In Depth

Yema’s Superman Heritage Updates a Beloved, Classic Dive Watch


March 4, 2019 Watches By Photo by Hunter D. Kelley
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Yema, based in Morteau in eastern France, has been producing watches since 1948, and some of their older pieces command high prices on the vintage market. Their modern watchmaking, however, has gone largely unnoticed in the U.S. market, which is a shame. The brand’s Heritage collection has revived some of its classic models, one of which, the Superman, was originally released in 1963, and has been lovingly recreated using 3D modeling of each individual component.

Notable: Because the Superman Heritage is a faithful reproduction of the original (more specifically, of an iteration released in 1970, the reference 53.00.16), the watch maintains its perfect proportions, with a 39mm by 14mm case and a 19mm lug width. The bracelet, with its interesting 5-piece links, is also present for the Heritage edition.

Who It’s For: Those who love vintage watches but prefer something with a more reliable, modern movement will undoubtedly love the Superman Heritage. An ETA 2824-2 automatic movement ensures 38 hours of power reserve, and Super LumiNova-coated indices and hands make for a dial that glows powerfully in the dark.

Alternatives: The RN AUTO MK1 from CWC (Cabot Watch Company) comes to mind for roughly the same money (~$965) — you still get those vintage looks with a modern movement, but in a larger case size. The Zodiac Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin for $1,295 offers similar value for money and offers 1960s Zodiac looks coupled with the STP1-11 automatic movement.

Review: Having worked for a short time in vintage watch sales, I was aware of Yema’s cool 1960s and 70s designs, and interested in to see what the brand had been up to since its acquirement by French watchmaking consortium Montres Ambre in 2009. The Superman, originally launched in 1963 and subsequently issued to French Air Force pilots, was a dive watch that came of age during a golden period in recreational SCUBA diving. Rather impressively for the time, the original watch featured a depth rating of 990 feet, and a unique bezel-locking mechanism that ensured the bezel couldn’t accidentally move under water.

The 3D modeling Yema used to recreate an original 1970s Superman ref. 53.000.16 has resulted in a watch with the same proportions as the vintage original, which is a wonderful thing A 39mm x 14mm stainless steel case is sort of the Goldilocks size for a dive watch, if you ask me — though if this weren’t a 1-for-1 recreation of a vintage reference, I would admittedly take issue with the choice of a 19mm lug width, as it limits somewhat one’s choice of aftermarket straps.

The case architecture of the watch is worth a brief description in order to convey why it sits comfortably on the wrist: the case back is not quite as flush with the main case as it is on, say, a Submariner, but unlike on a Sub, this serves to lift the watch off your wrist a bit such that the crown doesn’t dig into your hand. The main case is itself thin with lugs that curve gently downwards and hug your wrist, a feature that’s both aesthetically sophisticated and also increases comfort. Though the lugs don’t feature multiple surface finishes or bevels as on some higher-priced timepieces, the case is attractive and comfortable, which is key if you’re going to be wearing it regularly.

The case terminates on the right-hand side in two pointed crown guards that protect the screw-down crown. At first, I had several concerns about this crown, which was wobbly (something I’ve seen on microbrand watches), difficult to screw down all the way, and whose winding wasn’t particularly smooth. However, after speaking with Yema, it was established that my review model was from a very early batch of the Superman Heritage. Since this time, these issued have been addressed and fixed, and these functions having to do with the crown perform as they should.

The design feature that differentiates Yema’s Superman from other, similar dive watches is the bezel lock device. This is essentially a piece of steel that sits between the crown and the main watch case — though it will move freely when the crown is pulled out and in the winding position, the crown itself prevents it from falling off the watch.

Why is this little piece of steel present? When the Superman was originally designed, it (like most dive watches of the day) featured a bi-directional bezel without a ratcheting click feature, which would turn freely in either direction without much resistance. This meant that you could effectively miscalculate bottom time or decompression stop time underwater if your bezel accidentally turned, which is potentially dangerous. The bezel lock device on a Yema Superman was meant to “lock” the bezel in place so that it couldn’t be accidentally turned and give you the impression that you actually had more bottom time available to you then you did.

There was just one problem with this design: in order to “unlock” the bezel by releasing the piece of metal clamping it down, you needed to unscrew the crown of your watch. Of course, this operation would have to occur underwater, and everyone knows the first rule of dive watches is “make sure the damn crown is screwed down before you dive.” Why? Because if it’s not, the gasket in the crown tube isn’t going to do much good to prevent tons of pressurized water from making its way into your watch, potentially ruining it.

So if you couldn’t unscrew the crown in order to loosen the bezel lock mechanism in order to turn the bezel in order to time bottom time and decompression stops in order to, you know, not die, then what good was this system? Put simply, it wasn’t any good. The system simply doesn’t permit decompression stops or timing of bottom time while SCUBA diving. And, what’s more, with the advent of the click spring and the unidirectional bezel, the system has since become superfluous.

However, watch nerds aren’t necessarily logical people. Most of them aren’t SCUBA diving with their dive watches, and when Yema tried a different bezel lock system a few years ago, it didn’t go over well. The company was evidently “overwhelmed with nasty emails from Yema fans complaining about it, saying that it wasn’t a real Superman,” according to the brand. Yema held a poll, the result of which showed that less than 10% of their customers actually SCUBA dive, and that those who did so wore both a watch and a digital dive computer underwater. In other words, they wanted the original bezel lock feature for authenticity’s sake, and not because the original design made sense — go figure! This should tell you something about “watch people.”

In any case, what you’re getting on the Superman Heritage is the original bezel lock mechanism, so that’s something to be aware of. If you actually use your dive bezel underwater (or even above water), this may not be the watch for you. What might be cool in the future is a 12-hour bezel variant — if you’re keeping tabs of a second time zone, you don’t need to constantly adjust the bezel once it’s set, anyway.

Bezel lock mechanism aside, the Superman Heritage retains the rest of the original vintage design, none of which presents any underwater issues. You get a thin, 316L steel unidirectional bezel with black insert graduated to 120 clicks with a SuperLuminova-coated pip at 12 o’clock. The bezel features hashmarks at each minute, which is incredibly useful and a look I’ve always liked from the Rolex “Mil-Sub” and SBS-issued Omega Seamaster 300.

The dial on the Superman is gloss black and features a minutes/seconds track with 60 markings, round hour markers with a triangular marking at 12 o’clock, and vintage-styled (read: yellowish) Super LumiNova paint. Text on the dial is sparse and consists of “Yema Suerpman” beneath the 12 o’clock position, “Automatic 990 Feet” above the 6 o’clock position, and “France” beneath the 6 o’clock marker.

There’s also a date window at 3 o’clock (where it should be, damnit!) done in white with black numerals. The hands are the interesting ones from the original Superman: a fat sword-type hour hand, a minute hand with an oversized triangle pointer and a long, thin seconds hand with triangular “shovel” tip and splash of red paint near the tip. Overall, it’s a very handsome dial — restrained and utilitarian.

The screw-down case back to the watch is engraved via hydraulic press with the Yema seal. It’s a deep engraving and well done, the only drawback to which is that it you can sort of “feel” it on your wrist — it doesn’t slide over your skin as easily as, say, a smooth Rolex Submariner case back, but grips your skin more easily. I don’t think this is necessarily a detractor, but it’s something to be aware of.

The bracelet that ships on the Superman Heritage black dial (the new blue variant features a different bracelet) is one of my favorite features of the watch. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it other than the fact that it’s design lives somewhere between that of a beads of rice and a traditional Jubilee type (Tag Heuer bracelets from the 1990s are sort of reminiscent of this look, as well). The bracelet is machined from brushed 316 stainless steel and features polished central links for an alternating 5-piece pattern that meshes beautifully with the watch head. Being a dive watch, the bracelet features a diver’s extension to fit over a wet suit with a minted Yema vintage logo.

Yema have serious watch nerdery covered here by offering two different types of crystal with the Superman Heritage: a domed mineral or a domed sapphire, both of which measure 2.6mm in thickness. The mineral variant, which is made of ordinary glass and is not as scratch-resistant as sapphire, gives the Superman Heritage an MSRP of $850 on leather or $950 on a bracelet, while the sapphire version will set you back $1,000 on leather or $1,100 on the bracelet. Both types of crystal are fashioned in to the same domed shape to give the impression of a vintage acrylic crystal, so for my money, I would spring for the sapphire on the bracelet, which is still a solid value in a dive watch.

Verdict: Whew. That was a lot, but there’s a lot to talk about with this watch, and a lot to debate. The fact is that in originally trying to solve a problem (locking a bi-directional bezel down so that it wouldn’t get accidentally moved), the original Yema designers created a second problem (that you couldn’t actually use the bezel underwater). The modern company realized that this was a design flaw, tried to correct it, and were met with fans of the brand saying that they didn’t care about the utility of the design — they cared more for the authenticity of the design with respect to the original. Yema understood and released a new, one-for-one copy of the original, only updating certain other features (crystal, movement) that it felt should feel the benefit of modern technology.

While I personally do like to use a dive watch to time decompression stops and dive time while underwater, I acknowledge that I am also a person for whom my grandfather’s generation holds romantic associations of, you know, exploration, SCUBA diving, fighting Nazis in North Africa, etc. What I’m getting at is that there is no good reason in 2019 to use a mechanical dive watch at all, let alone use one to calculate decompression stops and bottom time while SCUBA diving (though I do acknowledge that it’s always good to have a backup in case one’s dive computer fails). For this reason, I’d say that, while I’d love to see a version of the Superman Heritage simply devoid of any and all bezel lock mechanism, the one present on the current model wouldn’t cause me to avoid the watch. I even find it strangely charming.

This is a comfortable watch, perfectly sized for the modern (and vintage) wrist, and one whose toughness was proven in the 1970s when the French Air Force adopted it as a watch for its pilots. It’s rated to 990 feet of water resistance, includes a 2-year warranty, is available on steel or leather with two different crystal options, and ships in a swanky, zippered leather presentation box. It looks beautiful and has a great bracelet which, thank the gods, isn’s yet another poor attempt at the Oyster bracelet.

While there is a newer, blue-dialed variant on a different bracelet as well as numerous other automatic and quartz iterations of the Superman, it’s the black-dialed Heritage that, for my money, should be your first foray into this storied French brand.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The Superman Héritage is a historically significant yet contemporarily relevant watch at a relatively affordable price, just as was the original.” — Caleb Anderson, Watch Time

• “It’s a fun little watch that stays true to its history and is sure to appeal to casual enthusiasts and Yema die-hards alike. ” — Christoph McNeill, Worn & Wound

Key Specs

Case Diameter: 39mm
Case Depth: 14mm
Water Resistance: 990 ft.
Movement: ETA 2824-2

Yema provided this product for review.

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