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Who beat Apple to the punch?

Chinese technology firm Huawei managed to steal a march on Apple Thursday with the release a new smartphone with a scratch-resistant screen made out of gemstones.

A screen made of sapphire has been widely touted as a key feature of the long-awaited iPhone 6, due for release next Tuesday. The blue stone is considered to be tougher and more scratch-proof than the chemically strengthened "Gorilla Glass" that Apple currently uses, and the tech giant was expected be the first to make use of it in smartphone screens.

But Huawei has beaten Apple to it, with the launch of a limited sapphire-screen edition of its Ascend P7 at the 2014 IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung Berlin) Trade Fair in Berlin.

Huawei is yet to detail any price for the phone but it says it will debut in China in the third-quarter of 2014, with details about international availability to follow. Its standard Ascend P7 costs just under £300 ($489) in Europe, which was launched in the spring to much fanfare and is seen as aimed at Europeans.

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"Not only does the new Sapphire Edition demonstrate our advanced craftsmanship, but it also highlights our successful strategic deployment of resources to deliver the most advanced technology into the hands of consumers," Richard Yu, the CEO of Huawei Consumer Business Group said in a press release.

Huawei said that the sapphire -- which was manufactured rather than mined -- was the world's second-hardest material after diamond, and that the new glass boasts "increased scratch resistance, crack resistance, superior thermal and infrared conductivity, and advanced visual appeal."

Huawei Ascend P7 Sapphire Edition
Huawei
Huawei Ascend P7 Sapphire Edition

Ian Fogg, head of mobile analysis at IHS Electronics and Media, said the Chinese firm's latest move showed it was hoping to build market share. He said it was also significant because it is a Chinese firm acting ahead of its rivals and showing the consumer and mobile carriers that it is an aspirational company.

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"It's particularly significant for the (Ascend) P7, because it's designed to be very thin and it's harder to make it more robust," Fogg told CNBC via the telephone.

Huawei is the world's third-largest smartphone maker in terms of market share, behind Apple and Samsung, according to research firm IDC, behind Apple and Samsung. The Shenzhen-based company started life as a telecom equipment manufacturer in 1987, and made headlines in 2013 when it threatened to abandon its U.S. operations amid accusations of spying.

On Thursday, Huawei also launched the Ascend Mate 7 model in Berlin, which it said was possibly the world's first 6-inch smartphone with fingerprint technology.

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Industry rumors of sapphire screens began in November last year when GT Advanced Technologies trumpeted a multi-year agreement to supply Apple with sapphire material. GT Advanced Technologies said at the time that it would operate from an Apple facility in Arizona and would employ over 700 people. It shares have nearly doubled in price since that announcement, with Tom Gutierrez, the company's president, calling it a "significant milestone."

Fogg noted that as Huawei was yet to set a release date for the sapphire Ascend P7, Apple's product could actually hit the market first. The analyst was coy about the details of what Apple would announce next Tuesday, given the lack of confirmation from the company itself.