Hands-On Zodiac Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin Automatic – The Allure of Core Collections In the Age of Proliferation

The Skinny

  • 39mm
  • 200m water resistance
  • in-house STP 1-11 automatic mechanical movement
  • $1195

Hard Core, No Riffs

It’s 2022, and we are living through an horological renaissance. A proliferation of iterations has flooded the marketplace with monthly, even weekly, releases from nearly every brand, with the result being new watch announcements every day. Largely based on “novel colorways” that “remind us of nature” or “inspire us to seek adventure in our everyday lives,” these iterations and their accompanying marketing spiels tend to detract from what’s at the core of a watch: its utility, its quality, and its heritage.

Zodiac proliferates colors, but has a quieter core collection with deep history.

By contrast, consider Rolex with its annual tweaks to its core collection, and how appealing and powerful that is. It shows confidence, and it cuts to what’s important and interesting about watches, which is not the dye put in a ceramic mixture or the hue chosen from a Super-LumiNova color chart. Considering core collections helps us focus on design, quality, and performance.

And so I gladly turn away from the rainbow on offer from Zodiac and take in the calm of their core collection’s main staple, the original diver from 1953, the Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin. It is here that I’ve learned far more about what made – and still makes – Zodiac one of the most important and compelling dive watch brands to come out of Switzerland.

Zodiac & The Birth of The Dive Watch

Called the 53 Skin, please note that the original Super Sea Wolf was an incredibly early entry into the dive watch market. The Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms, which came out in 1953 with the help of the French Navy’s contract, is often considered the first ground-up, purpose-built dive watch, and then Rolex came out with the Submariner in 1954. This is the common historical narrative, with no mention of Zodiac. I myself have glossed over Zodiac’s contribution in more than a couple published works. I should know better, and I apologize to my readers.

Throughout the 1950s the Super Sea Wolf took on many incremental annual improvements, including a patented winding stem mechanism and case back tweaks that resulted in 750m of water resistance before 1960. Put that in Jacques Cousteau’s pipe and smoke it!

What didn’t happen back in the 20th century was an endless riffing on colorways and a schmear of fluffy marketing narratives. Back in the early days of SCUBA, people were interested in performance from a dive watch, and they wore dress watches to the office and dinner, as one should for goodness sake.

The Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin, being an understated and faithful reproduction of the original, reliably takes me back to the 20th century, to the struggle for utility, to a moment before our restless fashion-obsessed consumer culture began to prioritize transient colroways over the lasting beauty of a smartly-built dive watch. More than just about any diver I’ve used (including the Oris Divers 65, the Tudor Black Bay 58, Blancpain’s various vintage Fifty-Fathoms, the Rado Captain Cook, Doxa SUBS, and so on), the visual understatement, simplicity and utility of the Zodiac Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin reminds me what dive watches were actually for back in the middle of the 20th century.

Hard To Improve On Mature Technologies

I’ve often said that some technologies mature early, leaving no room for improvement. Case in point: the Neumann U47 microphone, which was released in 1947, has yet to be improved upon, not even a little. The Fender Stratocaster of 1954 is still best when unchanged from its original form (ask Hendrix, Clapton and Gilmore). It’s not to say that some modern materials haven’t solved some small issues with mature designs, but the design itself was already whole. There was no where to go.

Arguably, the dive watches of 1953 were pretty much there. Yes, Zodiac and other brands tweaked for better performance, using new materials and small mechanical strategies to improve specs, but the whole design didn’t need any work. Which is to say that – unless you plan to defy reality and dive to the bottom of the ocean – the Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin is just as good as any other dive watch on the market. The small improvements that have been added are great to have, and worth mentioning, but certainly weren’t necessary.

Take for example the ceramic bezel insert. It looks great, and it will not scratch, and that’s super, but it doesn’t have much impact on the performance of the Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin. Take the DLC-coatin on the top case section, which adds a layer of hardness and anti-corrosion, which is also super, but, again, doesn’t really improve performance. Take the in-house STP 1-11 auto-winding mechanical movement, with 44-hours of power reserve and the ability, with some tweaking, to consistently perform at COSC levels of precision, and, again, we’re happy to have it, but didn’t necessarily need it. Or the super nice Italian silicone rubber strap, which is more supple than vintage rubber, but….you get the point: The 1953 edition was already quite well sorted out, so the faithful reproduction is too.

The one weird thing, however, is that there’s no lume on this watch. I don’t know why, but Zodiac has assured me that a soon-coming new revision will have bright modern lume. I love stuff that glows in the dark, but for whatever reason I find this omission oddly charming. My beat up Stratocaster hums like a swarm of bees, and my Ducati always has a hard start, and I find those “problems” charming because the whole thing is just so damn charming. Also, the white on this Super Sea Wolf lacks the sickly color of some lume and, refreshingly, doesn’t use fauxtina.

Lastly, at 39mm, this watch wears like a charm. I’ve put it on a few different wrists, and it looks great on all of them. Like the Oris Divers 65, for example, this watch just seems to settle down and look right. Again, it fits great because you can’t really improve on an originally exceptional design. There are some obvious reasons for the good fit: the lugs angle down to sit flush with the case back; it’s not too thick at 13mm; the spring bars are mounted at a reasonable spot; the crown is reasonably sized and round; and the strap is supple and comfortable.

An Impressive Value

In the end, it’s hard to say why a watch feels high quality and why a watch feels well priced, though I’m convinced these two things are interrelated. We hear people say “Oh, this just feels like a $5000 watch,” or whatever, but we can’t quite put our finger on what it is. So, rather than grasp at the ineffable, let me instead assert a little hard-earned expertise and say that I know what a lot of $1200 watches feel like, and I know what a lot of $3000 watches feels like, and this is a $1200 watch that feels like a $3000 watch.

For that reason, I’d put the Zodiac Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin up against any Seiko diver, especially something like the SPBxxx series of 62MAS-styled watches at nearly the same price. While Seiko reliably offers great value in dive watches, Zodiac offers more or less the same value-to-quality ratio with a decidedly Euro-Swiss vibe, a deeper heritage, and, if I’m honest, better fitting watches for more folks. I’d also put the Super Sea Wolf up against the Oris Divers 65 as a fair alternative to a fan favorite.

And if you like a more colorful option, Zodiac certainly has you covered.