Is Apple’s Sapphire-Covered iPhone Still in the Works?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

One of the biggest rumors that was circulating in the run up to the release of the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus was that the devices would feature screens made of sapphire, a material that is harder and more scratch-resistant than the Corning Gorilla Glass that Apple currently uses on its mobile devices. While Apple has long been known to hold several patents related to manufacturing sapphire displays, the rumors of a sapphire-covered iPhone really kicked into high gear when GT Advanced Technologies revealed in a regulatory filing last year that Apple was offering  the company a $578 million advance for the purchase of sapphire goods.

However, at its iPhone media event in early September, Apple revealed that the latest iPhone models would not feature sapphire screens. Literally seconds after Apple’s iPhone unveiling, GT Advanced Technologies’ share price went into freefall. On October 6, the final nail was driven into the coffin that was supposed to have been Apple’s primary sapphire supplier when the company declared that it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and shuttering its sapphire operations. While many of the details surrounding the bankruptcy remain unknown due to the confidentiality agreement that GT Advanced Technologies signed with Apple, it appeared that the Cupertino-based company’s plans to implement sapphire screens in its mobile devices had hit an insurmountable roadblock.

Or has it? On October 23, soon after GT Advanced Technologies announced that the two companies had reached a settlement agreement to end its ill-fated partnership, both companies released statements that suggested Apple’s sapphire plans may not be finished quite yet. In a press release about the dissolution of its exclusive sapphire production agreement with Apple, GT Advanced Technologies noted that the two companies would “continue their technical exchange involving the development of processes for growing next generation sapphire boules.”

It should be noted that although GT Advanced Technologies plans to shutter its “sapphire materials production” facilities in Mesa, Arizona and Salem, Massachusetts, it will still continue “manufacturing and developing sapphire growth systems and processes.”

Source: www.gtat.com

Source: www.gtat.com

A statement from Apple suggested that the iPhone maker had also not completely abandoned its plans for using sapphire displays. “Apple put a lot of effort into an ambitious new sapphire manufacturing process with GTAT which is not ready for production,” said Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet in a statement obtained by Re/code. “We’re going to continue evaluating GTAT’s progress on larger sapphire boule development, as well as consider other options for the facility. We remain committed to the city and we’re going to work with Mesa and Maricopa County to help the GT Advanced employees who will be impacted by this find new jobs.”

While it may seem odd that Apple is considering repurposing GT Advanced Technologies’ facility in Mesa just to keep a bankrupt supplier’s workers employed, it should be noted that Apple has been touting its U.S. manufacturing base over the past year. For example, last December CEO Tim Cook highlighted an Austin, Texas-based Mac Pro manufacturing facility in a tweet. Apple also boasted about its substantial investment in U.S.-based suppliers after it joined President Obama’s SupplierPay initiative for small businesses earlier this year. “Last year, Apple spent more than $3 billion with over 7,000 suppliers running small and diverse businesses, creating tens of thousands of U.S. jobs,” said Apple in a statement given to TechCrunch in July 2014.

The collapse of a major domestic manufacturing facility less than a year after it was funded by Apple is more than just a disaster for GT Advanced Technologies’ workers and investors, it’s also a public relations snafu for a company that has been trying to deflect criticism over its sometimes controversial use of low-cost labor at overseas suppliers. Obviously, Apple would rather that one its most publicized U.S.-based supplier relationships not end with hundreds of unemployed American workers.

On the other hand, Apple’s statement about “larger sapphire boule development” suggests that it also still has an ongoing genuine interest in the use of sapphire for devices with larger screens. In other words, Apple has not completely abandoned its plans for a sapphire-covered iPhone. Either way, Apple will still be using sapphire as a protective cover for the Touch ID fingerprint sensor and the iPhone’s camera lens. Apple will also be using sapphire for many of the upcoming Apple Watch models.

However, those smaller sapphire components will not be coming from GT Advanced Technologies. According to a KGI Securities’ research note seen by 9to5Mac, Apple is sourcing those sapphire components from other suppliers, so the GT Advanced Technologies’ plant shutdown should not affect the company’s usual sapphire needs. Although it may be a small comfort for investors who were betting on the success of GT Advanced Technologies, it appears that Apple is still very interested in using large sapphire screens for its mobile devices.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter (@ArnoldEtan_WSCS)

More from Tech Cheat Sheet: