Apple (AAPL 0.15%) 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 (NASDAQ: GTAT) 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."
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 (NOK 0.74%) 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.
Your average pane of soda-lime glass comes with a Vickers Hardness number of just 0.1. Upgrade to Corning (GLW -0.39%) 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?