iPhone 6 could have sapphire screen as Apple opens plant

Apple has signalled that sapphire is the future of the iPhone, signing a deal to open a huge new plant in Arizona to make the precious stuff.

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Nick manages CNET's advice copy desk from Springfield, Virginia. He's worked at CNET since 2005.
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Apple has signalled that sapphire is the future of the iPhone, signing a $578m deal to open a plant in Arizona with US company GT Advanced Technologies, an expert in artificially producing the harder-than-rock material.

Sapphire is currently used in the Touch ID fingerprint sensor on the new iPhone 5S, a fiddly bit of kit that's likely to appear in future Apple products, although surprisingly not in the new iPad Air or retina iPad mini. That's perhaps because of limited supply, which the new deal should fix.

But sapphire is increasingly being used as a screen material in prototypes and high-end phones, and having a major supply of the blue stuff could hint at the Californian company using it for iPhone and iPad displays.

What would that be like? Well, in this demo video from earlier this year, my surprisingly strong colleague Jessica Dolcourt smashes a lump of concrete into an iPhone 5 with a thin sheet of sapphire attached to the front:

Synthetically 'grown' from a starter crystal, industrial sapphire is so hard it requires diamond-tipped saws to shape it. It's currently much more expensive than the glass normally used in phones, but increasing demand from the likes of Apple will lead to more efficient processes and costs should fall.

"GT has accelerated the development of its next generation, large capacity ASF (advanced sapphire furnaces) to deliver low cost, high volume manufacturing of sapphire material," the company said in its statement announcing the deal. "Although the agreement does not guarantee volumes, it does require GT to maintain a minimum level of capacity."

The plant will employ 700 people in Arizona, and is part of Apple's plan to return some of its manufacturing to the US, with the Mac Pro currently assembled in Texas. "We are proud to expand our domestic manufacturing initiative with a new facility in Arizona, creating more than 2,000 jobs in engineering, manufacturing and construction," an Apple spokesperson told AllThingsD.

Would you shell out extra for a sapphire-screened blower? Have you smashed up too many screens to be won over by promises of better displays? Find a diamond in the rough that is our comments section, or head to the crown jewel -- our Facebook page.