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Why Apple, Inc. Wants Sapphires on iPhones and iPads

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) is applying for a patent on a process to make high-quality sapphire materials. At the same time, crystal materials manufacturing specialist GT Advanced Technologies (NASDAQOTH: GTATQ  ) is moving out of the crystal-growing equipment market and betting big on direct Apple orders. The company is building a sapphire-making facility in Arizona to handle the recently signed master development and supply agreement with Apple, wherein GT "will supply sapphire material exclusively to Apple for consumer electronics."

Nope, don't expect a ton of these on your next iPhone. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

I know what some of you are thinking. Sapphires are high-grade gemstones, perfect for classy jewelry displays. Apple makes high-end electronics, and adding a splash of jewelry to the very highest-end Cupertino products would simply appeal to an even more exclusive group of users.

And the resulting iPhones wouldn't even be the first jewel-encrusted smartphones. Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) once ran the Vertu luxury brand, pairing Nokia's mobile technologies with really classy materials and borderline insane price tags. Nokia sold the brand, but Vertu still cranks out $10,000 Android phones with titanium frames and -- you guessed it -- sapphires.

And this is where we get back to Apple's real sapphire plans. Yes, the Vertu phones actually did throw some purely decorative gemstones into the mix, but the phones also come with single-crystal sapphire screen covers.

You see, sapphire happens to be one of the hardest material known to man, second only to diamonds. If Apple has figured out how to make industrial quantities of polished, precision-shaped, and decorated sapphire for an upcoming generation of mobile gadgets, it's a pretty serious selling point.

Apple's sapphire plans are more about seeing fewer of these disasters.

Your average pane of soda-lime glass comes with a Vickers Hardness number of just 0.1. Upgrade to Corning (NYSE: GLW  ) Gorilla Glass, like the screen covers found on many modern smartphones such as the iPhone 5s, and the Vickers hardness jumps to at least 600.

But sapphire screens would ideally consist of a single crystal of aluminum oxide. These crystals crush the durability of even Gorilla Glass (pun intended), clocking in at a Vickers Hardness value north of 2,000.

These screen covers would be nearly impossible to scratch and very difficult to crack. The steady stream of devices from my three-kid household to my favorite Apple repair shop is strong anecdotal evidence that there's a market for stronger screen covers. Moreover, gemstone sapphires are traditionally blue due to chemical impurities, rather easily avoided in industrial manufacturing processes. These panes will look like clear glass, only many times harder.

So Apple has done the research to get its hands on sapphire screens at reasonable large-scale prices, and tapped GT to get this competitive advantage going. Mind you, the very next iPhone probably won't come with sapphire glass since GT only breaks ground on its Arizona factory next month. But by 2015, I'd expect Apple to launch sapphire-covered products along with a massive marketing push to make sure you understand why it's important.

But you already know now, don't you?

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Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2014, at 2:54 PM, DanManners wrote:

    We know this already. We read it 5000 times. So not interesting. Old news. For clicks. Motley is out of ideas.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 2:35 AM, OLIGOPARTY wrote:

    So Sapphire screen is harder. YAY. I don't have a problem with people taking out their pocket knife and scratching my cell phone screen to the point I can't read it. The life of a cell phone is 2 years anyway.

    Next year a new iPhone. You better like it. You better buy it and you better buy a lot of them, because:

    It's also thicker.

    It's also heavier.

    It's also more expensive.

    GTAT isn't working with anyone else now because those 3 issues have to be resolved. And AAPL has just paid 600 million for a solution. And it has also paid 600 million because Corning received over 700 million from Samsung, making AAPL irrelevant

    I'm eager to see where Corning is next year...

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 6:25 AM, CraigWPowell wrote:

    Not only sapphires displays.

    We will have medicine at our fingertips with Dr. Apple: iOS 8 will come in September and will transfer each iPhone to medical diagnostic device by the help of iWatch sensors.

    According to:

    I Know First algorithmic system

    $AAPL is excellent long term investment

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 10:52 AM, Renee wrote:


    I thought you were making a joke at first, but the last sentence sounded like you were serious, so I'm not sure :)

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 5:38 PM, KevAZ wrote:

    Since consumers are in the habit of replacing cell phones every two years I'm not sure that increasing the durability of a cell phone is really a game changer. AAPL is going to lag until they come out with a new product.

  • Report this Comment On February 06, 2014, at 3:45 AM, OLIGOPARTY wrote:

    I definitely agree Apple is an excellent long term investment and those pursuits are all very noble. I really only have issue with the time expectations. I'm a bit skeptical about the next year on the shelves expectation. I already read about battery issues. Which kinda makes sense to me if we are talking about a wearable device. Those 'Applelites' can be a finicky crowd.

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Anders Bylund

Anders Bylund is a Foolish Technology and Entertainment Specialist. Where the two markets intersect, you'll find his wheelhouse. He has been an official Fool since 2006 but a jester all his life.

Hypoallergenic. Contains six flavors not found in nature. Believes in coyotes and time as an abstract.

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