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No sapphire? Huawei has got you covered

(Reuters) Updated: 2014-09-11 07:31

No sapphire? Huawei has got you covered

Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple event announcing the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California, on Tuesday. REUTERS

Apple Inc may have disappointed many consumers by not putting sapphire glass covers on its new iPhone, but the scratch-resistant material is gradually making its way into mobile devices despite manufacturing challenges and high costs.

Speculation ran high in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's unveiling of the iPhone 6 that some models would have the extra protection after Apple arranged a partnership in November with United States-based GT Advanced Technologies Inc, a mineral crystal specialist, to make sapphire materials for its devices.

Apple said sapphire glass would be used on its first smartwatch. It also continues to use the durable material to cover the iPhone's camera lens and home button, but it gave no hints as to if, or when, the glass would be used on iPhone screens.

Huawei Technologies Co Ltd last week became the first major handset maker to announce the use of sapphire screen covers, saying it would release a limited edition version of its high-end phone with such protection.

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Sapphire is the hardest material in nature after diamonds. It is used in light emitting diode lighting, high-end jewelry and military equipment such as submarine and rocket windows.

According to a survey by used phone marketplace, the most wanted new iPhone 6 feature was sapphire glass, which is also more sensitive to the touch than other screen protectors.

Some Asian handset makers have been talking with the world's two biggest suppliers of raw sapphire glass: US-based Rubicon Technology Inc and South Korea's Sapphire Technology Co Ltd.

"All smartphone manufacturers have been meeting with all the major sapphire producers, including Rubicon," William Weissman, chief financial officer of Rubicon, told Reuters by e-mail.

Sapphire Technology said it had received inquiries from several handset manufacturers, although it declined to identify any prospective customers. Companies such as Rubicon and Sapphire Technology usually sell big chunks of glass to fabricators, which then slice it into thin wafers before polishing it.

Apple locked in exclusive supply of the material from GT Advanced with a $578 million investment in a sapphire manufacturing facility in Arizona.

Many analysts expect sapphire glass to be limited initially to premium products due to high prices and the defect rates stemming from difficulties in configuring the glass into smartphone covers.

Finished sapphire covers could cost as much as $45, compared with less than $10 for Gorilla Glass, the screen of choice for most smartphones, according to analysts.

Another Chinese company, Xiaomi Inc, has ordered sapphire covers for a limited edition premium smartphone, according to South Korea's Electronic Times.

China's ZTE Corp would use sapphire glass on wearable devices it was on the verge of pushing out, an executive said, but it did not have immediate plans to introduce such covers on smartphones.

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