be working perfectly as the money rolled in. But they should have chosen a richer mark.
41. She Came Up Empty-Handed
Rohan had agreed to purchase the necklace for Marie Antoinette in installments with the expectation that she would pay him back through Jeanne. Truthfully, he didn’t have millions tucked beneath his mattress. So, when the time came for the next installment, Jeanne found herself coming up short and with empty pockets.
42. She Couldn’t Make The Next Payment
When Boehmer and Bassenge knocked on Jeanne's door for the next payment, she had to confess she didn't have the money. She only had the Cardinal's notes, but it wasn't enough. Facing their own financial hardship, the jewelers did exactly what Jeanne had always feared. They went to the real Queen of France.
43. Her House Of Lies Came Crashing Down
The jewelers complained directly to Marie Antoinette about the late payment from her intermediaries, Jeanne and Rohan. But they were in for a surprise. Marie Antoinette told the jewelers that she had never arranged to purchase the necklace and certainly didn’t have it in her possession and never had. Just like that, Jeanne’s elaborate lie came crashing down.
44. She Had The Peoples’ Support
Enraged at Jeanne’s deception, Marie Antoinette had all of the conspirators clamped in irons and the affair turned into a public scandal. But while Marie Antoinette was certain that everyone would see her as the victim of Jeanne’s unscrupulous lies, the public actually sided with Jeanne. Jeanne’s final lie would lead to a revolution.
45. She Couldn’t Escape Punishment
Even though the public saw Jeanne as the victim, she didn’t escape punishment. In fact, the more punishment she received, the more the public sympathized with her. After a jury found her guilty, she could have lost her head. Fortunately, she got off with a light whipping and a permanent reminder of her unscrupulous behavior.
46. She Wore A Brand
As part of her punishment, Jeanne received a gruesome reminder that would mark her for life. She was branded with the letter “V” on each shoulder for voleuse (French for thief). Now, no matter where she went, everyone would know not to trust her lies. Unless, of course, she left France altogether and found new targets.
47. She Went To Worst Place In France
As if a whipping and a couple of brands from burning irons weren’t enough, Jeanne’s punishment got even worse. The last part of her harsh penalty was life behind bars. Marie Antoinette ensured that the con artist went to the worst lock-up possible, Salpêtrière. That’s where they kept all of the, shall we say, ladies of ill-repute.
48. She Smuggled Herself Out
Jeanne was determined not to spend the rest of her days behind bars. Just one year into her life sentence, she managed to pull off yet another heist. This time, she wasn’t smuggling diamonds—she was smuggling herself. She dressed up as a boy and slipped past security and disappeared into obscurity. Until she made a dramatic reappearance.
49. She Released A Tell-All Memoir
In 1789, Jeanne reappeared in London, far from Marie Antoinette’s powerful wrath. She published her memoirs, Memoires Justificatifs de La Comtesse de Valois de La Motte, in which she fueled the growing hatred for the Queen of France. Her incendiary revelations helped to light the fuse that sparked the French Revolution.
Too bad she wouldn’t live to see it.
50. She Had A Nasty Fall
After her escape from Salpêtrière, it seems that Jeanne picked up where she left off. Lying and thieving. On August 23, 1791, however, her schemes finally caught up with her. While hiding from some debt collectors, she fell from a hotel window and hit the pavement below. The Times described the scene: “terribly mangled, her left eye cut out—one of her arms and both her legs are broken”.
It was a brutal fall from grace from the top of the social ladder.